The DISCOURSE ON THE ORIGIN OF INEQUALITY is one of the early works in which Rousseau examines and expounds his rebellion against the social order as it exists, a revolt that the writer was to continue throughout his life. Rousseau believed that the evils which plague mankind have their origins not in sin but in man’s departure from the natural state, in which man was happy and good. This is the typical Romantic view of the Noble Savage.
In his inquiry into the origins of inequality, Rousseau begins with man, the core and motivation of his study. He states that there are two kinds of inequality among men. One is “natural or physical” because it is created by nature and consists of the obvious physical differences. The second is what he calls “moral or political inequality,” which grows out of convention and flowers because of the “consent of men.” The inquiry accepts the beliefs of religion that God took man out of a state of nature by His will, but it considers also what might have become of man had he been left to develop by himself.
The first part of the inquiry concerns itself with man in his natural state, the state of nature, the “embryo of his species.” In this animal state, he was the most promising of all other animals, and was therefore the most felicitously situated. He was free from artificial worries and not given to reflection. Rousseau asserts the extreme position that man thinking is a depraved animal. Nature is benign and treats all her creatures well. It is only as man departs from the cradle of nature that he begins to degenerate both physically and morally, for he is physically and morally superior in the state of nature. Metaphysically, he is superior because he is motivated solely by instinct to desire and to fear. He cannot, therefore, be either good or bad, vicious or virtuous.
Rousseau attacks directly the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes’s LEVIATHAN and its insistence that man is fundamentally vicious and must be controlled. Rousseau urges that Hobbes should have concluded that the state of nature affords man the greatest opportunity for self-preservation without doing injury to others and therefore should be the state in which man is least vicious, wicked, and injurious to his fellow man. Hobbes failed signally in making two key observations: one, that savages are not bad merely because they cannot know good, but rather because their passions are peaceful; two, that man is by nature compassionate because of an innate repugnance to see fellow creatures suffer, and this compassion moderates the violence of egotism.
The second part of the essay concerns itself with proving that man became wicked as he became a social animal. Society began when the first man staked out property and claimed it as his own. One of Rousseau’s most powerful sentences condemns this false claim and the long string of crimes, murders, misfortunes, and general horrors that sprang from it. A savior of mankind would have been the man who declared in ringing terms: “Be sure not to this imposter; you are lost, if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.” Rousseau quotes with approval John Locke’s famous statement that “There can be no injury, where there is no property.”
As men congregated into groups, each person began to think about the others and to consider public esteem. Each man who excelled in some particular thing—singing best, dancing best, hunting best, or the like—began to assert his excellence, and nobody could deny the rating. As superiority grew, so did another complication, morality. In savage minds morality had been simple. In more advanced societies punishments for offenses by one person against another became more numerous and severe. Increasingly, Rousseau asserts, it became clear to all men that there were...
(The entire section contains 1119 words.)
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