Art and Literature

Reading the 18th Century, March 12, 2017. Rousseau redux: The Discourse on Inequality continued with some cool info on people who read him

Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Symbols of the Revolution, painting by D. Jeaurat, c. 1794

courtesy Mt Holyoke


Hi everyone — welcome back as we take a second look at this seminal piece of writing by Jean Jacques Rousseau. Last time, I talked about Rousseau’s theory of humans in the state of nature. Now we’ll take a quick look at some of his other ideas.

Part 2 of the Discourse starts off with a paragraph that Karl Marx must have loved:

THE first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, “Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.” But there is great probability that things had then already come to such a pitch, that they could no longer continue as they were; for the idea of property depends on many prior ideas, which could only be acquired successively, and cannot have been formed all at once in the human mind. (Discourse, p. 23)

Wow! So Rousseau influenced Marx too?

Yup. Probably.[i].

What follows in this section of Rousseau’s essay, is a discussion of the road to the establishment of private property: formation of settled dwelling places, the family, the development of agriculture, and most importantly – increased interaction and as a result, competition between humans for resources. This leads to the development of language, as well as to relationships. But most importantly perhaps for Rousseau, the individual’s relationship with himself changes. As human beings move into the civil state, their simple love of themselves (amour de soi) transforms into something more insidious. L’amour propre (self-love) is a term that links to egotism, and indirectly to narcissism. It relates to our sense of ourselves in the world, how we stack up against each other, how we rank and rate.

And this, for Rousseau, is a terrible development.  When we start to compete with each other for property, love, and social standing – well there you have the beginning of a real mess:

It now became the interest of men to appear what they really were not. To be and to seem became two totally different things; and from this distinction sprang insolent pomp and cheating trickery, with all the numerous vices that go in their train. On the other hand, free and independent as men were before, they were now, in consequence of a multiplicity of new wants, brought into subjection, as it were, to all nature, and particularly to one another; and each became in some degree a slave even in becoming the master of other men: if rich, they stood in need of the services of others; if poor, of their assistance; and even a middle condition did not enable them to do without one another. Man must now, therefore, have been perpetually employed in getting others to interest themselves in his lot, and in making them, apparently at least, if not really, find their advantage in promoting his own. (Discourse, 29)

Thus, there is something always already (to borrow a term from Derrida [who also loved Rousseau]), essentially dishonest about social interactions, according to the Discourse. Once, we start competing with each other, we can’t stop pretending and dissembling that we aren’t in fact competing (when that serves our purposes). In fact the whole network of social interaction is predicated on this kind of surreptitious and not so surreptitious power-play. If you have read Michel Foucault, you will recognize the idea of “power relations” here.

Rousseau concludes:

Insatiable ambition, the thirst of raising their respective fortunes, not so much from real want as from the desire to surpass others, inspired all men with a vile propensity to injure one another, and with a secret jealousy, which is the more dangerous, as it puts on the mask of benevolence, to carry its point with greater security. In a word, there arose rivalry and competition on the one hand, and conflicting interests on the other, together with a secret desire on both of profiting at the expense of others. All these evils were the first effects of property, and the inseparable attendants of growing inequality. (Discourse, 29)

Every time I read Rousseau, I am struck by how brilliant he is. He is — among other things — arguing for something that seems, on the face of things, very un-American. He is saying that competition is actually TERRIBLE for people, and brings out the worst in us in every way. He is also at pains to argue that these injustices mess us up outside AND inside. Politically and psychologically (and this, before psychology exists as a field of knowledge!). We are poisoned, distorted internally by these injustices and inequities.

Child educator Maria Montessori would agree with this assessment (although there is argument about this), and she developed a way of teaching children that valued their individual progress at their own rate. See a wonderful article on Montessori and competition and the issues in American education, by Diana Bauso here.

It’s also amazing how damning Rousseau is of private property. This before capitalism has really kicked in historically!

In conclusion, the outlook for civil society according to Rousseau is not a rosy one, because civil society is predicated on egotism and competition and the injustices that step from the owning of private property.

So — what will save us?

The solutions are sketchy in the Discourse, but two elements seem to be important positives in Rousseau’s view of human beings in the world.

