“Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men” Part 1 by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1755)

“Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men” by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1755)

Dedication to Geneva

  • I’m glad to be from Geneva & in this discourse I reflect on equality & inequality
  • The best place to live is where:
    • Society is proportionate to human limitations
    • The sovereign & people’s interest are the same & identical
    • I can live & die free
    • No one is above the law
    • The Republic isn’t new & government easily ignored or manipulated
    • The country is free of love of conquest & safe from conquest
    • The right of legislation is with the people
    • The individual doesn’t propose ruinous projects. That is reserved for the magistrate, which does have a good presence
    • In sanctioning laws & administering justice, several departments are set up to keep power spread out & compartmentalized
    • To live in a place whose land & climate discourages laziness & imprudence often associated with the youth
  • I feel a blood, legal & cultural bond with my fellow citizens we seem to have the best form of government ever seen. Let’s make it last forever & be an example to others
    • Let’s not be lazy in maintaining our constitution. Let’s stay on our toes about threats to it
    • The magistrates have judged & administered with justice & wisdom to allow us peace & freedom
    • There’s no better place in recorded history. Let’s keep it that way.
    • Even those fairly undistinguished among citizens can expect justice & freedom. Not just the nobles & rich
  • Civil society should look after its citizens’ welfare & to seek peace & prosperity in the land
    • The women of Geneva have such a guiding influence on the men. Without it in marriage we’d be helpless & hopeless.
    • Let’s let our children grow up in a great place, not of great luxury & opulence but of sound government, justice, virtue & prosperity

Preface

  • Studying humans is harder than any other subject
    • In order to understand human inequality, you have to understand humans. What’s their nature? What changes because of environment? Millions of causes: truth/error, illness/health, ageing, passion & influence from God
    • Every human advancement takes us further from our natural state. It complicates us.  The causes aren’t always the same & some people are closer to the original state than others. But it’s hard to say what that is or if it ever existed at all
    • What method would you use to arrive at an answer? Even the best philosophers have struggled. They even contradict each other. The ancients believed nature imposed itself on us. The ancients believed nature imposed itself on us. Moderns believe nature had prescribed a set of rules for us to follow within natural law, often determined by metaphysical principles most people don’t know & could never hope to understand
  • My definition of natural law: rules to agree on for man’s common interest. But to know what man’s rules in a natural state are, we need to hear from the voice of nature…
    • 2 principles prior to reason: interest in our own welfare & the desire not to see others in pain or die
    • We’re only allowed to hurt others under lawful occasions where our own preservation is concerned. We’re bound to do not harm to fellow creatures because they’re sentient.
    • When looking society, we first see violence of the powerful & oppression of the weak. But if we zoom in closer, the picture is more detailed
      • We are luck we have the ability to established institutions to correct oppression & limit violence

Introduction

  • There are 2 types of inequality:
    • 1 – Natural & physical – established by nature – age, health, strength, intelligence
    • 2 – Moral & political – depends on convention, established & authorized by consent – different privileges like wealth, honor or commanding obedience
      • Natural inequality & any connection between natural & moral inequality aren’t as interesting to investigate as the origin on moral & political inequality
  • Let’s look into the moment when right replaced violence & nature became subject to law. How did the strong come to submit to the weak? & How did the weak get repose in exchange for felicity?
    • Many philosophers jump back to the sate of man in nature without explaining where the ideas of justice & injustice came from
    • Some talk of natural law of a man keeping what belongs to him without explaining what “belong” means & where the idea came from
    • Some start from the law of “might makes right” leading to the need to establish a government without showing what happened in between
    • They use terms like wants, eagerness, oppression, desire & pride, & then put them into the establishment of a society & state. These qualities of the savages are actually qualities of a social man. & then, on the other hand, they don’t even doubt that the state of nature ever existed
    • The Bible has man receiving Commandments from God but between Adam & Moses, man must have lived in a state of nature. The Bible makes us think once man was kicked out of the garden, inequality was imposed on him by God

