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Discourse on the Origin of Inequality

3.83  ·  Rating details ·  13,206 ratings  ·  472 reviews
If humans are benevolent by nature, how do societies become corrupt? And how do governments founded upon the defense of individual rights degenerate into tyranny? These are the questions addressed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, a strikingly original inquiry into much-explored issues of 18th-century (and subsequent) philosophy: human natur ...more
Paperback, 73 pages
Published June 4th 2004 by Dover Publications (first published 1755)
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David Sarkies
Jan 18, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: People interested in political philosophy
Recommended to David by: Some Guy on the internet
Shelves: philosophy
Why rulers are rulers and why we serve them
18 January 2013

I found this book an interesting read and it does has some interesting concepts. While it sort of reads like Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, much of the ideas are based upon speculation and Rousseau's conclusions seem to be little more than guess work. Mind you, it is interesting to see such a discourse written over one hundred years before Darwin wrote his Origin of the Species, and it appears that Darwin has borrowed from this text. Ho
Jun 12, 2019 rated it liked it
Well, I don’t know what I was expecting, but not this. Or rather, I was expecting ‘the noble savage’ to play some sort of role and I got the noble savage , admittedly– so, I should be satisfied, but when people have told me about the noble savage in the past they have left things out. The main thing that excised is HE is a bloke, not just a man, a bloke. He is rarely happier than when he is on his own, he doesn’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about stuff , there’s no football, so, obviously ...more
‘I received, sir, your latest book against the human race, for which I thank you,’ wrote Voltaire snarkily, after Rousseau sent him a copy of this treatise. ‘Never has so much ésprit been employed in trying to turn us into beasts.’ You can see why he might not have liked it: Voltaire was the archetypal civilised man – urbane, witty, a social animal. Whereas for Rousseau (a more pessimistic character), civilisation had been going steadily downhill literally since the Stone Age.

Oh, those hunter-ga
Feb 10, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favourites
I shall hopefully write a proper review once I have composed my thoughts, but for now I will seek to emulate the delighted and reverential tone of those critics whose choiciest lines of praise are plastered on the back-cover, front-cover and insides of books:

"A magnificent triumph of imagination, scholarship and reason!"


The discourse is divided into two parts. Part I deals with Man in the "State of Nature" (a concept used to denote the hypothetical conditions of what the lives of people migh
Justin Evans
I'm occasionally struck by how bad the great classics of political philosophy are. Consider that, when teaching philosophy, we spend an awful lot of energy convincing students that their arguments have to be tight, they have to avoid fallacies, they have to back up their reasoning, and they have to avoid special pleading. Then we give them Locke's treatises, or The Prince, or this great turd of philosophical unreason.

That said, once you decide this isn't a work of philosophy, it gets much bette
Jun 10, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: philosophy, favorites
rousseau has written the first anti-civ, anarchist philosophical essay that i am aware of. it doesn't seem to be fully acknowledged as that, but it's clear what rousseau is talking about when he declares "All ran to meet their chains thinking they secured their freedom... Such was the origin of society and laws, which gave new fetters to the weak and new forces to the rich, destroyed natural freedom for all time, established forever the law of property and inequality, changed a clever usurpation ...more
Jan 29, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
How did people start to use words to express abstract ideas such as love, reason, freedom, death, or life?
This was one of the first works of Rousseau (1755), the fruit of a public concourse (he always was in need of money). It's already clearly a work of genius, although certainly not completely thought through. Anyway it reveals the spirit of Rousseau's thinking: there's no such thing as original sin, civilization (and the unilateral use of reason) has brought decline to man and introduced inequality; but there is no way back, man has to proceed (so, in contrast with what often is stated, he does n ...more
This book was written centuries ago and it's interesting how the points it makes are still applicable to some extent to our modern world. It kind of solidifies beliefs I already had about society as a whole. The whole social game is a curse disguised as a blessing and our intelligence as human beings, although brings a lot of benefits, also creates unnecessary suffering. A lot of people in power are sadistic egomaniacs. A new idea he introduced is his belief that selfishness and cruelty aren't t ...more
Feb 25, 2013 rated it really liked it

