The Seeds of Revolution: Rousseau’s A Discourse on Inequality

Years ago, when I was first reading John Dewey – learning how to read him, really – I always loved it when he’d quote Rousseau.  It wasn’t so much the insights – which were always, penetrating – so much as it was the writing itself.  Suddenly, for a blessed few lines, the book would come alive.  Dewey’s turgid, impenetrable prose would fade away and there was Rousseau, direct, poetic, playful, seeming to speak across the ages directly to you – above all memorable.  Rousseau’s critique of liberalism is, wrote Leo Strauss, unforgettable.

Given that I’ve just read two of the most famous Enlightenment thinkers in the social contract tradition, Locke and Hobbes, I thought it was time to read the man who in many ways saw himself as correcting these thinkers, and I figured I’d start out with his first major work on political philosophy: Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s A Discourse on Inequality.

Rousseau’s main argument rests on two points.  The first is that, as he puts it early in the “book,” no thinker has really portrayed the true state of nature – not John Locke, and particularly not Thomas Hobbes.  Locke, it would seem, got closer in Rousseau’s estimation, but both thinkers portrayed a state of nature that was far later in man’s development than the true state of nature.  This true state of nature, says Rousseau, is far more primitive, peaceful, and above all solitary than that portrayed by the others.  

Rousseau’s second point is that moral or political inequality – which is, for him, the difference in esteem, wealth, or political power (and which he differentiates from natural inequality – differing physical sizes and abilities) – comes from developments that are not related to man’s natural condition in the state of nature: sociability, the development of government, and above all, the advent of private property.  

Rousseau argues these two points in – as Strauss puts it – unforgettable fashion.  His writing is beautiful as he tells the story of humankind’s development as he sees it: from a primitive state of nature in which all men are too solitary, too pre-verbal, and too incidental in their contact (even with the opposite sex) to war with each other in Hobbesian fashion, or to even contemplate having their own property or taking that of another, in Lockean fashion.  One interesting point is that Rousseau believes there were no real families in the original state of nature; he claims that humans mated, then split up, with the female apparently caring for the child alone, for only as short a period as was necessary, with no real bond between them.  He also takes on Hobbes (several times directly, by name) by arguing against the proto-Darwinian notion that the strong oppress the weak.  In characteristic fashion, he gets right to the heart of the issue:  “I hear it constantly repeated that the stronger will oppress the weak, but I would like someone to explain to me what is meant by the word ‘oppression’” – a wonderfully direct inquiry that I think many modern theorists would do well to ask!  He goes on to establish the unlikeliness of primitive man enslaving another.  He imagines his captor being distracted for a moment by a noise: “I slip twenty paces into the forest, my chains are broken, and he will never see me again in his life” (106).  Here is Rousseau’s overall description of the state of nature:  

“We conclude, then, that savage man, wandering in the forests, without work, without speech, without a home, without war, and without relationships, was equally without any need of his fellow men and without any desire to hurt them, perhaps not even recognizing any of them individually . . .  There was neither education nor progress; the generations multiplied uselessly, and as each began afresh from the same starting point, centuries rolled on as undeveloped as the first ages; the species was already old, and man remained eternally a child” (104-105).

What a passage, and what a writer.  What an evocative, poetic explanation: a worthy, worthy rival to Hobbes’s lyrical passage about man’s bleak condition in the state of nature:  the whole “nasty, brutish, and short” paragraph.  Rousseau is – shall we say – clearly not scientifically accurate in his assessment of human primates.  His argument is mostly conjecture, but he does include specific examples a few times of primitive people’s – “the Caribs” he calls them, who seem to support his point, and I am sure his understanding of these people is probably skewed, even for his era.  But his argument – like the passage above describing how domination was unlikely in primitive man – is just as memorable and penetrating as Locke’s or Hobbes’s.  Even though you know that the overall argument is not quite right – perhaps even very far from being at all right (especially the part about families), he’s such a brilliant thinker and evocative writer that it’s hard to shake off.  He is right about so many things, and on many others, you can’t help but be carried along by his charm.  It’s interesting – the overriding sense I had in reading this account was how underdeveloped Rousseau made both Hobbes and Locke – but especially Hobbes – look in his account.  It’s evocative, and descriptive, and detailed.  He is, in the end, one of the most seductive writers I’ve ever read.

This whole narrative is done in order to show that little inequality existed between primitive humans.  It was not until society came along that inequality – moral and political, not natural inequality, which Rousseau thinks (like Hobbes) counts for little – took off.  The whole of Part II in the Discourse is focused on describing how exactly man left the state of nature, in order to show two points:  First, that it was not the simple, deliberate, rational “contract” that Locke and Hobbes say it was (in fact, it was a gradual evolution), and second, that it was not a beneficial or good choice; society is in fact deeply corrupt.  

It is not deliberate for Rousseau.

