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See also extracts from Rousseau's The Social Contract and Emile

Extra Rousseau

These extracts relate to issues discussed in Essay 4 of Social Science History.

Discourse on the Arts and the Sciences (1750)

The title of the essay that won Rousseau fame and a first prize was "Has the restoration of the arts and sciences had a purifying effect on morals?". Rousseau argued that it had not. Culture, he says, had undermined the moral fibre and strength of nations. To illustrate his point he contrasts ancient Egypt with the American Indians. Egypt had cradled philosophy and the fine arts and she was conquered (Rousseau 1750 p. 8), but:

"The American savages, who go naked, and live entirely on the products of the chase have always been impossible to subdue. (Rousseau 1750 p. 5 footnote)"

It was this image of the nobel savage that caught peoples imagination. Rousseau argues that it is people without civilization who have virtue: The honest man is an athlete who loves to wrestle stark naked. (Rousseau 1750 p.6)

Here he gives an individualistic rather than a social view of human beings. He thinks of "savages" as being in a state of nature - outside society.

A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1755)

Rousseau sent a copy of this discourse to Voltaire, who thanked him for his "second treatise against the human race". In fact, Rousseau's attack is on social institutions rather than humanity. In this discourse his argument is more complex than in the first. He blames corruption, not onto the arts and sciences, but onto their misuse, and as additional causes he brings in luxury, inequality and political institutions.

The First Part

(¶1.26) The first language of mankind, the most universal and vivid, in a word the only language man needed, before he had occasion to exert his eloquence to persuade assembled multitudes, was the simple cry of nature. But as this was excited only by a sort of instinct on urgent occasions, to implore assistance in case of danger, or relief in case of suffering, it could be of little use in the ordinary course of life, in which more moderate feelings prevail.

When the ideas of men began to expand and multiply, and closer communication took place among them, they strove to invent more numerous signs and a more copious language. They multiplied the inflections of the voice, and added gestures, which are in their own nature more expressive, and depend less for their meaning on a prior determination. Visible and movable objects were therefore expressed by gestures, and audible ones by imitative sounds: but, as hardly anything can be indicated by gestures, except objects actually present or easily described, and visible actions; as they are not universally useful - for darkness or the interposition of a material object destroys their efficacy - and as besides they rather request than secure our attention; men at length bethought themselves of substituting for them the articulate sounds of the voice, which, without bearing the same relation to any particular ideas, are better calculated to express them all, as conventional signs.

Such an institution could only be made by common consent, and must have been effected in a manner not very easy for men whose gross organs had not been accustomed to any such exercise. It is also in itself still more difficult to conceive, since such a common agreement must have had motives, and speech seems to have been highly necessary to establish the use of it.

(¶1.27) It is reasonable to suppose that the words first made use of by mankind had a much more extensive signification than those used in languages already formed, and that ignorant as they were of the division of discourse into its constituent parts, they at first gave every single word the sense of a whole proposition. When they began to distinguish subject and attribute, and noun and verb, which was itself no common effort of genius, substantives were first only so many proper names; the present infinitive was the only tense of verbs; and the very idea of adjectives must have been developed with great difficulty; for every adjective is an abstract idea, and abstractions are painful and unnatural operations.

(¶1.28) Every object at first received a particular name without regard to genus or species, which these primitive originators were not in a position to distinguish; every individual presented itself to their minds in isolation, as they are in the picture of nature. If one oak was called A, another was called B; for the primitive idea of two things is that they are not the same, and it often takes a long time for what they have in common to be seen: so that, the narrower the limits of their knowledge of things, the more copious their dictionary must have been. The difficulty of using such a vocabulary could not be easily removed; for, to arrange beings under common and generic denominations, it became necessary to know their distinguishing properties: the need arose for observation and definition, that is to say, for natural history and metaphysics of a far more developed kind than men can at that time have possessed.

(¶1.29) ... general ideas cannot be introduced into the mind without the assistance of words, nor can the understanding seize them except by means of propositions. This is one of the reasons why animals cannot form such ideas, or ever acquire that capacity for self-improvement which depends on them.

When a monkey goes from one nut to another, are we to conceive that he entertains any general idea of that kind of fruit, and compares its archetype with the two individual nuts? Assuredly he does not; but the sight of one of these nuts recalls to his memory the sensations which he received from the other, and his eyes, being modified after a certain manner, give information to the palate of the modification it is about to receive.

Every general idea is purely intellectual; if the imagination meddles with it ever so little, the idea immediately becomes particular. If you endeavour to trace in your mind the image of a tree in general, you never attain to your end. In spite of all you can do, you will have to see it as great or little, bare or leafy, light or dark, and were you capable of seeing nothing in it but what is common to all trees, it would no longer be like a tree at all.

