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A Discourse upon the Origin and Foundation of the Inequality among Mankind

By Jean-Jacques Rousseau / R. and J. Dodsley / 1761


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Rousseau wrote A Discourse upon the Origin and Foundation of the Inequality among Mankind (also known as the Second Discourse) in 1754, as a response to an essay competition by the Academy of Dijon. The discourse was an answer to the question: “What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by natural law?” Rousseau separates inequality into two categories: natural/physical inequality and ethical/political. He dismisses the first type as a quality of nature that cannot be escaped. He focuses on the second type, ethical equality, as it is established by human society. He says that civil society is a product of man having deviated from his natural state. He argues that, as such, it is an institution created by the rich and powerful to maintain their control over the poor and weak.

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Key Features

  • Discusses inequality in mankind as it relates to natural law
  • Focuses on ethical and political inequality

Product Details

About Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) was born in Geneva to a middle class Protestant family. In 1728, Rousseau moved to Annecy, in France. While there, Rousseau converted to Roman Catholicism at the encouragement of Louise de Warens. In recanting his Calvinism, Rousseau was also giving up his Genevan citizenship. Rousseau moved to Paris in 1742 and developed relationships with the Enlightenment philosophes Diderot and Condillac. Rousseau contributed an article on music to Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopedie. He left Paris for three years to serve at the French Embassy in Venice. When he returned to Paris, he met his future wife, Therese Levasseur, with whom he had five children (all of whom were left at the orphanage). Rousseau eventually left Paris, lived for a time in the French countryside, moved in with the Duke of Luxemburg, and eventually returned to Switzerland. At the invitation of David Hume, Rousseau went to England. After a falling out with Hume, Rousseau returned to France, where he spent the rest of his life. In addition to his works of philosophy, Rousseau wrote seven operas, an autobiography, and a work of fiction. He is credited as one of the first thinkers of the Romantic movement.