intellect.gif (9933 bytes)

Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Among Men (1755)

[Second Part, excerpts]

The first man who, after enclosing a plot of land, saw fit to say: "This is mine," and found people who were simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. How many crimes, wars, murders, sufferings and horrors mankind would have been spared if someone had torn up the stakes or filled up the moat and cried to his fellows: "Don’t listen to this impostor; you are lost if you forget that the earth belongs to no one, and that its fruits are for all!" But there is much evidence to indicate that, by that time, things had already reached the point of being unable to go on as they had: for this idea of property, which depended upon many preceding ideas that could only make their appearance one after another, did not take shape in the human mind all of a sudden. There had to be many advances; people had to acquire a great deal of knowledge and technique, and transmit and augment it all from one era to the next, before this last point in the state of nature could be arrived at. . . .

As long as men were satisfied with their rustic cabins, as long as they confined themselves to sewing together with thorns or fishbones the pelts that they used as clothing, to adorning themselves with plumes and shells, to painting their bodies in various colors, to painting and embellishing their bows and arrows, to hewing with sharp stones a few fishing canoes and crude musical instruments; in a word, as long as they applied themselves to tasks that took no more than one person to perform them and as long as the arts did not require the combined efforts of several hands, their lives were free, healthy, happy and good for as long as their nature would allow, and they continued to enjoy the fruits of an independent commerce among themselves. But the moment one man needed the help of another; when someone perceived it was useful to have the tools of two men; then equality disappeared. Property was introduced, work became necessary, and the vast forests were changed into glowing fields that had to be watered with the sweat of men, where one could soon see slavery and misery germinating and ripening along with the crops.

Metallurgy and agriculture, once they had been discovered, were the two arts that produced this great revolution. For the poet it was gold and silver, but for the philosopher it was iron and wheat that civilized mankind and caused it to be lost. Thus, both these arts were unknown to the savages of America, and that is why they have remained as they are; other peoples seem to have remained barbarous even when they practiced one of these arts but not the other. And perhaps one of the main reasons that Europe has been the most constantly and thoroughly civilized part of the world, even if not the earliest to be so, is that it is at once the most abundant in iron and the most fertile in wheat of all parts of the world. . . .

The invention of other arts was necessary to force mankind to apply itself to the art of agriculture. As soon as men were needed to smelt and forge iron, others had to provide them with sustenance. As the number of foundry workers grew, the number of those employed in providing the common subsistence diminished, even though the number of mouths to feed remained the same; and, since the one group needed the produce of agriculture in exchange for its iron, the other group finally discovered the secret of employing iron to increase the amount of its produce. From this arrangement was born, on the one hand, agriculture and plowing, and on the other hand, the art of working metal and multiplying its uses.

From the cultivation of the land there necessarily followed the partitioning of it, and from property, once acknowledged, the first rules of justice: for, in order to render to each man what is his, it is necessary that he be able to have something. Furthermore, as men began to look toward the future and see how much it was now possible for them to lose, every one of them found reason to fear reprisal for the wrongs that he might do others. This origin is the most natural, for it is impossible to conceive of property being born in any other way than through manual labor; it is hard to see what more a man can apply than his labor to appropriate things that he did not make in the first place. It is only labor which, giving the cultivator the right to the product of the land he has plowed, gives him therefore the right to the ground as well, at least until the harvest, and thus from year to year; this arrangement, which establishes continuous possession, easily transforms itself into property. Grotius says that when the ancients gave Ceres the epithet "Legislatress," and on one holiday celebrated the name of Thesmophoria in her honor, they were indicating that the partitioning of the land had produced a new sort of right: the right of property, which is different from the right that derives from natural law.

Things could have remained equal in this state of affairs if talents had been equal, and if, for example, the use of iron and the consumption of agricultural products had constantly maintained an exact balance. But the proportion that was maintained by nothing was soon disrupted. The stronger did more work; the more adroit drew greater advantage from what they had; and the more ingenious found ways of reducing their work-load. The plowman had more need of iron, and the blacksmith had more need of wheat, and, though they did an equal amount of work, one man earned a great deal, while another could scarcely earn a livelihood. This is how natural inequality surreptitiously deploys itself along with inequality of combination, so that the differences between men, developed by differences of circumstance, become more evident and more permanent in their effects, and thus begin to wield their influence in the same proportion over the destiny of individuals.

