Rousseau, J-J (1755) A Discourse on Inequality. Translated with an introduction by M. Cranston (1984 edn.), London: Penguin. Also available as an Everyman Book in a single volume with The Social Contract. Said to be one of the most revolutionary documents to have come out of eighteenth-century Europe. Seeks to show how the growth of civilization corrupts man’s natural happiness and freedom by creating artificial inequalities of wealth, power and social privilege. Rousseau contends that primitive man is equal to his fellows because he can be independent of them, but as societies become more sophisticated, the strongest and most intelligent members of the community gain an unnatural advantage over their weaker brethren, and the constitutions set up to rectify these imbalances through peace and justice in fact do nothing but perpetuate them.
Chapter 1 of his classic work on political theory (published in 1762) begins famously, ‘Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains’. It is an expression of his belief that we corrupted by society. The social contract he explores in the book involves people recognizing a collective ‘general will’. This general will is supposed to represent the common good or public interest – and it is something that each individual has a hand in making. All citizens should participate – and should be committed to the general good – even if it means acting against their private or personal interests. For example, we might support a political party that proposes to tax us heavily (as we have a large income) because we can see the benefit that this taxation can bring to all. To this extend, Rousseau believed that the good individual, or citizen, should not put their private ambitions first.
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Diderot encouraged Rousseau to write and in 1750 he won first prize in an essay competition organized by the Académie de Dijon – Discours sur les sciences et les arts. ‘Why should we build our own happiness on the opinions of others, when we can find it in our own hearts?’ (1750: 29). In this essay we see a familiar theme: that humans are by nature good – and it is society’s institutions that corrupt them (Smith and Smith 1994: 184). The essay earned him considerable fame and he reacted against it. He seems to have fallen out with a number of his friends and the (high-society) people with whom he was expected to mix. This was a period of reappraisal. On a visit to Geneva Jean-Jacques Rousseau reconverted to Calvinism (and gained Genevan citizenship). There was also a fairly public infatuation with Mme d’Houderot that with his other erratic behaviour, led some of his friends to consider him insane.