ROUSSEAU: A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality [Part II – Appendix]

A Discourse on Inequality by Rousseau


  • The establishment of property was the founding moment of society.
  • Man’s first care was that of self-preservation. This instinct compelled him toward particular modes of behavior. There was an urge to propagate the species, but no sense of love. Once the sexual deed was committed the two sexes parted forever.
  • Difficulties were presented to man in this state, which forced him to learn how to surmount these difficulties; and thus man developed his reasoning faculty.
  • Different climates and lands demanded different modes of living. Men who dwelled near rivers and oceans developed techniques for fishing. Men who dwelled in forests developed bows and arrows to hunt animals. Some fortuitous natural occurrence, such as lighting or a volcano, introduced the element of fire.
  • Man began to make comparisons because it was necessary to determine the course of action that would procure his greatest security.
  • After reflecting upon himself in comparison with the other animals, man felt a sense of pride at his ability to subdue the other animals by his cunning.
  • In comparing himself with other men, man became aware that the others behaved in a like manner as he, and that they all desired well-being. Thus, man was able to distinguish certain circumstances in which it was advantageous to acquire the assistance of another man in order to more easily obtain well-being.
  • Languages began to develop more fully after men began to form small groups for hunting purposes, but still very slowly.
  • The first advances of man enabled the production of new advances with ever more rapidity.
  • Shelters were designed. The family and a rudimentary form of property was established.
  • The first steps made toward romantic notions were the result of men beginning to lice in shelters with their families. Every family became a small society.
  • Because the amount of labor men were required to do in order to satisfy their needs had decreased with the advent of mutual cooperation, men lost some of their strength, swiftness, and other bodily virtues.
  • Man was left with a great deal of leisure, during which time he furnished himself with new conveniences and diversions. These new pleasures became burdens; the lack of them became more disagreeable than the possession of them was pleasurable; they became genuine needs.
  • As man began to live a more settled life, he would frequently encounter and commerce with the same neighbors, and these neighborhoods would form small societies. As a result of seeing each other often, they could not do without seeing each other constantly. Man made comparisons among his neighbors and developed preferences for certain attributes. Thus, man became a social animal. With bonds of love arose jealousy.
  • With much leisure, man’s occupation became to divert and amuse himself with communal dances and festivals. At these gatherings, man considered others, and wished others to consider himself. Thus, men began to esteem the best singer, dancer, runner, speaker, etc. This desire to make comparisons and gain consideration among others is the source of vanity, contempt, envy, and shame.
  • Every injury became an affront; for, besides the physical hurt, the injured party considered the injurer to hold contempt for him, which was more intolerable than the hurt itself.
  • As every man punished the contempt shown him by others according to the opinion he had of himself, revenge became terrible, and men bloody and cruel. Some philosophers mistake this epoch as man in his natural state, but they are clearly mistaken, as has been proven by enumerating the necessary developments to reach this stage in man’s progress. Natural man is the gentlest creature; for he is compelled only to preserve himself against harm, and restrained form haring others by his natural instinct for compassion. He does not seek revenge because he has no conception of himself, or of contempt; furthermore, in the words of Locke “There can be no injury where there is no property.
  • Morality appeared. Punishments had to be made more severe as the opportunities of committing crimes increased. Revenge was replaced by law.
  • The happiest stage of human development is when man was in between the indolence of their natural state and the egoism of our modern age. This stage was the least subject to revolution, and could only have changed by some fatal accident. All subsequent advances are steps toward the perfection of the individual, but the degeneracy of the species.
  • So long as men only endeavored in pursuits that could b accomplished by one man, they lived free, healthy, honest, and happy. When one man began to need another, and when one man thought that it was advantageous to possess provisions for two, inequality, property, work, misery, and slavery were introduced.
  • Metallurgy and agriculture were the catalysts to this violent change in man’s mode of living. Iron and corn civilized and ruined men.
  • Divisions of labor were introduced as some men were required to forge metals, and others to provide sustenance for them in exchange for their commodities.
