The Social Contract, The Origin of Inequality
by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
analysis by Monica Hurd
To that noble Personage rancked herein; Jean-Jacques Rousseau .
[For Brutus is an honorable man…]
My feebler pen farre too too weake to sing,
Ha's got your Honour on her staggring wing,
And borne them to the loftiest pitch she may:
Therefore (submissiue) she do's humbly pray,
That when her wrist reels, or Inuention haults,
Your Fauours will giue crutches to her faults.
Your Lordship’s in all dutifull obseruancie…
(Adapted from a 1500 century poem by H. G.Hutton)
A human figure, rather sparse of clothing (in fact, he seemed to have sorely neglected his wardrobe when he rose to greet the day), stands at the edge of a great forest. Large of stature, strong of bone, keen of eye, and swift of reflex is he. Around him, the trees nod their heads sleepily in the warm afternoon sun and the yellow tops of the grass move gently as the spirit-winds wander softly through them. He whirls abruptly, and gazes fixedly at the forest behind him, listening to a sound inaudible to modern ears (our senses have obviously been dulled by the learning we consume from the ages of five to five and twenty, when we could have been vigorously exercising our five senses like this specimen of pre-historic-manhood), poising for instant flight or fight. An instinct-driven beast would have fled pell-mell, but our hero is a man, and has free-will to add to his instincts. He exercises it right mightily as a formidable wolf darts from the forest, eyes of flame glancing fiercely upon him. Our sparsely clad hero looks about, and as the wolf is between him, the forest, and his handy club, he must turn the opposite direction.
Ah-hah! A tree -- what subtle graces and virtues amass they! He zips away, the wolf running strong behind. However, as this is a pre-historic man we’re talking about, self-sufficient and strong, he easily keeps the wolf at a distance and gains the tree (again impossible for our inequality-softened limbs). But what does he see? His brother animal, the wolf, has been joined by his whole family, including distant relatives down to the last fourth-cousin-seven-times-removed. Sitting up in his tree, surrounded by a hungry band of wolves, our hero is besought with difficulties. What to do? But, as he has gained no powers of philosophical reasoning as yet, he is constrained to being practical. Therefore, he contorts his face, opens his mouth, and makes an inspired screeching, that remind one distinctly of a mixture of a yowling cat, moaning dog, and a bellowing bull. Intertwined among these uncouth strains is the unmistakable sound of agony and misery, and a beseeching for aid from fellow specimens of pre-historic-manhood. The glinting field is then filled with howling pre-historic men who can’t bear to see another man suffering in desperate straights. After dashing to his rescue and driving off the furious wolf and his retinue of relatives, they immediately lose their purpose and contently stroll from tree to tree, eating peaches, and loll under the waving branches with the ease and carefree attitude of children.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Rousseau’s ideas, as written in The Social Contract, The Origin of Inequality, are contradictory and hopelessly idealistic. His natural man is an excellent example of this, being strong, vigorous, and ignorant. For Rousseau, ignorance and equality is the very essence of happiness, as is self-preservation and pity the essence of morality. In the beginning, before inequality and the concept of “property” came into being, nothing belonged to man unless he wanted it at that moment. However, man became greedy and began to collect that which he did not need, which is the beginning of inequality. The next step was man beginning to value talents, riches, and power over virtue and honest, ignorant strength and goodness. Thus, powers were established and “law” and “morality” came into being for the protection of property and innocent people. According to Rousseau, morals are not something ingrained in man, but a necessity generated by inequality.
The root problem of Rousseau’s reasoning is his failure to understand the created creature, man, through the creator, God. Though professing to believe in His existence, it is a façade to gain approval from certain quarters, or from tradition and force of habit. He runs into a second difficulty in endeavoring to re-create man – discounting the fall. In short, Rousseau’s natural man is a man without a sin nature. To Rousseau, progress and sin are hopelessly linked, for “our minds have been corrupted in proportion as the arts and sciences have improved…as their light has risen above our horizon, virtue has taken flight, and the same phenomenon has been constantly observed in all times and places.” (The Origin of Inequality, pg. 8) Accordingly, for Rousseau, the proper state of natural man is that bliss of ignorance based upon the absence of all but the simplest instincts, which he labels as “morals.”
