Every year, thousands of students of political philosophy and the history of political thought are inducted into Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality. The theoretical ramifications of the Discourse have held strong sway on later philosophical, anthropological, and political-economic debates addressing the origins of socioeconomic inequality. Notable examples of this are Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order (2011) and Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday (2012), both of which agree with the Rousseauvian vision of social inequality. It is then worthwhile to discuss the Discourse more in detail.
Rousseau’s proposition, in a nutshell, was that the progress of civilisation had created social inequality and oppressive political-economic structures that alienated man from his true nature. His core arguments, which have been discussed elsewhere on this platform, are: (a) that man is essentially good and respectful, and that compassion is a natural principle of self-preservation that inclines him towards altruism; and (b) that the introduction of property rights has corrupted his essentially good nature (Rousseau, 2012 ; see also Harvey, 2012: 74).
What students are often not taught is that Rousseau wrote his Discourse as an entry piece for a national essay contest held in 1754 by the Académie des Sciences, Arts et Belles-Lettres de Dijon on the question ‘What is the Origin of the Inequality among Mankind; and whether such Inequality is authorised by the Law of Nature?’. Rousseau eventually did not win the competition (in fact, he was disqualified for going far over the established word count limit), but this only begs the further question: why did the Académie pose such a question in the first place? To be sure, it was the Enlightenment - the age not only of Rousseau but also of Voltaire, Diderot, Volta, Kant, Hume, and Adam Smith, to cite a few. Moreover, the 1754 contest was preceded by another call by the Académie in 1749 to answer whether the restoration of arts and sciences contributed to the purification of the morals (which Rousseau did win with his Discourse on the Sciences and Arts).
However, it was also the age of the Ancien Régime, the absolutist state par excellence in Europe at that time. It was one thing to ask questions about philosophical, economic, and technological developments; it was another to address the issue of inequality, which seemingly contradicted the very existence of the Régime. The way the question is put implies not only that inequality has an origin but also that there was a time when human beings were equal, something that many people under the Régime had certainly never experienced.
Figure 1: Souper des Philosophes by Jean Hubert, 1772
A more pressing question to ask than the one posed by the Académie, then, is: what are the origins of the question about the origins of social inequality? An answer to this puzzle was provided by the anthropologists David Graeber and David Wengrow (henceforth G&W) in a remarkable chapter of their recent book, The Dawn of Everything (2021). G&W began by recognising that by reframing the question as above, we must engage in a comparative exercise revolving around the nature of different societies. Only by such means of comparison can we understand the interest surrounding the origins of inequality. The preferred benchmark of comparison to understand inequality in Europe – whether rightly or wrongly – was America.
During the 17th-18th century, Europeans had grown an insatiable curiosity towards these exotic – almost alien – faraway societies. This interest was propelled by the ever-increasing number of accounts from travellers coming back from the New World writing of the immense empires built by the Incas and the Aztecs, rivalling the European ones in extension and bureaucratic sophistication, but also the seemingly savage-like tribes of the Eastern Woodlands of Northern America. It was this American ‘savage’ that most spurned the curiosity of European Enlightenment thinkers, whom they invoked in discursive experiments to discover ‘what Man would be in the absence of societal and cultural constraints', i.e., the so-called ‘state of nature’ (Harvey, 2012: 69).
Furthermore, at the time, France was expanding its empire into the Canadian region, and missionaries (particularly Jesuits) would often come into contact with Native American intellectuals and chieftains with the purpose of converting the indigenous peoples to the Christian faith. What effectively occurred, instead, was an intense and intellectually rich exchange of ideas on the nature of freedom, equality, and religion between Native intellectuals and their French interlocutors. Many of these discussions were collected in the multi-authored Jesuit Relations, which spanned 140 years of missionary action in North America between the 17th and 18th century. The outcome of these conversations then served G&W as the basis to address what they call the ‘Indigenous critique’, a scathing account of French (and by extension, European) society and institutions, which Native intellectuals saw as emblems of competitiveness and selfishness, when not outright annihilation of personal freedoms.
What the Jesuits and the Native intellectuals debated about was the value and desirability of personal freedom. The Jesuits thought personal freedom was a disposition ‘contrary to the spirit of the Faith', and therefore, not a desirable trait in society (Graeber, David & Wengrow, David ,2021: 43). Opposed to this view was what they called the ‘wicked liberty’ of the indigenous Americans. According to Native Americans, freedom was a right of birth, very much like today’s tradition of liberal democracy exemplified by constitutional texts such as the US Bill of Rights or the UN Declaration of Human Rights. (Indeed, while it is well known that the US Founding Fathers had Montesquieu in mind when writing the Constitution, it is also speculated that Montesquieu had, in turn, encountered some Native American intellectuals who had visited Paris, which explains this fascinating continuity.)
What is more, while for Europeans, the notion of Lockean property rights entailed a vision of individualism based on power (over possessions, but also other human beings), this perspective was utterly absent in the society of indigenous Americans. Rather, the latter incorporated the individualism of their personal freedom with a form of communism – understood in its purest sense of ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’, without any of the political implications entailed by Marxism – to ensure that no man or woman was subordinated to any other.
Conventional historiographic accounts in the literature (see Graeber, David & Wengrow, David, 2021; Ellingson, 2001; Harvey, 2012) suggest that it was not the Jesuits that popularised the interest towards the American ‘savages’, but an impoverished French aristocrat named Louis-Armand de Lom d’Arce, Baron de la Hontan (more easily known as ‘Lahontan’). In 1703, after spending almost twenty years posted in Canada, he published the Curious Dialogues with a Savage of Good Sense Who Has Travelled, which comprises a series of conversations between himself and an indigenous chief from the Wendat nation called Adario (likely based on the Wendat statesman Kondarionk). In their dialogues, Adario (or Kondarionk) advances the Indigenous critique in its strongest form, attacking a series of norms, laws, and institutions typical of France – and by extension, Europe – at the time.
