The Discourse on Inequality by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

“Why are men unequal, and is this situation natural or man-made?”

To ask this question proves that one is already a man,
for this is a very tough question indeed.
To answer it, we must ask ourselves what it means
to be a human being,
and if we truly desire to seek the truth,
let us confront ourselves and the societies we live in
and ask “What have we become?”

Men are unequal for two reasons;
one natural, the other unnatural.
It is a fact that some men are born stronger,
smarter and more attractive than others.
Nature in her own wisdom has decided
that this should be so.

But beyond this, as men we have created
our own means for making ourselves unequal.
Through preferences, social conventions,
and utterly arbitrary considerations
we have allowed some men to grow richer while others poorer,
some to be honored while others looked down upon,
some to be rulers while others slaves.

How has this happened?
When did the weak come to dominate over the strong?
When did people voluntarily submit themselves
to the rule of some “privileged class?”

To answer these questions, philosophers such as
Thomas Hobbes speculated about what man
was like in the state of nature.
But speaking of things like “property” and “justice,”
“right and “wrong,” they did not go back far enough.
For originally, man had none of these things.

Mankind, I will tell you of your true origins.
I will speak of a better time, a time which you
will have wished you lived in,
but tragically you cannot, for it has already passed…

 

Part I

Did man originally evolve from a chimpanzee
or some other life form?
This I do not know, for science has yet to provide
us with an answer to this great mystery.
I will therefore begin my discussion
on the assumption that in the state of nature
man was as we find him today:
walking on two feet, and casting his gaze
over the earth and heavens that lie before him.

Did man originally evolve from a chimpanzee
or some other life form?
This I do not know, for science has yet to provide us
with an answer to this great mystery.
I will therefore begin my discussion on the assumption
that in the state of nature man was as we find him today:
walking on two feet, and casting his gaze over the earth
and heavens that lie before him.

But man in nature was not completely like us,
for his mind was still free of all the ideas
that clutter our own.
He lived as an animal, surviving on instinct alone.
Faster than some, slower than others,
he was neither the strongest nor weakest.
But he was able to survive with what he had,
and so he was content.
He lived a simple life, satisfying his thirst at a nearby stream,
and eating of the fruits of the earth.

For at this time the earth was still teeming
with natural abundance and richness.
The trees had yet to be cut down, and he basked luxuriously
in the shelter of their canopy.

Without protection from the elements,
he grew to be fierce.
The wind and rain strengthened his bones.
He quickly learned to defend himself against
the wild beasts that were his brethren.
Like in Sparta, by Nature’s decree anyone
not strong enough to survive was destined to die.

Killing wild beasts with his bare hands,
sticks and stones his only weapons,
he had to rely on himself if he was to survive.
Lacking everything modern man depends on,
certainly we would take him down with our great technologies.
However, if we were to meet this beast
face to face with just ourselves,
he would quickly overwhelm us.

Those animals he could not get the best of,
he outmaneuvered using his speed and agility,
jumping into the protective heights of the trees.
He learned to respect the wild,
and to live in it without fear.

Unlike ourselves, in nature man was healthy and strong.
We overeat, growing fat and lazy
while our poor are over-worked and under-fed.
We suffer from idle amusements and an infinity of self-induced
anxieties we cannot live without.
But man in nature was free of all these things,
and so he lived with vitality.

Like cats and horses, we too have become
effeminate and domesticated.
Living in this social condition,
we have lost much of our natural strength.
Let us not confuse our own weak nature
with the virility of natural man.

Do not pity him, for he was truly magnificent.
Without clothing, he wore the skin of animals.
His sense heightened, he was finely attuned
to the pulse of life.
Remember, it is only because of his ability
to survive and overcome that we are here today.

Unlike the rest of the animal kingdom,
Nature blessed man with that most wondrous quality: free will.
This allowed man to overcome his instincts when necessary,
and so triumph where his fellow animal brethren
were destined to fall.
In this way, man became the king of the animals.

Man as a spiritual being was able to improve his lot in life.
Unfortunately, little did he know that this ability to change
would ultimately be his downfall.
For as he adapted to his surroundings,
and adapted his surroundings to him,
he soon would come to leave the state of nature
and create his own harsh reality.

In the state of nature, man rested content.
His belly full, his desires met,
he slept in a calming peace
the like of which we will never know.
Without fear of death, he was truly alive.

How far we are from this man, our greatest of ancestors.
How long it must have taken for him to have developed
all those things we take for granted:
fire, agriculture and speech.

Man in the wild knew nothing of human language.
He did not need to speak, for he lived alone,
a wanderer and scavenger.
He had no intercourse with others,
aside from when he came across a female,
and then his encounters with her took no longer
than was needed to satisfy his desires.