Man, in his first state of innocence: i.e. Nature, is laughably like our well-known and rather insipid cartoon character, Tarzan of the Apes. Rousseau pictures him as an animal, rather weaker than others, but in contrast to the mute beasts who are supplied (by nature, of course) only with instinct, man has both instinct and free will. Therefore, he can depend upon his wits. The natural man’s environment has much to do with his super-hero strength, agility, and naivety. His natural setting forces him to use all his senses to their greatest extent, for his life depends heavily upon his alertness and strength. The weak were destroyed, leaving the strong to make a healthier race.
Rousseau sees man as contented, taking what he needs and no more, his wants supplied. This simplicity and dignity is ruled by two natural principles, or “morals,” as Rousseau would term them: “one of them deeply interesting us in our own welfare and preservation, and the other exciting a natural repugnance at seeing any other sensible being, and particularly any of our own species, suffer pain or death.” (Idem, pg. 47) For, “his duties toward others are not dictated to him only by the later lessons of wisdom; and, so long as he does not resist the internal impulse of compassion, he will never hurt any other man, nor even any sentient being, except on those lawful occasions on which his own preservation is concerned and he is obliged to give himself the preference.” (Idem, 47) Thus, man lives his life, happy in his individualistic world, sinless – almost unable to sin. For only by persecuting others could he abuse his moral instincts, and that was impossible. Such was the simplicity of his sweet and trouble-free soul.
As Rousseau has shown us, in the beginning, before man became “corrupted” by knowledge, there was no justice and morality. “In the state of nature, where everything is common, I owe nothing to him whom I have promised nothing; I recognize as belong to others only what is no use to me.” By this, Rousseau means not that one can take what one wills with impunity, but that there was no property. When there is no sense of property or belonging, one wants only what one can consume at the time: No more - no less. Thus, if unpropertied man were to reach out his hand and take something, it would not be theft, for if it was available, it belonged to no one. Therefore, there is nothing to be taken in the first place, for if they wanted it, it would be already immediately consumed. As for the corruption of man, it began with inequality, which led to the increase of knowledge, which depends entirely upon the intelligence of one being greater than another.
Therefore, this natural and ideal man, strong in himself, innocent, and unassuming, began to fade away. As before mentioned, Rousseau believes beasts and men to have the two separate characteristics: instinct vs. instinct and free will. The beasts must and will do the same each time, while man can take advantage of a situation and decide to fight or fly. However, what truly divides man from the beast, says Rousseau, is his faculty for self-improvement. Over thousands of years, man improved himself. He learned to talk, to be more adept at the hunt, to care about others, and finally, to protect himself from the cold winters, blazing summers, and barren years by building houses and plowing fields.
Locke said that man’s “labor hath taken it out of the hands of Nature and hath thereby appropriated it to himself.” (Second Treatise of Civil Government, On Property) The first to do these things were undoubtedly the strongest and most intelligent, which marks the introduction of inequality. Once begun, inequality spreads like a disease. Rousseau cries against the true founder of civil society – the first man to bethink himself of possessions, lamenting “from how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, crying to his fellows: ‘Beware of listening to this imposter; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.” (Origin of Inequality, pg. 84) Accordingly, if man would be content to remain as a beast, letting his mind remain unexercised, simple in his desires of sleep and food, and ignorant of all things, we would still be happy to this day. It is to our Lord’s command of dominion that Rousseau attributes our downfall.
Eventually, as the more ignorant followed the examples of those preceding them, and as each man claimed something for his own, property came into being. Man realized that more property equaled ease of living and power over others, and with it strife, dissention, jealousy, and the striving for power stepped out right smartly. With property, families began to bunch together, and mutual love and consideration was born. When consideration for others grows, so does one’s opinion of what others owe one’s own position. This self-importance leads to anger and effrontery when others trespass upon one another’s image or persons, which leads to quarrels, and eventually, to vengeance.
