Philosophy Political Philosophy Politics

Rousseau: The Second Discourse on Inequality

Rousseau’s second discourse on inequality builds from his first.  The second discourse contains his famous depiction of the noble savage, how man loses his freedom and equality through the establishment of property and society, and his ruminations about how reason corrupts human living and how knowledge is used as a tool of oppression and violence.  The second discourse is Rousseau’s telling of the story of the enslavement of man, which was the task before him in explaining the origins of inequality which his discourses set out to achieve.

The second discourse begins with Rousseau’s secular depiction of the fall of man, “The first man who, having enclosed a piece of land, though of saying ‘this is mine’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society.”  For Rousseau, civil society is not founded on a social compact in the manner by which Hobbes, Locke, and Spinoza described it.  Rather, civil society is the product of force and coercion, primarily as it relates to property as the second discourse goes on ad nauseam explaining.  But this theme of civil society being premised on the rule of force is also a theme that he highlights in Social Contract – it is the bedrock of how Rousseau understands liberalism.

Here we must pivot, briefly, into a proper understanding of political philosophy.  Rousseau does not target “conservatism.”  His target is the materialistic, utilitarian, and property oriented statism of the classical liberals: Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, and Spinoza.  Yet, at the same time, Rousseau is seen as an important liberal thinker – someone who saw through the shallow and hollow liberal proclamations of freedom and equality but did little to actual manifest these ideals.  Like with the Social Contract, Rousseau’s task is to actualize the liberal ideals of freedom, equality, and a-social atomism, rather than merely pretend.  Yet, like the liberals he also deplores, he holds to many Enlightenment presuppositions: man is not a social or communitarian animal, neither is a cultural animal as Catholic anthropology maintains; man is, in a way, separated from nature insofar that nature does impose itself as a barrier to man’s self-preservation but not necessarily in the strictly conflictual way described by Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke; man’s freedom and equality is the ability to exert himself in motion for consumption (self-preservation) without any other barriers imposed on him from outside forces (whether they be from nature or other humans).

Rousseau’s free and equal man is the result of his independence from others.  Man is, according to Rousseau, a-social though amiable.  This is his key difference from his liberal interlocutors who suggest man to be a-social and conflictual with each other.  As already established in the first discourse, Rousseau’s man is good – moved by pity and the reflection of the moi commun (common self) in the suffering of others.  He even goes as far as to say family is not a natural bond because people are enslaved to families – dependent upon them up to a certain age whereby they take leave of their family being able to survive on their own.  Though this is peculiar because Rousseau, in the Social Contract, argues that man is born free but found in chains.  Yet, if man is born incapable of feeding and clothing himself, and dependent upon mama and papa, is not man born enslaved and then becomes free once he accrues the faculties of power to survive on his own?

The law of self-preservation leads to man engaging in the martial virtues and physical exercises necessary to survive.  Here is Rousseau’s peculiar and hard to understand view of nature.  Nature, properly, is not something evil.  It does, however, pose problems to man.  It is not so much man is estranged from nature and seeks to dominate nature as Bacon articulates.  Rather, man simply needs to learn and grow in ability to make use of nature for his self-preservation.  Tall trees are hard to pick fruit from to eat.  Rivers make it difficult for man to cross to get to the fruit bearing plants and trees on the other side.  Likewise, other lifeforms besides man is engaged in the need to preserve themselves so birds and beasts consume the same food sources that man needs to survive.

Rousseau makes clear, however, that noble man in this savage state is not engaged in the conquest of nature.  He lives in nature and coexists with it in healthy competition.  Only when man becomes experienced, rational, and knowledgeable does the relationship change.  By using tree branches as tools and weapons, Rousseau sees man transforming into a brute who sees competition from animals and the barriers imposed over him by nature (tall trees and rivers) as something he must overcome through use of force!  Rationality corrupts man and turns him into a devil:

[T]hey lived as free, healthy, good, and happy men so far as they could be according to their nature and they continued to enjoy among themselves the sweetness of independent intercourse; but from the instant one man needed the help of another, and it was found to be useful for one man to have provisions enough for two, equality disappeared, property was introduced, work became necessary, and vast forests were transformed into pleasant fields which had to be watered with the sweat of men, and where slavery and misery were soon seen to germinate and flourish with the crops.