They are paradoxically two qualities that in some ways got us into this civil mess in the first place.

These are:

  1. human perfectability (la perfectabilité)
  2. compassion (la pitié)

Perfectability is a fancy way of saying that we are smart animals. We have the ability to use reason and to learn from experiences, with the result that we have the capacity to become better and better at doing things and even, at being human itself, as we learn more and more about what being human entails. Then we pass this information on to succeeding generations, making alterations that help us survive changing circumstances.

The compassion argument is more of a leap. But Rousseau passionately maintains that this is a natural virtue belonging to the animal world, and consequently to us too. He cites the devotion of mothers to infants, the kindness with which even primitive people treat the old and the weak. All this argues for the existence of this quality in us, before we enter the realm of civil society.

So, our ability to learn from our mistakes as well as our natural (and not completely stamped out) compassion for others are what we have to work with to make this civil society thing work out. But it’s going to be tough given the competition/narcissism problem. And given that these changes seem to get reified and then to appear natural, even though they aren’t.

Near the end of the Discourse, Rousseau undertakes a brief discussion of a concept that will be crucial for his writing and for which he will become famous: the social contract (le contrat social).

Without entering at present upon the investigations which still remain to be made into the nature of the fundamental compact underlying all government, I content myself with adopting the common opinion concerning it, and regard the establishment of the political body as a real contract between the people and the chiefs chosen by them: a contract by which both parties bind themselves to observe the laws therein expressed, which form the ties of their union. The people having in respect of their social relations concentrated all their wills in one, the several articles, concerning which this will is explained, become so many fundamental laws, obligatory on all the members of the State without exception, and one of these articles regulates the choice and power of the magistrates appointed to watch over the execution of the rest. (Discourse, 33)

An 18th Century reader would feel interested in and excited by this discussion. First and foremost, an 18th Century reader would realize right away that Rousseau was offering a completely different model of the social contract than Hobbes is.

Yes, we’re back to Hobbes.

Hobbes is arguably the first person to even talk about the social contract in a modern sense. His basic argument is that human beings embark upon a social contract because life in nature is so chaotic and brutal that ANYTHING – even despotism, even the most unjust government you can imagine – is better than the state of nature. So, for Hobbes, the social contract and the authority who enforces it (a King, in Hobbes’ case), is the salvation of humanity.

Rousseau’s view of things is much more ambiguous. The state of nature, while not ideal, is more or less pacifist and well, pleasantly laid back. But because we are smart animals who continually improve ourselves (perfectability), we reproduce so successfully that there are a lot of us and now we have the beginnings of competition for resources, along with the attendant psychological changes that such physical changes inaugurate. Rousseau’s social contract is more nimble and malleable that Hobbes’ because – as he will explain in his book on the social contract – such a contract can’t exist without something called the General Will. This is important because Rousseau is implying that the social contract is mandated by people and so can be renegotiated. That’s pretty subversive for the 18th Century.

And now things get even more interesting:

If we follow the progress of inequality in these various revolutions, we shall find that the establishment of laws and of the right of property was its first term, the institution of magistracy the second, and the conversion of Discourse on Inequality legitimate into arbitrary power the third and last; so that the condition of rich and poor was authorised by the first period; that of powerful and weak by the second; and only by the third that of master and slave, which is the last degree of inequality, and the term at which all the rest remain, when they have got so far, till the government is either entirely dissolved by new revolutions, or brought back again to legitimacy. (Discourse 35)

Rousseau seems to imply that all governments are based to some extent on inequality and he states in no uncertain terms that the master/slave relationship is the ultimate example of unequal relations. Then he talks about revolutions and acts by which a government is either dissolved or made legitimate.

This is radical stuff, friends. Rousseau is – here at least – making an (almost?) anarchist judgment that governments are sui generis exploitative, and he seems to be almost approving – or at least not condemning – acts that either dissolve the government altogether or make some radical changes to it in order to legitimate it again.

