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One of the most profound thinkers of modern history, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) was a central figure of the European Enlightenment. He was also its most formidable critic, condemning the political, economic, theological, and sexual trappings of civilization along lines that would excite the enthusiasm of romantic individualists and radical revolutionaries alike. In this study of Rousseau's life and works, Robert Wolker shows how his philosophy of history, his theories of music and politics, his fiction, educational, and religious writings, and even his botany, were all inspired by revolutionary ideals of mankind's self-realization in a condition of unfettered freedom. He explains how, in regressing to classical republicanism, ancient mythology, direct communication with God, and solitude, Rousseau anticipated some post-modernist rejections of the Enlightenment as well.
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Rousseau: A Very Short Introduction
‘Robert Wokler presents the reader with an impressive overview of
Rousseau and his works, demonstrating his mastery not only of the
major writings, but also of numerous minor ones, which often throw
important light on the author’s thinking.’
Jean Bloch, French Studies
‘One of the best-informed, most balanced, short general introductions
to Rousseau . . . in English. . . . Wokler’s study leaves a vivid impression
of Rousseau’s uniqueness and originality as a thinker.’
Graeme Garrard, History of Political Thought
‘Wokler’s Rousseau provides a succinct yet remarkably comprehensive
and reliable overview of the whole of Rousseau’s œuvre. . . . He guides
the reader briskly, confidently, but never obtrusively.’
Victor Gourevitch, Political Theory

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John Monaghan and Peter Just
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Robert Wokler

A Very Short Introduction



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© Robert Wokler 1995, 2001
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First published 1995 as an Oxford University Press paperback
Reissued with corrections 1996
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In memory of Isaiah Berlin

This page intentionally left blank


This work required not very much longer to complete than the eight
weeks originally anticipated, but those weeks were assembled over a
period of not much less than eight years. I have adapted a few pages
from earlier publications, as follows: from ‘Rousseau’, in Political
Thought from Plato to Nato (London, 1984), in chapter 1; from ‘The
Discours sur les sciences et les arts and its Offspring’, in Reappraisals of
Rousseau, ed. S. Harvey, M. Hobson, et al. (Manchester, 1980), and
‘Rousseau on Rameau and Revolution’, in Studies in the Eighteenth
Century, vol. iv, ed. R. F. Brissenden and J. C. Eade (Canberra, 1979), in
chapter 2; and from ‘Rousseau’s Two Concepts of Liberty’ in Lives,
Liberties and the Public Good, ed. G. Feaver and F. Rosen (London, 1987),
in chapter 4. Wherever possible, I have tried to incorporate corrections
or improvements kindly drawn to my notice by John Hope Mason and
Quentin Skinner. For his unimaginably patient forbearance in permitting
me to attend to other publishing crises as they arose, and for his
meticulous refinements of my style, I am indebted to Sir Keith Thomas.
For their unstinting encouragement beyond all reasonable call of duty,
my thanks are also due to my editors, Susie Casement and Catherine
Clarke, at the Oxford University Press. For preparing a presentable
typescript in the format required, I am grateful to Marilyn Dunn and
Karen Hall.
November 1993

I have taken the opportunity afforded by the addition of illustrations to
this text to alter a few details, some for the sake of clarity, as well as to
correct two errors drawn to my notice by my Japanese translator, Shuji
Yamamoto. The appearance in recent years of new editions of
Rousseau’s writings in both French and English has encouraged me to
revise or append numerous references. Certain themes, particularly in
chapters 1, 3, and 4, have been enlarged. Chapter 6, as close to
emulating Rousseau’s own style as was in my power, subject also to the
constraints of another language and the requirements of a work of
contextual interpretation, includes fractionally more material on music.
March 2001


List of illustrations xiii



The life and times of a citizen of Geneva 1
Culture, music, and the corruption of morals 23
Human nature and civil society 44
Liberty, virtue, and citizenship


