Rousseau gives a description of the original of “amour-propre,” which can also be translated as vanity. What is the origin of vanity as Rousseau sees it?

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Rousseau's concept of amour-propre aligns more with the concept of vanity than with the pure, innocent kind of self-love, because he sees this as a result of one's conscious idea of one's place in society. He believes that amour-propre arises from this very social sense of proportion. In effect, one's sense of self is determined by one's awareness of oneself in proportion to others' sense of themselves. As a result, every man, woman, and child wants to be seen in a good light against everyone else.

Rousseau traces back the origins of vanity to when humankind was beginning to establish "a more settled manner of life," as opposed to the more primitive, nomadic ways of their ancestors. As habits of living together formed, so did families, and, eventually, communities. People did more ritualized things together and prized each other for their company. Since primitive survival no longer held sway over their lives, leisure and enjoyment became the norm. Here, they began to regard one another more keenly, leading to each one desiring to be thought of well and spoken of highly. We see the early beginnings of public esteem. Much value was suddenly placed on whoever spoke the most eloquently, exhibited the most strength, or came to have the most exquisite beauty, among many other qualities deemed socially remarkable.

For this, Rousseau saw amour-propre or vanity as problematic. It paved the way for inequality to rise based on such hierarchies, and it most certainly gave rise to envy, shame, and contempt, especially among those less endowed—leading to greater unhappiness. To him, it was a flimsy form of self-love wholly dependent on individual comparisons within a community, which only arose from man's shifting focus: from daily survival in the wilderness to an afforded sense of leisure brought about by civic expansion and industriousness.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on December 6, 2019
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