A Discourse on Inequality

The origins of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s most famous work, titled “A Discourse on Inequality,” stem from a question posed to Rousseau. The question was: “What is the origin of the inequality among men, and is it authorized by natural law?”

Rousseau proceeds with answering this question by first establishing a dichotomy between “civilized life” on one hand, and “natural life” on the other hand. “Civilized life” is characterized by inequality and subjugation of the “poor” by the “rich,” whereas “natural life” is characterized by equality and freedom. The latter mode of living precedes the former. However, Rousseau admits that conceiving a “natural life” or primordial state is difficult, given how far humanity has strayed from such a state. As Rousseau wrote: “The philosophers who have examined the foundations of society have all felt it necessary to go back to the state of nature, but none of them has succeeded in getting there.”

Nevertheless, before the current state of man, there was a natural or primordial state which philosophers are hard-pressed to find. Moreover, societal ills are “the fatal proofs that most of our ills are of our own making, and that we might have avoided nearly all of them if only we had adhered to the simple, unchanging and solitary way of life that nature ordained for us.” Rousseau then asked: “I ask which – civilized or natural life – is the more liable to become unbearable to those who experience it?”

Thus, the advent of “society” and the development of “reason” is what leads to the subsequent developments which in turn pave the way towards inequality and social disparity. Rousseau argued:

“It is reason which breeds pride, and reflection which fortifies it; reason which turns man inward towards himself; reason which separates him from everything which troubles or affects him. It is philosophy which isolates a man, and prompts him to say in secret at the sight of another suffering: ‘Perish if you will; I am safe.’”

Also, the farther one ventures back into history, the likelier it is that “it will be understood how much less the difference between man and man must be in the state of nature than it is in society, and how much natural inequality must be increased in the human species through the effects of instituted inequality.” Thus, the more “civilized” and “social” an individual or group becomes due to the accumulation of material wealth at the expense of others, the more it spurs inequality between individuals and groups. As Rousseau wrote:

“He who sang or danced the best; he who was the most handsome, the strongest, the most adroit or the most eloquent became the most highly regarded, and this was the first step towards inequality and at the same time towards vice.”

These “distinctions” between individuals and groups are then embedded in the legal and political structures of a society, until there is social upheaval. As Rousseau wrote:

“If we follow the progress of inequality…we shall find that the establishment of law and the right of property was the first stage, the institution of magistrates the second, and the transformation of legitimate into arbitrary power the third and last stage. Thus, the status of rich and poor was authorized by the first epoch, that of strong and weak by the second, and by the third that of master and slave, which is the last degree of inequality, and the stage to which all the others finally lead until new revolutions dissolve the government altogether or bring it back to legitimacy.”

Rousseau added:

“It follows from this exposition that inequality, being almost non-existent in the state of nature, derives its force and its growth from the development of our faculties and the progress of the human mind, and finally becomes fixed and legitimate through the institution of property and laws.”

Thus, the institutionalization of inequality is “contrary to natural right,” according to Rousseau. But the reversion to a natural or primordial state and thus overcoming the social ills associated with a state of inequality is to be dealt with separately.

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