  • Property was established based upon the labor an individual put into an object; and thus conceptions of justice and law were established to regulate the possession of property.
  • The natural inequalities among men caused greater moral inequalities in combination with this new mode of living. The strongest could do more work; the most skillful could turn his work to the most account; the most ingenious could devise methods of reducing his labor.
  • It soon became necessary for men to appear what they really were not in order to gain respect.
  • In consequence of new needs, men were brought into subjection to one another. The master is dependent upon the slave as the slave is dependent upon the master. In this condition, man constantly attempts to prove to others that it is in their interest to promote his own. This engendered a necessity to be cruel and manipulative towards others.
  • Men became ambitious to surpass others. Men developed a propensity to injure one another. Men became jealous and envious. These developments all arose from the introduction of property.
  • Property was established to such an extent that it occupied the whole land. Those who became poor by doing nothing but watch the change around them were forced either to receive their sustenance or steal it from the rich; thus, dominion and slavery, and violence and rapine were born.
  • The rich soon found that the pleasures of commanding were greater than all other pleasures, and therefore sought nothing more than the aggrandizement of their power over their fellow men.
  • The rich believed that the property of the poor rightly belonged to the rich because of their might. The poor believed the property of the rich rightly belonged to the poor because of their miserable condition. Usurpations by the rich, and robbery by the poor suppressed the instinct of compassion, and a state of war permeated the society.
  • The rich perhaps suffered the most from this state of war because as everyone risked their lives, the rich risked their property too. The rich devised a sinister plan to subject the poor forever. The rich enumerated the benefits and advantages of establishing a society and law, so that both the powerful and the weak would be subject to the same duties and restraints, and to secure the property of all. The poor had just enough wit to recognize the advantages of forming a government, but not enough to discern the dangers; thus, they all ran headlong to their chains.
  • Society was established to the advantages of a few ambitious individuals, and subjected all mankind to perpetual labor, slavery, and misery.
  • Societies soon began to quarrel among one another, and these quarrels were much more fatal than those between individuals.
  • The form of governments was not regular or constant. It consistently was changed as new inconveniences presented themselves. Political theory was in its nascent stage and far from perfected.
  • Natural man does not have a propensity to servitude, though some political philosophers conjecture so because of modern man’s praise of the tranquility they enjoy in their chains. The savages of America present innumerable examples of disdain for European pleasures; they brave hunger, fire, sword, and death to preserve nothing but their independence. Liberty is the most precious treasure to natural man.
  • To renounce one’s own liberty is to debase one’s self, to reduce one’s self to the level of a brute, and an affront to God to renounce His most precious gift to humanity.
  • The constitutions of governments that prescribed fundamental laws that subjected all men of the society to certain obligations and restraints, and established the process of electing magistrates to administer the law, must have appeared very alluring to man. But this contract between the magistrates and the people was revocable by both parties whenever they found it convenient to do so. Thus, the cultivation of religion was necessary to establish the head magistrate as chosen by God. The social contract requires a third party to enforce it, and make the contract firm.
  • The different forms of government depended upon the inequalities among the individuals who formed the government. If there was one man preeminent among the rest, then a monarchy was formed. If there were a few men of equal eminence above the rest, then an aristocracy was formed. If a group deviated little from the state of nature, then a democracy was formed.
  • Despotism is the final end of inequality. It is at the extreme opposite to the state of nature. In despotism, everyone is equal because everyone is nothing.
  • Men are different in different ages. The reason Diogenes could not find a man is because he was searching for a man from another era. Cato dies with Rome and liberty because he was a man of a time period 500 years earlier. He, the best of men, served only to astonish a world he would have ruled if born 500 years prior.
  • Original man has gradually vanished. Society is an assembly of artificial men and artificial passions, which spring from the unnatural conventions of society.

