How did social inequalities originate according to Rousseau? Is he actually advocating that man 'return to nature'? Rousseau, like us, lived in a society with inequalities between its citizens. Some are strong, some are not. Some are intelligent, some are not. Some are wealthy, some are not. Some are powerful, some are not. Why? That is the question he addressed in his Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men1. He thought of these inequalities as falling into two categories. The first two, strength and intelligence, are examples of what Rousseau called natural inequalities because, in his words, they are "established by nature" (p. 16). The second two, wealth and power, are examples of what he called moral inequality because they are "established, or at least authorized, by the consent of men" (p. 16). Natural inequality, by its very definition, is established by nature and so it is not to the point to ask for its origin or justification. Moral inequality, however, is our own doing and so it is legitimate to ask for its origin and justification. That is what Rousseau does in the Discourse.
In the end he sums up his approach by saying, "I have tried to set forth the origin and progress of inequality… to the extent that these things can be deduced from the nature of man by the light of reason alone…" (pp. 70-71). His method is to wind the clock back to a time before social inequalities existed, and then reconstruct the development of man using reason as his tool and nature as his guide. In this way, he hopes to find when and why social inequalities began. He is critical of theories that attribute social qualities to man even in his most natural state, the 'state of nature'. He says that they "speak of savage man and they depict civilized man"2, meaning that what they call the 'state of nature' is already a civilized state. Rousseau goes back further. His 'state of nature' is a condition in which man is in no way social, and it is there that he begins.
He claims that in this state, "inequality is practically non-existent" (p. 71). This is certainly true of social inequality: for a man to be wealthy, there must be property; for a man to be powerful, there must be laws. But property and law, as he goes on to show, are advanced social concepts and so in the state of nature, before any form of society had begun, they do not exist. But he thinks the same can be said of natural inequalities: even though some may be stronger or more agile than others, they have no reason to use this advantage against their fellow humans - there is plenty of food to go around and there is no desire to take slaves. These natural inequalities, then, are practically (in the literal sense) non-existent.
But, Rousseau claims, natural man has a quality that he calls "perfectibility" - a faculty for developing our natural abilities. It is this, he believes, that is the ultimate source of our social ills:
It would be sad for us to be forced to agree that this distinctive and almost unlimited faculty is the source of all man's misfortunes; that this is what, by dint of time, draws him out of that original condition in which he would pass tranquil and innocent days; that this is what, through centuries of giving rise to his enlightenment and his errors, his vices and his virtues, eventually make him a tyrant over himself and nature. (p. 26)
It is this faculty, he suggests, that urges us to do things more easily and with more speed. It is this faculty that urges us to want more than we need. It is this faculty that eventually leads to inequality:
But as soon as one man needed the help of another, as soon as one man realized that it was useful for a single individual to have provisions for two, equality disappeared, property came into existence, labor became necessary. Vast forests were transformed into smiling fields which had to be watered by men's sweat, and in which slavery and misery were soon to germinate and grow with the crops. (p. 51)
Rousseau marks the development of property as a crucial step in the path to inequality. With any property at all comes the desire for more property, and with this comes the desire to have others labour for us. He imagines a situation in which "the strongest did the most work; the most adroit turned theirs to better advantage: the most ingenious found ways to shorten their labor" (p. 53). This division of labour leads to a division of humans into the wealthy and the poor: "… in laboring equally, the one earned a great deal while the other barely had enough to live" (p. 53).
This inequality of wealth led to an unstable situation:
… the destruction of equality was followed by the most frightful disorder. Thus the usurpations of the rich, the acts of brigandage by the poor, the unbridled passions of all, stifling natural pity and the still weak voice of justice, made men greedy, ambitious and wicked… Emerging society gave way to the most horrible state of war. (p. 55)
It is at this point, Rousseau claims, that society was officially formed. It was the idea of the rich, who feared losing their wealth and status in the existing volatile state. He describes it as "the most thought-out project that ever entered the human mind. It was to use in his favor the very strength of those who attacked him, to turn his adversaries into his defenders…" (p. 56). The poor, the "crude, easily seduced men who also had too many disputes to settle among themselves to be able to get along without arbiters" (p. 56), were easily coerced into joining an institution that was designed to do the exact opposite of what it claimed: "to protect the weak from oppression, restrain the ambitious, and assure everyone of possessing what belongs to him" (p. 56). This account of the formation of society is considerably different to that of Hobbes, who imagined men coming together by mutual consent to establish a way of life that was genuinely better than the one they had. That it was formed by consent and led to a better life was Hobbes's justification for society. Rousseau is claiming, instead, that society was master-minded by the rich, that the poor had little choice but to agree to join it, that it maintained and strengthened the inequality it was claimed to guard against and, therefore, that it was unjustified.
To summarize, this is Rousseau's account of the origin of social inequality: It did not exist in the state of nature, but was the inevitable product of man's faculty of perfectibility. From the creation of property arose the wealthy class. From this came an unstable state in which the wealthy risked losing what they had to the uprising of the poor. The wealthy established 'society', purportedly to protect the poor but actually to protect the wealthy, and this gave rise to the politically powerful.
It is very clear throughout the Discourse that Rousseau thought we were better off in the state of nature than in society. He describes the former using words like 'freedom' and 'happiness', and the latter using words like 'misery' and 'torment'. At one stage he asks, "if anyone has ever heard tell of a savage who was living in liberty ever dreaming of complaining about his life and of killing himself", and by pleading, "let the judgment therefore be made with less pride on which side the real misery lies" (p. 34). But he is not advocating that we return to nature. He thinks, in fact, that we cannot, because along the way to becoming social we changed in a way that rendered a return impossible. He says that "savage man and civilized man differ so greatly in the depths of their hearts and in their inclinations, that what constitutes the supreme happiness of the one would reduce the other to despair" (p. 69). In the state of nature we had no passion like pride or envy because they developed later, and thus in the state of nature we had none of the problems they create. But now that we do have these passions they will continue to plague us, even if we try to live as we once did. Rousseau claims that, despite this, there is a sense in which we will return to the state of nature anyway. He develops his history of inequality to its ridiculous conclusion - a state in which "subjects no longer have any law other than the master's will, nor the master any rule other than his passions", so that "the notions of good and the principles of justice again vanish" (p. 68). He thinks that in this state we will again be governed only by the law of the strongest. He calls this "the final stage of inequality", a time when "all private individuals become equals again, because they are nothing" (p. 68).
It is difficult not to be moved by Rousseau's account of the human condition in society, and this gives the Discourse immediate appeal. Moreover, he presents it as veridical, saying to the reader "here is your history, as I have thought to read it, not in the books of your fellowmen, who are liars, but in nature, who never lies. Everything that comes from nature will be true; there will be nothing false except what I have unintentionally added" (p. 18). Here, and elsewhere at the start of the Discourse, he advertises his account as an objective one, concerned only with the truth. But when reading the Discourse it is difficult not to feel that it is more of an attack on the social philosophies of Hobbes and others, concerned more with finding ways to rebut their arguments than with finding the truth. It is difficult to believe that his history of man, starting so long ago and facing so many possible turns along the way, is anything more than one of many such histories. Nevertheless, at the very least it shows that the theories of these other philosophers have an opponent that is both plausible and attractive.
1 "Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men" is reprinted in the course notes and will be referred to throughout this essay as "the Discourse". All page references are to the Discourse.
2 I think this comes from Rousseau's "The Social Contract".