Analysis: 'Discourse on the Origin of Inequality' by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
A Response I Wrote During My Undergrad That I'm Sharing for Educational and Nostalgic Purposes
Note: I don't remember why there are no embedded citations throughout the paper. Perhaps they were unnecessary as this was the only text being analyzed. Regardless, I thought I'd include this in case anyone asks.
In his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, Rousseau discusses human nature and the important changes that take place in it. In order to understand these changes and how they are developed, we must first define and explain what Rousseau’s theory of human nature itself actually is.
Instead of using hypothetical scenarios as eternal truths, he discusses what all types of humans would be like in the natural state. Human nature consists of two categories: the natural man and the civil man. The natural man is neutral in thought, because he has no reason. He is also an independent individual that doesn’t associate with other people. This is because he minds his own business, and is unable to use language to communicate with others. He acts on instinct and will not hesitate to do whatever it takes to achieve his goal, not because he is fighting for power, but because he is fulfilling his animalistic needs.
Because he has no reason and is free in the state of nature, he has no concept of the self or of others. However, pity eventually becomes important, as the natural man does not like seeing other people suffer. He will help others when they appear to be in trouble. He will only fight back when his own life is put in jeopardy, so self-preservation only kicks in when he wants to protect himself. He does not have any actual motives. His feelings are more natural, sympathetic, and genuine than those of the civil man, because he is not constantly competing with others to establish his own superiority and importance above others.
For instance, the natural man does not lie or put on a façade to get ahead of others. Self-love and reason are natural in him. They start up themselves when he needs them, but they must be cultivated. He becomes perfectible, in that he can become adaptable and change according to his surroundings. The moment when he starts using reason is when he begins to change. Reason is developed through the natural man’s experiences and interactions with others. He then uses reason to recognize his unique qualities as well as others.
This is where natural inequalities become important, once he starts comparing himself to others. He becomes proud of his qualities, and creates motives based on his viewpoints that differ from his opponents. Since he recognizes these as well as the motives and viewpoints of others, the natural inequalities carry over to the social, political, and moral. All people have conflicting (or at least varying, to some degree) perspectives on what the principles of conduct should be and how this new community should be organized. These aspects become important when building a society, and here is where we segue into the sweet spot.
This is the spot between the state of nature and civil society, where the natural man not only maintains his independence in his private sphere, but also learns to be dependent through his cooperation with others in the public sphere. This is the point of no return, as it actually is the best position to be in, because although the concept of self-love exists, people’s various qualities are acknowledged and put towards assisting each other. It may be a small population at this stage, but the natural man is no longer solitary. He is not really even natural anymore once society becomes institutionalized.
Whether or not this is a good thing is debatable, as the ways in which people choose to use their reason can reflect either virtuous or selfish intentions. Ideally, people who think critically or creatively and are able to innovate or invent new ideas and means to advance humankind are good for society. However, they are not necessarily good and might actually provide a disservice to society, as they may not use their reason and intellect towards helping others if there is no incentive or interest to do so.
It is at this point that the natural man becomes a civil man, which is ironic because the civil man, as previously implied, is not actually that civil. A natural man is more likely to help someone despite having supposedly less capabilities and resources than the civil man, because of his pity, instincts, and the fact that he has nothing against anyone. He also does not place himself above others, generally speaking, and only defends himself when he feels his life is being threatened. Speaking of a lack of resources, efficiency can also be reasonable when trying to accomplish as many tasks as possible, whether in favour of oneself or others, without wasting resources.
The potential problem with efficiency, though, is that it can be a factor in malpractices that have agendas behind them—for example, the systematic discrimination and the over-incarceration of certain groups in criminal justice, or mass murders in the shortest amount of time possible. The quality of services also suffers, as institutions become bureaucratized in the sense that things are done in an efficient and mechanical manner without paying much mind to people’s immediate needs.
Waiting times are longer; people are constantly sent to different places that do not contribute to immediate solutions, and the system may even be inaccessible to some. Agencies may be selective in who they assist based on interest and benefits. Not only is there inequality in which people they help, but there is also inequality in how people’s specific needs are addressed.
All of this further reinforces the institutionalization of natural inequalities. It is at this point our natural man enters civil society as a civil man. The comparisons he makes between himself and others carries over to the concept of private property. People are in constant competition with each other to see who will gain more property, and they will even enter each other’s properties to make claims.
Here, it looks like having as much property as possible translates to good character, although Rousseau personally disagrees with it. He says that we created inequality and the idea of private property in the state of nature, which translated to civil society. This is made even more apparent with the introduction to governments, which are far from neutral bodies.
According to Rousseau, they protect private property and those who have it, while being prejudiced against those with less or none at all. Self-preservation also carried over in the form of vanity, a type of self-love where the person is actively engaged in his or her own existence. They are not separated from everything else in the world, so their purpose can potentially and positively (this can be debated though) contribute to something significant.
This instinct to protect the self is no longer due to the need to live, but rather the love to live. To be clear, there is a separation of the self from others when it comes to possessions (both material and nonmaterial), but who someone is, what they should be, and how they think and feel depend on the opinions of others. As such, society will either praise or pan any particular human actions.
Overall, Rousseau believes that although it was good for humankind to enter civilization, and that the state of nature has its flaws, modern society can still be alleviated just like human nature. As well, he says that we should not completely dismiss elements from the natural state but incorporate them into civil society somehow.
The thing that makes the state of nature work in a way is the fact that there is a sense of peace. This stems from the notion that nobody is bound to one another, and nobody fights for power in order to create inequality. Granted, it would be unrealistic to imagine this exact scenario in a civil society where everybody interacts, but it ultimately depends on what means are used and how they are used to achieve a particular outcome. Context is also important to consider; what works for one society may not be feasible in others.
Rousseau, Jean J. “Discourse on the Origin of Inequality.” Ed. Donald A. Cress. The Basic Political Writings. 2nd ed. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2011. 27-120. Print.