Purely abstract beings are perceivable in the same manner, or are only conceivable by the help of language. The definition of a triangle alone gives you a true idea of it: the moment you imagine a triangle in your mind, it is some particular triangle and not another, and you cannot avoid giving it sensible lines and a coloured area.

We must then make use of propositions and of language in order to form general ideas. For no sooner does the imagination cease to operate than the understanding proceeds only by the help of words. ... the first inventors of speech could give names only to ideas they already had...

The Second Part

(¶2.12) The first expansions of the human heart were the effects of a novel situation, which united husbands and wives, fathers and children, under one roof. The habit of living together soon gave rise to the finest feelings known to humanity, conjugal love and paternal affection. Every family became a little society, the more united because liberty and reciprocal attachment were the only bonds of its union. The sexes, whose manner of life had been hitherto the same, began now to adopt different ways of living. The women became more sedentary, and accustomed themselves to mind the hut and their children, while the men went abroad in search of their common subsistence. From living a softer life, both sexes also began to lose something of their strength and ferocity: but, if individuals became to some extent less able to encounter wild beasts separately, they found it, on the other hand, easier to assemble and resist in common.

(¶2.13) The simplicity and solitude of man's life in this new condition, the paucity of his wants, and the implements he had invented to satisfy them, left him a great deal of leisure, which he employed to furnish himself with many conveniences unknown to his fathers: and this was the first yoke he inadvertently imposed on himself, and the first source of the evils he prepared for his descendants. For, besides continuing thus to enervate both body and mind, these conveniences lost with use almost all their power to please, and even degenerated into real needs, till the want of them became far more disagreeable than the possession of them had been pleasant. Men would have been unhappy at the loss of them, though the possession did not make them happy.

(¶2.14) We can here see a little better how the use of speech became established, and insensibly improved in each family, and we may form a conjecture also concerning the manner in which various causes may have extended and accelerated the progress of language, by making it more and more necessary. Floods or earthquakes surrounded inhabited districts with precipices or waters: revolutions of the globe tore off portions from the continent, and made them islands. It is readily seen that among men thus collected and compelled to live together, a common idiom must have arisen much more easily than among those who still wandered through the forests of the continent. Thus it is very possible that after their first essays in navigation the islanders brought over the use of speech to the continent: and it is at least very probable that communities and languages were first established in islands, and even came to perfection there before they were known on the mainland.

(¶2.15) Everything now begins to change its aspect. Men, who have up to now been roving in the woods, by taking to a more settled manner of life, come gradually together, form separate bodies, and at length in every country arises a distinct nation, united in character and manners, not by regulations or laws, but by uniformity of life and food, and the common influence of climate. Permanent neighbourhood could not fail to produce, in time, some connection between different families. Among young people of opposite sexes, living in neighbouring huts, the transient commerce required by nature soon led, through mutual intercourse, to another kind not less agreeable, and more permanent. Men began now to take the difference between objects into account, and to make comparisons; they acquired imperceptibly the ideas of beauty and merit, which soon gave rise to feelings of preference. In consequence of seeing each other often, they could not do without seeing each other constantly. A tender and pleasant feeling insinuated itself into their souls, and the least opposition turned it into an impetuous fury: with love arose jealousy; discord triumphed, and human blood was sacrificed to the gentlest of all passions.

(¶2.16) As ideas and feelings succeeded one another, and heart and head were brought into play, men continued to lay aside their original wildness; their private connections became every day more intimate as their limits extended. They accustomed themselves to assemble before their huts round a large tree; singing and dancing, the true offspring of love and leisure, became the amusement, or rather the occupation, of men and women thus assembled together with nothing else to do. Each one began to consider the rest, and to wish to be considered in turn; and thus a value came to be attached to public esteem. Whoever sang or danced best, whoever was the handsomest, the strongest, the most dexterous, or the most eloquent, came to be of most consideration; and this was the first step towards inequality, and at the same time towards vice. From these first distinctions arose on the one side vanity and contempt and on the other shame and envy: and the fermentation caused by these new leavens ended by producing combinations fatal to innocence and happiness.

(¶2.17) As soon as men began to value one another, and the idea of consideration had got a footing in the mind, every one put in his claim to it, and it became impossible to refuse it to any with impunity. Hence arose the first obligations of civility even among savages; and every intended injury became an affront; because, besides the hurt which might result from it, the party injured was certain to find in it a contempt for his person, which was often more insupportable than the hurt itself.

