Treatise on the Origin and Fundamentals of Inequality among Men

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Title page of the Amsterdam 1755 edition

Treatise on the origins and the fundamentals of inequality among people is a work by the French-Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778). Often the Discours sur l'inégalité is simply called the “Second Discourse” because in Rousseau's work it follows the Discours sur les sciences et les arts (1750), the “First Discourse”. A more precise translation of the title, which has recently gained acceptance in Rousseau research, replaces “Abhandlung” with “Discourse”.


The first edition of the Discours sur l'origine et les fondements de l'inégalité parmi les hommes was published in French in 1755 by the Geneva-based publisher Marc-Michel Rey in Amsterdam and is the answer to a question from the Académie de Dijon for the Prix ​​de morale of 1754 It read: What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it justified by natural law? (In the original wording: "Quelle est la source de l'inégalité parmi les hommes, et si elle est autorisée par la loi naturelle?") The Académie Prize - a gold medal worth thirty pistols - was awarded to Abbé Talbert, who had already participated in the competition in 1750. His answer was in line with the religious and political authorities. To this day, it is believed that the Académie de Dijon wanted to avoid a similar scandal as with the awarding of the award in 1750.

The political fuel the question entails becomes clear when one recalls the contemporary testimony of Charles de Brosses . On March 29, 1754 he wrote to his brother: “ Diderot speaks a lot to me about the subject of this award. He thinks it is very beautiful, but he considers it impossible to treat it in a monarchy. He is a terribly bold philosopher ”.


The debates on the theory of the state, which Rousseau took up in the tradition of Thomas Hobbes , John Locke , Hugo Grotius and Samuel Pufendorf , led in each of the cases mentioned to the fundamental philosophical-anthropological question about the original nature of man, which he possessed in the so-called natural state or have owned. This goes back to Aristotle , whose quote “non in depravatis, sed in his quae bene secundum naturam se habent, considerandum est quid sit naturale” Rousseau chooses as the motto for the second discourse. In contrast to Hobbes, Rousseau does not start from a bellum omnium contra omnes . “Hobbes did not see that the same cause which prevents savages from using their intellect […] prevents them at the same time from the abuse of their faculties which he himself accepts. In this way one can say that they are not evil precisely because they do not know what it means to be good, ”Rousseau writes. "Because neither the progress of their knowledge nor the compulsion of the law, rather the untouchedness of the passions and the ignorance of the vice prevent them from being angry." But to describe this - as often happened - as a happy natural state of the "good savages" , falls short.

The question of the natural law , which is closely related to the state of nature and the question of equality or inequality, Rousseau answered laconically right arises only with the political society. It follows from this that there can be no natural, pre-state law - i.e. no natural law - that defines  the status of man as a free or unfree being in advance. At the same time, Rousseau does not deny factual inequality among people - but he denies an essential connection between natural and political inequality.

What is essential for the state of nature is how the social relationships were formed. Here Rousseau introduces the concept of indépendance (independence) into his work: The people of the natural state were indifferent to all other people. The decisive factor is not, to give an example, whether a person would kill another person or not, but that the person in the natural state did not have any moral relationships or duties and was thus neither good nor bad.

The formation of property then led to the disastrous political inequality that persisted into Rousseau's time and beyond:

“The first one who had fenced in a piece of land and thought of saying: this is mine and who found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. How many crimes, wars, murders, how much hardship and misery and how many horrors would he have spared the human race who tore out the stakes or filled the ditch and called out to his fellow men: 'Be careful not to listen to this deceiver; you are lost if you forget that the fruits belong to everyone and the earth to none. '"

In the light of this statement, the first sentence of the first chapter of the social contract is to be understood: "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains."

Rousseau sees in perfectibility , that is, the ability to empower oneself, and the freedom of choice, the only differences between animals and humans, less in the mind :

“So it is not so much the intellect that makes the specific difference between humans and other animals, but rather its property of freedom of action. Nature commands every living being and the animal obeys. The human being feels the same urge, but he recognizes himself as free to give in to it or to resist ... "

In principle, animals as well as humans have the same right not to be inflicted (unnecessary) suffering. A right given by nature, which applies not only to all rational but also to all sentient beings due to their ability to feel suffering and pain. Seen in this way, Rousseau can also be seen as a pioneer in ecological ethics .

German editions

  • Johann Jacob Rousseau, Citizen of Geneva Treatise on the Origin of Inequality among Men and on What It Is Based . Translated by Moses Mendelssohn. German first edition Berlin 1756, online
  • Treatise on the Origin and Fundamentals of Inequality among Men. Edited and translated by Philipp Rippel. Reclam, Ditzingen, 1998
  • Discours sur l'origine et les fondements de l'inégalité parmi les hommes / Discourse on the origins and foundations of inequality among people. Critical edition of the integral text with all fragments and additional materials based on the original editions and the manuscripts, newly edited, translated and commented by Heinrich Meier . Schöningh, Paderborn, Series: UTB for Science, Vol. 725, 1984. (7th edition 2019)
  • Writings on cultural criticism: About art and science (1750). On the origin of inequality among people (1755). French German. Felix Meiner, Hamburg 1995


  • Jean Lechat: Discours sur les sciences et les arts. Discours sur l'origine et les fondements l'inégalité parmi les hommes. Rousseau. (Interpretations) Balises series, Oeuvres series # 91, Nathan, Paris 1994, ISBN 2-09-180758-3

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Discourse on inequality (Ed. Meier) . UTB, 2008, p. 4 (Footnote 1: "The translation of a treatise neither meets the literary form [...], nor does it make the reference context transparent [...]. Discours in French also and first and foremost means spoken speech ." (Heinrich Meier)).
  2. ^ Aristotle: Politics . I, 5: "Not in deprived things, but in those that are in a good state according to nature, one must consider what is natural."
  3. ^ Jean-Jaques Rousseau: Œuvres complètes . tape III . Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1959, p. 153-154 .
  4. ^ Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Discourse on inequality (Ed. Meier) . UTB, 2008, p. 173 (When Rousseau speaks of société civile here , this is to be understood in the more precise sense and not in the sense of Hegel or Marx (see footnote 214, ibid.)).
  5. ^ Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Social Contract . Reclam, 2003, p. 5 .
  6. Dietrich Benner and Friedhelm Brüggen: “The concept of perfectibility in Jean-Jacques Rousseau. an attempt to systematically and systematically read Rousseau's program of theoretical and practical judgment formation. ”In: Otto Hansmann (Hrsg.): Seminar: Der pedagogische Rousseau. Volume II: Comments, Interpretations, History of Effects. Deutscher Studien Verlag, Weinheim, 1996, pp. 12–48.
  7. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (first edition 1755): Treatise on the origin and the foundations of inequality among people. Translated from the French and edited by Philipp Rippel. Reclam, Stuttgart, Bibliographically amended edition 2010, p. 45.
  8. Chapter-wise interpretation, with quotations from important paragraphs; synoptic chronological table of the life of Rousseau and European (literary) history; The annexes with various lists of terms, including a bibliography, are particularly valuable. In French.