“The first time he looked into himself, he felt the first emotion of pride; and, at a time when he scarce knew how to distinguish the different orders of beings, by looking upon his species as of the highest order, he prepared the way for assuming pre-eminence as an individual.”

“The simplicity and solitude of man’s life in this new condition, the paucity of his wants, and the implements he had invented to satisfy them, left him a great deal of leisure, which he employed to furnish himself with many conveniences unknown to his fathers: and this was the first yoke he inadvertently imposed on himself, and the first source of the evils he prepared for his descendants. For, besides continuing thus to enervate both body and mind, these conveniences lost with use almost all their power to please, and even degenerated into real needs, till the want of them became far more disagreeable than the possession of them had been pleasant. Men would have been unhappy at the loss of them, though the possession did not make them happy.”

“Each one began to consider the rest, and to wish to be considered in turn; and thus a value came to be attached to public esteem. Whoever sang or danced best, whoever was the handsomest, the strongest, the most dexterous, or the most eloquent, came to be of most consideration; and this was the first step towards inequality, and at the same time towards vice. From these first distinctions arose on the one side vanity and contempt and on the other shame and envy: and the fermentation caused by these new leavens ended by producing combinations fatal to innocence and happiness.”

“As every man punished the contempt shown him by others, in proportion to his opinion of himself, revenge became terrible, and men bloody and cruel.”

“So long as they undertook only what a single person could accomplish, and confined themselves to such arts as did not require the joint labour of several hands, they lived free, healthy, honest and happy lives, so long as their nature allowed, and as they continued to enjoy the pleasures of mutual and independent intercourse. But from the moment one man began to stand in need of the help of another; from the moment it appeared advantageous to any one man to have enough provisions for two, equality disappeared, property was introduced, work became indispensable, and vast forests became smiling fields, which man had to water with the sweat of his brow, and where slavery and misery were soon seen to germinate and grow up with the crops.”

“They were now, in consequence of a multiplicity of new wants, brought into subjection, as it were, to all nature, and particularly to one another; and each became in some degree a slave even in becoming the master of other men: if rich, they stood in need of the services of others; if poor, of their assistance; and even a middle condition did not enable them to do without one another. Man must now, therefore, have been perpetually employed in getting others to interest themselves in his lot, and in making them, apparently at least, if not really, find their advantage in promoting his own.”

“Insatiable ambition, the thirst of raising their respective fortunes, not so much from real want as from the desire to surpass others, inspired all men with a vile propensity to injure one another, and with a secret jealousy, which is the more dangerous, as it puts on the mask of benevolence, to carry its point with greater security.”

“Do you not know that numbers of your fellow-creatures are starving, for want of what you have too much of?”

“Destitute of valid reasons to justify and sufficient strength to defend himself, able to crush individuals with ease, but easily crushed himself by a troop of bandits, one against all, and incapable, on account of mutual jealousy, of joining with his equals against numerous enemies united by the common hope of plunder, the rich man, thus urged by necessity, conceived at length the profoundest plan that ever entered the mind of man: this was to employ in his favour the forces of those who attacked him, to make allies of his adversaries, to inspire them with different maxims, and to give them other institutions as favourable to himself as the law of nature was unfavourable.”

“All ran headlong to their chains, in hopes of securing their liberty; for they had just wit enough to perceive the advantages of political institutions, without experience enough to enable them to foresee the dangers. The most capable of foreseeing the dangers were the very persons who expected to benefit by them; and even the most prudent judged it not inexpedient to sacrifice one part of their freedom to ensure the rest; as a wounded man has his arm cut off to save the rest of his body.”

“The origin of society and law, which bound new fetters on the poor, and gave new powers to the rich; which irretrievably destroyed natural liberty, eternally fixed the law of property and inequality, converted clever usurpation into unalterable right, and, for the advantage of a few ambitious individuals, subjected all mankind to perpetual labour, slavery and wretchedness.”

“The most distinguished men hence learned to consider cutting each other’s throats a duty; at length men massacred their fellow-creatures by thousands without so much as knowing why, and committed more murders in a single day’s fighting, and more violent outrages in the sack of a single town, than were committed in the state of nature during whole ages over the whole earth.”

“We cannot therefore, from the servility of nations already enslaved, judge of the natural disposition of mankind for or against slavery; we should go by the prodigious efforts of every free people to save itself from oppression. I know that the former are for ever holding forth in praise of the tranquillity they enjoy in their chains, and that they call a state of wretched servitude a state of peace: miserrimam servitutem pacem appellant [the most wretched slavery they call peace]. But when I observe the latter sacrificing pleasure, peace, wealth, power and life itself to the preservation of that one treasure, which is so disdained by those who have lost it; when I see free-born animals dash their brains out against the bars of their cage, from an innate impatience of captivity; when I behold numbers of naked savages, that despise European pleasures, braving hunger, fire, the sword and death, to preserve nothing but their independence, I feel that it is not for slaves to argue about liberty.”

“I shall not stay here to inquire whether, as liberty is the noblest faculty of man, it is not degrading our very nature, reducing ourselves to the level of the brutes, which are mere slaves of instinct, and even an affront to the Author of our being, to renounce without reserve the most precious of all His gifts, and to bow to the necessity of committing all the crimes He has forbidden, merely to gratify a mad or a cruel master; or if this sublime craftsman ought not to be less angered at seeing His workmanship entirely destroyed than thus dishonoured.”