However, when violence is being offered others, the morality that was fitting for the state of nature – owe nothing to him whom I have promised nothing and recognize as belonging to others only what is no use to me – would not stand for a society where one must think for others as well as oneself. Thus, the need for justice came about. From God comes all justice, but Rousseau adds, “… if we knew how to receive so high an inspiration, we should need neither government nor laws. Doubtless, there is a universal justice emanating from reason alone; but this justice, to be admitted among us, must be mutual.” (The Social Contract) Thus, applied justice and law is the result of inequality. According to Rousseau, before inequality came into being, there was no concept of a moral justice. For if there is no injustice, then what need is there for laws? As Locke said, “There can be no injury, where there is no property.” (Second Treatise of Civil Government, On Property)
Morality, to Christians, would be obeying God's law and doing the best we can to keep faith and follow our callings. To Rousseau, however, it means something quite different. He faithfully follows his reasoning down from his view of prehistoric man. If you will remember, Rousseau traced the natural law to its barest basics and presented the following guide as what is morally right for mankind: Morality is preservation of self and a natural repugnance at seeing other humans suffer. In short, whatever you need to survive is good. However, he further qualifies it. Instead of the more commonly known, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” Rousseau holds that his own maxim, “Do good unto yourself with as little evil as possible to others” (The Social Contract, pg. 76) is the more useful alternative. For it adequately describes, says he, our repugnance at injuring others, while keeping faith with our desire of self-preservation, especially if the two are weighed upon a balance. Hume, however, reasons that “private benevolence is . . . weaker in some persons, and in many. . . absolutely fails” (A Treatise of Human Nature, Of Morals), and, therefore, our natural sympathy cannot be the origin of justice. This follows logically, for if man were to be held to morality simply by his benevolence, then there would be no murderers or criminals. The more ignorant they were, the more blameless they would be.
Later, as inequality began to creep into the lives of man (i.e., the stronger over the weaker, the one with more intelligence over the one with less), men began to group together for protection. Rousseau says, "morality began to appear in human actions, and every one, before the institution of law, was the only judge and avenger of the injuries done him, so that the goodness which was suitable in the pure state of nature was no longer proper in the new-born state of society." (Origin of Inequality, pg. 91)Thus, when alone, man made his decisions by his own comfort and pleasure, but when he joined others, he sacrificed his rights for what society would return to him. Among these rights were following his own will in regards to the needs of others. For, on account of property and inequality, he could not simply reach out his hand and partake of it, seeing that it now belonged to another, he must take the guidance of society as to how to treat those matters.
Locke, contrary to Rousseau, finds Natural Law to be a law; not simply “morality.” Though he regards self-defense as superceding our consideration for others, their wishes are to come before our own, while Rousseau places consideration for his own desires first with only compassion to come between them. There was no law before the society came into being, but inclinations and natural morals. However closer to the mark, Locke did not identify the source of this Law. It is not simply a “moral instinct” as Rousseau thought, nor a “natural law” as Locke said, but God’s law that is woldy-noldy written upon the hearts of all men.
In this state, he continued to live “by substituting justice for instinct in his conduct, and giving his actions the morality they had formerly lacked.” (The Social Contract, The Civil State) He was then forced by the state to live conscientiously in regards to others, which, nevertheless was not disagreeable to him, because of his natural affinity towards considering others. This government, or state, that Rousseau mentioned has also interesting characteristics. In collaborating it, Rousseau gathered many men, compacted them into one sensing being, and gave it the same moral sense as one man. Therefore, it can sense, act, defend, take, and morally judge for the whole of society instead of itself alone. For instance, if a man, or group of men, revolt against the state or its authority, the state is no longer bound to consider these men, for the state is being attacked, and the first of man’s moral instincts is self-preservation. Thus, “every malefactor, by attacking social rights, becomes on forfeit a rebel and a traitor to his country. . . he even makes war upon it. In such a case the preservation of the State is inconsistent with his own . . . such an enemy is not a moral person, but merely a man.” (Idem, The Right of Life and Death) The state assumes the role of a moral person, and makes judgments accordingly.
Locke sees it differently, however. It is his belief that “in transgressing the law of Nature, the offender declares himself to live by another rule than that of reason and common equity.” (Second Treatise of Civil Government, Of the State of Nature) Therefore, it is his belief that aside from God there is a “natural law”, and to this natural law we are bound. It is not then a case of self-defense of a moral community of persons, but of actual transgression of a law, set not by God but engrained in our natures.
All these ideas originate from one issue. Calvin tells us, “It is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself.” (The Institutes of the Christen Religion, Ch. I, pg. 37) Thus, man must needs look at himself and his own deeds in the light of the Lord, in who’s image he is made before he can clearly see how lowly and humble he is. Rousseau’s purpose for writing the Origin of Inequality was to locate the origin of man, his roots, his nature, and to discover the cause for their position as of his day. However, he begins by saying, “It is of man that I have to speak” thus insuring failure for himself at the very beginning, by passing over the most important factor in examining mankind: God.
