In November, 1753, the Dijon Academy announced another competition. The new question was: “What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by natural law?” “Struck with this great question,” says Rousseau, “I was surprised that the Academy had dared to propose it; but since it had shown the courage, … I immediately undertook the discussion.”106 He entitled his contribution Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes. At Chambéry on June 12, 1754, he dedicated this second Discourse “to the Republic of Geneva,” and added an address to the “most honorable, magnificent, and Sovereign Lords,” voicing some notable opinions on politics:
In my researches after the best rules common sense can lay down for the constitution of a government, I have been so struck at finding them all in actuality in your own, that even had I not been born within your walls I should have thought it indispensable for me to offer this picture of human society to that people which of all others seems to be possessed of its greatest advantages, and to have best guarded against its abuses.107
He complimented Geneva in terms quite applicable to Switzerland today:
A country diverted, by a fortunate lack of power, from the brutal love of conquest, and secured, by a still more fortunate situation, from the fear of becoming itself the conquest of other states: a free city situated between several nations, none of which should have any interest in attacking it, while each had an interest in preventing it from being attacked by the others.108
And the future idol of the French Revolution approved the limitations placed upon democracy in Geneva, where only eight per cent of the population could vote:
In order to prevent self-interest and ill-conceived projects, and all such dangerous innovations as finally ruined the Athenians, each man should not be at liberty to propose new laws at pleasure; this right should belong exclusively to the magistrates.... It is above all the great antiquity of the laws which makes them sacred and venerable; men soon learn to despise laws which they see daily altered; and states, by accustoming themselves to neglect their ancient customs under the pretext of improvement, often introduce greater evils than those they endeavor to remove.109
Was this only a plea for readmission to Genevan citizenship?
This aim having been achieved, Rousseau submitted his essay to the Dijon Academy. He was not awarded the prize, but when, in June, 1755, he published the Discours, he had the satisfaction of becoming again the exciting topic of Paris salons. He had left no paradox unturned to stir debate. He did not deny “natural” or biological inequality; he recognized that some individuals are by birth healthier or stronger than others in body or character or mind. But he argued that all other inequalities—economic, political, social, moral—are unnatural, and arose when men left the “state of nature,” established private property, and set up states to protect property and privilege. “Man is naturally good”;110 he becomes bad chiefly through social institutions that restrain or corrupt his tendencies to natural behavior. Rousseau pictured an ideal primitive condition in which most men were strong of limb, fleet of foot, clear of eye,* and lived a life of action in which thought was always a tool and incident of action, and not an enfeebling substitute for it. He contrasted this natural health with the proliferating diseases engendered in civilization by wealth and sedentary occupations.
The greater part of our ills are of our own making, and we might have avoided them, nearly all, by adhering to that simple, uniform, and solitary manner of life which nature prescribed. If she destined man to be healthy, I venture to declare that a state of reflection is a state contrary to nature, and that a thinking man is a depraved animal[l’homme qui médite est un animal dépravé’]. When we think of the good constitution of the savages—at least of those whom we have not ruined with our spirituous liquors—and reflect that they are troubled with hardly any disorders save wounds and old age, we are tempted to believe that in following the history of civil society we shall be telling that of human sickness.112
Rousseau admitted that his ideal “state of nature … perhaps never existed, and probably never will”;113 he offered it not as a fact of history but as a standard of comparison. This is what he meant by the startling proposal: “Let us begin, then, by laying facts aside, as they do not affect the question. The investigations we may enter into … must not be treated as historical truths, but only as conditional and hypothetical reasonings.”114 However, we may form some idea of man’s life before the rise of social organization, by observing the condition and conduct of modern states, for “states today remain in a state of nature”115—each individually sovereign, and knowing in actuality no law but those of cunning and force; we may suppose that pre-social man lived in a like condition of individual sovereignty, insecurity, collective chaos, and intermittent violence. Rousseau’s ideal was not such an imaginary presocial existence [for society may be as old as man], but a later stage of development in which men lived in patriarchal families and tribal groups, and had not yet instituted private property. “The most ancient of all societies, and the only one that is natural, is the family.”116 That was the time of maximal happiness for mankind; it had defects, pains, and punishments, but it had no laws beyond parental authority and family discipline; “it was altogether the best state that man could experience, so that he can have departed from it only through some fatal accident.”117 That accident was the establishment of individual property, from which came economic, political, and social inequality, and most of the evils of modern life.
The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying, This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes, might not anyone have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: “Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”118
From that permitted usurpation came the curses of civilization: class divisions, slavery, serfdom, envy, robbery, war, legal injustice, political corruption, commercial chicanery, inventions, science, literature, art, “progress”—in one word, degeneration. To protect private property, force was organized, and became the state; to facilitate government, law was developed to habituate the weak to submit to the strong with a minimum of force and expense.119 Hence it came about that “the privileged few gorge themselves with superfluities, while the starving multitude lack the bare necessaries of life.”120 Added to these basic inequities is a mass of derivative iniquities: “shameful methods sometimes practiced to prevent the birth of human beings,” abortion, infanticide, castration, perversions, “the exposure or murder of multitudes of infants who fall victims to the poverty of their parents.”121 All these calamities are demoralizing; they are unknown to animals; they make “civilization” a cancer on the body of mankind. In comparison with this polymorphous corruption and perversity, the life of the savage is healthy, sane, and humane.
