Philosophy Political Philosophy Politics

Rousseau: The First Discourse on Inequality

Rousseau begins his Discourses on Inequality by stating he is examining the question of man – quid sit homo – that eternal question that is at the bedrock of philosophy.  Chronologically, Rousseau wrote the Discourses before the Social Contract, but the two works complement one another and should be read together.  Within the Discourses Rousseau’s attacks include Aristotle, natural philosophy, Grotius, Hobbes, and Locke, and many others.  While it is not entirely necessary to know the philosophies and philosophers he is rebuking, what is important is to understand what Rousseau’s philosophy entails and what separates him from the traditions and masters of philosophy who came before him.

One of the first things that Rousseau does is to acknowledge natural inequality (difference) in men.  But this does not preclude the possibility of egalitarianism.  He attacks Aristotle here who translates nature to politics.  Just as nature is the political should be (in imitation).  Aristotle famously promoted a hierarchal metaphysics with a “natural inequality” among men.  Thus, since men imitate nature, the realm of the political will mirror the hierarchy of “natural inequality” in Aristotle’s philosophy.  Rousseau rejects this.  Rousseau believes that while men suffer differences as to age, strength, and other physical characteristics, what unites them in the state of nature is equal condition.

For Rousseau, equality is premised on shared conditions.  In the state of nature we all suffer the same ills and enjoy the same fruits so to speak.  By suffering under the same environmental and other natural conditions of the state of nature, man is equal.  We must all labor, we must all fear, we must all persevere.

But Rousseau paints a dramatically different picture of the state of nature than do Hobbes and Locke.  Rousseau’s state of nature is one in which nature is benign and the animals compassionate.  Man, in imitation of nature, imitates pity, kindness, and compassion.  The harshness of nature that exists is more or less the harshness of having to labor for a living.  We do not enter the state of nature in a state of strength but weakness.  We need nature (mother) to nurture us.  We do not enter the state of nature with an abundance of food and shelter, but must work for our food and shelter.  We all share in this condition.

Thus, the first major shift in modern political thought offered by Rousseau in comparison to those who came before him was separating political life from nature. Whatever physical and natural differences that exist in the state of nature does not mean that political life will be marred by these differences and inequalities.  Whereas Aristotle sees an unequal and hierarchal nature leading to an unequal and hierarchal polis, Rousseau is arguing that the unequal and differential state of nature is not really what to focus on, we should focus on the shared conditions of life in the state of nature where we are all free and equal in condition and how this ought to translate into political life.  So Rousseau does agree that nature and the political is the same or does he?

That depends on how we read Rousseau.  If Rousseau acknowledges natural differences he does so only under the properties of nature.  Political life does not need to suffer from the natural differences in physical nature becoming entrenched differences and inequalities in political life.  Hence he separates nature and the polis.  If, however, Rousseau’s emphasis on nature isn’t the differences of physicality he acknowledges are real, but his emphasis is on the nature of shared condition: shared liberty and equality under equal condition, and the ethos of compassion in the state of nature, then this should be what translates into the polis.  In this case he does not separate nature and the political.  You can decide whether he swings both ways or consider for yourself what the problem with this inherent dualism is.

Moving onward, Rousseau casts man in the state of nature as a non-violent noble savage.  Here he rebukes Hobbes but misread Hobbes.  Rousseau thinks Hobbes’s man in the state of nature is evil.  Nowhere does Hobbes say that.  Hobbes articulates the view that in the state of nature man is properly a-moral, but fueled by self-preservation, just like all others, the bid for self-preservation leads to conflict when we encounter others.  In the encounter with others self-preservation is solely self-centered which prevents us from reaching out to others so we do battle in which someone is defeated (either killed or maimed) to secure self-preservation.  It is only through fear that men unite so as to not live in this type of world.  Rousseau’s noble savage is peaceful and tranquil, he imitates the best of nature, and he is not driven to conflict with others.  This is a complete 180 from the state of nature presented by Hobbes and, to a lesser degree, Locke.