This is important to understand in Rousseau’s depiction of the state of nature.  The noble savage does not knowingly harm nature or intend to harm nature.  He lives with nature and nature provides for man’s self-preservation.  Following the rise of reason, experience, and knowledge, man transforms his relationship with nature and begins to abuse nature – intentionally harming nature for his own self-advancement.

In this transformation of man’s relationship to nature, becoming the coercive master of it through use of tools, man imposes the first structure of inequality over others which becomes the basis of civil society: private property.  “All of these evils are the main effects of property and the inseparable consequences of nascent inequality,” he writes.  Anyone familiar with Marx will see Rousseau’s influence over Marx here.  In becoming dependent on property, and others, man lost his freedom and equality in the state of nature and became subjugated to others.  Dependence leads to subjugation.

According to Rousseau, property is the foundation of man’s coercive hierarchy and binaries.  The separation of the sexual division of labor begins because of property.  Woman is enslaved to the household property.  The coercion of land owner and land worker is a result of property, whereby this relationship of rich (land owner) and poor (worker) spirals down to exhaust itself into slavery.

Nevertheless, Rousseau also tells us that the new condition in which man finds himself offers him a simplistic and leisurely life.  This is something desirable and good but is the result of the ills of private property.  Is Rousseau in contradiction with himself yet again?  He notes the paradox of happiness found in this new condition, “people were unhappy in losing them without being happy in possessing them.”  Does property bring man leisure, which is good, or does it bring domineering structural inequality like the entire rest of the discourse claims?

If we recall, Rousseau thinks before the advent of private property man looked upon his fellow man with pity and compassion.  While not bonded together nor seeking to be bonded together, man was amiable with others in their encounters in the state of nature.  This is what Rousseau wants to return to.  The advent of private property – possession of land and natural resources needed for self-preservation through use of coercive logic (because reason and logic are tools of oppression according to Rousseau) – is what brings about man’s dependence and exploitation.  Rousseau does not think advancement and property (in the abstract sense) are bad.  They are good – they afford man leisure time.  The problem is private property.

Before private property all property, if we use that term, was public.  We shared it with others, with animals, and did not kill or exploit others to utilize it.  This is what Rousseau wants to restore with all the benefits of modern technology that has been given to us.  Through a return to common property and the equal division of labor (rather than unequal division of labor) we will once again be free and equal in relationships (which is to say no relationships at all) and all will be able to enjoy the same leisure time.  Quite the rosy picture Rousseau presents, isn’t it?

Rousseau, interestingly, gives us a depiction of how the advent of property moves man from freedom and equality to servility and slavery.  It is actually the very opposite of Marx’s reading of History, though this is because Marx – coming after Rousseau – thought Rousseau had it backwards (looking at the present conditions man found himself and thinking that this is how it had always been).  For Rousseau, capitalism (property ownership and the power found in material possession) actually is the first epoch of history in which society is separated into rich (land owner) and poor (land worker).  From there history regresses into the rule of the strong (land owner) now backed by the powers of political institutions which defend property and possession over the weak who toil for the benefit of the strong under the thumb of political oppression.  The dialectic of strong and weak finally exhausts into the state of slavery.  Thus Rousseau’s famous opening to the Social Contract, “Man was born free but is everywhere in chains.”  If we know our Marx, Marx’s dialectic of history is the opposite: slavery first, feudalism (strong-weak) second, and capitalism third (present age) ready to exhaust itself into the socialist epoch.

One of Rousseau’s additional comments in the second discourse that may sound familiar to many is his view that political institutions and structures, while being oppressive, are constituted and instituted by the land owning classes.  Government is established by the rich for the rich.  This is why government is illegitimate.  It does not serve the general will.

