Discourse On the Origin of Inequality
Role of Reason in Society
The state of nature and the emergence of the human capacity to reason has been a common interest for writers throughout history. John Stuart Mill, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Locke, all address these issues in their works, “On Liberty” , “Discourse On The Origins of Inequality” and the “Second Treatise of Government”, respectively. While all three of these authors agree that the state of nature is the era before civilization and government, they all differ in their ideas of the importance of reason in the state of nature. While Mills and Locke adopt a positive outlook on the role of reason in society, Rousseau believes that it is the basis for the corruption of morals.
In John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, he asserts that the “natural” human capacity to reason is dependent on debate with those of opposing ideas. According to Mill, the goal of debate is not to persuade the other side to convert its way of thinking, but rather to justify one’s own views while disproving the opposition. Only through this process, can someone truly understand and construct an opinion. Throughout his work, Mill continually asserts the importance of the individual. Every individual is free to form his or her own opinions about life; however, Mill believes that it is necessary to understand the arguments of the opposing party in order to truly understand one’s own opinion. By using reason to establish one’s opinion and refute the ideas of another, one effectively utilizes his “natural” human capacity to reason in order to form an educated opinion. Without considering the alternative views on a position, the meaning is insufficient to justify one’s claim. Mill stresses that one should not believe anything unless he or she can justify the reasons why the opinion is correct. In order to understand the truth, one is required to use reason to refute all alternative possibilities. If an opinion is not debated thoroughly, then the meaning is lost.
While Mill adopts a positive outlook on reason, Rousseau’s assertion about reason is negative. He believes that reason is responsible for many of the problems that plague civil society. In Discourse on the Science and the Arts and Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, Rousseau describes man’s fall from the state of nature. He describes this state as the condition of man before the development of society and reason. All humans are naturally good and compassionate; therefore, in the state of nature, there is no need for morals or reason. People will do the right thing out of compassion. As reason develops, man is corrupted and experiences a fall from his initial position. Man’s compassion eventually evolves into competition, leaving morality out of the equation. Institutions of reason, such as education, are responsible for this need to distinguish oneself form others. The need to be better in comparison to others eventually becomes the motive for one’s actions, rather than compassion. This demoralization of humanity is a step that Rousseau does not believe can be reversed. Reason has been corrupted and used to the advantage of self-interest; therefore, its institutions, such as education, cannot be used to restore humans to their natural state.
Locke believes that reason is the governing force in the state of nature, which is expressly different from Rousseau’s point of view, who believes that compassion is the governing force in the state of nature and reason is what brought people out of the state of nature. Like Mill, Locke takes a positive look at human’s natural capacity to reason. In the state of nature, there is perfect equality. Everyone has the same advantages and capacity for reason; therefore, Locke believes that everyone should have the same ideas for the Laws of Nature. One example of a natural law that Locke believes everyone should understand and follow is that of self-preservation and the preservation of mankind. “And Reason, which is that Law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty or Possessions” (271). These limitations to perfect liberties are in interest of preserving individual liberty and justified through reason. In Locke’s state of nature, every individual has the capacity to use reason to choose the correct moral path. Reason is responsible for mankind’s ability to morally regulate himself in accordance with the Laws of Nature, without the need for a central authority.
Mill, Rousseau and Locke all address the issue of man’s natural capacity to reason and its effect on society. All three authors agree that reason is an important concept, both in the state of nature and in civil society; however, the scope of reason’s influence differs from author to author. Mill and Locke both believe that reason is beneficial to society, but for different reasons. Mill asserts that reason is necessary in order to understand truths about the universe, while Locke believes that reason is the law in the state of nature. Rousseau, on the contrary, believes that compassion is the ruling body in the state of nature and reason is accountable for man’s corruption. While these authors may not agree on the role that reason plays, the fact that they all three address it in their works shows its general significance.
The Possibility of Perpetual Discontent: Rousseau’s “Inequality”
Can a man living in society be content? In the essay, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, author Jean-Jacques Rousseau addresses this very question. Man first originated in the state of nature, where he was alone and only dependent on himself. Over time, natural man started to deviate from the system and evolve into a social man where he lives in a community surrounded by other men. Through exposure to others, natural man grew envious of others mans abilities and possessions. These qualities which seemed better than their own sent man on the pursuit of them, ultimately creating the desire for perfection. Man is also taught what it means to be moral and is then in turn obligated to be virtuous. Reason is introduced to men in societies and they are then required to obtain as much of it as possible. Rousseau states that, “… nothing would have been so miserable as savage man, dazzled by enlightenment tormented by passions, and reasoning about a state different from his own.”(Rousseau 34). Although the transition of man from his natural state into society is savage man in a state much different from the state of nature. The disconnect between desire and ability prevents man from being content. The social man’s yearning for perfection, his inability to be completely virtuous, and his inability to be fully reasonable inhibits him from being content.
