Friday, August 5, 2022

Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Civilization as a curse not a blessing
French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote his Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men as a contest entry in an essay competition sponsored by the Academy of Dijon. Although he did not win the prize, Rousseau’s treatise was published in 1754 and became one of his most famous and influential works. The political ideas that Rousseau outlines in the Discourse on Inequality helped inspire the French Revolution, and his conception of the natural state of man was instrumental in spawning the cultural movement of Romanticism.

The Dijon competition asked its entrants to consider the question, “What is the origin of inequality among people, and is it authorized by natural law?” Rousseau begins by envisioning man in a pre-civilized state in which he is subject only to natural law. Free of reason and language, this “savage” man is driven by self-preservation and a preference for solitude and yet possesses a natural compassionate pity for the pain of other beings. Rather than look down on this pre-rational man, as one might expect from an Enlightenment intellectual, Rousseau expresses admiration for his natural virtue and envy of his blissful ignorance. While the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes conceived of natural man as a brute motivated by fear, Rousseau idolizes his prehistoric progenitors. Like the Biblical fall from Eden, Rousseau posits that the birth of civil society was the beginning of the end of happiness and the origin of all moral wrongs. In Rousseau’s view, civilization has not been a blessing to man but rather a curse.

Rousseau then hypothesizes upon how civilization began in the first place, conjuring up scenes of the invention of language and the initial establishment of private property. Without the benefit of as much archaeological knowledge as we possess today, much of Rousseau’s hypothetical history of mankind is conjectural, but the narrative he creates is cogently reasoned and unfolds in a rational progression. A century before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Rousseau clearly views man and society in evolutionary terms and at one point even expresses a concept akin to natural selection.

In Rousseau’s view, civil society began when the first man claimed a piece of land as his own, land that was previously freely available to all. Thus it is private property that sparks mankind’s fall from grace and is the root of all evil, self-loathing, and discontent. Although Rousseau doesn’t elaborate too much on economics in the Discourse, his longing for an anteproprietary past brings with it a connotation of socialism. The French Revolution was a socialist and secularist revolution. Rousseau fueled the socialist ideology with works such as this, while Voltaire provided the atheism. After Napoleon, they are probably the two most influential men in modern French history, which is why they get the most prominent tombs in the Panthéon.

Even if the reader doesn’t agree with everything Rousseau asserts in this treatise (the archaeological truth of “natural man” likely falls somewhere between Rousseau and Hobbes), one can’t help but admire his unconventional thought and well-reasoned argument and the profound effect his ideas had on world history. Rousseau is also simply a great writer, with a prose style that transcends philosophy to become literature. The Discourse on Inequality is a rare example of an important philosophical text that is not only thought-provoking but also a genuinely entertaining read.

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