In this manner, Rousseau has provided mankind with a new creation myth, traces of which can be regularly found in our society today. Our roots have the power to change our very thought of ourselves, and through that, the way we think of others. Today, in man’s intense search for happiness, the difference can clearly be seen; the unbeliever longs for but can find no happiness without God and is thus driven to find it in immorality. Since there is nothing to distinguish man and the animals besides a greater intelligence, man thinks of himself as nothing but a beast, for whom anything is permissible if not hindered by force. There is naught to live for, and still less to die for, yet they love death.
In contrast, Christians, made in the image of God, know themselves to be in the image of Him, and are bound to make themselves more like him. They have a vision and hope for the future that will grow stronger as the years pass. Yet depraved man does not think himself unhappy, but feels it is the age of man. It is impossible to form a hopeful picture of mankind by examining his depraved deeds and still more corrupt passions. Calvin goes on to say, “as long as we do not look beyond the earth, being quite content with our own righteousness, wisdom, and virtue, we flatter ourselves most sweetly, and fancy ourselves all but demigods.” (Idem, Ch. I, pg. 38) Thus, as Rousseau did not raise his eyes from the humble inhabitants of the earth and look towards their creator, he has successfully placed triumph beyond his groping hand.
Rousseau, following the natural course of events, upon neglecting to take into account men’s creator is forced to assume that they are created with the most basic nature: innocent, ignorant, naïve, and with two innate instincts - the instinct of self-preservation and the inborn dislike of seeing other creatures suffer. In assuming this, Rousseau completely discounts the Fall and the consequences of that: sin. Lastly, the Lord covenanted with Adam, commissioning him to nurture the earth and take dominion over it, and spread his seed throughout the earth. But Rousseau considers this taking of dominion the first step towards our depravity. Accordingly, the true founder of society is he who bestirred himself, not being content with the calm life of yore, but desiring more, worked and claimed his labor as his own. To Rousseau, however, mankind will be best contented when confined to his most basic nature, and cannot fail to be miserable otherwise.
Can man only find happiness when he is at the level of the other beasts – the ignorant bliss of vegetating animalism? Rousseau goes on to say “Almighty God! Thou who holdest in thy hand the minds of men, deliver us from the fatal arts and sciences of our forefathers; give us back ignorance, innocence, and poverty, which alone can make us happy and are precious in Thy sight.” (Arts and Sciences, pg. 26) Accordingly, man’s greatest joy, that of “perfectibility,” is his downfall and nothing will profit mankind until he returns to sottish and beastial unawareness. This is consistent, for it leads man back to their very beginnings, where all roamed in peace with the world and each other, wishing for nothing but pleasure. This is directly inconsistent with Rousseau’s protestations of Christianity, for man’s greatest joy and the completion of his existence is to take dominion of every area of life for Christ.
Rousseau’s crime, however, is only heightened by the fact that he does admit to God’s existence and the fall itself: “Religion commands us to believe that God Himself having taken men out of a state of nature immediately after the creation, they are unequal only because it is his will they should be so: but it does not forbid us to form conjectures . . . concerning what might have become the human race, if it had been left to itself.” (Origin of Inequality, pg. 51) Here, Rousseau clearly intimates that he believes that God took man from his original state of nature, thus implying his acknowledgement of the existence of God.
Yet he does not follow through with his professions of Christian belief, but virtually accuses God of being the ruin of all mankind. But who is man to question the works of God or fathom his designs? Rousseau and others like him, are more revolting than the common unregenerate, swearing, adultering, lustful man, for he poses as a believer, and thus undermines by his foul words and actions the faith for which he proposes to stand. Speaking rotten thoughts and pietistically coupling them with the Lord’s name is taking the Lord’s name in vain. Rousseau resorts to the dastardly and dishonest mode of conviction: that of claiming to be one with his opponent, and groveling in a most disgusting and servile manner, while doing his feeble best to creep up behind the armored man with drawn dagger in hand. Where would mankind be “if it had been left to itself?” Rousseau has proved that we would be either nowhere or in cruel chaos. Even the simplest things depend upon Christ. Just as an author shows his character and disposition through his writing, so the Creator’s image shines through us, and it is impossible for us to see ourselves truly unless we look first at the Creator.