Without Rousseau’s careful reflections on “the distance from pure sensations to the simplest knowledge”, Kant couldn’t have applied his theory that, “Men work themselves gradually out of barbarity if only intentional artifices are not made to hold them in it.” Rousseau says the distance couldn’t have been bridged without communication and goes on to show how incredibly slow the process to create language must have been. Society must have been a precursor to real language, the first ideas must ha
Elie F
The title of this marvelous essay might suggest that it is about politics, but no it's not. Rousseau tackled political problems and solutions in The Social Contract, and no, the social contract is not the solution to the problems of human condition he laid out in The Discourse on Inequality. Apparently Rousseau's radicalness goes way beyond politics; he sees inequality as stemming from material and spiritual dependence. We are materially dependent on others from the moment we collaborate to prod ...more
The problem with reading Rousseau’s ‘Discourse on Inequality’ more than 250 years after its composition is that the content alternately seems obvious, because it had such influence on subsequent work, and archaic, because so much has been superceded. On balance it was still worth reading, although I wouldn’t have bothered if my mum hadn’t given me a copy. The overall argument about human nature inevitably seems dated and repeated references to 'savages' grate. Rousseau’s views on women also real ...more
Feb 05, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: philosophy, political
I had a much harder time diving into this discourse compared to his previous on art and science which I thoroughly enjoyed. Once I got through his ramblings, which was about half of the book, I was thoroughly captivated though which salvaged my rating and of course overall enjoyment. It seems to be an imperative to remember the timing of its release and not apply modern filters, otherwise you can easily groan and guffaw at his treatise on the "noble savages" in the first half of the book. If you ...more
Shima Masoumi
Mar 08, 2019 rated it liked it
Rousseau talks about what he calls « natural human being » and the origin of gouvernements and how they led to inequalities between human beings. The inequalities based on race, wealth and position and not based on natural capacities. The first part of the book is much more interesting but in the second part Rousseau mostly repeats the same ideas and towards the end the discourse becomes mostly irrational and uninteresting in a way that I my self found it really hard to read. Also there are so m ...more
Sep 08, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
In this book, Rousseau sets out to explain how inequality evolves from the natural state of man. This he does in two steps.

In part 1 of the book, Rousseau offers a detailed description of the natural state of man. In opposition to Hobbes, who in his Leviathan claimed man was a 'homo homini lupus', Rousseau claims that savages are happy and innocent. This is what later commentaries called 'the noble savage'. In this natural state man looks only after himself, satisfies his base needs (food, shelt
Living in the times where the expertise is dead among other things like god, is it fair to mend the personal and collective world problems for temporary satisfaction of oneself or dive deep into the roots of it and try finding something worthy? Jean-Jacques Rousseau / Mr. Enlightenment makes an attempt here.

According to the discourse based on his conjectural history of Mankind widely influenced by his times, culture is the culprit here. That our foundation of the morality, specialization and bu
Wiom biom
I highly recommend reading this! I certainly did not find myself agreeing with everything that Rousseau wrote but I found it a really compelling, well-written and 'enlightening' piece about mankind's accelerated perversion after leaving the state of nature and entering the state of society.

