Rousseau, Discourse on InequalityIn the Discourse on Inequality, Jean-Jacques Rousseau sets out to turn Thomas Hobbes’s famously pessimistic account of “natural man” on its head. Where for Hobbes life in the state of nature is “nasty, brutish, and short” as everyone struggles against each other in a “war of all against all,” for Rousseau it is a form of existence characterized by self-sufficiency and relative harmony: “these men’s disputes would seldom have had bloody consequences” (102). We can prove this empirically, indeed, by looking to the New World: “the Caribs, who of all peoples existing today have least departed from the state of nature, are precisely the most peaceful in their loves, and the least subject to jealousy” (103).

This relative tranquility in the state of nature stems less, Rousseau argues, from any innate human goodness (indeed, the opposition between “good” and “evil” scarcely makes sense in such a situation) as from a number of more pragmatic considerations. First, as each of them is effectively self-sufficient, primitive humans have no need (and no desire) to maintain extended contact with each other. Beyond answering the call of sexual desire to mate (a singularly unromantic process, in Rousseau’s account) and reproduce, they keep themselves to themselves. Second, when they do meet, natural inequalities–of size or strength or speed, for example–are relatively minor; there would seldom be any obvious advantage in starting a fight, especially given that one could satisfy one’s needs for food and shelter etc. on one’s own. And third, any aggressive impulses are kept in check by a more fundamental sense of compassion: “It is pity which in the state of nature takes the place of laws, morals and virtues, with the added advantage that no one there is tempted to disobey its gentle voice” (101).

It is then (and this is Rousseau’s main argument) society that will create divisions, by accentuating natural inequality and adding to it the burdens that are artificial inequalities of wealth, rank, honour, and so on. So whereas for Hobbes, we are all equal before the law, because we are all equally lowly in the face of the Leviathan’s supreme power (for this reason, if no other, he is a classical liberal), for Rousseau civilization introduces difference–and, what is more, an awareness of difference (pride)–and therefore discord as we compete for status and to satisfy artificial needs. If there is a “war of all against all,” it is propelled by the fact that “inequality of influence and authority soon becomes inevitable among individuals as soon as, being united in the same society, they are forced to compare themselves with one another and to take into account the differences they discover in the continual dealings they have with one another” (132). This is the hectic social whirl, the “petulant activity of our own pride” (115) that makes social life uncertain and unstable.

By contrast, the life of a savage is also, then, one of singularly low intensity. Indeed, it is a life of “indolence” (115) that is scarcely ruffled by the slightest affect. Where Hobbes sees primitive man in terms of panic and fear, for Rousseau the passions are overwhelmingly artificial. Affect is the product of society and habit: there is nothing particularly natural about either love or hate, happiness or sadness, fear or joy. And even Rousseau (Romantic that he was) had to thank socialization for finally teaching us to feel.

Rousseau in a Teepee

As with most things, I am of multiple mindsets when it comes to Rousseau.

Firstly, there is a simplicity to his argument that is pretty appealing, and a number of his one liners about society are the type of things someone might post on Facebook to sound compassionate (not me surely) and insightful. A sort of hippie-esque notion that things are better when they are basic, and you can free yourself from a “system” and live according to your instincts. In fact, I actually know someone who did a “back to the land” movement and lives in a Teepee. He is actually a big fan of Rousseau. Sort of ironic because he is reading literary works and thinking complex thoughts in a very un-savagelike way, but there you go. What I’m trying to say is that although Rousseau is definitely complex and is studied in detail everywhere, for me there is one underlying “give up possessions and vanity, live and love simply, everything belongs to the earth” notion that is fairly broad and basic. And to be honest, I really like that notion. Cheesy as it is, I do feel like as we have advanced as a society a lot of things about ourselves has regressed, in terms of both the individual and the community. HOWEVER…

However. Robs lecture did open my eyes to a few things, mainly the MASSIVE AMOUNT OF PRESUMPTIONS Rousseau makes about… well, everything! At times he includes a sort of “history of man” approach in his writing, where for a few pages he will sound scientific and educated. Even after reading his notes, I am now almost fully convinced that he largely made up the history and attributes of mankind to suit his argument. A lot of his assumptions I probably agree with. A lot of them I don’t. Sure, he didn’t know about evolution yet. But that still doesn’t justify the liberties he takes and writes of as though they are fact.

