ROUSSEAU: A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality [Dedication – Part I]

A Discourse on Inequality by Jean-Jacques Rousseau


  • Rousseau dedicates his discourse to the Republic of Geneva. He believed that Geneva was the quintessence of Republics in the world.
  • Rousseau describes the best Republic as one in which the interest of the Sovereign is the interest of the people. This is only accomplished when the Sovereign is the people – i.e. a democracy.
  • If there is a man within the jurisdiction of a nation that is not subject to its laws, then that whole nation is subject to the discretion of that one man. This is intolerable.
  • A pure democracy is not ideal either; for it allows self-interested and ill-conceived projects a greater possibility of being formed, which was the catalyst for the ruin of Athens. Instead a magistrate ought to be formed that has the sole power of introducing new laws for debate.
  • Men despise laws that are frequently altered. A State, wishing to improve itself by introducing new laws and altering old laws, often exposes itself to greater evils than those they endeavor to remove.

In the Dedicatory Epistle, Rousseau explains that the incipient stages of a nation are the most dangerous, especially if the people are accustomed to being under the yoke of tyrants. He uses the Roman Republic as an example. After the Romans had cast out the Tarquin kings, they were no better than a “stupid mob.” There was a strong possibility that the people would mistake their newfound liberty for an unbridled license to do anything, which is utterly contrary to the definition of freedom. The Republic and the peace of the nation did not last for very long. The nation needed a strong leader, and this need gave rise to the Empire.

America is another example of a new nation beset by difficulties. If I remember many of the principles expounded in the Federalist Papers, there were many factions who wished to dissolve the union of the States, which, as Jay, Hamilton, and Madison argued, would inevitably lead to territorial disputes and ill-will towards the other states. It is fortunate that America possessed such excellent and wise leaders who guided the nation towards prosperity during those perilous times of its beginning.

It is also interesting to note that Rousseau identifies women as the true rulers of every society. They influence men to such an extent that they can be said to be the true governors of the state. Thus, it is very important that they maintain their chaste and virtuous dispositions; otherwise, the men will grow puerile and flippant, as they do when they frequently keep the company of lascivious women.


  • In order to answer the question – What is the origin of inequality among people, and is it authorized by natural law? – one must first understand the nature of man. The inscription above the Temple of Delphi – Know thyself – is the most difficult but important precept.
  • To understand the nature of man, one must consider man as he was in the state of nature, before he was altered by the influence of society; however, this is a very difficult task because man is like the statue of Glaucus, which has undergone so many alterations that it barely resembles its original state.
  • Rousseau concedes that his discourse requires conjectures, and that his subject matter is very difficult to address. He cites the disparate theories of past philosophers regarding natural rights and laws.
  • There are two basic principles that exist prior to Reason – self-preservation and pity. Man, in the state of nature, is guided by these two principles, and all subsequent developments arise from these two instincts.
  • Laws are commands given to a rational creature. Rights are privileges to have or to do something. Laws cannot apply to animals because they do not possess the requisite rationality to understand and adhere to the laws. Laws only apply to man. Rights apply to everything. As sentient beings, animals have the right to be free from suffering injury from other sentient beings because of the principle of pity. Man has a duty not to harm other sentient beings. Laws command duties. Rights establish privileges.

“Like the statue of Glaucus, which was so disfigured by time, seas and tempests, that it looked more like a wild beast than a god, the human soul, altered in society by a thousand causes perpetually recurring, by the acquisition of a multitude of truths and errors, by the changes happening to the constitution of the body, and by the continual jarring of the passions, has, so to speak, changed in appearance, so as to be hardly recognisable. Instead of a being, acting constantly from fixed and invariable principles, instead of that celestial and majestic simplicity, impressed on it by its divine Author, we find in it only the frightful contrast of passion mistaking itself for reason, and of understanding grown delirious.

It is still more cruel that, as every advance made by the human species removes it still farther from its primitive state, the more discoveries we make, the more we deprive ourselves of the means of making the most important of all. Thus it is, in one sense, by our very study of man, that the knowledge of him is put out of our power.”

In the preface, Rousseau writes about a very paradoxical theme – i.e. that the pursuit of knowledge often leads us further from the point of attaining it. For example, the more developments we make in the sciences, which ‘improves’ our mode of living, removes us further from the state of nature, and thus further from the possibility of investigating such a state. Rousseau makes a comparison between the statue of Glaucus and the human soul [see Plato’s Republic; Ch. 10, I believe]. As the statue of Glaucus suffered innumerable alterations so that it resembled a beast more than the intended god, so too has man’s soul suffered alterations from societal influences and the jarring of the passions. The constitution of the human soul is practically indiscernible in modern man.

