About a third of the way through Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality*, I nearly threw my pages across the room. Not only because I disagree with his romanticized version of the “savage man” but because I happened to read this:
Now it is easy to perceive that the moral part of love is a factitious sentiment, engendered by society, and cried up by the women with great care and address in order to establish their empire, and secure command to that sex which ought to obey.
It’s very difficult to take someone seriously when he gives so little credit to his own gender and then so little respect to the other. But I kept reading.
The discourse on inequality was Rousseau’s attempt to explain why civil society contains such huge gaps between the wealthy and the poor, the strong and the weak, the powerful and the enslaved, and whether this unfortunate situation is naturally occurring. His answer is yes. And he thinks the whole big mess is a direct result of humans leaving their “state of nature” and coming into contact with one another.
Rousseau’s assumption is that humans are perfect when they live separately, in nature, when their life revolves around an “amour de soi”, instead of what this becomes when they group together in civil society, “amour-propre”. He juxtaposes these two terms, which literally mean “love of self” and “self-love”, creating two opposing visions of the human soul. Rousseau argues that Love of Self is good because it promotes self-preservation. Self-love, on the other hand, makes us vain, competitive and proud. I like the distinction he makes between the two, but with almost 250 years of research in the natural sciences behind us, his theory of the noble savage just doesn’t hold any currency anymore, which of course weakens everything else he has to say.
He is correct in assessing that civil society is potentially fraught with disaster, that humans are horrible to one another more often than not, that most of our poverty (both intellectual and material) is of our own making. His argument against private property is quite compelling, so is his point about the corrupting capacity of power. He also rightly points out that once inequality is present in a society, it becomes a self-perpetuating problem.
However, as Rousseau builds his argument, he spends a short moment explaining how humans transitioned away from the state of nature and moved toward civil society. He argues that this change comes about through several inherent human qualities, notably, self-awareness and freedom.
Nature speaks to all animals, and beasts obey her voice. Man feels the same impression, but then at the same time perceives that he is free to resist or to acquiesce.
Humans are unique in that we have the ability to choose the life we lead. As well as become aware or conscious of our instincts. This consciousness is the key, I think, but unfortunately Rousseau very quickly throws it away. He explains how this very difference is what sparks our evolution toward civil society but then he spends the rest of his time explaining the negatives of the society we end up creating. And he makes it sound very much like once we’re living inside that complex social construct, we’re no longer capable of self-examination or free will. He depicts a society completely out of control, which spirals toward its own destruction.
There are days when it is difficult to remain optimistic about the way the world is heading. There is so much violence and poverty out there. Too much. But as far as I can tell, we are still paying attention. We are actively assessing our actions and examining our motives. We are painfully aware of our failings. Our system may be flawed, as Rousseau points out, but we’re not mindless slaves to any system. I think we prove this day after day. So I remain hopeful.
*A Discourse Upon the Origin and the Foundation of the Inequality Among Mankind