“I could explain how much this universal desire for reputation, honours and advancement, which inflames us all, exercises and holds up to comparison our faculties and powers; how it excites and multiplies our passions, and, by creating universal competition and rivalry, or rather enmity, among men, occasions numberless failures, successes and disturbances of all kinds by making so many aspirants run the same course. I could show that it is to this desire of being talked about, and this unremitting rage of distinguishing ourselves, that we owe the best and the worst things we possess, both our virtues and our vices, our science and our errors, our conquerors and our philosophers; that is to say, a great many bad things, and a very few good ones. In a word, I could prove that, if we have a few rich and powerful men on the pinnacle of fortune and grandeur, while the crowd grovels in want and obscurity, it is because the former prize what they enjoy only in so far as others are destitute of it; and because, without changing their condition, they would cease to be happy the moment the people ceased to be wretched.”

“The savage and the civilised man differ so much in the bottom of their hearts and in their inclinations, that what constitutes the supreme happiness of one would reduce the other to despair. The former breathes only peace and liberty; he desires only to live and be free from labour; even the ataraxia of the Stoic falls far short of his profound indifference to every other object. Civilised man, on the other hand, is always moving, sweating, toiling and racking his brains to find still more laborious occupations: he goes on in drudgery to his last moment, and even seeks death to put himself in a position to live, or renounces life to acquire immortality. He pays his court to men in power, whom he hates, and to the wealthy, whom he despises; he stops at nothing to have the honour of serving them; he is not ashamed to value himself on his own meanness and their protection; and, proud of his slavery, he speaks with disdain of those, who have not the honour of sharing it. What a sight would the perplexing and envied labours of a European minister of State present to the eyes of a Caribbean! How many cruel deaths would not this indolent savage prefer to the horrors of such a life, which is seldom even sweetened by the pleasure of doing good! But, for him to see into the motives of all this solicitude, the words power and reputation, would have to bear some meaning in his mind; he would have to know that there are men who set a value on the opinion of the rest of the world; who can be made happy and satisfied with themselves rather on the testimony of other people than on their own. In reality, the source of all these differences is, that the savage lives within himself, while social man lives constantly outside himself, and only knows how to live in the opinion of others, so that he seems to receive the consciousness of his own existence merely from the judgment of others concerning him.”

There are many fascinating and insightful passages in this part of Rousseau’s discourse, as you can likely determine from the amount of quotes I have enumerated here. I think that the main theme of this part of the discourse is man’s desire to be esteemed by others. When societies began to form, men were in constant contact with one another, and began to make comparisons. They valued the best singer, dancer, runner, etc., and everyone wished to gain the most consideration among the group. This desire is the source of our greatest virtues and vices.

Another interesting notion is that modern men are in love with their servitude. They praise their chains as a means to tranquility. Rousseau proffers examples of savages form America that brave fire, sword, and death to preserve their independence from Europe, despite the pleasures promised to them by the colonial European powers. It is ironic that men who have access to more sources of pleasure are more discontent than others. Perhaps because these new pleasures soon become needs, and these needs are less pleasurable when possessed than painful when deprived of them.

This part is such a rich source of knowledge – from anthropology, history, politics, philosophy, etc. I cannot do it justice by a brief analysis. I can only advise you to read the quotes I have selected, which only skim the surface of Rousseau’s profound investigation into the origins of man.


