11 responses to “Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality”

  1. Discussion question 5:

    Rousseau says humans come from a “state of nature”, which is similar (to an extent) to John Locke’s political views, who stated there was a state of nature where humans existed in “perfect equality and freedom”. This state was governed by “the Law of Nature”, which is guided by no written rules, but moral principle. Locke explains that humans left the state of nature and entered a “state of war” when some humans began to make claims for authority, as there was no real government. This is where Rousseau differs a bit, because he explains humans left the state “the instant one man needed help from another” (p.116). The consequences of this include equality disappearing and things like slavery taking it’s place. But, both men agree on some level that it was a social interaction that began the demise of man.
    This is interesting because I’ve always thought humans to be very social creatures, and Aristotle said that man, by nature, is a “political animal” because he is a social creature. This is relevant to the question of public esteem becoming to more prized than self esteem, as this would be another consequence of the beginning of social interactions. In today’s age this is only more relevant. We thrive in social contexts, and you could argue that Millennials in particular have become obsessed with the public’s opinion of themselves. With the creation of cell phones, texting, social media, etc. we’ve built an empire of communication – when there wasn’t even language in Rousseau’s state of nature.
    So, are humans naturally social and political creatures like Aristotle suggests, or did we only come to be that way because we decided to leave the state of nature? Was it inevitable we left, or is there a possibility that we’ve just brought our fate upon ourselves?

    1. I really really enjoyed reading your comment Jenna, and I find my thoughts on Rousseau are similar to yours. The subtle differences between the opinions of Rousseau and Locke are vital to their individual viewpoints, even though they are rather similar overall. In addition, I believe there is one more key philosopher that comes into play here: Thomas Hobbes.

      Hobbes, the original pessimist and curmudgeon, had some unique opinions about human nature and society that can be likened to Rousseau’s opinions in interesting ways. I don’t think their views are all that different necessarily, that is to say, on a very few number of specific topics. For example, Rousseau suggests that the original (also known as natural) man was entirely solitary rather than social, and to this extent he agrees with the state of nature as depicted by Hobbes. However, in contrast to Hobbes’ view that the life of natural man in this condition must have been “poor, nasty, brutish and short,” Rousseau claims that, despite their solitary predisposition, natural man lived a life that was healthy, happy, good, and free. It was the vices of men, dating back to the formation of societies, that brought an end to this blissful existence.

      One of these vices, as you said, was the transition from the need for self-approval to the approval of others, a vice that remains difficult to escape to this day. The development of social media has created platforms on which we can consistently beg the approval of our peers at any time, anywhere. Would Rousseau be dismayed with this growth of a vice he considered most evil? I believe he would, though it makes for a fascinating development in human nature. I’d love to hear his thoughts on the matter.

    2. I definitely agree that we still see here today what Rousseau would call a vice–a focus on what others think of us, rather than on our own views of ourselves, and a need to stand out, to be praised, to be thought of by others as higher in status than those around us. He seems to suggest that this sort of things inevitably starts to happen as we come to live and cooperate together more. We start to compare ourselves to animals first (110), and then we begin to compare ourselves to each other and want to stand out. It’s an interesting question whether this is inevitable just because we live and work together, which is part of what you’re asking Jenna, I think. Though for Rousseau it also has to do with us starting to depend on each other, I believe; because we need others in order to survive and thrive, we need them to think well of us in order to get what we want (I think this is on p. 119; I don’t have my book with me but am going from my notes!). I guess it’s hard to know whether all that has to happen because we live and work together and are interdependent, just as it’s hard to know if we are naturally social or not, because in both cases it’s difficult to see what we would be like if we *didn’t* live and work together. One of the criticisms Rousseau makes of Hobbes is that he tries to imagine us as we are today, living without civil societies. The problem is that we have been changed so much by those societies, Rousseau argues, that it’s hard to even see what we would be like in a natural state, before all that! I am thinking that’s party why he spends so much time talking about animals!

      So I don’t have a clear answer to the original question as to whether or not we are naturally social; I find this question hard to answer, and maybe Rousseau is right as to why it is?

  2. Discussion question 1:

    One of the core differences between this text and others we have read was the emphasis on science and on empirical evidence. Rousseau actually bothers to give us evidence for his claims. While his philosophy is undeniably intriguing I would like to delve into the science of his philosophy, namely in the state of nature. While I do not claim to be smarter than Jean-Jacques Rousseau (that’s for future generations to decide) I do have the distinct advantage of having access to 238 more years of scientific knowledge than him. Yet, as far as I know he’s more or less correct mostly, and even when he is not his instincts are remarkable.