Rousseau asserts that the two principles that guide man’s behavior in the state of nature are self-preservation and pity. He says that man is naturally disposed to these two instincts, and that these instincts are not contrary to one another, though at first glance they may appear to be. Man has a duty, as the result of these two principles, not to harm others unless he is put under the obligation of preferring the preservation of his own self before that of another.


  • There are two types of inequality – natural and political/moral. Natural inequality is inequality which arises from differences in age, health, strength, and qualities of the mind and soul. Political or moral inequality is conventional and arises from the consent of men; it consists of different privileges that some men enjoy to the prejudice of others, such as richer, more honored, more powerful, or in a position of authority.
  • The endeavor of this discourse is to identify the moment when justice took the place of violence, when nature became subject to law.
  • There is a past age of the human species that is more desirable than the current age.

“The subject of the present discourse, therefore, is more precisely this. To mark, in the progress of things, the moment at which right took the place of violence and nature became subject to law, and to explain by what sequence of miracles the strong came to submit to serve the weak, and the people to purchase imaginary repose at the expense of real felicity.”

“There is, I feel, an age at which the individual man would wish to stop: you are about to inquire about the age at which you would have liked your whole species to stand still. Discontented with your present state, for reasons which threaten your unfortunate descendants with still greater discontent, you will perhaps wish it were in your power to go back; and this feeling should be a panegyric on your first ancestors, a criticism of your contemporaries, and a terror to the unfortunates who will come after you.”

To further narrow his focus, Rousseau establishes the subject of his discourse to be the moment when justice and law replaced violence and nature. This is reminiscent of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, and the establishment of the Athenian judicial system. I am looking forward to making comparisons between the notions of justice expounded by Aeschylus and Rousseau.

At the end of this introductory section to his discourse, Rousseau suggests that the modern age is inferior to a past “Golden Age.” Is this simply nostalgia, or is Rousseau objectively justified in making this claim? We will need to consider his proceeding arguments in order to make a determination. This should be good. I enjoyed reading Rousseau’s Social Contract. He has a provocative writing style that is delightful to read.


  • Stripped of his artificial inventions, man is less swift and strong than other animals, but he is the most advantageously organized of all the animals. His needs are little and easily satisfied, and he does not have much to fear besides the frailties of childhood and old-age; for he soon finds that he can outwit the stronger and swifter animals.
  • Many of the ills which we contract in modern society are a direct consequence of societal factors. Men in the state of nature rarely succumb to illness.
  • All animals are like ingenious machines, imbued with certain instincts for their self-preservation. Man shares this instinct for self-preservation with the animals, but man also has the capacity to choose between alternatives. Animals choose upon instinct while man chooses upon his own unique free agency. This capacity makes man more adaptable than animals, and is the faculty of perfectibility. Although this characteristic is the source of man’s greatest virtues, it is also the source of his greatest vices.
  • Reason develops and perfects itself through the exercise of the passions. We seek more knowledge because it is pleasurable. To a man in the state of nature, the only goods in the world are food, sex, and sleep; the only evils are pain and hunger. This natural man has no conception or regard for the future, and also no need to leave the state of nature.
  • It must have taken thousands of years for man to develop a language in order to communicate his knowledge to others. But why did language become necessary? The natural man was not dependent upon others for his survival. Language must have originated from children asking their mothers for specific things in order to satisfy their basic needs of hunger and shelter from the extremities.
  • There are several seemingly insurmountable difficulties in developing the first language. Without words, it is impossible to develop abstract ideas, and thus it is impossible to develop abstract general words such as tree, cat, dog, etc. Different trees would have different names. Purely abstract ideas are only comprehensible with words. The idea of a triangle can only be conceived with words; the moment we imagine any triangle, we imagine a particular triangle. to understand the nature of a triangle we must consider its definition – a three-sided figure whose sum of interior angles equals 180 degrees. These abstract ideas are not found in nature.
  • There was likely no misery in the state of nature. Few savages of the 18th century committed suicide, which is in stark contrast to Europeans, who unanimously lament their existence.
  • Hobbes wrote that the savage man was vicious because he was ignorant of virtue. Rousseau asserts that the savage man is neither virtuous nor vicious because he is ignorant of both. Furthermore, the instinct of pity moderates the instinct of self-preservation, and contributes the preservation of the species. Despite all moral systems, if man did not possess this compassionate instinct and capacity to empathize with other men, then he would be a monster.
  •  The savage man is more compassionate than the civilized man because the savage man lacks reason and wisdom, which are expedients that engender self-awareness and divides the reasoned from the rest of humanity. A creature feels a stronger compassion for other creatures that he more closely identifies with. The reasoning man is so self-aware that he has effectively removed all similarities between himself and others.
  • The instinct of pity obviates the need for laws, morals, and virtues in the state of nature.
  • Savage men were not prone to disputes because feelings of revenge and offense are only possible in societies, where men have developed a sense of self-awareness, and care about the opinions others have of them.
  • There are two types of love: physical love and moral love. Physical love is merely sexual desire. Moral love is romantic attachment to one individual, designed to make women dominant over men. Moral love is the source of quarrels, and is only possible in societies.
  • Natural inequality is barely existent. Inequalities increase as societal institutions increase. Slavery, servitude, and employee/employer relationships are only formed upon men’s mutual dependence upon one another. No one can subjugate another who is independent – i.e. in the state of nature.
  • As man becomes sociable, he becomes wicked. With the advent of societies came vice and evil.