Should we therefore go back to savagery? “Must societies be totally abolished? Must mine and thine be annulled, and must we return to the forests to live among bears?” That is no longer possible for us; the poison of civilization is in our blood, and we shall not eradicate it by flight to the woods. To end private property, government, and law would be to plunge the people into a chaos worse than civilization. “Once man has left it he can never return to the time of innocence and equality.”122 Revolution may be justified, for force may justly overthrow what force has set up and maintained;123 but revolution is not now advisable. The best we can do is to study the Gospels again, and try to cleanse our evil impulses by practicing the ethics of Christianity.124 We can make a natural sympathy for our fellow men the basis of morality and social order. We can resolve to live a less complicated life, content with necessaries, scorning luxuries, shunning the race and fever of “progress.” We can slough off, one by one, the artificialities, hypocrisies, and corruptions of civilization, and remold ourselves to honesty, naturalness, and sincerity. We can leave the noise and riot of our cities, their hatreds, licentiousness, and crimes, and go to live in rural simplicity and domestic duties and content. We can abandon the pretensions and blind alleys of philosophy, and return to a religious faith that will uphold us in the face of suffering and death.
Today, having heard all this a hundred times, we sense a certain artificiality in this righteous indignation. We are not sure that the evils Rousseau described arise from corrupt institutions rather than from the nature of man; after all, it is human nature that made the institutions. When Jean-Jacques wrote his second Discourse the idealization of the “friendly and flowing savage” had reached its peak. In 1640 Walter Hamond had published a pamphlet “proving that the inhabitants of Madagascar are the happiest people in the world.”125 Jesuit accounts of Huron and Iroquois Indians seemed to bear out Defoe’s picture of Robinson Crusoe’s amiable man Friday. Voltaire generally laughed at the legend of the noble savage, but he used it gaily in L’lngénu. Diderot played with it in theSupplément au Voyage de Bougainville. But Helvétius ridiculed Rousseau’s idealization of the savage,126 and Duelos, though a faithful friend of Jean-Jacques, argued that “it is among savages that crime is most frequent; the childhood of a nation is not its age of innocence.”127 All in all, the intellectual climate favored Rousseau’s thesis.
The victims of Rousseau’s invective calmed their consciences by representing the Discourse, like its predecessor, as a pose. Mme. du Deffand openly called him a charlatan.128 Skeptics laughed at his professions of Christian orthodoxy, at his literal interpretation of Genesis.129 The philosophes began to distrust him as upsetting their schemes to win the government to their ideas of social reform; they were not in favor of appealing to the resentments of the poor; they recognized the reality of exploitation, but they saw no constructive principle in the replacement of magistrates with mobs. The government itself made no protest against Rousseau’s denunciations; probably the court took the essay as an exercise in declamation. Rousseau was proud of his eloquence; he sent a copy of the Discourse to Voltaire, and anxiously awaited a word of praise. Voltaire’s reply is one of the gems of French literature, wisdom, and manners:
I have received, Monsieur, your new book against the human race. I thank you for it. You will please men, to whom you tell truths that concern them, but you will not correct them. You paint in very true colors the horrors of human society; … no one has ever employed so much intellect to persuade men to be beasts. In reading your work one is seized with a desire to walk on four paws [marcher à quatre pattes]. However, as it is more than sixty years since I lost that habit, I feel, unfortunately, that it is impossible for me to resume it. . . .
I agree with you that literature and the sciences have sometimes been the cause of much evil. … [But] admit that neither Cicero, nor Varro, nor Lucretius, nor Virgil, nor Horace had the least share in the proscriptions of Marius, Sulla, Antony, Lepidus, Octavius. … Confess that Petrarch and Boccaccio did not cause the intestine troubles of Italy, that the badinage of Marot did not cause the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, and that Corneille’s Le Cid did not produce the wars of the Fronde. The great crimes were committed by celebrated but ignorant men. That which has made, and will always make, this world a vale of tears is the insatiable cupidity and indomitable pride of men. … Literature nourishes the soul, corrects it, consoles it; it makes your glory at the same time that you write against it. . . .
M. Chapuis informs me that your health is quite bad. You must come and restore it in your native air, to enjoy freedom, to drink with me the milk of our cows, and browse on our herbs. I am, very philosophically and with the tenderest esteem, Monsieur, your very humble and very obedient servant.130
Rousseau replied with equal courtesy, and promised to visit Les Délices when he returned to Switzerland.131 But he was deeply disappointed by the reception of his Discourse in the Geneva to which he had dedicated it with such ingratiating praise. Apparently the tight little oligarchy that ruled the republic felt some of the barbs of that essay, and did not relish Rousseau’s wholesale condemnation of property, government, and law. “I did not perceive that a single Genevan was pleased with the hearty zeal found in the work.”132 He decided that the time was not ripe for his return to Geneva.