This is the first time i’ve written a blog after the lecture (bad I know) but it’s also useful because I have Robs thoughts in my brain as well. For example, a very interesting question that I still haven’t made my mind up about is this: when do we become human? A biological part of me wants to say that human is just a word for homo sapiens, which is the species we have always been since we moved on from Neanderthal. But Rob argues that Rousseaus argument is flawed because we only truly became human once we started doing all those things that sent us downhill. Consciousness of self in relation to others etc. It begs the bigger question are we as humans fated from the start to failure or was it just a few mistakes along the way the got the whole failure thing rolling.



After reading Rousseau’s “A Discourse on Inequality”, I had a lot going through my head. First of all, I was astounded by the detail and incredible insight Rousseau showed in his work when describing mankind in the state of nature, especially the learning of language. The very idea that Rousseau is a couple hundred years dead and yet was so accurate in describing mankind’s early stages is incredible. Perhaps it’s the detail he goes into, explaining the savage man’s life in the wild, the fear, and everything else he describes. Or maybe it’s the way he so effortlessly picks apart the differences, physical and mental, between the modern day man and the savage man. Rousseau was simply ahead of his time, and it’s shown by his ideas and writing.

It’s easy to praise a work, but there’s also a few things which bothered me with Rousseau’s “A Discourse on Inequality”. The way in which Rousseau holds man up, on a pedestal almost bathed in the golden light of divinity, almost as if nothing could amount to mankind’s great intelligence and organization. While of course I see that humans are greatly above your average animal in intelligence, I do think that Rousseau greatly underestimated animals. He gave them little credit, basically saying they were slave to instinct, unable to improve themselves, and too dumb to learn language. Then again, it is sometimes hard to remember that this was written in an era illuminated by candlelight.

Perhaps one of the reasons I like Rousseau and his work is because at certain points he just plainly admits that he has no idea how something came about. When talking about how grammarians came about to continue the evolution of language, he simply states that he doesn’t know how they came about. I like the fact that he isn’t trying to cover up his lack of knowledge with false facts, and it’s refreshing to read such an intelligent writer admit that in regards to certain things, he just doesn’t have a clue.

Of all the things I could say, I basically like the fact that Rousseau seems to have a solid amount of common sense. He understands basic ideas like how wild animals will be a bit tougher than domesticated ones, and with a solid amount of sense he’s able to apply the same idea to humans, deriving that in fact humanity has physically devolved, and that we are much weaker than the humans forced to live in the state of nature. I was really surprised at how much I enjoyed Rousseau’s work, and I’m hoping there will be more surprises like this throughout the semester.

Arts One Monster in The Mirror- Deji Oluwadairo 2013-01-07 21:09:09

A Discourse on Inequality was difficult to grasp given the longwinded and slightly confusing writing style of Rousseau. However, the book itself raises thought provoking questions and really makes the reader think about society in its present state and the various processes that must have occurred to achieve society as we see it now. Rousseau is constantly looking to the past to ask and answer and questions, and, in doing so, he reveals the complexity of human existence. along side his complex analysis of the past he also highlights the excesses of complexity within society at present. The juxtaposition of these ideas is interesting , but it does make it slightly difficult to understand what exactly Rousseau is looking for. his ideal state is somewhere in between the two extremes that he highlights, but it is not completely clear how this reality is achievable.

I also found Rousseau’s analysis of present society interesting because of what he thought were the dangerous and undesirable qualities. It seems Rousseau is really concerned with the issue of pride and vanity, and the possession of private property. Rousseau sees these things as having a corruptive quality in that they divide the human race and cause us to want to cause harm to one another. In a past time, Rousseau believes we would have no reason to do these things to each other. The issue of pride in particular is interesting to me because it’s been a big issue in a few of the books we’ve read.  In Rousseau’s opinion many of the characters lives in the books we’ve read could have been spared or made better by the elimination of their pride and all its negative implications. Overall I think Rousseau is telling a story of balance. He’s saying that humans can’t live with all the primitive instincts of early humans, but they also should not exist within the corruption and excess of present society. A society bound within these two extremes is ideal because they will experience true freedom.