“For myself, I am so aghast at the increasing difficulties which present themselves, and so well convinced of the almost demonstrable impossibility that languages should owe their original institution to merely human means.”

“I should be glad to have explained to me, what kind of misery a free being, whose heart is at ease and whose body is in health, can possibly suffer. I would ask also, whether a social or a natural life is most likely to become insupportable to those who enjoy it. We see around us hardly a creature in civil society, who does not lament his existence: we even see many deprive themselves of as much of it as they can, and laws human and divine together can hardly put a stop to the disorder. I ask, if it was ever known that a savage took it into his head, when at liberty, to complain of life or to make away with himself. Let us therefore judge, with less vanity, on which side the real misery is found. On the other hand, nothing could be more unhappy than savage man, dazzled by science, tormented by his passions, and reasoning about a state different from his own. It appears that Providence most wisely determined that the faculties, which he potentially possessed, should develop themselves only as occasion offered to exercise them, in order that they might not be superfluous or perplexing to him, by appearing before their time, nor slow and useless when the need for them arose. In instinct alone, he had all he required for living in the state of nature; and with a developed understanding he has only just enough to support life in society.”


“Compassion must, in fact, be the stronger, the more the animal beholding any kind of distress identifies himself with the animal that suffers. Now, it is plain that such identification must have been much more perfect in a state of nature than it is in a state of reason. It is reason that engenders self-respect, and reflection that confirms it: it is reason which turns man’s mind back upon itself, and divides him from everything that could disturb or afflict him. It is philosophy that isolates him, and bids him say, at sight of the misfortunes of others: “Perish if you will, I am secure.” Nothing but such general evils as threaten the whole community can disturb the tranquil sleep of the philosopher, or tear him from his bed. A murder may with impunity be committed under his window; he has only to put his hands to his ears and argue a little with himself, to prevent nature, which is shocked within him, from identifying itself with the unfortunate sufferer. Uncivilised man has not this admirable talent; and for want of reason and wisdom, is always foolishly ready to obey the first promptings of humanity. It is the populace that flocks together at riots and street-brawls, while the wise man prudently makes off. It is the mob and the market-women, who part the combatants, and hinder gentle-folks from cutting one another’s throats.”


This was a very interesting section, especially the part concerning the development of language. Rousseau wrote another discourse that focused solely on the development of languages. After reading this brief yet fascinating treatment of this topic here, I will certainly pick up the more detailed analysis for future reading. Rousseau enumerates the several difficulties that man would encounter when trying to develop the first ever language. These difficulties seem so insurmountable that one is induced to suppose that the development of language is not possible without some supernatural influence.


Rousseau’s two principles of nature – self-preservation and pity – are perverted by societal influences. In the state of nature, the two principles balance one another, and therefore there is no need of laws to deter one man from harming another; the instinct of pity prohibits man from harming others unless his own self-preservation is at stake. However, with the advent of society, the instinct for self-preservation is strengthened with the increase in man’s rational capacity. Man’s capacity of perfectibility – i.e. his reasoning faculty – is the source of both his greatness and wickedness. As the reasoning faculty increases in capacity, self-awareness is strengthened to the point at which individual men no longer identify as closely with other men. The closer one identifies with another, the stronger compassion one feels at the distress of the other. When man divides himself from the rest of humanity by the exercise of his reason, he effectively distances himself from the instinct of pity.

2 thoughts on “ROUSSEAU: A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality [Dedication – Part I]”

    1. Thank you!

      Rousseau was a pleasant surprise for me. I was vaguely familiar with him before reading some of the selections in this reading plan, but I had no appreciation for the power of his arguments until reading them in his own words, albeit in translation. His writing is convincing and fascinating.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s