Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality Among Men (1755) scandalised many eighteenth-century readers in its evisceration of reason and civilisation. It contains at its core the argument that the establishment of political society, coupled with the advancement of reason, has served to corrupt natural man. Initially independent, contented, simpleminded, and innocuous in relation to his fellows, man has become acquisitive, competitive, calculating, and aggressive. Rousseau’s conjectural history portrays the development of this self-centred man as a product of his increasing interactions with and dependence on other individuals as well as society as a whole. Socialised man, blinded by ambition, seeks to dominate his compatriots at almost any cost. Thus, he willingly concedes to being subjugated when guaranteed the ability to dominate others.
Rousseau believed man in his original condition to be a simple creature with modest needs. He famously portrayed man in the state of nature “satisfying his hunger under an oak, quenching his thirst at the first stream, finding his bed under the same tree which provided his meal; and, behold, his needs are furnished.” (p. 81) Natural man is a complicated machine, albeit it one with free agency, whose capacity for reasoning is far from developed. His knowledge is limited to that which he desires; his desires are limited to that which is within his reach. He wanders the primeval forests unburdened by concerns for what the future has in store. While his existence is solitary, he has been armed by nature with a sense of compassion. Thus, he refrains from inflicting harm on his fellow man unless interest in his own preservation requires him to do so. Man might have carried on this manner into perpetuity. A sequence of calamitous events, however, utterly transformed him. Chief among these was his adoption of a sedentary lifestyle.
As their numbers grew over time men came into increasing contact with one another. They eventually built themselves huts and settled down in villages. Men took to cooperating in order to secure their needs more easily. What was at first a convenience, however, became a necessity. As men grew accustomed to working together they weakened their capacity to individually provide for their own needs. The first seeds of interdependence were thus sown. While man’s physical strength waned, his soul became corrupted. Men began to look at each other. They “learned to value one another and the idea of consideration was formed in their minds.” (p. 114) They took stock of their physical inequality, and they came to hold one another in esteem or contempt on the basis of their abilities. Securing the respect and admiration of others was deemed to be of paramount importance. Men began to manipulate each other and to put on airs in order to gain the favour of their peers. To dominate another was to assure oneself of one’s worth and ensure for oneself a measure of deference.
These feelings were legitimated through the institution of private property and the establishment of the polity. Under the guise of just laws those who found themselves in positions of relative advantage solidified their gains and gave the twisted passions of social man full rein. Men would not and did not agree to rule by one. Rather, they were co-opted by the powerful into an oppressive and exploitative hierarchy. They “allow themselves to be oppressed only so far as they are impelled by a blind ambition; and fixing their eyes below rather than above themselves, come to love domination more than independence, and agree to wear chains for the sake of imposing chains on others in turn.” (p. 132) Social man is insecure in that his happiness depends on the attitude of others. He is ambitious in that he goes to great lengths to secure esteem, even in its most superficial of forms. Corrupted by society and robbed of his independence by specialised labour he has already lost his freedom in a profound sense. His dependence on and submission to others is merely formalised and exacerbated through the establishment of rational-legal institutions.
Political society engenders inequality, but it also satisfies social man’s depraved needs. The ties that bind one man to another in society are not only economic; they are psychological. “[S]ocial man lives always outside himself; he knows how to live only in the opinion of others, it is, so to speak, from their judgement alone that he derives the sense of his own existence.” (p. 136) While systems of class and inequality may be perceived to humiliate and denigrate the human being, they provide the alienated individual with a sense of self. Social man, unable to discern for himself an account of his existence, finds some measure of satisfaction in a system that assigns him a place, a value, an occupation. Civilised life does not staunch social man’s acquisitiveness, satiate his desires, or in any way ease the stirrings of his soul. It is, however, a system that reflects his debased physical and mental state.
The inequality that permeates political society is not simply the product of a ploy hoisted on the poor by the rich. It is symptomatic of social man’s pre-existing corruption. It springs from his developed faculties and growing rationality. This reason breeds the pride which “inspires all the injuries men do to themselves and others.” (p. 167) The condition and foundations of inequality existed in social man long before civil society, property, or the magistracy. Reason and society produce the ambitious and the cowardly. They create the corrupt men who embrace the great perversion that is moral inequality.
Essay by Alexander J. Hill
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