Once things have reached this point, it is easy to imagine the rest. I will not take time to describe the successive inventions of the other arts, the progress of languages, the development and expanding application of the various talents, the growing inequality of fortunes, or the use and abuse of wealth; nor will I describe all the details that follow from these, which anyone can easily fill in. I shall confine myself solely to having a look at mankind established in this new order of things.

Here we are then, with all our faculties developed, our memory and imagination in play, our self-esteem at work, our reason active, and our mind almost at the summit of the perfection of which it is capable. Here we are with all our natural qualities in action, and the rank and life-situation of every man established, not only with respect to the quantity of goods in his possession, and his power to serve or to do harm, but also with respect to his mind, his beauty, his strength or skill, his merit or talent. Because these qualities were the only ones that could win any consideration, one soon had either to have them or to be able to affect them. To gain any advantage, one soon had to show himself as something different from what he actually was. To be and to seem became two entirely different things, and from this distinction arose pomp and ceremony, deceitful trickery, and all the vices that follow in their wake. On the other hand, look what man became, as a result of a multitude of newly developed needs, from the free and independent spirit that he once had been: a subject creature, so to speak, in the domain of all nature, and even with regard to his fellow men, whose slave he became in a sense, even when he was also their master. Rich, he needs their services; poor, he needs their help, and even moderate means does not render a man able to dispense with this help. He must seek incessantly to interest others in his lot and make them realize, or at any rate seem to realize, that it is in their interest to work for his sake: a situation that makes him cunning and two-faced with some, tough and domineering with others, and that forces him to abuse all those whom he needs when he cannot make them fear him, and when he does not find it in his interest to perform any useful service for them. Finally, consuming ambition, the ardor to raise one’s relative fortune, which is due less to a genuine need than to a desire to stand out from the others, inspires in all men a dark inclination to do harm to one another, and a secret jealousy that is all the more dangerous because, in order to make its weapons more effective, it often assumes the guise of benevolence. In a word, competition and rivalry on the one hand, opposition of interests on the other, and everywhere the hidden desire to profit at the expense of others -- all these evils are the initial effect of property and the burgeoning inequality that comes inevitably in its wake.

Before its representative symbols were invented, wealth could scarcely have consisted of anything more than land and animals, these being the sole real goods that man can possess. Now, when estates had grown so in number and extent as to cover all the land and touch upon one another, it was no longer possible to aggrandize oneself except at the expense of others. The supernumeraries, whom weakness or indolence had prevented from acquiring some share of their own, became poor without losing anything, because, as everything changed around them, they themselves did not change at all, so that they were obliged to receive or to rob their subsistence from the rich. That is how domination and servitude, or rapine and violence, depending upon the character of the people involved, came into being. The rich, for their part, no sooner learned the pleasure of dominating, than they soon disdained all others, and, making use of their already acquired slaves to get new ones, they began to dream only of subjugating their neighbors and placing them in servitude: something like those hungry wolves who, once they have tasted human flesh, repudiate all other kinds of food, and henceforth want to devour only men.

Thus, as the most powerful or the most wretched made out of their strength or their needs a sort of right to the goods or services of others, a right that was equivalent, according to them, to that of property, equality was destroyed, and this was followed by the most dreadful disorder. Thus, usurpation by the wealthy, brigandage by the poor, and the unbridled passions of all, smothered all natural pity along with the still feeble voice of justice, and rendered men avaricious, ambitious, and wicked. Between the right of the strongest and the right of the first occupant there emerged a perpetual conflict that terminated only in battles and murders. Newborn society yielded to the most horrible state of war: mankind, debased and desolate, unable either to retrace its steps or to renounce the unhappy acquisitions it had made, preoccupied, to its shame, only in abusing the faculties that had been the glory of the human species, brought itself to the brink of ruin.