    Rousseau came just before Darwin and would likely spit on the ground in disgust if he was told that he shares a common ancestor with chimpanzees (or Englishmen, for that matter). This timing is unfortunate because much of his work is better understood next to natural selection. A few of his key points can basically be chalked up as Darwinian. His idea of self-love is completely in line with the theory of natural selection, as well as his idea of compassion. (This can seem counter intuitive to some. Isn’t evolution survival of the fittest? Well, humans were at once tribal. When tribesman were kind to each other their tribes flourished more than those that squabble.) However, this also deals a blow to his “self-improvement” argument. We can see that all creatures are slowly progressing and humans are not unique in this regard.

    Dr. Crawford mentioned how Rousseau’s inability to explain the origins of language without alien causality would have dealt a huge blow to his theory of the “natural man” back in his time. Yet, we see that Rousseau was entirely correct; nobody has an earthly idea of how language came to be. It’s a complete mystery. And back in Rousseau’s day it was perfectly reasonably to deem whatever is unknown as the work of the Creator. However, one should note that it is likely that his chicken-or-the-egg scenario is probably false. As we can see from gorillas who can speak sign language, a creature can have the capacity to think deeply enough to understand language before they actually use it socially.

    Free will is an interesting point because up until quite recently almost everyone would have agreed with him. However, modern neuroscientists have recently stumbled upon the fact that we may not actually have free will and that our minds simply react instinctively to things. Our unconscious minds collect and analyze data then make decisions before our conscious minds even know what is happening, therefore we do not have free will. (Here’s a rather long, in-depth explanation if anyone cares: https://youtu.be/iRIcbsRXQ0o)

    Basically, Rousseau’s arguments are more or less rooted in some kind of science, which mostly hold up today. His ideas of self-love and compassion give us a pretty good picture of natural man. However, his idea of humans being unique in having the faculties of free will and self-improvement is not true. This does not deal a heavy blow to his argument. It merely illustrates that humans are not as unique as Rousseau thinks they are.

    1. Interesting to point out a link between Rousseau and Darwin, since we are discussing Darwin next week! It could be good to return to Rousseau a bit when we do. I agree that he does his best to try to provide evidence for his claims. The difficulty is that when he is talking about the “natural” state there is very little evidence he can point to as to what we must have been like. All he can really go on is what he knows of animals, to suggest what we might have been like before language and reason. But the claim that we must have had free will even from the beginning is difficult to support, if he is also arguing that animals don’t have it. What evidence could he be relying on that we must be different in that regard, and have always had free will? Maybe it’s because we left the state of nature, suggesting that we don’t just have to follow blind instinct because if we did we’d still be there, not having changed? But as you note, we now can see how changes could occur through natural selection, even without free will guiding them.

      I had heard of these studies against free will before, and I find them fascinating. I don’t quite know what to do with that data, though. If I just feel like I’m making a conscious decision but really am not, do I stop trying to make conscious decisions? Is that even possible?

    2. Okay I really wanted to reply to your comment after reading all of this post Zach, and I guess it is simply because you do bring up evolution and thanks to my Archeology 140 class, I am learning quite a bit about.

      There was a lot, like millions of years of evolution before we even began to walk on two feet and had the spares thumbs on our feet reduced to just toes. And just due to this fact, I realized that when Rousseau brings up humans being in a natural state it’s like extremely difficult to pinpoint where exactly that is. So I am just going to assume that is when we were in our caveman stage? Maybe?

      The problem here is that if we are reduced to that level of cognition, then the human itself cannot really understand what the pure form he is actually in, which is what I believe Rousseau wants. He wants you to understand that you are in the natural state.

      So maybe instead of pulling a throwback Throwback Thursday all the way to the days of cave writings and grunts, we only go as far as humans really started to colonize and communicate with one another. I believe that Rousseau was looking at the human state of mind at a point in its time where it could understand the ideas of self-love, compassion, free will, and self-improvement. If we go too far back, we would not as humans be able to comprehend what these “forms” (PLATO FOR YA) really are.

      The scientific study you brought up about free will is very interesting though. It’s tough to think about. To wrap your head around the fact of whether you have free will or not. Like, I would believe I have the free will to chose to walk or bike to class, but my mind would have already come up with that answer. It reminds me of time travel and maybe my brain can time travel that would be neat.

      Back to Rousseau though, he does give a good idea of what man might have once been. For him to go off of studies of animals and his own instinct is very amazing in itself. And I do agree with you that humans were not as unique as he believed. We evolved, and no other animals did not evolve like us, but some of the traits that we do have are not only unique to ourselves. Other animals do have feelings, we aren’t the only ones who love. That is not unique.