The idea of a peaceful, harmonious, and tranquil nature where nothing evil happens is Rousseau’s portrait.  More importantly we need to understand why this is important.  Uncorrupted by conventions, men (or any living animal) imitates the goodness of nature.  How does one become corrupt and “evil”?  By imitating bad forms and conventions as if it were nature.

At the same time, however, Rousseau acknowledges that man is motivated by self-preservation.  He eats and consumes, he sleeps and labors, he moves and forages, in order to survive.  But so do all others.  When humans encounter one another there is no violent confrontation as in Hobbes, but a mutual recognition of the moi commun, the common self.  In the shared condition we all labor under I see myself in you.  Thus I am moved to pity and compassion and do not assail you or anyone else I meet.  Man is not necessarily social, as Rousseau makes clear at the end of the first discourse, but man is amiable with others.  He does not necessarily seek out bonds and dependence with others because this is the process of wicked transformation into servitude, but man is kind to others when he encounters other men in the state of nature.

In the Social Contract Rousseau simply stated something occurred in the state of nature which forced men to leave it and embrace a social contract.  He does not go into detail in that text as to what it was that forced men out of the state of nature and into a social compact society.  In the Discourses he does tell us what forced men out of the state of nature: over population.  As the population of men grew, and as man, being endowed with a rational soul, exerted his faculty of self-improvement, some men decided to take advantage of what they witnessed.  Motivated by self-preservation, and seeing advances in human population and technology, these men come together in conspiracy to make others serve them for their self-preservation.  Thus begins the establishment of norms, customs, and structures that enforce unequal conditions.

The cornerstone of unequal condition is private property.  Rousseau attacks Locke in Locke’s reading that private property was already present in the state of nature.  Rousseau disagrees.  The world was common to all in the state of nature.  Man did not seek property as a means of self-preservation as Locke claims.  Man simply enjoyed the garden that God gave to him in abundance.  Because the world is common to all, “common property” is a shared condition which makes us all equal.  The establishment of “private property” destabilizes shared condition, thus establishing social and conventional inequalities which translate into social and conventional inequalities in conditions of life and labor.  (E.g. the laborers suffer exploitation while the land-owning classes enjoy their fruits of the labor of laborers and servers while doing none of the laboring themselves.  This is Rousseau’s later critique of capitalism and capitalists, the capitalists simply “invest” and “finance” laboring endeavors and reap the reward of literally having done nothing to deserve what they received off the backs of others.)  Thus, the abolition of the state of nature is the abolition of shared conditions and common property – the establishment of unequal conditions premised on customs and use of physical force and violence to uphold these unequal conditions.  This is called private property from Rousseau’s perspective.


Moving away from political matters Rousseau moves to metaphysical questions concerning men.  Here he seeks to understand what the law of nature, or the natural law, really is.  Though Rousseau acknowledges man is moved by self-preservation, Rousseau states that the real law of nature is pity.  “Man’s first language,” he says, “is the cry of nature.”  In seeing someone wounded, in someone suffering, in seeing someone in distress, we feel a natural empathy for the other because, to return to the moi commun, we see ourselves in the other.  Pity leads to compassion and not coercion and violence (again, Rousseau is primarily confronting Hobbes in his dialectic).

Rousseau attacks self-reasoning, “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.’  No longer can anything but dangers to society in general disturb the tranquil sleep of the philosopher or the drag of his bed.”  People, nowadays, wonder why the Left has become so anti-science.  It is rooted in Rousseau.  The “Left,” if left-politics emanates from Rousseau as many maintain, has actually been anti-science from the very beginning.