It was inevitable that men finally began to reflect upon such a wretched situation and upon the calamities by which they were being overwhelmed. The rich in particular were soon bound to feel how much of a disadvantage it was for them to be m a perpetual state of war, the costs of which they a1one had to bear, and which subjected all men in common to the risk of life and property. Besides, however much they were able to color their usurpations in their own eyes, they were reasonably well aware that they were standing upon a precarious and abusive right, and that, since they had made their acquisitions only through force, force could just as easily take it all away from them, and they would have no grounds for complaint. Even those who had become rich solely through their own industry could not claim a much better title to their property. They could say as often as they wanted, "I am the one who built this wall; I have earned this plot of land through my own efforts." "Who allotted it to you?" someone might have answered them, "and by what right do you claim payment at our expense for work that we have not imposed upon you? Do you realize that a multitude of your brothers are perishing and suffering from need of what you have in excess, and that you must have the express and unanimous consent of all of mankind before you can be allowed to appropriate from the common subsistence anything beyond what you need to maintain yourself?" Deprived of all valid grounds upon which he might justify himself and of sufficient strength to defend himself; easily crushed by bandit hordes even though himself easily capable of crushing one person at a time; alone against everyone, and unable, because of mutual jealousies, to ally himself with his equals against enemies united by the common hope of pillage, the rich man, under the pressure of necessity, finally conceived the most clever project ever to enter the human mind: to turn to his advantage the strength of the very men who were attacking him, to make his adversaries into his defenders, to inspire them with different maxims and give them different institutions, ones that were as favorable to him as the principle of natural right was not.

With this aim in mind, after having opened the eyes of his neighbors to the horrors of a situation in which they were all arming themselves against one another, in which their possessions were becoming as onerous to them as their needs, and in which no one found any security either in poverty or in wealth, he easily found specious reasons to win them over to his purposes. "Let us unite," he said to them, "to guarantee the weak against oppression, to restrain the ambitious, and to assure to every man the possession of what belongs to him: let us establish rules of peace and justice to which everyone will be obliged to conform, from which no one will be exempted, that will make up in some way for the caprices of fortune, by submitting the weak and the powerful equally to mutual duties. In a word, instead of turning our strength against ourselves, let us merge it into a supreme power that will govern us in accordance with wise laws, protect and defend all the members of the association, repulse the common enemy, and maintain us in a condition of internal harmony."

It did not require even as much as the equivalent of this speech to win over men who were crude and easy to seduce, who furthermore had too many matters to untangle between themselves to be able to dispense with arbitrators, and too much avarice and ambition to do without masters for very long. They all rushed to have themselves placed in irons, believing that they were thereby assuring their liberty: for, though they were endowed with enough reason to be able to sense the advantages of a political establishment, they did not have experience enough to be able to foresee its dangers. Those most capable of foreseeing the possibility of abuse were precisely those who intended to profit by it; and even wise men saw that it was necessary to sacrifice one part of their liberty in order to preserve the other, just as a wounded man has his arm amputated so that the rest of the body can be saved.

Such was, or is likely to have been, the origin of society and of laws, which formed new obstacles for the weak and gave new strength to the rich, destroyed natural liberty beyond the possibility of its return, enshrined the law of property and inequality for all time, made an adroit usurpation into an irrevocable right, and, for the sake of the profit of a few ambitious men, henceforth subjected all mankind to misery, labor and servitude. One can readily see how the establishment of a single society rendered indispensable the establishment of all the others, and how, in order to form a united force, each must unify in its turn. Societies, multiplying and expanding rapidly, soon covered the whole surface of the earth, and it became impossible to find a single corner of the universe where a man could break out from under the yoke and withdraw from beneath the sword that every man perpetually saw suspended over his head, and that was so often brought wantonly into play. Civil law having thus become the common rule for all the citizens, the law of nature no longer applied anywhere except between one society and another, where, under the name Of the law of nations, it was tempered by a few tacit conventions that made commerce possible and took the place of the natural compassion that is normally felt by one man for another but almost entirely lost between nations -- except where it is felt by a few great cosmopolitan spirits who are not contained by the imaginary barriers that separate the peoples of the world, and who, following the example of the Sovereign Being that created them, embrace all of mankind in their benevolence.

The bodies politic, remaining thus in a state of nature with respect to one another, soon began to feel the disadvantages that had caused private individuals to leave it, for that state became even more deadly among these great bodies than it previously had been among the individuals composing them. This was the beginning of national wars, baffles, murders, reprisals, all of which shock reason and cause nature to tremble, as well as of these horrible predilections that place among the virtues the honor of having caused human blood to flow. The most honorable men learned to consider it one of their duties to cut the throats of their fellows. Soon there was the spectacle of men slaughtering one another by the thousands without knowing why they were doing so; it came to pass that more murders were committed in a single day of battle, and more horrors in the taking of a single town, than had been committed in the state of nature throughout entire centuries, and over all the surface of the earth. Such are the first effects that can be perceived of the division of mankind into different societies. Let us return to their institutions.