      On another note, if you were curious, there are a few different points on that. There is a protein in a chicken’s ovaries that is needed for the eggshell to form in general, and since this protein is only found in chicken ovaries, it is assumed that the egg came first.

      But for there to be that egg, there needs to be that chicken that lays that egg. So to get to that chicken, we go back to evolution.

      It’s theorized that chickens evolved from something long ago (T-rex maybe) and after each outcome, the product slowly became more chicken like until we have the chickens we see today. Now chickens were only really domesticated 7,000 years ago, so we are looking at a longish evolution line for a bird.

      But if we theorize that this chicken did evolve from a T-rex, we are going back quite a long ways a way.

      Anyway rant over about that lovely topic.

  3. Just a thought: I want to open a bit of discussion on one of a quote (below) and its implications and present the current state of society from a conflict theorist perspective – where Marx, among others, suggest that society is built in a way that the rich can stay in power, and the poor can be continually oppressed by the rich. The concept of class conflict and especially the idea that the capitalist society reproduces the class structure in each generation is a dominant concept in the field and I think that what Rosseau says mirrors a section within the development of conflict theory.

    Rosseau says “Everyone began to look at everyone else and to wish to be looked at himself, and public esteem acquired a price. The one who sang or danced best; the handsomest, the strongest, the most skillful, or the most eloquent came to be the most highly regarded, and this was the first step towards inequality and vice: from these first preferences arose vanity and contempt on the one hand, shame and envy on the other; and the fermentation caused by these new leavens eventually produced compounds fatal to happiness and innocence.”

    Primarily, the phrase “public esteem acquired a price” emphasizes one of Max Weber’s 3 dimensions of stratification. Weber suggested that Class, Status and Party are the three dimensions that stratify the poor from the rich. Rosseau, in the quote above, seems to address these three dimensions. Class and Status for example, are often related to each other as the respect someone gets as a result of their skills may often lead to them being able to use these skills to gain property or wealth. Party is defined as the ability of people to achieve goals despite resistance from others, or more specifically the ability to shift the conscience of others which can, as we have seen in capitalist societies have led to both positive and negative consequences. The use of an asyndeton in conjunction with hyperboles in “…sang or danced best; the handsomest, the strongest, the most skillful…” emphasizes what Rosseau later points out is the “first step towards inequality and vice” which coincides with Weber’s argument.

    One interpretation that may arise from reading this quote can be that no one should be better than anyone at anything lest they use their skills for their benefit and inequality is born. Particularly, the concept of ‘Party’ from Weber’s dimensions (the ability to shift public conscience) has often led to negative consequences. Although I understand that there are often mixed results (think Stalin and the industrial revolution but also the cult of personality), the idea that one man should have the ability to change what others think based on “public esteem” especially with attributes like being “the handsomest” or “the strongest” calls into question whether these attributes should have this power in the first place. To pull a brief real world example, many actors have become directors – this isn’t exactly a rise or fall in power of any kind, but to some extent their status as an actor allowed for an easier transition into directing. I think you can argue in multiple ways, but to take the extremes of the spectrum: in the cases that it didn’t work out, one could assume that it would be because they didn’t have sufficient experience or time as a director whereas in the cases that it did, that it was because of their status as an actor that allowed them the connections to directors which subsequently led them to an increased exposure to film-making, perhaps leading to them eventually becoming a good director.

    A more extensive discussion may reveal more! (Think: in an ideal world what would happen if no one was better than another? Is there a middleground in this spectrum and how does it reinforce or deviate from the claims of conflict theorist?)

    1. This is a very thought-provoking discussion, Aaron…thanks for making me consider carefully what’s going on in Rousseau and how it might link to Weber. I’m going to focus on one thing you said, name that maybe once some people are better than others at certain things then inequality is just naturally going to be born so maybe we shouldn’t be better at some things than other people. Just talking from Rousseau’s perspective, I think for him the problem is not that people are better at things than other people, but rather that we start to cooperate, live together, and become dependent on each other such that our varying levels of skill matter. If we just lived independent lives, we could be better at some things than other people and it would make no difference. But once we start to need other people to survive and thrive, and to give us work or trade with us, then it becomes very important who is better at which things than others, especially when the invention of money allows for greater accumulation of wealth. So for Rousseau, it’s the dependence on each other that’s the problem. Of course, that is just as unlikely to change as is the fact that we have varying levels of skill and won’t probably ever be equal in that regard.