Furthermore, Rousseau is routinely countering the state of nature theories of Hobbes, Locke, and Spinoza.  Whereas the classical liberals tell us the state of nature is a state of war where life is dominated by fear and violent death, and civil society is a state of peaceful coexistence – Rousseau offers the exact opposite picture.  Rousseau’s state of nature is peaceful tranquility while civil society is the state of war through competition.  As he explains, man seeks glory and praise from other men – thus enslaving one another to dependence.  He who seeks glory for his happiness is now dependent upon others to glorify him.  Those who must glorify are subjected to the glory-seeker’s power.  The property owners, who seek happiness in material things, learn to gain pleasure from dominating others.  “The rich, for their part, had hardly learned the pleasure of dominating before they disdained all other pleasures, and using their old slaves to subdue new ones, they dreamed only of subjugating and enslave their neighbors.”  The dream of liberal civil society is the subjugation of all others to serve the benefactors and controllers of industry and property.

Moreover, Rousseau articulates the view that property is not a natural right.  Unlike Locke, Rousseau separates property from self-preservation.  Self-preservation is not premised on owning anything, only consuming something.  Locke’s logic was to keep the two together.  You own something so as to produce something from which you own in order to consume it for your self-preservation.  Rousseau believes ownership claims are a display of power (force) and this is contrary to law.  But if we recall from Hobbes (and Locke) who inaugurate the classical liberal tradition, the law of nature is force.

Rousseau also outlines the first iteration of his general will theory he more acutely developed in the Social Contract.  Again, for Rousseau the social compact is not a contract for property ownership as Locke suggests.  Rather, it is a compact to maintain human freedom and equality as the forces of history conspire to move man away from his noble though savage early existence:

The people, having on the subject of social relations, united all their wills into a single will, all the articles on which that will pronounces become so many fundamental laws obligatory on every member of the state without exception; and one of these laws regulates the choice and powers of the magistrates charged to watch over the execution of the others.  This power extends to everything that can maintain the constitution [of freedom and equality] without going so far as to change it.

The social contract, the real social contract (which he outlined in his work of that apt title) is about preserving the constitution of freedom and equality that man had enjoyed in the state of nature.  Liberals, Rousseau claims, being sophists at heart, use the language of liberty and equality, but actually only entrench further inequality and strip away liberty from the many and increase power in the hands of the few.

The last important contribution laid out by Rousseau in the second discourse is the legitimate use of physical violence (when it is an expression of the general will) against the corrupt powers that be that begin to serve self-seeking interests.  If you can kill the despot you are permitted to do so because the despot is in violation of the social compact agreement which the general will manifests itself to correct.  “The insurrection which ends with the strangling or dethronement of a sultan is just as lawful an act as those by which he disposed the day before of the lives and property of his subjects.  Force alone maintained him; force alone overthrows him.”

The two discourses on inequality that Rousseau presents to us ought to sound familiar to modern readers:

  • Society is corrupt and is a giant power pyramid which is ruled by force
  • The group that rules over society is the property owning class
  • Rationality and logic are tools of oppression and subjugation used by the ruling class and their philosophical defenders
  • Private property is not a natural right
  • Physical use of violent force to overthrow despots who do not act in accord with the general will and the social compact constitution is permitted

The idea that society and civilization is the problem of human existence, the idea that all society is a dialectic of power struggle, and the idea that rationality is “whiteness” and oppressive is not Marxist but Rousseauian.  The postmodernists owed more to Rousseau than they did Marx.  While it is true that aspects of Rousseau influenced Marx, Marx breaks with Rousseau on many important issues.  Marx, for one, was an analyst of capitalism and industrial economic systems.  Rousseau was a critic of society and everything that was encapsulated in society.

For Rousseau, society is the superstructure of slavery.  The basis of this superstructure is private property.  The origins of inequality, un-freedom, and dependence (e.g. subjugation to others whereby we lose equality and freedom) are rooted in property ownership.  Property ownership emerged from the first display of coercive force over others.  Thus, force is at the basis of civil society which is not governed by the law of nature which is pity.  Until this issue is redressed no “society” is legitimate.  Until we can become independent of each other once again, we will never be free and equal.  Rousseau was indispensable for providing the intellectual groundwork for the Jacobins during the French Revolution who revered him as a prophet.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor of VoegelinView and a writer on art, culture, literature, politics, and religion for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and theology (biblical & religious studies) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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