Discourse on the Origin of Inequality

Discourse on the Origin of Inequality

Discourse on the Origin of Inequality

Discourse on the Origin of Inequality

Synopsis

In his Discourses (1755), Rousseau argues that inequalities of rank, wealth, and power are the inevitable result of the civilizing process. If inequality is intolerable - and Rousseau shows with unparalledled eloquence how it robs us not only of our material but also of our psychological independence - then how can we recover the peaceful self-sufficiency of life in the state of nature? We cannot return to a simpler time, but measuring the costs of progress may help us to imagine alternatives to the corruption and oppressive conformity of modern society. Rousseau's sweeping account of humanity's social and political development epitomizes the innovative boldness of the Englightment, and it is one of the most provocative and influential works of the eighteenth century. This new translation includes all Rousseau's own notes, and Patrick Coleman's introduction builds on recent key scholarship, considering particularly the relationship between political and aesthetic thought.

Excerpt

Of all the areas of human knowledge, the most valuable but least advanced seems to be that of man, (B) and I venture that the inscription on the temple at Delphi, for all its brevity, expresses a precept of greater importance and difficulty than all the thick tomes of moralists. Thus I regard the subject of this discourse as one of the most interesting questions that philosophy can propose and, unfortunately for us, one of the thorniest for philosophers to attempt to resolve. For how can we know the source of inequality among men unless we begin by knowing men themselves? And how will man come to see himself as nature created him, through all the changes that must have been produced in his original constitution in the course of time and events, and how can we separate what he owes to his inborn resources from what circumstances and his advances have added to or changed in his primitive state? Like the statue of Glaucus so disfigured by time, the sea, and storms as to look less like a god than a wild beast, the human soul modified in society by innumerable constantly recurring causes--the acquisition of a mass of knowledge and a multitude of errors, changes that took place in the constitution of the body, the constant onslaught of the passions--has, as it were, so changed its appearance as to be nearly unrecognizable. And instead of a being that always acts in accordance with certain and invariable principles, instead of that celestial and majestic simplicity the Creator imprinted on it, we find nothing but the deformed contrast between passion mistaken for reason and an understanding in the grip of delirium.

What is crueller yet is that, since all the advances of the human race continually move it ever further from its primitive state, the more new knowledge we accumulate, the more we deprive ourselves of the means for acquiring the most important knowledge of all. Thus, in a sense, it is by studying man that we have made ourselves incapable of knowing him.

It is easy to see that if we are to determine the origin of the . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.