Discourse on Inequality

            Discourse on Inequality, by Jean-Jacque Rousseau, was at first difficult to read due to the sentences that seemed to go on forever. However, after the dedication I found the book to more or less be easier to read as I got use to the way Rousseau wrote. If there were one line in Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality that I could talk about it would be the one about fences and how the first guy convinced people that the land was his. (Having problems locating the line, will update when I find it). At first I thought it was quite funny. The thought of a person constructing a little fence around him and say that the enclosed land is his is somewhat amusing to me. However the more I thought about it the more there was too it. I guess I never really did think about it too much before, but nowadays we buy property, which may not even be on actual ‘land.’ And the price of such a place is determined by its location and aesthetics? Maybe I’m wrong though, what do I know about property? Anyways it is just interesting to look at this and later to what Rousseau says about the animals in nature.
            I personally really enjoyed the layout of the book. Rousseau’s note about the notes of the book left me with the impression that he really did know people. I can’t say if it made him feel more or less credible, but I thought the way he put a disclaimer, telling people it is okay to skip the notes part of his book made him seem like he knows people.
            I thought his points, in the first page of the Preface, were very interesting on the topic of what civilized and savage people are and which is better. Made me think back to Columbus for a bit. It was an interesting thought because these people who are to read his book, who I am going are religious and like Rousseau do not object any falsities to it (wish I could phrase that better). It is interesting because I never thought about how it was after exile and Eve eating from the tree of knowledge that we as people become “civilized” (again, wish I could phrase this right). Not that I thought about the Bible often before studying it.            Lastly, more of an observation than anything else, everyone seems to like to mention Sparta in their books on politics. Too bad we didn’t read Sparta’s thoughts on the world and everyone else’s systems of government. (Do they have a book like that? I wonder.)

The Natural Man…

In A Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau does bring up some good points regarding the natural man and is able to point out some flaws in Rousseau’s argument.  However, some of Rousseau’s argument is based on a very romanticized version of Native American culture, leading me to find it difficult to agree with all of his points.

One of the things Rousseau does is that he refutes Hobbes argument.  He points out that Hobbes says that man is “naturally evil because he has no sense of goodness.”  Rousseau counters this point with the point “one could say that savages are not wicked precisely because they do not know what is to be good.”  This ties in back to our discussion on what makes a monster.  Some definitions in class have us discussing how society has no monsters, but defines monsters through a mixture of cultural values and socialization.  This perspective makes sense if we look at cultural relativism and ethnocentrism.  If we look at cannibals from our own western values, we’d say they are evil, but a cannibal would look at our values are evil.  Additionally, if we look at The Tempest it could be said Caliban only became a monster after he met Prospero and that from our society, Caliban’s urges are monstrous, but they were brought forth by Miranda.  So in a sense, Rousseau has a point here

However, there are also times Rousseau is wrong.  Downright wrong.  He makes some references to the Native Americans as noble savages, independent people without society.  But, contrary to belief at this time, Native Americans such as the Iroquois, the Souix and the Inuit, actually have very highly developed societies.  The Iroquois were actually very advanced and created a treaty that is thought to have been the forefather of the constitution used by the United States.  Additionally, one of the greatest aspects of Native American life, WAS it’s community, was how man and women depended upon each other and how their traditions (essentially laws) regulated their actions.  So if Rousseau argues laws create passions that prove detrimental to man, explain those societies, that were  working perfectly fine until the Europeans came over.  Who knows if they would have failed later on, but they were working fine.

I look forward to comments and the lecture.

Rousseau’s Romantic View of Pre-Civilized Man

After putting down Rosseau’s Discourse on Inequality, I’ve come to the conclusion that while I disagreed with a great deal of it, I still found it interesting and enjoyable. What I really loved about the entire argument is that half of the entire text’s focus on Man in his natural state is completely off-topic from the Dijon Academy’s initial questiont. Yet we’re spending a great deal of time studying and analyzing a thesis that was once deemed completely irrelevant. So who knows, maybe taking a few liberties with our thesis’ for some of our essay questions isn’t such a crime after all, eh Jon?

Anyways, what really stuck in my mind was how much Rosseau idealizes the concept of a “savage” man. It’s very easy for him to romanticize a period which predates all written history, right? It’s touching to envision mankind as humble, and peaceful without war and murder. While it may be compelling today for it’s connection to Darwin’s theory of evolution and our relation to animals, it still lacks what we and the Discovery channel deem as life “within nature.” To simplify both this blog, with little relevance to the text, let me contrast Rosseau’s vision of primitive man our closest living relative, the Chimpanzee.