Before I outline Rousseau’s second “narrative” in Part II – the evolution of natural man into civilized man – I should mention that I was very much on the lookout for what extent Rousseau believes that our entry into society – and our subsequent inequality – was a deliberate choice.  This is the question I always have with the notion of the modern theory of blank slate-ism / social construction: the tinge of “deliberateness” it always seems to carry.  Because a thing (inequality, for instance) is not “natural,” that means humans “constructed” it deliberately.  Even the notion that we allow it to happen, allow it to “have its play” (as I once heard it described about liberalism), that seems to indicate to social constructionists that it is a deliberate choice (with the implication that his should not be okay).  I was keeping my eye on whether Rousseau would start characterizing the ills and corruption of society a deliberate choice, and several times he does flirt with it.  In a memorable passage toward the end of Part I, he calls society “instituted inequality” (105) and calls most of the inequalities among humans “the product of habit and of the various ways of life that man adopts in society”( 105).  Right at the start of the book he writes that moral or political inequality “is established, or at least authorized, by the consent of men” (77).

And yet, as he begins to tell his second narrative about mankind’s true move from the real state of nature into society, it is hard not to ask two questions:  First, doesn’t Rousseau believe that this process in itself is quite natural (even though it’s bad), and second, even if he does think Hobbes and Locke were wrong as to the true state of nature, couldn’t one merely argue that they had picked up the state of nature just at a later point than Rousseau; and if so, what difference would it then make as to whether original man really had been solitary and peaceful (especially if this whole process is understood as being somewhat natural)?

Rousseau’s basic argument in Part II is that, after many thousands of years stumbling around in the state of nature, man all the while has potentialities (mental abilities, for instance) that go uncultivated.  Language dictates thought, Rousseau says (facilitating, for example, the notion of abstract ideas – such as the idea of a trans-substantial “tree”) and given that primitive man had no language, he had no way to have such detailed thoughts.  (Here one sees early instance of similar insights as the postmodernists / poststructuralists would have much later.) Rousseau’s analysis is rich and concise; it is surprisingly materialist, too.  Man begins by adapting to his environment, creating tools and others objects to aid his survival.  Because his material advances bring him into closer contact with others, he begins to occasionally cooperate with other humans.  Meanwhile, tools facilitate the construction of houses, which eventually leads to the creation of the family unit, and eventually to the advent of private property.  This all leads to increased sociability among men, which breeds greater comparison of one’s self to others, and greater resentment.  This is in part because man’s mental powers begin to develop in this process, especially his powers of observation, reflection, and (111) what he calls “love of one’s own well-being” (sometimes translated as “self esteem” or “vanity” – “amour propre” in French).  This is different from his concept of primitive man’s “amour de soi” – his “self love” – which is really a desire for one’s own preservation.  It is similar to Locke’s concept of humans’ “self preservation” instinct.  Amour propre is the desire not for preservation, but for the approval and esteem of one’s fellows.  This is the seat of many human vices, for Rousseau.  Meanwhile, the predictable division of labor which resulted from these conditions (as well as the improved technology, and the advent of agriculture) begins to separate men materially from others – the true birth of real inequality.  This feeds a need for esteem in the eyes of other men, which in turn led to more ambition, more vices, and more inequality, especially as the rich developed a taste for domination over their fellows.  Here is where we meet up with Hobbes: the unequal shares of private property create a perpetual state of war.  Rousseau writes, “ . . . the elimination of equality was followed by the most terrible disorder . . .  There arose . . . .  a perpetual conflict which ended only in sights and murders.  Nascent society gave place to the most horrible state of war . . .” (120).

It’s important to note that unlike Locke, Rousseau sees the acquisition of more and more property as unequivocally wrong.  Where Locke saw the acquisition of property as a natural right – and sidestepped the question of inequality resulting from unequal shares of property – Rousseau is adamant that it is unjust.  He writes, “Even those who had been enriched by their own industry could not base their right to property on much better titles [than ‘precarious and bogus rights’].  In vain would one say: ‘I built this wall; I earned the right to this field by my own labour.’ For ‘Who gave you its extent and boundaries?’ might be the answer” (121).  Rousseau’s critique of property is not just structural, it’s deeply moral, too: “‘Do you not know,’” he has his imaginary inquisitor ask, “‘that a multitude of your brethren perish or suffer from need of what you have to excess, and that you required the express and unanimous consent of the whole human race in order to appropriate from the common subsistence anything beyond that required for your own subsistence?’” (121).  Here Rousseau’s disagreement with Locke is sharpest: Locke is explicit that man needs no consent of his fellows to cultivate the earth, and Locke thinks it’s good when industrious men take more and more land for themselves, because they will cultivate more from it than were the land to remain idle.  But for Locke, this sort of land-grab is deeply unjust, and because the rich cannot answer this charge from the poor, they resort to maintaining their power by – here is the moment – establishing the first real government.  