Part 1

  • Man in a state of nature is relatively weak & unagile but he’s fairly organized & versatile. His body is his only tool & weapon. He uses it to defend himself & feed himself
    • Infants depends on mothers naturally but mothers naturally provide for their children, like animals only much longer
  • Hobbes said man is naturally fearless & prefers to attack & fight
    • Others say he’s timid & scared in nature & easily frightened off
    • But natives walk around confidently in the woods & aren’t very frightened of the presence of wild beasts
    • He’s more burdened with illness, old age & infancy. Each of these exposes his physical weakness to nature. It’s only when man is in society that he’s able to overcome them
      • Mothers nurse young. Rest & medicine cure illness. But old age has no cure only respite from pain & fatigue
  • Man is much more robust & capable in nature. Domesticated animals & men loses this qualities to be tame & enjoy conveniences
    • Environment often necessitates man to use his mind & genius/society to overcome harsher weather, scarcer food & less fertile land
    • We see Europeans needing to invent to survive while those still in nature have plenty & don’t need technology or genius to survive
  • We see that often man is his own worst enemy in society: eating & drinking too much, indiscriminate sex leads to diseases – all problems of free will – something the savage doesn’t have because there aren’t alternatives he faces
    • The savage also doesn’t have the faculty of self-improvement. He gains no knowledge & therefore isn’t able to improve his situation. Once man makes & retains discoveries, he becomes master of himself & over nature
    • Knowledge owes something to passions. We know our passions & realize we are looking. So, fulfilling them requires acquiring wants & finding ways to do so
      • Savages’ wants: food, mating & sleep
      • Savages’ needs: pain & hunger
        • He can’t understand death because it’s too abstract. Because his few wants are readily supplied, he doesn’t need to do anything to satisfy them apart from taking them. If they aren’t in ready supply, men will need to devise away to fulfill them. It may only require a small amount of knowledge but but it gets the ball rolling in accumulating a large body of knowledge
    • Think of how many people have lived in isolation, having to learn everything through experience. All progress is born & dies with one person. Once men get so numerous, they can’t just take what they want from nature, they will have to develop a way to get what they need through arts & techniques. This will continue until men are almost completely removed from nature
  • We have to think about the capacity of savages to think like philosophers in abstract terms through reason & justice. At such a primitive level, metaphysics are useless. Where would he have come up with it chasing animals around the woods?
    • He didn’t even need other people’s assistance, especially when he wouldn’t have repeated interactions with others
  • Let’s examine the question of language:
    • It’s extremely complex & must have taken an enormous amount of the time to develop
    • The need for language preceded language. It wouldn’t have arisen just for fun
      • Mothers need to communicate with children who can wander off. People can share protection mutually. This definitely got more traction when they stopped the roving life & had common points of reference & repeated interaction, as well as mutual interests
      • These words weren’t just something that could be pointed to vocalized. They needed to have specific unique identifiers everyone knew & understood
    • It must’ve started off with developing warnings, asking for help & then went on to describe the present & visible things as well as imitative sounds. Then came the distinction between subject & attribute, noun & verb. Adjectives must’ve been difficult to develop & abstractions as well
      • Things were in isolation & eventually things were able to be generalized by generic terms with common properties. These general ideas are purely intellectual. The image of one thing must trigger a mental image of similar things.
      • The details of generalizations came slowly as new information came in & people were able to distinguish differences between generalities & as experience grows they get further refined
      • After the invention of words representing physical substantives, there was still much more to do before perfect expression was attained. Just imagine how long it took to develop numbers, abstractions, verb tenses, particles, syntax, prepositions, etc
      • Often it seems so implausible that humans alone created these parts of language. Did society exist before language or was language a necessary tool to develop society?
        • Perhaps as language grew increasingly complex, society grew more complex. We can imagine monkeys not really needing too much assistance from others. What would he need? He would the other give it to him? This lack of need & ability to supply makes communication unnecessary. You can apply this to the savage
    • We hear this word “miserable” often applied but it means “a painful privation” or a “state of suffering in body or soul”
      • Can you say this applies to a savage? Being free with a heart at easy & a healthy body?
      • We see those in civil society lament their existence in some way
      • Savages men are unhappy dazzled by science, tormented by passion & reasoning of living another style of living
    • Men only develop potential faculties if the opportunities presents itself. He’s not burdened or confused by them until he can use them to his advantage
  • At first glance, men in nature have no moral relations or determinate obligations toward each other
    • This means they can’t be virtuous or vicious with others. We should refrain from judging them based on our standards, vices & virtues.
      • We’ll have to see if they are truly capable of understanding virtue & vice in behavior with others & themselves before we can analyze their way of life
