Rousseau: Discourse on Inequality (Summary)

rousseau inégalités

Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men by Jean Jacques Rousseau : The story of the mankind

Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality is one of the strongest critics of modernity ever written. Rousseau describes the ravages of modernity on human nature and civilization inequality are nested according to the Genevan thinker.

This speech, unlike an essay, is written with a pen passionate, even fiery at times, making reading a pleasure.

In terms of methodology, Rousseau traces the journey of humanity from its origin (but outside any religious context), the paints in his state of nature to better understand how humanity, decadent according to him, got there .

Rousseau distinguishes two types of inequality: natural (or physical) and moral. The natural inequality stems from differences in age, health, or other physical characteristics. The moral inequality is established by a convention of men. Rousseau will therefore explore the origin of this convention. To achieve this, Rousseau uses a thought experiment, the state of nature, which is therefore not a historical truth.

 First part of Discourse on inequality

Rousseau described the man in nature: it is a strong, agile, smaller but more organized than the animals in his environment. His body is his only tool, and his only weapon (even Rousseau said that man of civilization would be easily beaten by the natural man in a fight). Dépouvru of moral sense, the natural man neither knows neither good nor evil, he is a sub-moral (and vice refutes Rousseau attributed by Hobbes to human nature). His thought is composed of simple operations. He has few needs, and for that he easily manages to satisfy them. Her passions are those of nature: food, sex and rest are the only things good for him and his only evils are pain and hunger. There is no reason why the wild man ceases to be wild. The savage is a naive, self-sufficient and peaceful. However, the wild feeling of pity, empathy source, contrary to civilized man dominated by vanity and selfishness.

The natural man is well balanced by his two trends, pity (which pushes it to the other) and self-preservation (which isolates). In marital status, laws and virtues play the roles of these two instincts.

Thus, inequality is hardly noticeable in the state of nature.

In many respects, similar to the wild animals, except for its ability to improve. This will be the source of perfectibility leaving the natural state and the cause of his misfortune, according to Rousseau. Man is primarily an animal. So he studied the man in two forms: physical appearance and its moral and psychological.

Rousseau also describes the evolution of language: cry of nature at the outset, the language is changing because his ideas are more complex. Thus, the first words used had more meaning today, language and specializes as and when it develops. The language, initially practice slowly becomes abstract and metaphysical.

Voltaire caricatured myth of the noble savage, thinking that Rousseau wanted to regress humanity, what is wrong. The state of nature in Rousseau is a theoretical fiction, an intellectual artifact to understand the origin of man. It is therefore not a project.

Second part of the Discourse on inequality

If the first part of speech is a meticulous reconstruction of the natural man, the second part is an exploration of the roots of inequality:

“The first who, having enclosed a piece of land is thought of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe, was the true founder of civil society. What crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors would not have saved the human race who, pulling up the stakes or filled in the ditch, had shouted to his fellows: “Beware of listening to this imposter, you are lost if you forget that the fruits belong to all and that the earth belongs to no one! ” But there is great likelihood that then things had already come to the point of not being able to last as they were, for the idea of ​​ownership, depending on many prior ideas that have arisen successively, not formed not all at once in the human mind: he had to make much progress, acquire good of the industry and lights, and increase the transmit from age to age, before reaching the latter term the state of nature. […] The Metallurgy and agriculture were the two arts whose invention produced this great revolution. For the poet it is gold and silver, but for the philosopher it is iron and wheat which have civilized men and ruined the human race. ”

This is property, theft who created and institutionalized inequality between men. Work, and oppression that results is a consequence of the property. The institution of property is the beginning of moral inequality, because if people can “own” things, then the differences from “heritage” are unrelated to physical differences. However, Rousseau does not denounce the property itself (as will the anarchist Bakunin), he denounced the inequality of property.

Rousseau explains the major phases of technological change (metallurgy and agriculture) and its influence on human psychology. Conjugal love, cooperation and in particular the establishment of gender roles (which makes women subservient to men, are sources of inequality.

At this stage, if the natural man was governed by the need, the civilized man of leisure lives as cooperation and division of labor frees his time. The arts thrive, of course, but human relations are now based on interest rather than pity.

Establishes property classes, conflicts between rich and poor because the owner acts as if possessed workers. The solution to this conflict is a contract, proposed by the rich to the poor, to form political societies. The poor are confident that, by accepting the creation of a political society, they will be free and safe to preserve their freedom. But according to Rousseau, it is a liability: “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.” This shows how the Discourse on inequality announces the Social Contract.

 Conclusion of the Discourse on the origin of inequality

Rousseau draws a very severe painting of modernity. His historical pessimism (history means decay) married optimistic anthropological (man is naturally good). The iéngalité comes from the property, but the growth in inequality is due to the development of the human spirit.

Cite this article as: Tim, "Rousseau: Discourse on Inequality (Summary), May 21, 2012, " in Philosophy & Philosophers, May 21, 2012,

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