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The Core Curriculum

Historical Context for Discourse on the Origin of Inequality

  Engraving of an Orangutan by Willem Piso, late 17th C. (Wikimedia Commons) Early depictions of primates may have influenced Rousseau’s conception of “natural man.” Engraving of an Orangutan by Willem Piso, late 17th C. (Wikimedia Commons) Early depictions of primates may have influenced Rousseau’s conception of “natural man.” Rousseau’s prize winning First Discourse on the arts enjoyed a great reception; the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality was not read by the Academy when it was submitted in 1754; the jury thought it too long and complicated.  In 1755, the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality was published, a year in which both the Lisbon earthquake (a key event that inspired Voltaire’s Candide) and the death of Montesquieu took place.

Similar in form to the analytical strategy pursued by Hobbes and Locke (in their respect social contract theories) but divergent in results, the Discourse pursues a hypothetical history of humanity to investigate the origins of inequality.  The legitimacy of legal and moral institutions is rendered on the basis of their coherence with original states of human relations, or the ideal state of nature.  Rousseau argued that “the philosophers who have examined the foundations of society have all felt the necessity of returning to the state of nature, but none of them have reached it...  [A]ll of them, speaking continually of need, avarice, oppression, desires, and pride, have transferred to the state of nature the ideas they acquired in society.  They spoke about savage man, and it was civil man they depicted.”  This focus on natural man would follow from European adventures in the New World and the leitmotif of “noble savages.”  This is a clear connection to Montaigne, but also to larger economic forces at play.

In the Discourse,  Rousseau plays anthropologist, ethical, and political theorist, and  some scholars have argued  a precursor to Nietzsche’s moral genealogist. Rousseau’s notes to Part I are quite interesting in this regard, especially when it comes to race.  He can be read as an educational theorist here, as he speaks openly about the learning of the institution of property rights, the division of labor, social class and the values and human practices that follow, such as jealousy and competition.   Man is naturally good and society corrupts.  Natural man is whole and self-sufficient.  Social man is fragmented and at war with himself.  For Rousseau, inequality and difference are the product of a toxic cocktail of distorted needs, interests, desires and institutional arrangements that naturalize and normalize what is unnatural and inhumane.

A distinction between two forms of self-love is central to Rousseau’s work. Amour propre (or a prideful self-love) generates in man a comparative eye, something like looking at others and sizing others up, then turning in on one’s self.  This type of self-love, distinct from the salutary amour de Soi (or a love of self based on the natural urge to survive) brings about the following trajectory of social and individual decline: vanity, contempt, shame, envy and ambition, concluding with inequality.  

Framing the Discourse, as well as the Social Contract and Emile, are the massive political, social, and economic changes that the 18th Century European world experienced.  Forms of production and industry, outbreaks of disease, urbanization as well as hopeful reports of European adventures in the New World  altered perspectives and occasioned new areas of inquiry.


Written by Seth David Halvorson, Department of Philosophy, Columbia University.  


Works Consulted

Leo Damrosch, Restless Genius 

Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The Cambridge Companion to Rousseau