Amour propre

Essentially, the opposite of self-preservation (amour de soi). Amour propre is an acute awareness of, and regard for, oneself in relation to others. While the savage person cares only for his survival, civilized man also cares deeply about what others think about him. This is a deeply harmful psychological deformation, linked to the development of human reason and political societies. At its root is a difference between being and appearing. Savage man can only "be," and has no concept of presence: civil man is forced to compare himself to others, and to lie to himself. Rousseau traces the development of amour propre back to the first village festivals, in which competition to dance and sing well increases the villagers' awareness of each other's talents and abilities. Amour propre is best expressed in a society in which wealth dominates; there, all are compared on an insubstantial and harmful basis.


Here, Rousseau means the development of language, human reasoning and mental capacities towards their highest limit. The 18th-century philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment, associated with Rousseau and thinkers as diverse as Voltaire, Kant and Montesquieu, addressed questions of human progress and development, and the role of reason, amongst other things.

Moral Inequality

Also called political inequality, moral inequality is based upon unnatural foundations. It is created not by Nature but by a convention or agreement between consenting men. Differences in wealth, power, status or class are moral inequalities; they involve one person benefiting at the expense of another. Whilst many authors have confused it with the natural state of affairs, Rousseau insists that this type of inequality is a recent creation.

Natural Law

Natural law theory is a complex tradition to which Rousseau reacts in the Discourse. Its chief modern figures were theorists such as Hobbes, Grotius and Pufendorf. Essentially, natural law is a set of laws or precepts laid down by God or Nature for man's preservation. These laws ordain what is right, and what "must be": in short, those duties that apply to all. Natural law sets out a framework within which people act for their own utility, and which, for Hobbes and Grotius, is intended to provide a solid basis for ending religious and political disagreements. The question that Discourse on Inequality sets out to answer is whether inequality is authorized by natural law: that is, whether differences between men are "natural" and useful things. Rousseau cunningly twists the question. He asks how we can have a law of nature if we do not understand the real nature of man. In doing this, he questions the common idea that only rational beings (i.e. humans) can take part in natural law or have natural rights. See natural right.

Natural Right

Natural right is very often linked to natural law. To many thinkers, natural rights are the claims or entitlements we have by virtue of being rational beings. We can have a natural right to do or to have something, such as the right to protect our own lives. The problem with such a definition, Rousseau argues, is that it emphasizes the role of reason, which may be a recent development. Instead, Rousseau founds his idea of natural right on the principles of pity and self-preservation, which, he claims, existed before reason. One of the aims of the reconstruction of human nature that Rousseau offers is to show that an idea of natural right was possible before man became social and created political institutions, and thus he claims that the state of nature was not the terrible place that some suggest. See pity, self-preservation, and natural law.


Nature does a great deal of work in Discourse on Inequality. Several meanings of the term are evident: first, human nature is a description of a being's behavior and capabilities; second, Nature is a collection of living organisms, and the environment in which man exists; third, and most important, Nature is also a divine force or power, that directs and shapes human development. In some respects, Nature is like the Christian concept of Providence, or God's involvement in the world. Perfectibility and the natural catastrophes that shape human development are part of the divine being's plan for man, expressed through nature. Nature in its various forms is a central theme in Rousseau's philosophy. See state of nature.

The State of Nature

An imaginary condition before human societies developed, in which man's true nature is apparent. The state of nature is a traditional starting point for thinkers attempting to derive a theory of society and politics from the nature of man. Much of Discourse on Inequality is an attempt to imagine what such a state would be like, and a critique of similar attempts by other thinkers. Rousseau is particularly critical of Thomas Hobbes, who presented the state of nature in Leviathan as a "war of all against all." Hobbes also said that man's natural condition (his life) is "solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short." Rousseau insists that this model confuses the man who is deformed by the evolution of society with the natural man; it also confuses the state of nature with the civil state. See also natural right, natural law.


Man's inexhaustible ability to improve himself, to shape and to be shaped by his environment. It is the chief characteristic that distinguishes him from other animals. The development of reason and language are both functions of perfectibility. For man to "perfect himself" is not necessarily for him to become perfect, but rather for his physical and mental capacities to be remolded, time and time again. Perfectibility draws man out of his original condition, and is responsible for his extraordinary adaptability, but it is also the source of all his miseries. It creates enlightenment and man's virtues, but also all of his vices.

