Discourse on the Origin of Inequality

By Jean-Jacques Rousseau; Patrick Coleman et al. | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

THE Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men, Rousseau's first major philosophical work, was published in 1755, at the floodtide of the French Enlightenment. In a concentrated, provocative argument, Rousseau pursues--and at the same time questions--some of the central ambitions of early modern thought: to define the distinctive characteristics of humanity through a comparative analysis of the ways men live in various kinds of groups and geographical environment around the world; to offer a rational, secular account of human development in history, from a 'natural' state common to all to highly differentiated societies; and to provide a common standard for judging the legitimacy of political institutions in an era beginning to recognize religious and national diversity.

In no other of his books does Rousseau refer more widely and more approvingly to the work of his contemporaries. At the end of the preceding decade, Montesquieu had produced his vast enquiry into The Spirit of the Laws; the philosopher Condillac had confidently extended Locke's work on the origin of human knowledge; Buffon, the most eminent French scientist of the age, had issued the first instalments of his multi-volume Natural History. In 1751 Rousseau's friend Diderot, together with the mathematician d'Alembert, had launched the monumental Encyclopaedia, designed not only as a repository of knowledge but as a vehicle for social improvement and political reform. These works, and beyond them the work of the seventeenth-century natural rights philosophers, provide the immediate context for Rousseau's investigation into the basis of social institutions. Yet, as the title suggests, improvement and happy consensus are not the focus of Rousseau's work. Throughout his account of civilization's advances, he lays constant stress on the disparities in men's status and power and on pervasive distortions in

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The surnames in parentheses refer to entries in the Select Bibliography below.

-vii-

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Discourse on the Origin of Inequality
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • OXFORD WORLD'S CLASSICS ii
  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Introduction vii
  • NOTE ON THE TEXT xxxi
  • SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY xxxii
  • A Chronology og Jean-Jacques Rousseau xxxiv
  • To the Republic of Geneva Magnificent, Most Honoured, and Sovereign Lords: 3
  • Preface 14
  • REMARK ABOUT THE NOTES 20
  • Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men 23
  • PART I 26
  • Notes 55
  • PART II 86
  • EXPLANATORY NOTES 121
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