Now while Rosseau believes that without civilization and language to support it, complicated emotions like jealousy, hatred and envy are impossible to convey. Rousseau believes that art and civilization corrupt man from his peaceful, non-violent and simplistic ways, to which I reply “Bullshit”. Chimpanzee’s are capable of demonstrating all these complex emotions, to which Rosseau would believe that not even primitive man were capable of. I once did a project on Jane Goodall’s travels to Gombe National Park in Tanzania and learned about her discoveries among the chimpanzee’s living there. She would recall witnessing females of the troupe discovering other females bearing offspring from the same male chimp (In other words “Baby Mama Drama”. This would lead to the females brutally attacking and murdering the infant offspring as a means of no gains other than retaliation representing what some would call jealousy or hatred. Furthermore Chimps and most animals are far from peaceful.

While animals may be majestic, enchanting beautiful etc., the truth is they can sometimes kill without hesitation. Rosseau believes that man would never purposefully murder another in the wild, he would only clash for resources or females, with little resentment afterwards. Wrong. A long time ago I told by a zookeeper that a man foolishly feeding a chimp had unintentionally led to a brutal murder. In the wild there is always an alpha male among the chimps, a position not too different from tyrant. In this way there is a very simple hierarchy that applies to all members of the troupe. The alpha male always eats first, and get’s his “cut” or potion of the meal. End of story. Now this isn’t too different from mankind’s invented tax system isn’t it? Maybe the IRS is simply natural.  By feeding a chimp a small snack it led to what many would call a crime. This particular one attempted to circumnavigate this system and (selfishly) eat this acquired food for his own without giving his due’s to our tyrant chimp. Now it wasn’t long before the alpha male discovered this act, and proceeded to grip the younger chimp to the local reservoir pond and drown him in front of both his troupe and a crowd of spectators. Why did he do this? To assert dominance, and demonstrate clearly what is “his” and what is owed to him by all. Rosseau believes that this complex assertion of property and taxation requires several levels of development with language and cultivation. I guess for chimps it’s simply innate, as it most likely is for us.

It’s easy for Rosseau to embellish and romanticize the alternative to civilization. Life is complex in society, we often find ourselves wishing for better alternatives to slaving away at our job to buy food and furnish our houses, only to be robbed by the tax-man. We often wish that life were easier and things such as love and mating were simplified at times, to which we fall to the fallacy of believing the “grass is greener” on the other side of the fence. Animals and Man, no matter what state, are complex and emotional creatures with common problems. Life outside of society’s walls offer a simple life, but comes at the cost of watching family members die of disease, starve and freeze during harsh climate conditions, and being abandoned without hope when something as simple as a knee fracture, or broken bone could mean certain death. Let’s all not fall for a simplified and enticing theory. Civilization may have fostered it’s own complexities and cumbersome conditions, but life’s a lot easier in here then out there in the cold where anything and everything goes.

A Discourse on Inequality

Well, to start off, I think that A Discourse on Inequality has been one of my favourite reads for ArtsOne so far. I found that many of my personal opinions regarding humanity and society rather closely matched the opinions of Rousseau, and in general, I found the work to be one whose theories closely match the actuality of society.

In comparison to pessimistic Hobbes, Rousseau had a far more positive view on human nature. I completely agree with his opinions regarding the nature of the first man. I personally think that the first man was no different from the animals that surrounded him, except in the fact of his higher levels of thinking. I doubt that the first man was all too concerned with greed and power, due to the burning necessity of survival. Whereas Hobbes would state that this desire to live sparked savage nature, I rather agree with Rousseau that the fear of pain ignited compassion within humans, not beastliness. Maybe I’m a bit of an idealist, but it pains me not to agree with Rousseau’s theory of compassion.

What I found most interesting about the work was the section on language. Language has always been one of those aspects of human society that I can never wrap my tiny brain around. How did we go from an entirely speechless language to one filled with so many complex methods for expressing thoughts? I found that Rousseau’s theory concurs with the majority of theories out there, that we started simply and worked our way up, but this is something that still baffles me. The entire prospect of the origin of language is something I find so fascinating, and so intriguing that I can barely comprehend it. Although Rousseau’s theories aided slightly, I still am amazed at the origins of speech.

