Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Origins of Inequality

A brief analysis of “Discourse on Inequality”

Jakub Ferencik
May 2 · 6 min read

Before Rousseau starts his analysis, he first differentiates between different kinds of oppressions or inequalities. He says that there is

  1. “natural” or “physical” inequality and
  2. “political” inequality.

Natural inequality refers to inequalities imposed by physical stature, health, age, and the qualities of the mind. Political inequality refers to social status, wealth, and public influence. It is important to start any analysis by differentiating between terms, thus confronting hurdles in communication. Rousseau, therefore, rightly turns to this at the outset of his text. He writes that the primary purpose of his discourse is to question the nature of political inequality and whether there is any justification for aristocratic oppression.

Rousseau addresses the underlying tension we need to resolve in order to discuss the origin of inequality; we first must understand ourselves, our human nature, in order to make any justified conclusions about the prevalence of inequality in modern societies.

In the words of Rousseau, we must study the “original man” as he was in the state of nature to gain an accurate perspective on his true nature. However, his view, as Rousseau himself admits, is primarily based on “conjectures” and not on reliable data as we have now. If we are to make better conclusions now, we must strongly consider empirical observations as well.

Rousseau on Human Nature

Rousseau argued that the two central components of human nature are (1) amour de soi and (2) pitié. These are untouched universal features that we all have in common. The first of which, amour de soi, or ‘self-love,’ refers to self-preservation and the act of being mindful about this present moment.

The second component to human nature, pitié, or the “natural repugnance” we feel when we see someone suffer, arises out of empathy for our fellow human being. Society has slowly taken these two fundamental elements of our human nature away from us. In contrast, amour propre, or egocentrism, that which is artificial, centered around pride, envy, and vanity, was “born in Society.” Amour propre occurred because civilized people were forced to enter ruinous relationships and competitions for the sake of status.

The Origin of Inequality

Closely connected to Rousseau’s understanding of human nature is his explanation for why inequality originated. The “original man” largely lived in solitude. Whereas now, citizens live in constant comparison with their neighbors. Rousseau finds this human tendency for comparison and envy problematic. The beginning of society was in the precise moment when one citizen exercised control over a piece of land and declared “this is mine!” Rousseau calls this comparison, the “new intelligence” that came about by viewing oneself as superior. There are three primary reasons inequality originates from society for Rousseau: (1) communication, (2) comparison, and (3) technological advancement.

All of these contribute to our continuous enslavement to society. If it was not for our laws, customs, and industriousness, that bind us to society, we would easily revert to a solitary life. In the state of nature, we have not desired status, wealth, and influence; we have grown to desire these things because we have become one with society due to our human tendency for perfectibilitie, or malleability.

In order for Rousseau’s argument to work, we must first agree that the environment we are in largely influences behavior. Indeed, there is some good evidence for this. In urbanized society, humanity is influenced by social status, wealth, and the desire to come across as noble; our outer appearance matters only because of the environment we are in. It follows then that human nature is flexible and that it changes according to needs.

Photo by Vadim Sherbakov on Unsplash

Originally, the “natural man” had all his desires and needs met; whereas now, due to our separation from our true selves, we are unhappy. Similarly, Rousseau believes it is not natural to slave away in labor in order to gain social status and wealth. As labor becomes more important, we become less in tune with our true selves. Inadvertently, we have learned to desire to dominate others because of our environment.

Rousseau turns from his discussion of human nature and inequality to a discussion of reason and happiness. He looks at whether the passions are subservient to reason because of the historical context he is writing in. Rationalists from Plato and Plotinus to Descartes and Spinoza have long argued that the passions should be shunned and that the examined life is the only one worth praise.

Rousseau realized that this is an oversimplification of the ubiquitous presence of the passions in everyday life. Instead, he viewed the passions as important to our well-being and not detrimental to them. In fact, the separation between reason and the passions further demarcates the plebeian and the aristocrats. In the words of Rousseau, reason “engenders amour propre” and “turns man in upon himself.” In contrast, pitié helps us focus on those who suffer.

Furthermore, Rousseau argued, in contradiction to Locke and Hobbes, that humans are not naturally rational. In fact, Rousseau argues that the only reason we desire to be reasonable is because “we wish to enjoy”; “human understanding” is obliged to “the passions.” Virtues like compassion depend almost entirely on gut-feeling rather than on persuasive arguments, writes Rousseau.

Socrates, Plato, and Augustine may have justified their morality to the masses and urged others to live by it, yet Rousseau firmly believes that the human race would have never prospered if its “preservation” solely depended on the “reasonings of the individuals composing it.”

This Enlightenment obsession with the thinking individual in high society, was exactly what Rousseau despised.

In reality, the passions and reason are indispensable from each other.

Summary

In conclusion, in order to agree with Rousseau’s logic for why inequality arose in society, we must first agree that (1) our human nature is unchanging and that (2) it is malleable based on structural norms and needs. In his text, Rousseau also importantly dismantles the place reason has in the Enlightenment and argues instead that the passions can work in accordance with reason.

Finally, Rousseau believes that in order to live fulfilling lives in society, we must live in accordance with our true selves, as we were in the state of nature. It is only then that we can abandon the shackles this material world has enslaved us with.

This story is a part of my series on political philosophy! You can check out some previous posts here if you are interested:

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A Philosopher’s Stone

A place for a discussion of the ideas all around us in…

Jakub Ferencik

Written by

Author of “Up in the Air: Christianity, Atheism & the Global Problems of the 21st Century” on AMAZON | Exploring Ethical Living | IG: jakub.ferencik.official

A Philosopher’s Stone

A place for a discussion of the ideas all around us in society, culture, philosophy, and more.

Jakub Ferencik

Written by

Author of “Up in the Air: Christianity, Atheism & the Global Problems of the 21st Century” on AMAZON | Exploring Ethical Living | IG: jakub.ferencik.official

A Philosopher’s Stone

A place for a discussion of the ideas all around us in society, culture, philosophy, and more.

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