    • I don’t agree with Hobbes that because he has no idea of goodness, he must be naturally wicked, that he’s vicious because he doesn’t know virtue
      • Hobbes says the state of nature is where his own preservation is the least prejudicial to others & most likely for peace & best for mankind. A bad man is robust child but it remains to be seen if the natural man is robust child. If not, what is he?
      • He would be short-tempered, impatient, violent in reaction to those frustrate him or contradict him. If so & nobody ever corrected him & introduced the idea of virtue & justice, then he’s trapped in nature & shouldn’t be compared to civilized men
    • Mankind has instilled in it impetuous egoism, self-preservation, tempers, repugnance at seeing fellow men suffer
      • He has compassion, a trait in creatures as weak as we are & as exposed to evils as we are. This is universal in man. We see this between mother & children. Horses don’t like stepping on bodies even those of other species & many other examples
      • Nature has given us pure emotion before reflection. Even the greatest depravity can’t overcome compassion, they will always have an element of generosity, clemency & compassion is just those 3 things applied to the weak, guilty & mankind in general. Benevolence & friendship are a result of compassion, putting ourselves in the place of the sufferer – something possible for a savage because it’s possible for other animals
        • This identification is easier in nature than in reason
    • Reason gives us self-respect & gives him the ability to switch off the feeling so long as he’s secure. Only something that affect him or all of humanity keeps him up at night. He can just cover his eyes or ears – something a savage can’t do. You’ll also see “civilized” man form angry mobs & rioting, not very “rational”. They’re just turned a blind eye to reason
    • Compassion pushes us to relieve those in distress, instead of giving us laws, morals & virtues. It has a similar, yet less nuanced effect on the savage, resulting in what civilized men would recognize as justice or virtue. Instead of the golden rule, the modus operandi is to do good for yourself without doing anything repugnant.
    • But this is curbing bad behavior because it makes you feel bad. There’s little concept of where you begin & I end, no true sense of justice. Violence done to them can be seen as something to be repaired, rather than punished. Revenge isn’t on the menu.
  • There’s one passion that seems to be the most powerful. Violent passions in society require laws to restrain them. But did the passion emerge with laws & society or were they always there?
    • There are 2 aspects of “feelings of love”
      • Physical: a general desire urging sexual union
      • Moral: determines & fixes this desire with one particular objects & putting moral energy toward the preferred object
    • Moral love is a factitious feeling from societal needs for a woman to establish a domain for themselves. This is beyond savages because it requires abstract & tastes he doesn’t have
    • Those confined to physical love will probably have fewer fits of passion & certainly fewer violent disputes. They don’t have the imagination of moral love ravaging them. When the physical urge comes, they yield to it temporarily & go back to their business
      • Moral love is a huge burden civilized man has to carry because it affects us much more than only physical love does to the savage
    • Nature has established a comparative power of sexes with different relations among us. But we can’t compare across species. In nature, females outnumber males. Remember females also have spurts of passion & indifference. But unlike animals, human desire isn’t seasonal but natural humans don’t try to destroy others to increase the chances of mating
      • Morals & a sense of justice drive people to kill rival lovers out of jealousy & the obligation of fidelity & honor & continence drive people to infidelity, debauchery & abortions
    • So man in nature wandered through the woods, workless, speechless, homeless, a stranger to war & relations. He doesn’t need esteem & he doesn’t want to hurt anyone. He’s indifferent to others & has few passions & needs, no understanding, no vanity, no communications & doesn’t know his own children
      • Every skill or discovery dies with its creator or discoverer
      • If I’m singing the savage’s his praises, it’s probably because I had said so many bad thing about them until learning more about them
    • The differences between men are based on habit & the effect that living in a society has on them. A strong or weak constitution has were to do with how one is brought up rather than original endowment of the body
      • The same goes for the mind. It’s developed by being educated in a society to take on board things like culture, morals, etc. The of life are determined by where you are raised
        • But even if nature is the one distributing talents, what basis is it giving them out? How are the favored ones chosen?
        • When there’s love, what use is beauty? What use is intelligence when it can’t be used in conversation or ingenuity?
        • Many would say that the strong would oppress the weak. What does “oppression” mean in nature? Some say some they would violently domineer over others. But what does “servitude” & “dominion” mean in a natural state? A man could kill another & takes his stuff but there’s no dominion. It requires communication to convey a threat if handing over one’s possessions isn’t done. It establish a mutual dependence where the dominant holds threats over the servile. The servile works & provides the fruit of his labor to the dominant.
          • This is not possible in nature
  • In equality isn’t felt in nature & is built on successive developments of the human mind. Human perfectibility, social virtues & other faculties could never develop without these developments
    • They may have made him more social, moral but also introduced the possibility he can be wicked & depraved

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