Social man’s endeavor for perfection prevents him from being content. In the state of nature, savage man lives alone and rarely ever comes into contact with another person. If natural man ever did meet another, they would either reproduce or pass one another. He is not exposed to the natural talents of others, therefore according to natural man, he is not inferior in any way because he cannot be of any public value. Natural man is content with himself because he does not have anyone to compare his skills to. Then “they eventually die without anyone being aware that they are ceasing to exist” and are from birth to death they are by themselves (22). However, social man is exposed to many other people and is able to observe different talents from a variety of peoples. Social man came to the conclusion that “the one who sang or danced the best, the handsomest, the strongest, the most adroit or the most eloquent became the most highly regarded”(49). Social man noticed the correlation between excelling in one aspect and underachieving in the same thing, he also observed how others responded to the man who excelled rather than the man that did not do as well. This created jealousy, a feeling never expressed in the state of nature. The want for oneself what another had. Social men are plagued “From these first preferences were born vanity and contempt on the one hand, and shame and envy on the other”(49).Vanity from being proud of what he is able to do well, but contempt for what others are proud they can do. Shameful for the talents he does not possess and envy of those that have the talents he desires. Social man is never able to achieve total perfection which renders him incapable of being content.
Social man also lacks reason which prevents him from being content. In order for a man to be part of society he must have reason, which is obtained through other people. Natural man does not have reason because he is alone for his entire life, where as social man is not. In the state of nature “Pity is what… takes place of laws, morals, and virtue, with the advantage that no one is tempted to disobey its sweet voice”(38). Natural man is guided to do the right thing by pity alone. In the state of nature “With passions so minimally active and such a salutary restraint, being more wild than evil, and more attentive to protecting themselves from the harm they could receive than tempted to do harm to others”(38). Natural man has no reason to harm another person because he is not tempted by his passions to do so. For social man, he is not ruled by pity alone, but rather by reason. Reason exists to satisfy the passions of man in society, such as “love itself, like all other passions had acquired only in society that impetuous ardor which so often makes it lethal to men”(40). For love is a passion that originated in society and only exists within it. It is considered a passion because it is not necessary in the state of nature and causes social man to be further away from that original state. Except for when man satisfy his passions using his reason, it diminishes his reason simultaneously. Therefore, the more reason he has, the more passions he has. This means more passions he has to satisfy leading to the loss of reason. It becomes a cycle that the social man has to go through. Social mans needs to obtain more reason, yet it is impossible for him to do so. Therefore social man is unable to become content because he is unable to be completely reasonable. Yet the natural man has no reason at all and is unaware that reason exists and he is content knowing nothing.
The inability of man in society to be virtuous prevents him from being content. A man in the state of nature knows nothing other than himself. He is not taught about morals nor right from wrong, “it would seem that man in the state [of nature], having among themselves no type of moral relations or acknowledged duties, could be neither good nor evil, and [have] neither vices nor virtues”(35). Natural man is unaware of what morals are and how to follow them. As a result of this, if natural man does something that social man would consider not to be virtuous, he could not be faulted for it because he does not know anything different. However, social man is taught by society, piers, and family right from wrong and is obligated to to follow the moral stature set forth. As a result of this for “every voluntary wrong became[s] an outrage”(49). Meaning that because a man who lives in a society and has been taught to act a certain way has to abide by it, or it is unacceptable. Although the problem is that man can never be perfected, which means that man can never be completely virtuous. This can be seen through how society works, “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”(55). The actions of being greedy, ambitious, and wicked are not moral and contradict what society asks of its citizens. If society sets standards for morality and virtue, but also created a circle of injustice, can men have the expected virtue? Men that are products of a society can never be fully virtuous and therefore cannot be content.
Overall, natural man will never be content if introduced to society. In the state of nature he is able to live on his own, where there is so competition. There is no obligation to achieve an ultimate state of perfection that is seemingly unattainable. Man is already the perfect version of himself as a result of not having any standards to live up to. Natural man is not taught virtues, therefore, in the state of nature, is not obligated to always do what is morally right. He will not know the difference between right and wrong and because of this will not be continuously striving for perfect morality that cannot be achieved. Lastly, if reason exists to satisfy passions, but natural man has no passions, he will therefore not need any reason and will be content living without it. Social man however has the pressure to be perfect, the obligation to be virtuous, and the continuing pursuit of obtaining the utmost reason. All of these factors prevent man living in society from being content and allow natural man to truly know the peace of contentment.