Religion, education, and sexuality
Vagabond reverie


Further reading 151
Index 161


This page intentionally left blank

List of illustrations


A view of Geneva around


1720 by Robert Gardelle



attributed to Greuze

Bibliothèque de Genève

Collection Gérald Maurois, Paris

Photo: Foliot

Photo: Foliot

Silhouette of Thérèse





Engraved title-page of
Le Devin du village


engraved by Désiré

Title-page of the second
edition of the Lettre sur


la musique française

Photo: Foliot


From the library of Robert Wokler

Henry Fuseli’s frontispiece
to his own Remarks on the
Writings and Conduct of
British Library


Musée du Louvre
© Archivo Iconografico, SA/Corbis

View of L’Ermitage

J. J. Rousseau

Portrait of Diderot by
Van Loo


Photo: Foliot



Photo: Foliot

Photo: Foliot

after Gautier

Frontispiece and titleles sciences et les arts




page of the Discours sur

Institut de France, Musée de


Portrait of Rousseau



Manuscript title-page
of Du principe de la
Bibliothèque de Neuchâtel,
Ms R 60



Frontispiece and


title-page of the Discours
sur l’inégalité

Leaf from the Manuscrit



Bibliothèque de Genève, Ms R 90,
reproduced from Pierre-Maurice

Photo: Foliot

Masson (ed.), La ‘Profession de foi du


Portrait of Buffon

vicaire Savoyard’ de Rousseau


(Fribourg and Paris, 1914)

© Bettmann/Corbis



Figure 1 from Edward
Tyson’s Orang-Outang

Héloïse by Gravelot



From the library of Robert Wokler

Bridgeman Art Library, London


Plate 10 from La Nouvelle


Leaf from Book I, ch. iii of

Frontispiece and title-page

the Manuscrit de Genève 73

of Émile

Bibliothèque de Genève,

From the library of Robert Wokler



Photo: Foliot

‘Le premier baiser de
l’amour’ by Moreau le


Title-page of the
Contrat social



Photo: AKG London

Photo: Foliot


Madame d’Houdetot by

Title-page of the


Gouvernement de

Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris



Photo: Foliot


Photo: Foliot


‘Air chinois’ from the

Rousseau’s tomb on the

Dictionnaire de musique 139

Île des peupliers, from

From the library of Robert Wokler

an engraving by Moreau
le jeune
Photo: Foliot



Rousseau herborizing by
Photo: Foliot



Portrait of Madame


de Warens in a

yeux toute sa magnificence’

engraving by Leroux

by Moreau le jeune

Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris
Photo: AKG London


Portrait of Rousseau by
National Gallery of Scotland,
Photo: Annan, Glasgow

‘La nature étalait à nos



From the library of Robert Wokler

This page intentionally left blank



Rousseau, Politics and the Arts: Letter to M. d’Alembert on the Theatre,
trans. with notes and an introduction by Allan Bloom (Ithaca, NY:
Cornell University Press, 1977) (first published in this format in


Rousseau, The Confessions, trans. and with an introduction by
J. M. Cohen (London: Penguin Books, 1953)


Rousseau, Emile, or On Education, introduction, trans., and notes by
Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1979)


Rousseau, Discourses and Other Early Political Writings, ed., trans.,
and annotated by Victor Gourevitch (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1997)


Rousseau on International Relations, ed. Stanley Hoffmann and David
Fidler (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991)


Rousseau, Julie, or the New Héloïse, trans. and annotated by Philip
Stewart and Jean Vaché (Hanover, NH: University Press of New
England, 1997)


Rousseau, Correspondance complète, ed. and annotated by
R. A. Leigh (Geneva and Oxford: The Voltaire Foundation,


Rousseau, Œuvres complètes, ed. B. Gagnebin, M. Raymond,
et al. (Paris: Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade,


Rousseau, Reveries of the Solitary Walker, trans. with an introduction
by Peter France (London: Penguin Books, 1979)


Rousseau, The Social Contract and Other Later Political Writings, ed.,
trans., and annotated by Victor Gourevitch (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1997)

Only the most accessible English editions of Rousseau’s works are cited,
and I have often preferred my own translation while nevertheless
pointing to the location of another. All references to the Social Contract
are to its internal books and chapters only. All references to the
Correspondance complète are to a letter number.

