Notes on Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality, by Rousseau

Metaphysical and Moral Side of Man

Thesis: Man contributes to his operations freely. Man acquiesces the law of nature freely. Man has the faculty of perfecting, which could makes human progress. The reason and mind owe their origin to needs, which are required after abolishing the state of nature. Languages are produced in social activities.

How man is distinguished from animal:

  1. Human and animal naturally protect themselves against everything that tends to destroy or to disturb them. The difference is that the nature alone does everything in the operations of the beast, whereas man contributes to his operations in his capacity as a free agent.
  2. Human and animal both have ideas, since they senses. Animal naturally obeys the law of nature, while man recognizes himself free to acquiesce or to resist. Rousseau states that ideas come from senses and the body is separated from one’s spirituality.
  3. Man has the faculty of perfecting oneself. Perfectibility, with the aid of circumstances, causes his enlightenment and his errors, his vices and his virtues, eventually makes him his own and nature’s tyrant; however, the beast acquires nothing and has nothing to lose.
  4. Human’s reason perfects itself by passions activities. The passions owe their origin to our needs and their progress to our knowledge, because one can only desire or fear things in terms of the ideas one can have of them, or by the simple impulsion of nature. The reasoning part of the soul is progressed from passions, which develop in social activities. Progress of the mind proportioned itself to the needs. Rousseau thinks that there’s no agriculture before dividing territory among people and abolishing the state of nature.

Origin of Language

  1. Language is the product of social activities. It is the child that contributes most to the invention. The first language is cry of nature. The disadvantages of use of gesture force people to substitute for it articulations of the voice. The invention of languages requires unanimous agreement among people.
  2. The more limited knowledge was, the more extensive did the dictionary grow. Language helps people get ideas. One has to speak in order to have general ideas: for as soon as the imagination stops, the mind can proceed only by means of discourse.
  3. The ideas attached to the words of abstract things are purely metaphysical. Rousseau states that it is impossible that languages could have arisen and been established by purely human means.

How human beings are different from savages:

  1. Society originated from people’s needs in the state of nature. There is no distinction between good and bad in the state of nature.
  2. It is reason that engenders amour-propre, and reflection that reinforces it. Savage doesn’t have reason. The pure movement of nature is prior to all reflection: the force of natural pity, which is a natural sentiment.
  3. The moral aspect of love is a factitious sentiment, born from social practice. Savage does not possess it, for his mind could not form abstract ideas of regularity and of proportion. Savages are happy.
  4. Differences that distinguish men come from different kinds of habits and life men adopt in society. Education creates and increases differences among people. Ties of servitude are formed solely by men’s mutual dependence and the reciprocal needs that unite them.
  5. Inequality doesn’t exist in the state of nature. Perfectibility, the social virtues and the other faculties have to be developed in various contingencies. Society cannot be established among lonely savages.


Rousseau thinks that there is no inequality in the state of nature. There is no bad or good. Animal, savage and man, they all protect themselves and satisfy with their needs naturally. In the state of nature, man exists lonely by individual. However, different from animal and savage, man has the ability of perfectibility. Man manages their body freely. The reason forces man make progress.

I think there is a big weakness in this article. As far as Rousseau’s analysis of inequality, it is impossible to have the society and social activities come into being, for all things exist alone; there will be no communications, no dependence, no connections and nothing related among all creatures. In the end of his article, for make his statement consistent, Rousseau states that all of these impossibilities come from various contingencies. However, he skips these contingencies.

This entry was posted in Political Philosophy and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s