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Rousseau’s Thoughts on Inequality

  • 03 Nov 2021

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a French political theorist and philosopher. He is regarded to be very influential because of his impact on the leaders of the French Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment. One of his most notable works is his theory surrounding inequality, as put forth in his book Discourse on Inequality. This book is a criticism of the modern world and provides insights into how society could have evolved. Through the course of this article, we shall seek to understand Rousseau’s thoughts on inequality.

The Two Types of Inequalities

Rousseau mentioned the existence of 2 types of inequalities - Natural and Moral. The former refers to inequalities arising from one’s health conditions, age, or physical features. On the other hand, moral inequality is the one that is established by man. Of these 2 social inequalities, natural inequalities are genetic and cannot be prevented while moral inequalities are unnatural and can be prevented.

To put forth his ideas surrounding inequality, Rousseau made use of a thought experiment, the state of nature. As a result, the thoughts that he propounded are not historically accurate. The experiment is a theoretical fiction that aims to understand the origin of modern man, as he is now.

The Natural Man and the Man of Civilization

According to Rousseau, there is the natural man who essentially is strong and is more orderly, when compared to the animals in his vicinity. He is deprived of moral sense and is unaware of what is good or evil. He lives to fulfill his needs, namely - food, sex, and rest - which he can satisfy easily. He is naive and is happy with all that he has while the civilized man is full of selfishness. The natural man is characterized by pity and empathy. Also, he cannot tolerate pain and hunger. As a result, he has no reason to not be wild. In comparison, the natural man is stronger than the man of civilization and the former can easily defeat the latter in a fight. The natural man is also not aware of what all he can extract from nature and is just involved in gratifying his desires.

Rousseau said that the natural man is extremely similar to an animal, barring the fact that he can improve his life. He is defined by two major characteristics - pity and self-preservation. Pity keeps him closer to others and self-preservation pushes him towards being alone. Though contrasting, these two features keep his life balanced and there is almost no inequality among all the natural men. On the other hand, the instinct to make his life better pushes the man away from his natural state, towards a selfish and immoral life.

Over time, the man had to overcome difficulties posed by nature as well as other living species, he had to devise methods to make life easier. For example, he had to eat fish to escape shortages of food caused by famines or prolonged winters. He also had to kill animals for flesh as well as to use their skin as clothing. These occurrences that repeated themselves, made man familiar with them. He began perceiving them differently and this difference that man witnessed, set him apart from all other animals - making him superior.

Rousseau also suggested that languages evolved - with man developing complex ideas. Cries, gestures, and a few imitative sounds were all that composed language for centuries. Languages evolved since there is more meaning to what man wishes to convey and it requires specialization. Hence, today, we have many languages spoken across the world. Also, due to the evolution of languages, man is able to develop his reasoning.

The Concept of Property

The institution of property got established after the beginning of agriculture. Man realized that he could not possess his produce unless he managed to own the land he was cultivating. Eventually, men began claiming that since the harvest belonged to him, so did the land. There would have been no inequalities arising from this had everyone been equally skilled, which was not the case. The most hard-working received more returns and became rich.

Rousseau wrote, “The first person who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say, ‘This is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. What crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors would the human race have been spared, had someone pulled up the stakes or filled in the ditch and cried out to his fellowmen, ‘Do not listen to this imposter.’” He also adds, the most appropriate thing to do in such a circumstance was to transform the degrading society into a purely democratic one, which has the power to ‘force people to be free’ and ensure there are no inequalities.

With the concept of property theft coming into place, inequalities among people rose. This also brought into the picture the issue of poverty - since not everyone could possess the limited property. Moral inequality was then introduced, due to the fact that anyone could own property, irrespective of their physical characteristics. Due to the invention of societies and property, the labor necessary was divided amongst the different individuals who owned land. This division of labor and the concept of property allowed property owners to dominate and exploit the poor. This led to conflicts amongst the rich and the poor - which could not otherwise have happened had man not left the state of nature.

The Roots of Inequality

Rousseau did not suggest a denunciation of property in itself - instead, he was critical of the differences that the institution of property created. Humankind has to witness the divide between the rich and the poor (or the haves and the have nots) where the rich believe that the poor are subservient to them. They know how pleasurable it would be to command the poor and try acquiring new slaves through the existing ones. There is a conflict between the two and the solution is the formation of political societies by the poor, through which they can ensure their interests remain protected. As a result of this, there is a social contract between the rich and the poor, as has been put forth by Rousseau.

But, there is a catch here - the rich recognize the fact that the poor seek war against them to end the unfair domination. As a result, the rich deceive the poor into joining political societies that grant them the equality they demand. However, these societies sanctify the oppression of the poor by the rich, thus legitimizing it and making it an inherent feature of the civil society which shall become permanent.

Rousseau rejected the Enlightenment belief in the human progress of reason through science and technology. The advent of technology, according to Rousseau, further increased inequality by playing a major role in molding human psychology. Agriculture and technology, which we see as boons, were extremely instrumental in drawing the line of gender roles. Brotherhood and cooperation among men led to the perception that women are inferior to men. This further suggested men a new way to discriminate against a particular section of society. At this point, relationships became more about benefits and not pity. The authority of the rich and the thefts committed by the poor was driven by necessity (or greed) and were both devoid of compassion and justice. This constant tussle between the rich and the poor never ended but there was immense bloodshed, owing to the many wars fought. The differences between men developed over time, due to the circumstances they were in, and this only became permanent in the long run. While civilization multiplied man’s wants, his inability to satisfy them made him unhappy - it only brought to light human decadence measured in terms of human unhappiness.

Over time, it became necessary for men to also possess other qualities such as wit, beauty, talents, and strength among many others. As time passed, despite the rich having everything they needed, they required the services of the poor. On the other hand, the poor needed help from the rich. Even a middle path couldn’t enable them to live independently. There was a never-ending conflict between the rich and the poor and among individuals to pursue their own interests, coupled with the secret desire to betray each other. Jealousy, insatiable wants, the intention to cause harm to one another, and the false display of kindness affected property and more importantly, contributed towards the growing inequalities.

He was essentially an advocate of approximate social equality and not total equality. He rejected the idea that social inequalities reflected natural inequalities of talents. For instance, a rich man would not be called rich if he is rich in talents (the word rich here, is a reflection of only his wealth) and a person who is said to be poor is essentially not poor in talents (here, poor only refers to the wealth he possesses). So, when a man talks about social equality, he refers to equality of opportunity, which cannot be provided in capitalist or communist societies.


Rousseau, in brief, propounded that inequality comes from property, but the increase in inequality is caused by the development of the human spirit. Further, he said that vanity among human beings and differences in property led to inequality - the rich became richer and the poor became poorer. Laws were enacted to protect rights and civil society eventually degenerated into extreme enslavement, inequality and ambition. The natural man loses his ferocity to live in society as his desires grip him and he loses his independence. He understood that no one could be free without a majority believing in popular sovereignty as the only legitimate way of organizing the state. He played a major role in spreading these ideas that we take for granted today.

 Uma Sathwika Manda 

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