I read “A Discourse on Inequality” back during the last week of Term 1 classes, in November. Since I’m writing this blog post from memory, what I write (the impressions I had of this text, what I found memorable) will be what I ultimately took from the text. Rousseau essentially sums up the soul of his argument on page 67, when he wrote “the more we acquire new knowledge, the more we deprive ourselves of the means of acquiring the most important knowledge of all; and, in a sense, it is through studying man that we have rendered ourselves incapable of knowing him.”
What I gather from this bit here is that Rousseau is, in a way, condemning society. Rousseau believes that the more sophisticated societies usually end up giving advantages to the stronger and more intelligent members, while the weaker are taken advantage of by the stronger. When Rousseau used the word “knowledge” in the above text, he meant “society.” He also meant the more humans tried to protect themselves by forming alliances and banding with other humans in ways which we now called “forming a society,” what we’re really doing is ridding ourselves of our “primitive state” (67). I don’t think Rousseau believes society is good for humanity. We’re much better off living as one with nature. That way, we aren’t led astray by the thought of acquiring materialistic possessions and wealth as we would in society. I think Rousseau treasures humanity in a ‘pure’ state; that is, a state that isn’t contaminated by the temptations that society offers, so he’s scornful of the growth of civilization.
Rousseau also made it clear in the beginning that he wanted to live in “a state where the delectable habit of meeting and knowing one another made love of country a love for fellow citizens rather [than] a love for the land” (57). From this sentence, I don’t think Rousseau believes it’s possible for people to have a love for their fellow citizens and a love for the land. Or maybe I’m misinterpreting his text… (remember, I’m typing up this blog post about a book I read a month ago!) and Rousseau believes that if a person is consumed by a greed or lust for the ownership of the land, then they gradually place a love for their citizens as secondary. Either way, Rousseau doesn’t have a high opinion of humans. He thinks they’re greedy and easily led astray as though we were all Eves in the Garden of Eden, with numerous serpents slithering in every corner. Society, then, is the serpent. Man in the so-called “primitive state” is Adam and Eve when they were in the Garden of Eden.
And that’s what stood in my memory after little more than a month of reading this text.