I know that some have depicted the origin of political society in other terms, such as the conquests of the powerful, or the union of the weak; the choice between one or another of these causes has no hearing upon what I am trying to establish. Meanwhile, the account that I have given seems to me the most natural for the following reasons: (1) In the first case, because the right of conquest is not a right at all, it cannot be the foundation for any other; and so the conqueror and the conquered people remain in a perpetual state of war against one another, except if it should happen that the people, once their liberty had been restored, should choose the conqueror for their chief. Short of that eventuality, whatever capitulations had been made would be founded only upon violence, and would therefore be null and void; therefore there cannot be, in this hypothesis, either a true society or a body politic, or any law but that of the strong. (2) In the second case, these words strong and weak are equivocal; for, in the interval between the establishment of the right of property or of the first occupant and the establishment of political governments, the meaning of these terms is better rendered by the words rich and poor, because a man really has no way, before the existence of laws, of subjecting his equals other than to attack their property or make them part of his own property. (3) It would have been insane for the poor, having nothing to lose but their freedom, to give up willingly the only possession that remained to them, to receive nothing in return; but since the rich, on the other hand, are sensitive, so to speak, in all parts of their possessions, it would have been much easier for them to be harmed. They therefore had to take greater precautions to guarantee their security; and finally, it is reasonable to suppose that a thing has been invented by those to whom it is useful, rather than by those whom it wrongs.

The newly created government did not have a constant and regular form. The defects of philosophy and of experience prevented men from seeing any other problems than those immediately at hand, and nobody dreamed of dealing with any others except as they arose. Despite all the efforts of the wisest legislators, the political state always remained imperfect, because it was almost entirely the creation of chance, and because, since it had been badly begun, time could never correct the vices of its constitution merely by discovering defects and suggesting remedies. One constantly made adjustments, instead of beginning, as one ought to have done, by clearing the air and getting rid of all the old materials, as Lycurgus had done at Sparta, and then going on to put up a solid edifice. Society at first consisted only in several general conventions that all the individuals were committed to observe, and by which the community established its own security with regard to each individual. It took experience to show how weak such a constitution was, and how easy it was for offenders to avoid conviction or punishment for infractions when the public alone was to act as witness and judge; the law had to he eluded in a thousand ways, and trouble and disorder to multiply continuously, before people thought of conferring the dangerous burden of public authority upon private individuals, and of turning over to magistrates the task of seeing to it that the deliberations of the people were observed; for, to say that the chiefs were chosen before the confederation was created, and that the ministers of the laws existed before the laws themselves, is a supposition that cannot be taken seriously.

It would not be reasonable to suppose that the peoples were first thrown into the hands of an absolute master without conditions and without recourse, and that the first means of providing for the common security imagined by proud and indomitable men was that they should precipitate themselves into slavery. In truth, why did they hand themselves over to superiors, if not to obtain defense against oppression, protection for their property, for their lives, and for their freedom, these being the constitutive elements of their to speak? Now since, in the relations between man and man, the worst thing that can happen to one is to find himself subject to the will of another, would it not have been contrary to common sense for men to let a leader deprive them of the very things they were seeking his help to protect? What could he have offered them in exchange for the concession of such a fine right? And if he had dared demand it of them under the pretext of defending them, would he not have immediately received the apologist’s reply: "What more will the enemy do to us?" It is therefore in-contestable -- and this is the fundamental maxim of all political right -- that the peoples set up chiefs to defend their liberty and not to reduce them to servitude. "If we have a prince," said Pliny to Trajan, "it is in order that he keep us from having a master. . . ."

[Source: Albert Fried and Ronald Sanders, ed., Socialist Thought: A Documentary History ( New York: Columbia University Press, 1964), pp. 33-43.]

| Return to the Lecture |

| The History Guide |

copyright 2000 Steven Kreis
Last Revised -- May 13, 2004
Conditions of Use