Self-Interest and Social Stratification: A Modern Reading of Rousseau on Labor
Philosopher John Locke claims that all of mankind has a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of property, and while many accept this claim as fact and truth, there are those who contest whether this idea is right and proper in regards to the laws of nature. In A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, Jean-Jacques Rousseau finds that property is the root of all imbalances amongst men. He also declares that, while labor for self preservation is just, when labor is divided among individuals, deemed either lesser or dominant, to provide for a whole community, man is taken advantage of, his endeavors become exploitative, and an imbalance of power becomes evident. In looking at this progression that Rousseau presents, it becomes clear that, according to these philosophies, all political systems stand against the laws of nature and promote the systems of inequality that the poor have so long been fighting against. Rousseau’s theories regarding the devolution from the state of nature, the rise of amour propre, and the creation of figures of authority, lay claim to the fact that the system of politics and labour present in today’s societies keep the rich in a dominant position over those less wealthy, and the unnatural system of inequality remains in place because of it.
Before modern society existed, before man abandoned the state of nature, Rousseau claims that individuals never compared themselves to the rest of mankind, and therefore they never held a desire for more than the bare necessities, and acquiring property was an unheard of concept. But as man grew closer to his relatives, all of a sudden he found himself determining his worth by how much he had and where he stood in comparison to his fellow man. As Rousseau phrases it, “ Men no sooner began to set value upon each other, and knew what esteem was, than each laid claim to it”(Rousseau, 41*), and thus the system of laying claim to property was born. This system of amour propre, or self love, leads to an imbalance of power as some men own more land than others, those who own more land no longer have to labor and toil, but rather they can delegate the labor to poorer populations. This system is illustrated by the story of Pierce Walker, from Studs Terkel’s interview compilation Working, who owns 200 acres of land, but only works 50 acres of it, “the rest [he] sharecropped”(Terkel, 3), allowing him not only to work less, but also to take the majority of the income from sales of the crops the other people working his land grew. Successfully keeping the system of inequality in place by making it impossible for any of his sharecroppers to ever rise above their current status, or for them to ever hold a position of power equal to or above his. And yet Rousseau claims that those like Walker become, “[a] slave in some sense…even by becoming their master; if rich, he stood in need of their services, if poor, of their assistance”(Rousseau, 45). In forming societies, men become dependent upon one another, and in the selfish desire for property and wealth, men become unequal, and the system of nature is all but cast away.
From the birth of classifications such as “rich” and “poor”, that came with the acquisition of property, arose a new and unnatural system of power structures and authority figures. In contest with the natural philosophy that all men are created equal, the self-inflated rich members of society developed the sense that those with more money and property ought to be held in higher esteem and granted more power, in turn promoting further an imbalance in equality amongst men. Money and property feed into this hunger for power, “the rich on their side scarce began to taste the pleasure of commanding, when they preferred it to every other; and making use of old slaves to acquire new ones, they no longer thought of anything but subduing and enslaving their neighbours”(Rousseau, 46). By enslaving their neighbours, those in power began to view their fellow man as less than, and thus the system of inequality was further extended. Much like in the story of Roberto Acuna(Terkel, 12), those without property often attempted to gain some sort of position with power, such as that of a foreman on a farm, yet still they rarely rise high enough in station to enact change or even to be held in the same esteem as those they work for. The hunger for power can be seen in every society known to man, but often it is only those that hold money and property that can satiate this desire, and keep a position as a true figure of authority.
This hunger and selfish desire that fuels the drive for power led to the birth of the political systems seen today, as,”the various forms of government owe their origin to the various degrees of inequality between the members, at the time they first coalesced into a political body”(Rousseau, 55). While a democracy is closer to equality than previous governmental systems such as aristocracies or oligarchies, because the power is not kept solely within families and those of perceived lesser standing still maintain a voice, it still promotes the unnatural system of inequality. There is a reason the stereotype of the “old, rich white man” remains even today within our political system, these were the people who were originally legally permitted to own land in American society, and thus they were the ones first granted power, and the country has yet to rid itself of these previous injustices to the minorities, and therefore remains unequal to this day.
In abandoning the simple, if moderately unpleasant, state provided by following the laws of nature, individuals no longer stand on equal ground as they once did. Rousseau shows that through engaging in society, developing a sense of self love, and striving for power, mankind has moved farther and farther from a position of equality, and now money and property dictate who controls societies. In his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, no solutions to this imbalance of power are provided, and the political systems present today make it evident that thus far no others have found any cures for this ailment either. As seen by the fact that America now has a billionaire as a President-elect, and the constant presence of those such as the Koch brothers in legislative circles, the rich still have a firm hold on positions of power. Until mankind once again believes that all born on this earth stand equal with their neighbours, the unnatural system of inequality will persist, but this change is possible, and tomorrow could be the start of a new era, if everyone once again believes.