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Analysis of Rousseau’s Speech on Inequality

The problem of inequality has been an issue extensively dealt with by various intellectuals since the earliest times of our recorded humanity. History has devoted a great deal of space to this in its volumes, so much in fact that, to this day, we come to recognise different speeches that still frame the debate, justify or repudiate inequalities of different nature: economic inequality, gender gap, social status, etc.; some of them can still be found in contemporary politics. As early as the 4th century B.C. Aristotle addressed the issue of inequality among men - there was no place for women and children in his diatribe due to the circumstances of Ancient Greece - and asserted, with regard to slavery, that there are people of a servile nature. He understood freedom as a faculty to be developed that only some possessed, while others were naturally susceptible to becoming the property of others because, devoid of reason, they comprehended it from them (Sandel, 2008). However, in the face of the influence of such a figure of thought, there were many who opposed these conceptions.

Figure 1: Aristotle’s quote about slavery.

First, Rousseau's theoretical proposal should be seen as a pedagogical attempt of his time, "a dissemination plan aimed at the educated public (and not only at specialists) with a view to winning over public opinion" (Rubio Carracedo, 2008). The 18th century, in which the author's discourses are set, also known as the Age of Enlightenment, was a period marked by the use of reason, by the tireless search for truth and the scrutiny of human knowledge. The latter conceived as the best tool for unravelling the intricacies of a world that was moving further and further away from religious opacity and enigmatic dogma. Above all, the authorship of such an intellectual achievement belonged to the bourgeois and aristocratic classes that yearned to emancipate themselves from the theological influences and the power of the absolutist monarchies. Rousseau's self-education should be emphasised here, for his intellectual concerns were born not only from his social status, but also from an avid thirst for knowledge and a desire to challenge society. It is therefore his own theoretical genealogy that inclines him to take a stand against the enlightened flow, accompanied by Diderot, tirelessly disdaining "that atmosphere of cultured superficiality" (Rubio Carracedo, 2008). Rousseau establishes a clear accusation: cultural and moral developments have been decoupled (Garcés, 2021), it is no longer enough to be an enlightened despot, one must leave the protagonist "I" to give way to a constructive criticism that crosses reality:

[…] The sociable man, always outside himself, knows how to live only in the opinion of others, from whose judgement, so to speak, he draws the feeling of his own existence. It is not my object to show how from such a disposition so much difference is born for good as for evil, with such beautiful discourses of morality; how, reducing everything to appearances, everything becomes fictitious and ridiculous, […]. (Rousseau, 1754: 89)

Figure 2: Jean Jacques Rousseau’s portrait.

It is here, in the enlightened environment of intellectual prestige, that Rousseau places his critique. He sought to distance himself from the rational boasts of the enlightened in his quest for truth, and for this purpose, he started from an analysis of the genesis of the human being, transferring the dispute from the assumptions of the time to the crudest study of the natural beginnings of man. Thus, establishing a difference between natural or physical inequalities and those of a moral or political nature, he begins his Speech on Inequality (1784), in which he progressively breaks down what he considers to have been the "probable" evolution of human reason, until he arrives at the dichotomies and roughness that shaped the societies of his time. It is worth breaking down the logical sequence of thoughts that lead Rousseau to establish the tacit origins of inequality:

  1. Man is naturally free and respectful: piety is a natural principle which contributes to the mutual preservation of all species.

  2. In the natural state there is no inequality, because there was no need to exercise power over others.

  3. Man as a free agent has the capacity for self-improvement. Communication systems are born and thus the passions, which are nothing other than the desire for the ideas one has about things, given by language and the exchange of opinions.

  4. The passions result in the development of reason, which gives rise to self-love and makes man self-centred and selfish.

  5. With the invention of property, the result of the development of human reason and selfishness, came the concepts of mutual obligations, the notion of family and customs. From this arose the duties imposed by civilisations and the desire to take advantage of others.

  6. Natural piety is suffocated by the emerging inequality. The law of the strongest is replaced by the law of the richest. The human race is corrupted.

He therefore concludes with the idea that the same vices and passions that gave rise to the institution of social organisations are those that make the abuses and oppression that are exercised from them inevitable. It has been the very perfection of human reason that has led the species to deteriorate and given rise to inequalities: "which have made the being evil by making it sociable" (Rousseau, 1754: 56).

Figure 3: Layout of the original Speech on Inequality.

However, as hopeless as Rousseau's dissertation may seem, not all is lost: a counterproposal appears in the text with which the author urges discord and the deterritorialisation of established assumptions. It is asserted, and with no little rebelliousness, that if the strongest is the richest and constitutes himself as a despot sultan, it will be this law of violence, which will end up dethroning him and strangling his power of coercion. Moreover, there will be nothing unjust in the event, since justice was already absent from the first assignment of power to the tyrant. On the other hand, Rousseau also intuits, obedience can only apply to those who aspire to rule, to those who share the blind ambition and ideals of the oppressor, so that anyone who is subjugated against his wishes will inevitably have to rebel. Hence, the first intention of this paper is to conceive the Speech on Inequality as a pedagogical proposal. It is only through the logical series and orderly succession of arguments, in the purest educational style, that Rousseau builds his plea and urges the reader to reconsider the status quo and undertake actions of self-study and assessment; however, such pretensions are surrounded by pessimism and disenchantment, which is how the work is presented to the casual viewer.



  • Garcés, Marina (2021). El problema de la servidumbre. FUOC. Spain, Barcelona: Universidad Oberta de Catalunya.

  • Rousseau, Jean Jacques (1999). [1st ed. 1754] Speech on inequality [ebook]. Elaleph.

  • Rubio Carracedo, José (2008). El “Discurso sobre la desigualdad” de Rousseau como “Historia Filosófica”. Thémata. Revista de filosofía, no. 40, pp. 245-254. Spain: Málaga.

  • Sandel, Michael (2008). Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? United Kingdom: Penguin PG.

Author Photo

Alicia Macías Recio

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