The conclusion to which Adario comes in the Dialogues is that the apparatus of coercive laws that forces European people to behave well would be unnecessary if European society did not also maintain a contrary apparatus that instead encourages people to behave badly. He identifies this in the property rights and their clearest material manifestation - money. As such, a ‘levelling equality’ among the Europeans would take place only if they abandoned conceptions of private property (Graeber, David & Wengrow, David, 2021: 54-5).
Figure 2: Treaty of Penn with Indians by Benjamin West, 1771-72.
As G&W write, these dialogues, though intellectually stimulating if not outright shocking for the time, would be a trivial matter today if not for the immediate and unexpected success they experienced. In the following fifty years, every other major figure of the French Enlightenment (including the likes of Montesquieu, Diderot, and Voltaire) tried their hand at some sort of social critique in the style of Lahontan’s Dialogues. Most commonly, they presented the perspective of an imagined outsider from a faraway land, be it Chinese, Tahitian, or Native American.
Perhaps the most emblematic case was the exchange between Madame de Graffigny and her friend, the economist A. R. J. Turgot. In her 1747 work Letters of a Peruvian Woman, Graffigny depicts French society through the eyes of an imaginary kidnapped Inca princess. She is critical of the vanities and absurdities of European society and its patriarchal structures, whereas all Inca people are equal before their king. She suggests that, unlike the French king, who levies taxes only to the benefit of the aristocracy and his court, the Sapa Inca (so was called the emperor) redistributed the wealth accumulated through taxation. For his part, and in a prescient critique of socialist regimes, Turgot replied that, as civilisations advance, inequality becomes unavoidable unless an Inca-style state-interventionist programme is undertaken. However, this would have the effect of crushing all initiatives, resulting in social and economic catastrophe (Graeber, David & Wengrow, David, 2021: 59-60).
Thus, what began with Lahontan is a critique of European customs from the point of view of indigenous Americans. Thanks to the exposure enjoyed by the Dialogues, it evolved into an argument about the nature of authority, social responsibility and freedom. And in the process, arguments about liberty, as exemplified by Turgot’s critique, increasingly became arguments about equality. Hence, from this historical perspective, the 1754 question posed by the Académie becomes less of a puzzle. Arguing about equality was essentially a three-fold exercise. Firstly, it was arguing about different conceptions of freedom, which is a concept that is less likely to undermine the existence of the Régime. Secondly, the dialectic style of this literary tradition allowed not only critiques to European society but also rebuttals to defend the moral superiority of the Old World. A notion that many thinkers were reluctant to abandon. And finally, it provided the opportunity to explore the ‘state of nature’ with which European philosophers had been concerned for centuries.
In this sense, while Rousseau’s work has rightly been hailed as a significant advance in the history of anthropology and political philosophy alike. When viewed in the context of the intellectual effervescence of the first half of the 1700s, his work is also profoundly unoriginal, as many of his critiques could be found in Lahontan’s Dialogues and those following (Ellingson, 2001: 93). If anything, his originality lay in not employing the dialectical technique in the vein of many of his contemporaries.
The most poignant aspect of this story, however, is not so much about whom Rousseau took as inspiration for his writings, but rather the inability of European thinkers to translate the Indigenous critique beyond a mere bi-dimensional caricature. Rousseau agreed with Adario that property was at the root of the corruption of man’s goodness. However, unlike the Wendat and other Native Americans, he deemed it impossible to return to primordial innocence (Ellingson, 2001: 83). This limitation meant he failed to envisage a society that could be based on a type of liberty other than that derived from property rights (Graeber, David & Wengrow, David, 2021: 66), thus perpetuating the contradiction between communism and individualism that we still see today. But the fact that both Rousseau and the Western thinkers found it hard to reconcile the two and imagine an alternative society in which forms of power based on the dominion of private property could never emerge is nothing but an indictment of their lack of imagination. If we are to understand the origins of inequality, we must first and foremost understand the decoupling of communism and individualism. One way to do so is to learn from examples of ‘wicked liberty’ that challenge our standard conceptions of societal relations.
Diamond, Jared. (2012). The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?. London: Penguin Books.
Ellingson, Ter. (2001). The Myth of the Noble Savage. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.
Fukuyama, Francis. (2011). The Origins of Political Order. From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution. London: Profile Books.
Graeber, David & Wengrow, David. (2021). The Dawn of Everything. A New History of Humanity. Milton Keynes: Allen Lane.
Harvey, David Allen. (2012). The French Enlightenment and its Others. The Mandarin, the Savage, and the Invention of Human Sciences. New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. (2012 ). Discourse on Inequality. On the Origins and Basis of Inequality Among Men. Durham, NC: Duke Classics.
Figure 1: Souper des Philosophes by Jean Hubert, 1772. Source: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/imageserver/image/%2Fmethode%2Ftimes%2Fprod%2Fweb%2Fbin%2Ff401223c-3e30-11eb-87aa-2b872fbc5d91.jpg?crop=5268%2C2963%2C2%2C821&resize=1200
Figure 2: Treaty of Penn with Indians by Benjamin West, 1771-72. Source: https://www.pafa.org/museum/collection/item/penns-treaty-indians