Physical Inequality

Also called natural inequality, physical inequality results from natural differences in physical and mental abilities and is established by Nature. Differences in age, health, strength and intelligence are all physical inequalities. Rousseau refuses to enquire into the origins of this first inequality: it simply "is," and has been ordained by Nature. Nor does he seek to establish a link between this basic inequality and its descendant, moral inequality. The purpose of Discourse on Inequality is to chart how unavoidable physical inequality was transformed into moral inequality. See moral inequality.


Along with self-preservation, one of the two key principles that Rousseau identifies as existing prior to reason and upon which he bases his theory of natural right. All humans feel a strong distaste on seeing the suffering of another sentient (pain-feeling) creature. Rousseau argues that because humans feel this impulse of pity towards others they will not willingly mistreat other creatures unless their own self-preservation is at stake. Savage man does not actively attempt to do good towards others but is rather restrained by the principle of pity from harming them. Natural Right is established on the principles of pity and self- preservation because for Rousseau they are the most basic impulses that exist in men independent of society.


In addition to pity, self-preservation (amour de soi) is the other key principle from which natural right flows. The desire to preserve oneself is the only thing that can drive one sentient (pain-feeling) being to harm another, but only in extreme circumstances. Many natural law thinkers, such as Hobbes and Grotius, emphasized the fundamental nature of a right or duty to save one's own life, but Rousseau is relatively unusual in coupling it with a deep-rooted desire not to cause pain to others. See also amour propre.

Social Contract

The agreement with which a person enters civil society. The contract essentially binds people into a community that exists for mutual preservation. In entering into civil society, people sacrifice the physical freedom of being able to do whatever they please, but they gain the civil freedom of being able to think and act rationally and morally. Rousseau believes that only by entering into the social contract can we become fully human.

Freedom (or Liberty)

The problem of freedom is the motivating force behind The Social Contract. In the state of nature people have physical freedom, meaning that their actions are not restrained in any way, but they are little more than animals, slaves to their own instincts and impulses. In most contemporary societies, however, people lack even this physical freedom. They are bound to obey an absolutist king or government that is not accountable to them in any way. By proposing a social contract, Rousseau hopes to secure the civil freedom that should accompany life in society. This freedom is tempered by an agreement not to harm one's fellow citizens, but this restraint leads people to be moral and rational. In this sense, civil freedom is superior to physical freedom, since people are not even slaves to their impulses.


Strictly defined, a sovereign is the voice of the law and the absolute authority within a given state. In Rousseau’s time, the sovereign was usually an absolute monarch. In The Social Contract, however, this word is given a new meaning. In a healthy republic, Rousseau defines the sovereign as all the citizens acting collectively. Together, they voice the general will and the laws of the state. The sovereign cannot be represented, divided, or broken up in any way: only all the people speaking collectively can be sovereign.


This is the executive power of a state, which takes care of particular matters and day-to-day business. There are as many different kinds of government as there are states, though they can be roughly divided into democracy (the rule of the many), aristocracy (the rule of the few), and monarchy (the rule of a single individual). The government represents the people: it is not sovereign, and it cannot speak for the general will. It has its own corporate will that is often at odds with the general will. For this reason, there is often friction between the government and the sovereign that can bring about the downfall of the state.


An abstract expression of the general will that is universally applicable. Laws deal only with the people collectively and cannot deal with any particulars. They are essentially a record of what the people collectively desire. Laws exist to ensure that people remain loyal to the sovereign in all cases.

General Will

The will of the sovereign that aims at the common good. Each individual has his own particular will that expresses what is best for him. The general will expresses what is best for the state as a whole.

Will of All

The sum total of each individual's particular will. In a healthy state, the will of all is the same thing as the general will, since each citizen wills the common good. However, in a state where people value their personal interests over the interests of the state, the will of all may differ significantly from the general will.

State of Nature

When Rousseau talks about the state of nature, he is talking about what human life would be like without the shaping influence of society. So much of what we are is what society makes us, so he suggests that before society existed, we must have been very different. In Discourse on Inequality, he speaks very highly of this prehistoric state, but in The Social Contract he is more ambivalent. In the state of nature, we are free to do whatever we want, but our desires and impulses are not tempered by reason. We have physical freedom, but we lack morality and rationality. Still, Rousseau believed that this state of nature was better than the slavery of his contemporary society.

Civil Society

Civil society is the opposite of the state of nature: it is what we enter into when we agree to live in a community. With civil society comes civil freedom and the social contract. By agreeing to live together and look out for one another, we learn to be rational and moral, and to temper our brute instincts.

Common Good

The common good is what is in the best interests of society as a whole. This is what the social contract is meant to achieve, and it is what the general will aims at.

Popular pages: Selected Works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau