Key Takeaways: Discourse on the Origin of Inequality by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

In one of his most famous political/philosophical texts, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, Jean-Jacques Rousseau explains the essential elements of his philosophy. First, Rousseau lays out the different types of inequality that exist for people. He then takes these types of inequality and tries to determine which are “natural” and which are “unnatural” (meaning they could therefore be prevented).

Rousseau believed that man, like every other animal found in nature, is motivated by two principles: self-preservation and pity. In man’s natural state, man is happy, needs little, and knows nothing of good and evil. The only thing that separates man from any other animal is a sense (though unrealized) of perfectability.

It is this idea of perfectability that allows man to change over time. As humans socialize with other humans, the mind develops and reason begins to form. However, socialization also leads to a principle Rousseau refers to as “amour propre,” which is what drives humans to compare themselves to one another and seek domination over other humans in order to create happiness.

As human societies become more complex and amour propre develops further, things like private property and labor are divided amongst the people, and this allows for the exploitation of the poor. The poor will then seek to end such discrimination by starting a war with the rich. However, the rich deceive the poor by creating a political society claiming to provide equality. Equality is not provided, however, and instead, oppression and inequality become permanent fixtures in society.

Rousseau’s Natural Inequalities

According to Rousseau, the only natural inequalities are differences in physical strength, because these are inequalities that arise in the natural state. In modern society, man is corrupted, and the inequalities that result from laws and property are not natural and should not be tolerated.