I do agree mostly with Rousseau’s theory of society corrupting the individual, but I still find it slightly hard to swallow. This is because where did these feelings of greed, pride, and everything negative that Rousseau states is an outcome of society stem from? There must be a portion of the human being that is naturally predisposed to these feelings. Society is merely a concept, it could not have implemented ideas in our heads from the very beginning, and thus there must be some aspect of humans that possesses these negative attributes. The way society is structured simply draws them out.

A Discourse on Inequality

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.

A Discourse on Inequality (Mostly about Natural Law)

After reading this and Leviathan, I have an itching desire to clarify the subject that all these big thinkers are needlessly complicating—that of “natural law”. Now, I can’t speak for what those philosophers are trying to do with the term, but for me, the definition of this concept is one so simple that it can and should be considered obvious. So here we go.

In order to define natural law, it is necessary to understand that it is made up of two parts—the “natural” and the “law”. Putting the natural aside for now, the definition of law is apparently controversial in philosophy. Some think of it as limitations and/or regulations, some as things you can’t do no matter what, and some as things you can choose to do or not do. In this context, I will use a slightly modified version of the second; my definition of law, then, is an absolute rule that cannot in any circumstances be disobeyed or broken in any way, shape, or form, and one which is not affected in any way, shape, or form, by magnitude. We cannot disobey the law of gravity, and neither can planets. We cannot disobey the laws of motion, and neither can giant robots.

Personally, I do not think that law is a hard thing to define. Where the problem comes, however, is when people look at laws created by society and laws enforced by the world and think of them as the same thing—they are not. Law, when used by itself, is nothing more than a word and has no meaning whatsoever; it is only when another word comes in front of it that it becomes significant. This relates (ironically, I suppose) to the natural law of relativity (gravity and motion are also natural laws) which requires a reference point for anything that has the word “absolute” in its definition. Thus, a societal law—one created and enforced solely by society—is one which is absolute and cannot be broken for anyone who is a member of that society. Should a member of that society break it (killing, stealing, etc.), they will no longer be a part of that society and become a criminal. This applies regardless of whether the lawbreaker is convicted or not. If he is convicted, he is a publicly recognized criminal; if he is not convicted, he is a criminal masquerading as a citizen. Thus, someone who breaks a society’s law is ousted from that society regardless of what anyone might think or pretend; note, however, that as societies are generally indecisive, a law reform might change the status of a criminal into that of a citizen or vice versa.

With societal law now clarified, let’s get to the not indecisive natural law. Just as no member of a society can break a societal law and still be a part of that society, no member of nature can break a natural law and still be a part of nature. So, what defines a member of nature? Putting aside that “state of nature” business that Hobbes and Rousseau love to go on about so much, I put it to you that so long as we are living in this universe, we are members of nature. What defines living in this universe? I can answer metaphysically, but that would be nauseating both to read and write, so I will answer physically—so long as you are utilizing your five senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch) to interact with your environment, you are living in this universe, and no amount of skyscrapers or social gatherings or video games can change that. Thus, should one break a natural law, they will be ousted from nature; but considering what defines a member of nature, is it physically possible for us to not be one? No. Although it is possible for someone to be alive and not a member of society, it is impossible for someone to be alive and not a member of nature (death is a metaphysical subject, so I’ll leave it alone). Therefore, a natural law is one that more or less adopts the basic definition of law itself—an absolute rule that cannot in any circumstances be disobeyed or broken in any way, shape, or form, and one which is not affected in any way, shape, or form, by magnitude. I won’t elaborate on the actual natural laws here, but I will state them so that you can think about how obvious they are. The two core natural laws are the law of causality and the law of relativity. The three human laws are the law of causality, the law of relativity, and the law of normality, which is a sociopolitical version of the law of gravity. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? It’s supposed to be.

When I hear about the never ending quest of philosophers to discover the great laws of the world, I do not think that they are actually looking for laws—I think that they are looking for insights. Laws are the basic concepts from which everything stems; building blocks which are existent in every part of their contextual relatives. Hobbes and Rousseau didn’t look for these obvious building blocks, however; they searched for patterns in the structures created by these blocks. They desired to uncover secrets in these structures which are absolute and would lead them to the goal that all philosophers aim for, and there’s nothing wrong with that—I just believe that it shouldn’t be advertised as a search for natural laws when science has already found most of them.

Oh, and I enjoyed reading A Discourse on Inequality.