This detailed overview of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin and the Foundations of Inequality is an example of some of the Minds-exclusive content I will  be producing in the future.



This work is a conjectural, hypothetical history of humanity reading from the demands of nature on man when left in the wild. Rousseau states he is ignoring recorded history and is instead reading man’s necessary history from what nature has provided.

Despite how this sounds, this book is a very down to earth analysis, heavily informed by the European contact with native tribes and civilisations around the world during the age of discovery, often referencing some piece of work by an explorer and lamenting they were not also anthropologists.

Why Man is Unique

Man only animal who tries to improve himself, the only animal to deliberately change himself
so that human nature has undergone many changes over time. Rousseau calls this the “perfectibility” of man but Rousseau uses this term to essentially mean man’s ability for observational learning. In all other respects, Rousseau considered savage man to be the same as an animal in almost all respects, even down to a hypothetical pre-language situation that leaves man without the capacity for reason due to his inability to articulate abstract concepts to himself.

Rousseau defines man as different from the animals not because he is capable of learning new skills, but because he is capable of learning them on his own. To Rousseau, this freedom is not the capacity to choose, but is instead the ability to refuse the call of his own instincts in favour of another course of action that provides delayed gratification. It is this ability, not the ability to reason (which in this state he does not possess) that allows man to separate from other animals by aquiring new habits and not being chained by the ones he already performs.

His argument is a pre-darwinian darwinian one. He uses the examples of the “pongo”, or orangutans, who act like men in huddling around a fire for warmth, but are unable to create fire even if they appreciate the benefits of it. He considers orangutans to be like man in certain respects but lacking that spark that allows them to innovate.

This framework is applied to humans. Rousseau emphasises that man in a state of nature has different pressures working on him in his goal of fulfilling his needs, and this creates kinds of human of different character to the “modern” types found in civilised societies.

He notes the lack of covetousness of savages for Western material goods. As with Native Americans, only the most useful things, such as guns and horses, appeal, with Rousseau giving the example of a native american who found use only in a wool shawl, which he considered almost as good as an animal skin.

Rousseau coined the term “bourgeois” and he considers the bourgeoise one of these new types of human, that wants to appear to be one thing when actually being another. He proposed the bourgeoise care “about themselves when with other people, and about other people when they are by themselves”.

Though Rousseau was very class conscious and thought that the material deprivation of the poor shaped their character, Rousseau was not a Marxist, and did not think a return to a state before private property was either possible or desirable, although he does lament that the first man to invent private property wasn’t prevented by his fellows. Beyond this, Rousseau does not explore the reasons why man decided to civilise himself.

Civilisation vs the State of Nature

he has a different interpretation to the state of nature as Hobbes, to whom he was replying, who described it famously as being nasty, brutish and short. Hobbes described the state of nature as a state of perpetual war with one’s fellow man. Rousseau believed Hobbes was conflating man’s character as being the same both in civilisation and in a state of nature, despite being formed by different forces.

Rousseau is directly in opposition to Hobbes’ opinion that man is naturally warlike by observing that war comes from society, and living before societies existed means man must not have been warlike, and uses examples of primitive tribal peoples of the age to highlight this. He asserts that man in a state of nature is tough, self-reliant and engages in violence only when necessary for self-preservation, in either hunting or self-defence. This, he believes, breeds men who are rather more inclined towards peace than war. If the people to whom one would go to war with have little to take that one does not already possess and the risk of conflict is one’s own life, there is no incentive to do so.

In Rousseau’s description, savage man was fit, healthy and strong, and only through civilisation does he become lazy, indulgent and weak. Rousseau omits to consider that man is only fit, healthy and strong until he is not, in which case, a man in a state of nature dies, so the only men we see in a state of nature are the fit, healthy and strong ones. Rousseau seems to be of the opinion that men in a state of nature do not need one another and would not be a social animal.

Abundance would be required for this to be the case; man could not exist outside of the type of natural environment in which he evolved. Without the benefits of cooperation, man could not have spread across the earth and survived harsh climates or fed himself in distant realms.

Rousseau believed we are unable to return to a state of nature as man’s survival instincts have been dulled by existance outside of the state of nature. He observes that civilisation itself is responsible for our maladies, most of which do not manifest in a state of nature, but it also provides the luxuries to which we have grown so accustomed.

The Root of Inequality

Rousseau considers two forms of inequality: physical inequality and moral inequality. Physical inequality is, of course, the result of nature creating human beings with morphological differences that result in different physical abilities.

Rousseau does not consider this form of inequality important because in a state of nature, all men have natural advantages/disadvantages, but the results of these differences is very small. Primitive man still lives with virtually nothing, regardless of his height or weight. In Rousseau’s opinion, this is not the cause of inequality in civil society.

Moral inequality is unique to civil society and is shown in differences of wealth, social standing and societal influence. This is institutionalised by government through the protection of property rights.

He considered moral inequality to spring from the distinction between self-love and narcissism. Self-love is the natural inclination towards care of one’s own person with the goal of self-preservation. Narcissism is the vanity of thinking of onesself as being better than others, and vaingloriously striving to become superior to them for the benefit of one’s own ego, in the process legitimising hierarchies of wealth and power that subordinate those without.

Rousseau believes this began when we realised we were fundamentally unequal, only when we “looked at one another” and to want to be looked at in return. In society, he says, we only exist through the opinions of others. This incentivises competition, recognition and respect, which becomes manifested through merit.

Those who seek to become more recognised than their peers accumulate power and wealth. To Rousseau, the owning of property is the performance of inequality, and protection of property rights is the enshrinement of inequality by the state. To Rousseau, civil society itself is the root of inequality as it is based on property rights. The equality of a state of nature is the equality of having the very bare minimum needed for survival.