If we recall from the beginning of the First Discourse Rousseau attacks medicine and the natural sciences.  Nature heals us, this is observable.  Why do we need medicine?  Medicine is just a tool for the wealthy and elite.  It causes barriers and unequal conditions that are reinforced by who can afford medicine and who cannot.  Natural philosophy, e.g. natural science, tells us that it is better for another to suffer than I.  Natural philosophy, e.g. Aristotle and the Catholic philosophical tradition, tell us that the world is a hierarchy and to be flourishing we need to imitate this natural hierarchy of the cosmos and find our place in it to be happy.  Hogwash Rousseau argues.  Philosophy and science corrupt man’s reasoning.  True reason, Rousseau tells us, is pity.  “It is pity which carries us without reflection to the aid of those we see suffering; it is pity which in the state of nature takes the place of laws, morals and virtues, with the added advantage that no one there is tempted to disobey its gentle voice.”  In other words, we need no laws or directives to be compassionate.  We naturally are compassionate.  The law of pity is inscribed on the human heart.  Pity should not be held ransom by medicine, medical technology, or an arbitrary price of purchase.  All of these things conspire to destroy man’s natural goodness!  The “reasonable man” confuses reason for rationalization of selfish action.

Furthermore, Rousseau praises weakness as a virtue.  He excoriates strength or prowess as a vice.  A society that is twisted to reward power rather than moved to compassionate in seeing the suffering of the meek is a twisted society to be sure.  The celebration of the law of strength is at the root of all the social and political inequalities that man suffers from at present.

To this end Rousseau concludes his first discourse by stating why man, in the state of nature, free and equal, is found in society, in chains and suffering the suffocating pains of inequality.  Society is to blame.  Civilization is to blame.

Servitude establishes the unequal conditions by which the powerful exert their strength over the weak.  Servitude binds men together in an unequal relationship, thus destroying the shared condition in the state of nature and allowing for those who are physically superior by nature’s lottery to take advantage in the movement out of the state of nature and into political society.  Rather than pity and compassion that makes man amiable with his dealings toward others, and rather than imitate nurturing nature which inculcates the same ethos of pity and compassion as a result, man – in society – imitates the rule of brute force and strength.  Thus, man is corrupted by society and not by nature.

Man learns from society that he must cheat, steal, and use physical violence to get what he wants.  The result is a society of selfish individuals who wield law and structure to benefit them at the exclusion and exploitation of others:

Without expanding uselessly on these details, anyone must see that since the bonds of servitude are formed only through the mutual dependence of men and the reciprocal needs that unite them, it is impossible to enslave a man without first putting him in a situation where he cannot do without another man, and since such a situation does not exist in the state of nature, each man therefore is free of the yoke, and the law of the strongest is rendered in vain.

In one quick swoop Rousseau rejects the entire tradition of classical anthropology: man is, by nature, a social animal who finds fulfillment in the bonds forged in relationships with others.  Likewise, he also jettisons Hobbes and Locke and their anthropology while also assailing Locke’s social contract of private property because property leads to unequal conditions which will, inevitably, force those who have less property than others to come into bondage to them.  As he goes on, “I must now consider and bring together the different chance factors which have succeeded in improving human reason while worsening the human species, making man wicked while making him sociable, and carrying man and the world from their remote beginnings to the point at which we now behold them.”  This story, of structural inequality and power, is what Rousseau explains in the second discourse.

Therefore, summing up the highlights of the first discourse, Rousseau articulates the position that in the state of nature man is equal in shared conditions.  Man is moved by pity and imitates the nurturing characteristics of nature, thus man is naturally good in the state of nature rather than evil or conflictual.  What moves man out of the state of nature is the population bomb and general scientific advancement (tools) which men, using their “reason,” twist to their own selfish ends.  Thus, hyper rationalistic individuals begin to use others for their self-preservation while no longer sharing in the same conditions of others, thus establishing the social hierarchies and conventions that entrench the law of the strongest over the weak.  Private property is the foundation of all that is wicked in society because private property is the root of unequal conditions.  This leads to the enslavement of man which Rousseau begins his Social Contract with, “Man was born free but is everywhere in chains.”

Here lies the establishment of the conventions and structures of unfreedom and inequality (servitude and dependence on others).  The problem is not nature, the problem is society.  Nature is compassionate and nurturing.  Society is competitive and ruled by forced.  The problem is not the individual, it is the societal structures and institutions that corrupt individuals from their natural independence from each other, goodness, and pity.

This was originally posted on Hesiod’s Corner, 11 May 2018.


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