      Should the attributes of being the handsomest or the strongest or the smartest have the power to change what others think through public esteem? (another one of the questions above) Going back to the idea of interdependence, they are only going to have power insofar as they are valued by others, insofar as others will give you opportunities or pay you based on those attributes. And whether or not that should be the case depends on context, I think; being handsome is not needed for being a good teacher, for example, but having patience and caring concern for students is. Being handsome might be good for being an actor (though we can debate whether that *ought* to be the case), but shouldn’t matter for being a director. So insofar as someone gets a greater chance at being a director because they were handsome and became an actor (in part) through that, then I think it makes sense to say that shouldn’t be the case.

      Not sure if I’m getting to your questions, exactly, but these are the thoughts I had when reading your comment!

  4. Discussion question 5:
    I find Rousseau’s points here fascinating, and after using them to explain how Rousseau paints our society as being unhappy in my essay, I understand them with much greater pertinence to the way we live today.
    Humans began looking outside of themselves for satisfaction due to the forced interdependence that crafts such as agriculture and metal-working require. A farmer working alongside another farmer will inevitably compare themselves to each other and seek to acquire advantages. Additionally, a farmer may compare himself to a iron-worker as they exchange resources essential for survival, questioning each other’s relative worth to the functioning of the society. We see this nowadays as people working in a company compete for promotions and people working in different fields such as the sciences, humanities, business sector argue over the relevance of their occupation.
    The continuous comparisons that we make also excites long-term desires that leave us perpetually unsatisfied. We not only set life goals, but also life dreams. We may be somewhat satisfied with our careers or our education, but we always know that there is someone better than us in some way: smarter, richer, faster, more famous, and this can only serve to dampen our confidence in our personal lives. We see ourselves when we look at others, wondering ‘what if I was in his/her shoes?’ and ‘would that make me happier or not?’ We look at our reflection in the mirror, wondering ‘what will people see when they look at me?’ Rousseau talks about perfectabilité, which exemplifies this trend, our desire for more when we can content ourselves with less.
    So why can’t we stop comparing ourselves to others and spare ourselves the stress and anxiety? In today’s society, this is extremely difficult, leaning dangerously close to impossible New brands of cars, smartphones and clothing fly off the shelves and the factories, leaving us all the more aware if we cannot keep up. Our test scores are calculated numerically on a convenient scale as to facilitate easy comparison. We are fascinated by statistics, how much of the world is like us, how much of it is different, better or worse. Most of the world has become irreversibly social, and therefore I think Rousseau’s claims are equally as effective when applied to today’s situation instead of the 18th century.

    1. Good examples here! Why can’t we stop comparing ourselves to others? I wonder if Rousseau was right in suggesting that (as I also commented above) our dependence on others plays a big role here. We have to care what others think because our survival and flourishing depends on interesting others in ourselves. We need them to give us jobs, or to do work for us, or to trade with us, or just to give us esteem because that will help us in other ways. In a world where we are not self-sufficient, we can’t afford to not care what those on whom we depend think of us!

      Every time I read Rousseau I think that even though he doesn’t have a ton of evidence for his story about human history, his analysis and critique of of civil society is pretty accurate, at least as I know it today in N. America!

  5. Discussion question 6: Talk about anything else related to Rousseau!!!

    What I want to briefly talk about is corruption. I think especially now, in this day and age, corruption is closely related to that of nature. And in Rousseau’s discourse, corruption plays a prominent theme.

    I feel like Rousseau describes corruption as this soul-sucking dementor (you know what I’m talking about if you read the Harry Potter series!), who gets in the way of truly seeing the real nature of man. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for human development. But when the Enlightenment came about – a European intellectual movement that got people to really focus on individuality instead of tradition, corruption became a part of the individual as well as society as a whole. This is not just a mental/personal process, but definitely a political one. What I mean by that is how a political society is built on a lie. It’s a way for the rich to solidify their elevated status, power, and influence over the blinded poor. It is used to exploit those who thought that having a political society would actually protect their freedom and rights. Well, not really.

    Despite Rousseau commenting on how corruption is the notion of amour propre (self-love) and how it really takes a hold of one’s original condition, it is obvious that Rousseau has been sucked into this state, too. It is evident that he seeks validation from other human beings, that he loses empathy and pity for other beings, and that he’s really unhappy with life. What’s interesting is that his analysis really does stand the test of time! Like, we all do still seek validation from others…maybe it’s natural for us to do so? In our current day and age, with all these social media platforms e.g. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter etc, it’s made it so much more accessible to show the world what we’re doing when in actuality, none of us really give a damn about what someone else is doing yet we still have that urge to need to update our lives for the world to see! Crazy, innit?

    Putting the tangent aside, I really do believe that despite him commenting on how far society has come about with human nature, I do think he’s analyzing himself in a way. I mean, after all, he’s living in that era. He’s an example of what he’s critiquing on.

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