University of Pittsburgh, Summer Term 1998
Ben Eggleston, Instructor
Philosophy 0320—CRN 01205: Social Philosophy (writing)
mailbox: CL 1001—office: CL 1428E
Mondays, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., in CL 340
office hours: Sundays and Mondays, 4:45 p.m. to 5:45 p.m.

Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality

I. Background Information

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva in 1712; but by 1741, he was living in Paris, where he began to collaborate with Diderot on his ambitious Encyclopédie. Unlike most leading thinkers of the enlightenment period, however, Rousseau came to see modern civilization as a denaturing and corrupting influence—a position revealed in his controversial and prize-winning Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts (1749) and confirmed, to the horror of his fellow intellectuals, in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1755). Although his novel Julie, published in 1761, was an enormous commercial success both in France and elsewhere, even more enduring influence has been exercised by his novel Émile and his political treatise On the Social Contract, both published in 1762. In these works Rousseau maintains the disapproving stance towards modern civilization that pervades his two early discourses, but he also offers more constructive accounts: in Émile, of a child whose education enables him to mature naturally, instead of according to the corrupting influences of society; and in On the Social Contract, of a society whose constitution and customs enable it to preserve equality, provide liberty, and cultivate virtue. But both Émile and On the Social Contract were banned in both Paris and Geneva (largely due to the unorthodox religious views expressed in them) and Rousseau spent the rest of his years fleeing persecutions both real and imagined. He died in 1778, a decade before his provocative ideas would find renewed expression among the central tenets of the French Revolution.

for June 8:

II. Reading Assignment

III. Study Questions

  1. Rousseau thinks humans have “two principles that are prior to reason.” What do these two principles tell people?
  2. What does Rousseau think happens to a person when he becomes “habituated to the ways of society and a slave”?
  3. What does Rousseau identify as the “specific quality which distinguishes them [man and animal] and about which there can be no argument”?
  4. What does Rousseau say the “famous author” would have concluded if he had “gone back as far as natural man”?
  5. What does Rousseau say the “Savage man” would do if someone stole his dinner? What does he say the “man in society” would do?
  6. What is the gist of Rousseau’s answer to the question of whether we should just “destroy societies, annihilate thine and mine, return to live in the forests with the bears”? (Notice that Rousseau’s answer has two parts, one for those “who recognize for your species no other destination except to end this brief life in peace” and one for those “whose passions have forever destroyed their original simplicity.”)
  7. From his observations on the development of language, what conclusion does Rousseau draw regarding the extent to which nature equipped people for life in society?
  8. When Rousseau says “I ask which of the two, civil or natural life, is more likely to become insufferable to those who live it?” what does Rousseau understand the answer to be?
  9. Rousseau says that Hobbes should have said that the state of nature is a peaceful one. Why, according to Rousseau, did Hobbes say “precisely the opposite” of this?
  10. What does Rousseau say is the other “principle that Hobbes failed to notice”?
  11. What does Rousseau identify as the source of all the social virtues and the maxim “Do what is good for you with the least possible harm to others”?
  12. Why, according to Rousseau, is oppression impossible in the state of nature?
  13. What does Rousseau say is the “important truth” that made a person follow “the best rules of conduct that it was appropriate to observe toward [others] for his advantage and safety”?
  14. What happened in what Rousseau calls “the period of a first revolution”?
  15. What does Rousseau identify as “the first yoke [people] imposed on themselves without realizing it”?
  16. What does Rousseau say was “the first step toward inequality and, at the same time, toward vice”?
  17. What does Rousseau identify as “the two arts whose invention produced” the great revolution in which “equality disappeared”?
  18. What ills does Rousseau say are “the first effect of property and the inseparable offshoot of incipient inequality”?
  19. Who does Rousseau say “conceived the most thought-out project that ever entered the human mind”? What did they stand to gain from that project?
  20. What does Rousseau say “established forever the law of property and of inequality”?
  21. Why does Rousseau think it’s unreasonable to believe, as Hobbes did, that people in the state of nature would establish a government with near-absolute power?
  22. To what does Rousseau attribute Hobbes’s mistaken belief that people in the state of nature would establish a government with near-absolute power?
  23. Does Rousseau agree with Louis XIV’s claim that a sovereign is subject to the laws of his state?
  24. What does Rousseau say is the last of the three stages in the progress of inequality?
  25. What does Rousseau mean by “the final state of inequality” being “the extreme point that closes the circle and touches the point from which we started”?
  26. What does Rousseau say is the “true cause of all” the differences between the savage man and “the man accustomed to all the ways of society”?

