Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men (The original French title is Discours sur l'origine et les fondements de l'inégalité parmi les hommes) by philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau is a famous critique of modern society. Also known as the Second Discourse, it was first written in 1754 to participate in a prize competition organized by the Dijon Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Critical Writings (French: Académie des Sciences, Arts et Belles-Lettres de Dijon), and was subsequently published in the next year. Rousseau did not win the prize in that competition though, as he did earlier with his First Discourse, but the essay eventually brought him widespread fame and secured his place in the canon of important philosophical thinkers.
The subject of this critique is how modern society impacts human nature both politically and psychologically. Here, Rousseau has presented human nature in the form of a psychological fiction, and he probably got his inspirations from Thomas Hobbes, a pioneer in modern political philosophy. In his famous work Leviathan (1651), written during the English Civil War, Hobbes demonstrated how a strong central power helps avoid political discords like wars. Had there been no such central authoritative power (which Michel Foucault would later call a Panopticon, taking the clue from the ideal penitentiary envisaged by Jeremy Bentham), everybody would naturally have the license to do whatever they please, and that would lead to disastrous, catastrophic consequences. All hell would break loose, as there would be “war of all against all” (Original Latin: Bellum Omnium Contra Omnes). In Chapter XIII of Leviathan, entitled “Of the Natural Condition of Mankind as Concerning Their Felicity, and Misery”, Hobbes had observed that in such a case of everybody fighting everybody, “there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth . . . no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Hobbes' argument, therefore, can be summarized thus: it is necessary to establish a civil society governed by law and order administered by a central authority in order to avoid socio-political feuds and discords.
Rousseau begins his essay by criticizing this assumption. Rousseau takes quite a cynical view of the Hobbes' vaunted civil society, and discusses how it has detached human beings from their ‘natural state’ of individual freedom in the pre-civilized societies.
The topic of the competition organized by the Dijon Academy was "What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by the natural law?" Rousseau seeks to answer precisely that, and discovers two variants of inequality among human beings. The first one is natural or physical inequality, which are our inborn features, over which we humans have absolutely no control. For example, some may be robust while others feeble, some may be tall and others short, some may have fairer complexions than others, and so on. Rousseau opines that such inequality is not a very important factor because this is not the prime reason of “inequality among men.” In fact, such physical disparity is common to all living beings; but the fact that other animals do not have as much ‘social inequality’ as humans proves that natural dissimilarity is not the cause of social discriminations.
It is, therefore, ‘moral inequality’ that divides people from people in a civil society, of which Rousseau seems to have a cynical opinion. He begins his discussion with describing the "Natural Man," a savage who only cares for himself and avoids confrontations with other humans and animals. The only things he needs in this world is “food, a female, and sleep”. In fact, this is where Rousseau’s Natural Man differs with what Hobbes had conceptualized: unlike his counterpart in Leviathan, the Natural Man in Discourse on Inequality does not face constant fear and anxiety.
The Discourse neither elaborates nor expresses any interest in the trajectory of development through which this Natural Man evolved into a member of civil society; Rousseau only acknowledges the complexity of the process. What is nevertheless important is that during this course of evolution, the modern man develops a sense of self-love (Original French: ‘Amour propre’) and subsequently creates Private Property, which has given rise to all the inequalities in the modern civil society.
Rousseau dedicated this work to his birthplace Geneva, where he praised the state as a near-perfect republic. His view of Geneva, nevertheless, was more Utopian than true, describing a state where laws and institutions were stable and just, the well-behaving citizens lived in harmony, and peaceful friendship was maintained with the neighboring states. Geneva of his time was not actually that heaven; Rousseau probably depicted the idealistic regime he had always wished for, contrary to the bitter state of affairs in Paris where he had spent most of his days, and left bitterly afterwards.