The Discourse concludes with a long final sentence, the last section of which I’ll cite here:

…it is plainly contrary to the law of nature, however defined, that children should command old men, fools wise men, and that the privileged few should gorge themselves with superfluities, while the starving multitude are in want of the bare necessities of life. (Discourse, 37)

Uh oh. You can hear the American Revolution and its accompanying document the Declaration of Independence talking back to that final sentence of Rousseau’s Discourse (as well as to the Social Contract book, according to this website). You can also hear the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man. Take a look at the first two Articles of that Declaration:

  1. Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be based only on common utility.
  2. The purpose of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.

Is Rousseau calling for a revolution himself?

Maybe not. But on the other hand, maybe so.

Certainly, Rousseau’s writing inspired that kind of questioning. His work influenced the thought and writing of William Godwin, who may be considered a forefather of the anarchist movement. Godwin also happens to be the father of Mary Shelley, who has her fictional protagonist the Creature of Frankenstein behave like a quintessential natural man, until he is rejected by a cruel civil society (you need to read this novel, if you haven’t!). Rousseau was read by Schiller (who admired him enormously and who wrote about him alot), William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and many others.

In fact it’s probably easier to talk about who has NOT read Rousseau than who has. Rousseau was for at least one hundred years primary reading for any educated person. The influence on American authors is a huge subject in and of itself. Surprising people show up as folks who found Rousseau empowering. Willa Cather among them (Rousseau is cited in alot of the scholarly books on this amazing female, and ostensibly queer writer [see for example this citation.

But I want to come back to the nagging question that the Discourse raises by its very insistence on the state of nature.

Is there really no way back?

No there isn’t. Or maybe yes, there is.

The way back to nature lives — if only for a short time — in the child. Rousseau will go on to develop a system of thought, where the evolution of the individual mirrors the evolution of the species. The child IS the father to that man (aha! Wordsworth! another Rousseauian influence), and the child possesses some of that “natural virtue” that the species once had in abundance.

How do we reconnect with our own child-nature? Schiller says it best: “Sie [die Kinder] sind was wir waren. Sie sind was wir wieder werden muessen./They [children] are what we were. They are what we must once again become.”  (On Naive and Sentimental Poetry, 1)

This quote from On Naive and Sentimental Poetry (which includes an entire section on Rousseau) perfectly expresses the hope that writers and thinkers ever since Rousseau have held out, that somewhere in the psyche of the child, the natural human lives.

This thinking permeates the writing of Piaget, Montessori, and many other philosophers, and educators.

For more on Rousseau and childhood education, read here.

These concerns certainly preoccupy the American writer who is perhaps Rousseau’s biggest fan and the one who carries on these questions with the most passion and the most lyricism.

Take a look:


courtesy Whitman Archive


There is something powerful about seeing this poet’s own writing as he makes notes about Rousseau, the great writer, who an American may read, but never successfully imitate, in his view.

You can read a transcription of Whitman’s notes here.

What is Whitman seeing in Rousseau? I think he is seeing something that has been implied in the Discourse without Rousseau ever really saying it.

And that is… that who we naturally are… is not entirely lost in the civil state. Something of that natural virtue, our compassion, something of that ease and non-competitiveness, is still there, otherwise, why take up so much time talking about it? How do we find that in ourselves?

That’s Whitman’s quest in his poetry, it seems to me. To find that inner something, that natural core of kindness. It’s also the quest in Rousseau’s writing itself, to find in the individual, the thing that lies still present in the species.

I think that sense that all is not lost for us after all, is why Rousseau continues to interest us.

He is perhaps crucial reading for us now as we look at our country and we consider how to reform and recreate our own social contract as well as our relationship with a fragile, evanescent Nature that is more than ever in need or our protection.



In conclusion friends, if you want to understand the 18th Century, and, for that matter if you want to understand how the Framers as well as American writers like Walt Whitman view humanity, nature, culture and our places in those spheres, there’s no more important writer to read than Rousseau. You can read his big books if you want. But The Discourse on Inequality gives you about as clear a picture as you can get into Rousseau’s core ideas and concerns.





[i] There has been a lively conversation going on for many years about the relationship between Rousseau and Marx. Marx apparently doesn’t mention Rousseau specifically in his writing, but scholars have been at work for quite a while elaborating and (of course) debating the relationship between the two. See for example this discussion of Rousseau and Marx on the concept of money:


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