Man’s only speech was a ferocious cry
into the wilderness, when in danger or in pain.
Our manner of speaking would have to wait.

When the time came, what great difficulty it must have been
to contrive those first thoughts into words.
Verbs, nouns, adjectives, prepositions,
how did these things come to be?
Nature in her wisdom made man such that he would
have no need for such human creations.

In his original state, man was truly at peace with the world,
knowing nothing of the miseries which inhabit our hearts.
What is more absurd than to imagine such a man being tormented
by life that he desires to take his own?
Is not our “reason” in truth our greatest curse?

In nature, man was neither good nor evil,
for these concepts had yet to have entered his mind.
But do we dare ask ourselves who is more evil, him or us?
For all our understanding of “good,”
do we not commit the greatest evil?
For all our understanding of “justice,”
do we not commit the greatest injuries?

The great philosopher Thomas Hobbes
tells us that originally man was evil,
and that he tormented and oppresses his fellow man
with unspeakable acts of wickedness.
His every breath was vile, his every move an act of ill-will.

But ow little sense this makes, when we see that man
in nature lives alone!
How could he have “oppressed” his brethren
when he had no concept of dominance or control?
How could he act cruelly when he was still like an animal,
surviving on fruits and nuts, and not yet able to speak?

What this great philosopher also fails to realize is that man
has one more wondrous quality,
which he shares with all of the creatures of the world: compassion.
Look at any beast, and you will see that there is nothing
they hate more than seeing their fellow brethren
lay dead before them.
See the way horses refuse to trample over other creatures,
and how neither man nor beast can resist
crying out in distress when they see another slain.

In contrast, just look at the way we cover our ears
and pretend to be so different from our very neighbors.
See the way the philosopher secretly says to himself,
“Go ahead and die, for I will survive.”
It is us, tricked by our great power of reasoning,”
that have learned to suppress this most basic imperative of nature,
to do no harm.

Indeed, all our great “social virtues”
- generosity, mercy, humanity
stem from this one great natural force: pity.
Man as Nature created him had even more of this noble virtue
than we do, “civilized” as we are.
For moreso than us, man in nature could not help
but identify with others, man and beast.

Pity is the voice which is the true cry of the wild,
keeping man from harming others.
Compassion is our first law, which has kept us alive
long enough so that we may now slaughter each other
by the thousands.
For all our education and “civilized virtues,”
let us not forget to listen to this gentle voice,
buried inside our still human hearts.

We were not created to seek vengeance against our brothers,
for originally we knew no such thing.
We knew neither love nor hate,
but only to protect ourselves when threatened
through defense or flight.
Can we not see that the great battles we wage,
the blood we shed, is truly the most unnatural of all?
Can we not see that no greater injustices have been done
then since we have come up with the concept
of justice in the first place?

Man in nature knew nothing of love.
All he knew was to extinguish the fire of passion
at the moment that it welled inside of him.
Our concept of love is the result of the skills of women,
who in time have made us capable of this tender feeling.
Originally, every woman was good.

We are the ones who fight for love and lust.
It is “civilized man” who declares war, duels,
and even commits murder in the name of love,
not the savage.
Just look at the Carib, who even in the most oppressive heat,
known for exciting the passions,
is able to maintain his relationships peacefully
and live at ease with his fellow man.

Now, some say it is only natural that we fight over our lovers,
pointing to animals who do the same.
But the cock only fights over hens because there are less of them.
But as human beings, fortunately we do not have this problems.
Therefore, let us not imitate the nature of another animal,
when there are plenty of fish in our seas.

Knowing neither love nor hate, good nor evil,
in nature man had yet to develop our taste for blood.
With a free spirit and a clear mind,
his imagination had yet begun to run wild.
Living in peace with nature,
he killed only what he needed to survive.

Although in nature some men were stronger while others weaker,
some faster while others slower,
it is in society that man has truly become unequal to his brother.
We are the ones who pass judgment on each other
on the basis of wealth and family.
We are the ones who allow the rich to become educated,
and the privileged to live in a world of their own,
where they can look down their noses
at the masses of less fortunate men.

Besides, in nature man has no relationships with others
and therefore his inequalities don’t really matter.
It is in our societies that we interact with one another,
and that we allow our self-created inequalities to take root
such that the powerful dominate over those without power,
the rich over the poor, the “esteemed” over the “despised.”
It is only in society that man truly begins to oppress his neighbor.

Man’s true inequality is therefore not to be found
int he state of nature, but in society.
But how did man come to leave this natural state in the first place?
By what means did he find himself thrust out of this earthly paradise
and into the world of human greed and misery
that we find ourselves in today?