Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Rousseau: Discourse on Inequality, pt.I

The Princeton anthology includes two texts by Rousseau. Inexplicably, however, they are arranged in reverse chronological and (I believe) reverse argumentative order. Hence, I want to start with the second, his 1755 "Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men." The "Discourse" is divided into two parts, which describe man in the state of nature and the emergence of society, respectively.

Rousseau opens by distinguishing between two types of inequality: the natural or physical and the moral or political. There is nothing to be done about the first, but we are responsible for the second, which depends on our consent (293). To address this problem, he proposes to reconstruct the "moment when, right taking the place of violence, nature was subjected to law" (293). He is well aware that he is dealing in "hypothetical and conditional reasonings" (294). The inquiry is normative, not historical. We are interested in two things: first, how various forms of political inequality have been accepted by the subordinate members and, second, what sort of political arrangement might actually be justifiable. (The second topic is treated more fully in "The Social Compact.")

The state of nature presented in the "Discourse" is of a decidedly Romantic cast. Rousseau envisions primitive (or "savage") man as individually self-sufficient in a pristine environment. Natural abundance provides for all bodily needs. We have only come together now and again to copulate. Furthermore, primitive man, lacking culture, has no moral knowledge, and, Rousseau contends, doesn't need it: "So much more profitable to these [primitives] is the ignorance of vice than the knowledge of virtue is to those [in society]" (299). We see prefigured here Rousseau's deep-seated ambivalence towards society, which, on the one hand, facilitates new modes of "self-perfection" but which also, on the other, is the source of inauthenticity, vice, and social inequality.

Primitive man lives according to his "instinct," and, Rousseau claims, it does not lead him astray. To live in society, however, man must cultivate his reason, and this faculty can lead to all kinds of trouble (298). Reason, for Rousseau is closely linked with the ability to resist our immediate impulses and to elect from among competing desires (296). It is this sort of reflective self-distantiation that enables us to develop and pursue an ideal of self-perfection (though, as I've indicated, reason may also "turn man against himself" and engender "egocentrism" (300)).

Rousseau, like Hobbes and Locke, and unlike the Ancients or Medievals, views the passions as more basic than reason, so that what is rational must effectively be derived from the passions. We perfect our reason by means of the passions, which provide the necessary evidence about what kinds of thing we like and what kinds of things are good for us (297). Rousseau differs from his early modern predecessors, however, in what he identifies as the key passion. Hobbes and Locke leaned heavily on our drive toward self-preservation, fear of injury, and desire for security. But in Rousseau's idyllic state of nature, such anxieties have no place. What he proposes as the fundamental passion is "pity," an entirely natural virtue, defined as "an innate repugnance to seeing his fellow men suffer" (299). All social virtues, Rousseau claims, can be derived from pity: generosity, mercy, and humanity are pity applied to the weak, the guilty, and human species in general (300).

I have thorough notes on Rousseau, and will put together something on the second part of the "Discourse" later this week. If I have time, I will also do the "Social Compact"--though if I don't get to it this week, you might want to do it, for I won't have time next week. When we've got everything on the table with a first round of comments, we can turn to the more interesting critical comparative work.

Cheers, PJ


A Wiser Man Than I said...


I only did half my homework. I'll read the selection on which you commented and then report back.

A Wiser Man Than I said...


This is a very good summary. Thank you.

Rousseau writes: "After having proved that inequality is hardly observable in the state of nature, and that its influence is almost non-existent." (p. 301)

Yet earlier he observes that: "Nature treats [children] precisely the way the law of Sparta treated the children of its citizens: it renders strong and robust those who are well constituted and makes all the rest perish." (p. 295)

Even supposing that he has somehow proven that whoever survives is equal--and I don't think he has--this is small consolation for all those who would die early. One of the chief benefits of civilization is that many millions more human beings can now live because of its benefits. Against this, we must weigh modern war, etc. but we shouldn't forget the blessings of civilization, something Rousseau frequently does.

PJ said...

Good eye--though I think Rousseau would not have viewed this as a problem given his exaggerated views of natural abundance and human self-sufficiency. I can't find the passage just now, but somewhere in the "Discourse" he proposes mothers leave their children at a ridiculously early age. As soon as you're old enough to pick your own nuts and berries, apparently, you're good to go in the state of nature...

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