Discourse on the Origin of Inequality

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

PREFACE

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

-14-

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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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