Political Economy (1755)

This article appeared in Diderot's Encyclopedia. In it we find that Rousseau's focus of interest has moved. He wants to know what kind of activity by government will make people virtuous rather than corrupting them. (HALL 1973 p. xlix)

In answering this question Rousseau brings in the General Will for the first time.

"the most general will is always the most just also, and.. the voice of the people is in fact the voice of God". Rousseau 1755(PE) p.133

"The first and most important rule of legitimate or popular government, that is to say, of government whose object is the good of the people, is.. to follow in everything the general will. But to follow this will it is necessary to know it, and above all to distinguish it from the particular will". Rousseau 1755(PE) p.135

By particular will Rousseau means private rather than social interests. It is private interest that corrupts:

"It is not impossible for a democracy to pass unjust decrees, and condemn the innocent; but this never happens unless the people is seduced by private interests." Rousseau 1755(PE) p.133

'Geneva manuscript' (1759)

The name used for the first draft of what became The Social Contract

(¶8) It is certain that the words `human race' bring to mind a purely collective idea which does not imply any real union among the individuals which constitute it. To this let us add the following supposition: let us think of the human race as a corporate [footnote: French personne moral] person having, together with a feeling of common existence which gives it individuality and makes it a unity, a universal motive force which makes each part act for a general end relative to the whole. Let us assume that this common feeling is that of humanity and the natural law is the active principle of the whole machine. Then let us observe what results from the constitution of man in relation with his fellows. entirely contrary to what we have supposed we shall find that the progress of society stifles humanity in men's hearts by arousing personal interest, and that the notions of natural law, which it would be more appropriate to call the law of reason, only begin to develop when the earlier development of the passions is making all its precepts powerless. From this it is apparent that this so-called social treaty, dictated by nature, is a pure fantasy, since its conditions are always unknown or impracticable and men must either be unaware of them or infringe them.

(¶9) If the general society existed elsewhere than in the systems of philosophers, it would, as I have said, be a corporate being [footnote: French ątre moral] with its own qualities distinct from those of the particular beings who constitute it, in the same way that chemical compounds have properties which they do not obtain from any of the elements which constitute them. There would be a universal language which nature would teach to all men and which would be the first instrument of their mutual communication. There would be a sort of common sensorium which would ensure the correspondence of all the parts. Public good or evil would not be merely the sum of individual goods and evils, as in a simple aggregation, but it would reside in the liaison which unites them; it would be greater than the sum; and public felicity, far from being established on the happiness of individuals, would itself be the source of that happiness.

(¶10) It is false to assert that, in the state of independence, reason leads us to contribute to the common good through a consideration of our own interests. Far from being allied, private interest and the common good are mutually exclusive in the natural order of things. Social laws are a yoke which everyone is very willing to impose on others, but which he does not want to bear himself. I sense that I am bringing terror and strife into the midst of the human race, says the independent man whom the wise man wishes to stifle; but either I must be unhappy, or I must make others unhappy, and no one is more dear to me than myself.


(¶12) Indeed, if the concepts of the Supreme Being and of natural law were innate in every heart, it was very superfluous to take the trouble to teach them both directly. To do so was to inform us of [p.174] what we already knew, [etc]

(¶13) ... Let us leave to the philosopher the examination of a question which the theologian has never treated except to the prejudice of the human race.

(¶14) But the philosopher will refer me back to the human race itself, which alone has the right to decide, for its only passion is for the greatest possible well-being of all men. He will tell me that it is to the general will that the individual must address himself to know how far he must be a man, a citizen, a subject, a father and a child, and when it is fitting for him to live and when to die.

I admit that I can clearly see there the rule that I must consult, our independent man will say, but I do not see the reason why I should be subject to this rule. It is not a question of teaching me what justice is; it is a question of showing me what interest I have in being just. No one, indeed, will disagree with the view that the general will is, in each individual, a pure act of the understanding which reasons, when the passions are silent, about what a man can ask of his fellows and what his fellows have a right to ask of him. But where is the man who can thus separate himself from himself? If self-preservation is the first precept of nature, can he be forced to consider, in this way, the human race in general and to impose on himself duties whose relation with his own individual constitution he cannot see? Do not the objections mentioned above continue to exist? Do we not still need to show how this personal interest demands that he submit himself to the general will? [etc]

(¶15) ... Would it not often happen, if the general will had to be consulted about a particular action, that a well-intentioned man would make a mistake, either in the rule or in its application, and would follow his own inclinations whilst thinking he was obeying the law? What will he do to save himself from such errors? Will he listen to his inner voice? But it is said that this voice is only formed by the habit of judging and feeling in the bosom of society and according to the laws; it cannot, then, serve to establish them.

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