A few reviewers have criticised this discourse for being overly reliant on rhetoric and while I do see the validity in that, I think one should take into account that there was little, if any, scientific resea
Jan 13, 2013 rated it liked it
I remember having to read Rousseau's confessions at school, a pursuit I artfully dodged being the first rate slacker that I was. Yet I did not escaped the few lessons we were taught on this character, which I somehow came to picture, based on those partial readings, as a whiny, self-loathing and moralizing character, which in those attributes seemed quite credible as the father of the democratic thought.
More recently I have come across a variety of texts addressing a very different Rousseau - u
Jun 08, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: philosophy
After reading Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ‘Discourse on the origin of inequality’ I could only conclude that philosophy is truly an art of speculation. I’ve been looking forward to reading this book, since I have been intrigued by the subject of inequality for the last two decades due to unfortunate circumstances. Undoubtedly, had I read this book in my youth, I would have been in awe of it. But as it is today I find it more in dissension due to my empirical knowledge, and personal encounters with t ...more
May 02, 2020 rated it liked it
Reread this for historical value rather than rhetorical value since Rousseau was a great influence on key players in the French Revolution (my current deep dive). I don't know how to rate this. If I were to rate it knowing the historical value and influence, it would be 4 stars. For sheer persuasiveness and personal enjoyment, I'd rate it 3 stars. I was more impressed by Rousseau's arguments in high school, even though strangely am closer philosophically now than I was in high school. ...more
Kelsey Hennegen
Rousseau is responding to the prompt, “What is the origin of the inequality among men, and is it authorized by natural law?” He’s rife with suspicion as to whether man can employ such categorical language when speaking of the natural. He doubts our capacity to define nature, define law. So, Nature qua nature turns out to be a slippery thing. He paints a suggestion (not meant to be taken as his literal belief of our past, I think) of pre-social, pre-political existence (consequently, pre-moral). ...more
Ivy-Mabel Fling
Feb 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing
An interesting take on why society has become corrupt but the axiom, provided in the first part, is purely speculative and seems very improbable. Reading it reminded me of being at school and having to struggle through De rerum natura with all its rather bizarre arguments (or maybe that was just my way of seeing things at the time) used by Lucretius to prove the mortality of the soul. I think it might be a good idea to read more of Rousseau's work to get a fuller picture of what he was saying an ...more
Valdemar Gomes
Dec 30, 2014 rated it it was ok
It is old, what it says is antiquated and much of it can be disproved with an "Anthropology 101" book. It has its historical relevance and it has some very nice premises. Still, the further it goes, the worse it gets. This whole book is a snowball fallacy.

P.S. Terrible conclusion! Primitivism or faith and loyalty to the state? Bah how limited.
Jan 30, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: classics
3,25 stars - English hardcover - I have dyslexia - I read this book when I worked as a au-pair in Bradford on avon. Found an old diary with this enterance in it. 🌸🌸🌸🌸
Oct 31, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
We have here exampled in glorious prose one of the primary reasons coming to grips with this topic has taken so long and led down so many dead-ends. While I give a nod to Rousseau for having the perspicacity to be in and indeed sometimes originate the right arguments, he could be a profoundly poor observer, historian, and human being. His example of "man in a state of nature" is purest misanthropy and renders much of the rest dubious at best. This was a vitally important topic and he was in the ...more
Aug 31, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Well, this was my first reading of my series of Rousseau and it was a very smooth and also indeed a convincing one: he starts with calling what he is doing as conjectures and he does not get into providing historical examples of his affirmations although he does mention the flaws of a historical approach over this matter. Property - and basically wealth - in this book are considered as the fundamental source of inequality where whatever else is there - such as power and rank - are considered to ...more
Serinus Canaria
Apr 19, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The book itself was a little ripper, but here I wish to express my delight at the editor's inclusion of Voltaire's commentary in the endnotes. Writing in the margins of the copy sent to him by Rousseau, Voltaire shows himself to be less than impressed by the efforts of his contemporary. Alongside single-word zingers like "Ridiculous" and "False", perhaps my favourite Voltairean shut-down follows this passage, where Rousseau claims that "savages" are incapable of experiencing the "moral" aspect o ...more
Humphrey J
Aug 25, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
:.I picked this up after reading the introduction of Althusser's "Lessons on Rousseau" and was not disappointed:
Rich in both style and argumentation, despite certain (relatively obvious) lapses on Rousseau's part.
Thoroughly looking forward to following the development of his thought in proceeding texts
-& the multitude of adaptations and radical appropriations.

(The inclusion of the margin notes from Voltaire's edition of the text adds to the entertainment value tenfold).
Jana Light
Dec 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: thinking
I really enjoyed this work, wholly apart from my judgment of its philosophical merits. Some great ideas in here, along with a looooot of conjecture. Very worth reading for its place in the history of ideas and for a surprisingly enjoyable read.
*read for uni no point in rating it
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Jean-Jacques Rousseau remains an important figure in the history of philosophy, both because of his contributions to political philosophy and moral psychology and because of his influence on later thinkers. Rousseau's own view of philosophy and philosophers was firmly negative, seeing philosophers as the post-hoc rationalizers of self-interest, as apologists for various forms of tyranny, and as pl ...more

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