  • An author who considered man’s condition in civil society concluded that a man’s pains far exceeded a man’s pleasures; and therefore, life is not a gift. Had he considered man in the state of nature, his conclusion would have been different. Natural man is subject to very little evils. Modern man has created evils for himself. He has pursued his own misery by perfecting the sciences and making “progress.”
  • Modern man is indeed wicked, but natural man is good. This change arose with the development of our intellectual capacity. Society causes men to hate each other in proportion as their interests conflict. Every man finds his profit in the misfortunes of his neighbor.
  • Men always gain more by hurting their neighbors than by doing them good.
  • When natural man has dined, he is amicable with all creatures. When modern man has satisfied his natural needs, he still has to indulge in his superfluous wants.
  • The natural man has opened many more paths to misery and death than the natural man faced. The poor perish for want and the rich for surfeit; epidemics arise from men being crowded together.
  • Agriculture is the least lucrative of all the arts; for its produce is universally necessary, and thus the price must be proportionate to the abilities of the poorest men. The arts are more lucrative in proportion as they are less useful.
  • In proportion as the arts and industry flourish, the farmer grows weary of toiling in the field for his bare subsistence, being burdened with taxes necessary to support the opulence of the society. The farmer leaves for the city, where many poor citizens have already become beggars. The abandoned countryside and crowded cities contribute to the depletion and ruin of the society.
  • The barbarians who overran the Roman Empire were not industrious, they did not excel in the arts or sciences, they simply defeated the Romans because the Roman culture – i.e. modern culture – is necessarily self-defeating.
  • Do not be ashamed to renounce the advances of society in order to renounce its vices. Only religion can save the degeneration of man in modern society.

“There is not perhaps any man in a comfortable position who has not greedy heirs, and perhaps even children, secretly wishing for his death; not a ship at sea, of which the loss would not be good news to some merchant or other; not a house, which some debtor of bad faith would not be glad to see reduced to ashes with all the papers it contains; not a nation which does not rejoice at the disasters that befall its neighbours. Thus it is that we find our advantage in the misfortunes of our fellow-creatures, and that the loss of one man almost always constitutes the prosperity of another.”

“There is no legitimate profit so great, that it cannot be greatly exceeded by what may be made illegitimately; we always gain more by hurting our neighbours than by doing them good. Nothing is required but to know how to act with impunity; and to this end the powerful employ all their strength, and the weak all their cunning.”

“The poor perish of want, and the rich of surfeit.”

The appendix is a sort of recapitulation of the discourse, but the very last paragraph contained a new notion – i.e. religion is necessary to save the degeneracy of man in modern society. In the paragraph, Rousseau advises men who do not know God to return to the forests and live there in happiness, but for those who have learned about Providence must endeavor to cooperate with his fellow creatures and practice virtue within the bounds of society. For those men, it is impossible to return to the state of nature because God requires us to assist our brethren, and to practice virtue so that we may be an example and inducement to virtue in others.

Show me the man who is truly happy and I will show you an excellent actor or an insensible fool. Civilized man cannot be happy. He is dependent upon the assistance of others. To be dependent is to be weak. “To be weak is miserable, doing or suffering.” Man has become dependent upon others because of the establishment of property, and the creation of artificial passions that have become necessities. It is impossible to return to the state of nature. The ambition and pride of men have caused them to appropriate all means of subsistence, so that an individual is compelled to seek the assistance and fellowship of others. This necessary interaction perpetuates comparisons and vices. There is a ‘noble savage’ who is willing to “brave fire, sword, and death” for liberty, for independence. Where is he?

4 thoughts on “ROUSSEAU: A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality [Part II – Appendix]”

    1. I’m glad that you enjoyed reading this post. I am fascinated by the origins of mankind. The contrast between Hobbes’ state of nature and Rousseau’s affords much food for thought. Do you think that society is a good or bad thing?

      1. Im inclined to think we were happier before society, thus in our natural state. However, i believe that as a generality men are basically bad. Because it is only through contact with one another that we are tested in this that is why, as Rousseau suggests, society is somewhat of a corrupting force. Though like Hobbes, I’m not inclined to think we were anything but basically evil and animalistic from the beginning, just that the closer our proximity to others the more these traits have ocassion to manifest themselves. What do you think?

      2. I actually just made a video about Nietzsche’s thoughts on this topic. He seems to agree with much of what you write – man was happier in the state of nature, and man is basically “cruel,” not necessarily bad.

        I disagree with Rousseau and Nietzsche about mankind once living outside of societies. I think that mankind is a social animal, and has always been a social animal. I think that an individual person is too weak to survive in the wild without assistance from others. I think that a mother’s connection with her children is so strong that even a relatively small “society” of a mother and her children must have existed from the very beginning.

        Concerning the happiness of man, I agree with you, Nietzsche, and Rousseau. Mankind was much happier in the past, when there were relatively few laws and few customs. In such an environment, a person can freely define himself. Within the confines of society, there are many pressures that compel man to conform to one ideal, which is often something undesirable for the majority of people. Thus, there is much discontent in the present day.

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