IV. Suggestions for Further Reading

  1. Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy: And Its Connection with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1945) (Hillman circulating B72 R961), particularly book III, chapter XIX: “Rousseau” (pp. 684-701)
  2. Robert Wolker, Rousseau (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995) (Hillman circulating PQ2053 W64 1995), especially chapter 3: “Human Nature and Civil Society” (pp. 33-54)

V. Reaction-Paper Topics

If you want to write a reaction paper on this reading assignment, choose one of the following topics (or think of another topic and get me to approve it) and respond to it in a paper of about 2 pages. Your paper should conform to the instructions provided in “Guidelines for Writing a Philosophy Paper” and will be due at the beginning of class on June 8.

  1. Part One: Among the authors whom Rousseau mentions, perhaps he criticizes none as much as Hobbes. What is Rousseau’s criticism of Hobbes in Part One?
  2. Part One: For Rousseau, pity and reason are important and interconnected. Explain Rousseau’s view of how pity is the source of all the social virtues with reason being a vicious, corrupting influence.
  3. Part Two: According to Rousseau, there is a stage in human development that “must have been the happiest and most durable epoch.” How did humans have to develop in order to reach this stage, and what happened to bring this stage to an end?
  4. Part Two: Rousseau describes a specific process by which he says laws must have first been established. Explain this process, including who must have proposed that laws be established, what purpose these people thought the laws they were proposing would serve, and why those who were thereby disadvantaged went along with it anyway.

VI. Outline of Topics to be Covered in Class

  1. Who was Rousseau?
    1. a Genevan and a Frenchman
    2. a social critic
  2. the letter “To the Republic of Geneva”
    1. Rousseau’s relationship to Geneva
    2. Rousseau’s praise of Geneva
  3. Preface
    1. “hypothetical history”
    2. “two principles prior to reason”
  4. introductory paragraphs
  5. Part One
    1. man as nature made him
      1. physically
      2. metaphysically and morally
        1. the capacity for self-perfection
        2. Rousseau’s criticism of Hobbes
        3. the mutual influence of reason and the passions
    2. the transition from the state of nature to civil society: reflections on language
    3. pity
    4. the state of nature: a summary
  6. Part Two
    1. “the happiest and most durable epoch”
    2. the first stage of inequality: property rights
    3. the second stage of inequality: government
    4. the third stage of inequality: tyranny
  7. important themes
    1. egocentrism
    2. Hobbes

for June 15:

VII. Analysis-Paper Topics

If you want to write an analysis paper on this author, choose one of the following topics (or think of another topic and get me to approve it) and respond to it in a paper of about 6 pages. Your paper should conform to the instructions provided in “Guidelines for Writing a Philosophy Paper” and will be due at the beginning of class on June 15.

  1. Rousseau purports to explain the origin of moral and political inequality. Give a well-organized account of Rousseau’s explanation, criticizing any part(s) of Rousseau’s explanation you find dubious or weak and evaluating the plausibility of Rousseau’s explanation as a whole.
  2. Rousseau offers judgments about the relative goodness and badness of life as a savage and of life in society. Evaluate these judgments by indicating what these judgments are, explaining what arguments or reasons Rousseau provides in support of them, and assessing the soundness of those arguments or reasons.