I think this is fascinating: Rousseau is saying that the first governments came along not as the contract among equals wishing to escape a state of war for mutual benefit, but as a cynical ploy by the rich hoping to avoid having their property taken.  Again, note the subtle but important difference from Locke; in Locke, all men wished to preserve their property, in Rousseau, it’s only the rich, the ones who really have property (whose moral right they cannot defend) who have anything to lose.  Note how it is as though Rousseau has found out the weak points in Locke’s argument; where Locke is quiet about how much “natural right” man has to accumulate vast property, Rousseau fills the void with an explicit moral condemnation.  Where Locke is quiet about the relative enthusiasms of the differently-propertied members of society in their entrance into civil society, Rousseau is explicit: it’s the rich hoodwinking the poor.  I think this is what other authors mean when they talk about Rousseau’s challenge to liberal democracy: he is finding the cracks in the reasoning, and providing a potent moral critique of it.

Either way, Rousseau has some striking quotes about how the rich are putting the poor in chains without their knowing it; yes, he grants, there is some element of self-interest in a social contract on the part of the poor, but they cannot foresee what liberty they are giving up, while the rich understand their own gain from the contract perfectly well.  Rousseau says that the form of government the people select depends on the state they’re in when they first establish the government, but outlines three stages common to all governments: first, the institution of laws and private property rights, second, the institution of magistrates to execute laws, and third, the transformation (corruption) of legitimate power into arbitrary power – which he says is the natural end point of any government.  Like Plato, Rousseau believes that all government eventually descends into tyranny, which he calls the “last stage of inequality” (134) which “closes the circle” and makes everyone “equal” again – as slaves to the despot.  Each of these three stages corresponds with a further degree of inequality, on the way here: the first stage corresponds to that between rich and poor, the second to strong and weak, and the third to master and slave (with despotism bringing us back around to the start again, in a perverse kind of “equality”).  

Conclusion:  Isn’t Man’s Development to Society “Natural,” Too?

Where does this leave us?  Should we return to the state of nature?  Is it better to be solitary, simple, and unthinking – yet equal – than to be corrupt and unequal, but civilized?  If Hobbes’s theory of man’s natural state was dark, Rousseau’s theory of man’s civilized state is almost darker.  It’s quite clear that Rousseau does not approve of society, but it’s also fairly clear that he believes it’s impossible for us to move backward to a return to the state of nature.  This work, after all, was only intended to demonstrate *how* we became unequal – not necessarily to propose solutions for fixing it.  

It’s interesting to consider to what extent Rousseau differentiates between the original state of nature, and the process by which humans moved into our current position in society.  This process, for lack of a better term, seems particularly “natural,” too.  This is only bolstered by the notion that even primitive man in Rousseau’s true state of nature has “potentiality” – mental and physical abilities, such as the potential for reason, speech, language, and tool-making  – that are innate and “natural,” if largely untapped in primitive existence.  Yet if a being is by nature able to do certain things, isn’t this being in its natural state when it is truly exploiting all of its capacities?  (This is similar to Aristotle’s “function” argument, except it’s making the case for the true “natural state” of men, rather than asking what the “good life” is.) Is man, in Rousseau’s primitive stage, really in a “natural” state, or just a “primitive” state?  A car is designed to be driven, so a car sitting in a garage is surely not in its “natural state.” So why then is man, in Rousseau’s state of nature, considered to be in his natural state?  This is not just semantics.  Rousseau is trying to employ the state of nature as a thought experiment in order to better understand human beings and why they create political and moral inequality.  The question is why does Rousseau’s state of nature, since it does not seem to particularly reveal man’s true predilections or capacities, really reveal much at all about human beings?  And isn’t it logical that perhaps, because of Rousseau’s concept of natural inequality between men, human beings naturally create some degree of material inequality between themselves.  This, after all, is Locke’s position.

It really comes down to the extent, I suppose, that one agrees with Rousseau’s implication that the process of civilization is something of a chosen, deliberately created path – not something fairly “natural.” The way man enters into society is not seen by Rousseau as similarly natural to the way that birds naturally fly together, or bees band together in a hive.  You can tell that he really does believe that society corrupts, vice springs from sociability, and that we really were better off in some sense back when many of our talents were only latent.


In the end, this Discourse is a powerful, evocative critique of Hobbes, and, to a lesser extent, Locke.  It is rich and memorable, and its moral critique of the material inequality engendered by society (and early liberalism) is memorable and potent – if a little bit dubious and self-serving.  But clearly there was no going back after this.  The cat was out of the bag.  Romanticism was just over the horizon – back-to-nature, emotion-over-reason, rustic simplicity, cold baths, authenticity, natural food, be-who-you-are, communes – it’s all there.  So are the seeds of many powerful thinkers to come who would be inspired by just this critique; Rousseau’s critique of private property was clearly an influence on Karl Marx.  In Rousseau there is the spirit of the revolution:  If we designed civilization, or at least allowed it to manifest in its current form, we can undue it, change it, make it better suit our needs. 

I look forward to reading his next work, The Social Contract, soon, and to revisiting his educational classic (although very long read), Emile.