Chapter 1
The life and times of a
citizen of Geneva

Together with Montesquieu, Hume, Smith, and Kant among his
contemporaries, Rousseau has exerted the most profound influence on
modern European intellectual history, perhaps even surpassing anyone
else of his day. No other eighteenth-century thinker contributed more
major writings in so wide a range of subjects and forms, nor wrote with
such sustained passion and eloquence. No one else managed through
both his works and his life to excite or disturb public imagination so
deeply. Almost alone among the seminal figures of the Enlightenment,
he subjected the main currents of the world he inhabited to the most
inspired censure, even while channelling their direction, and when
French Revolutionary leaders later seized their opportunity to ignite the
unity of political practice and theory, it was to his doctrines above all
that they professed their allegiance.
Like most distinguished men in his world’s republic of letters,
Rousseau of course had many interests apart from politics. He was a
much-admired composer and the author of a substantial and learned
dictionary of music, a subject which perhaps claimed more of his
attention throughout his life than any other. While a number of his most
important early writings dealt with the arts and sciences and the
philosophy of history, the main enthusiasm of his later years proved to
be botany, to which he devoted a collection of letters that in translation
was to prove a popular textbook in England. His Reveries of the Solitary

Walker were to spark an explosion of Romantic naturalism throughout
Europe in the late eighteenth century, while his New Héloïse was the
most widely read novel of his age. His Confessions, moreover, comprise
the most important work of autobiography since that of St Augustine,
and his Emile the most significant work on education after Plato’s
Republic. Yet it is as a moralist and political thinker that he achieved his
greatest distinction.
His birthplace and early childhood were to leave deep impressions upon
his life and the development of his thought. He was born in 1712, in
Geneva, a small Calvinist country surrounded by large, predominantly
Catholic, nations; a mountainous state protected from invasion by
natural barriers and the political culture of its citizens; above all, a
republic in the midst of duchies and monarchies. When Rousseau would


later describe the Savoyard vicar of Emile as professing his faith to a
benign god of Nature rather than Scriptures, on a hill overlooking a city,
he conceived an image of man’s direct communion with his maker such
as could be shared by few of the inhabitants of the other cities he knew.
In their opposition to arbitrary government and the privileges of a venal
aristocracy, many of the philosophes of the eighteenth century regarded
progressive monarchs as allies in the cause of reform. Rousseau,
however, showed none of the confidence of his contemporaries in the
prospects of enlightened absolutism. Whereas a radical commitment,
tempered by fear of censorship, inspired Diderot, Voltaire, and others to
publish their writings anonymously, he took every opportunity to sign
his works ‘Citizen of Geneva’, and ceased to do so only after he was
convinced that his compatriots had irredeemably lost their way. No
other figure of the Enlightenment was more hostile to the course that
political civilization had taken and at the same time so proud of his
political identity.
Rousseau’s mother died just after giving birth to him, and responsibility
for his upbringing thus fell to his father, a watchmaker of romantic and
irascible temperament, who inspired in him a love of Nature and books,

especially the classics and history. He never received a formal education,
and he occasionally appeared to compensate for that deficiency by
annotating his writings with lengthy footnotes which acknowledged
sources that his better-schooled contemporaries scarcely troubled to
cite. But his mother had inherited a large library, and his well-read father
encouraged the young Rousseau’s own fascination with literature, in
a cultivated manner which in his Confessions Rousseau later judged
distinctive of Genevan artisans by contrast with those of other
countries. It was from his father that he also inherited much of his
zealous devotion to his birthplace, where, as he would be told, ‘all men
are brothers’ and ‘joy and heaven reign’. At least two of his principal
works, the Letter to d’Alembert on the Theatre of 1758 and his Letters from
the Mountain of 1764, were to be devoted mainly to the culture or
political system of his native city, and he was to remark that his Social
Contract itself had been designed to portray the noble principles of that
state. Nowhere in his writings is his conception of political fraternity
more richly drawn than in his Letter to d’Alembert, when he recalls the
convivial celebrations in the open air of a Genevan military regiment
which had fired his imagination as a boy (P v 123–4 n; A 135–6 n).

The life and times of a citizen of Geneva

1. A view of Geneva around 1720 by Robert Gardelle.

His attachment to his father and to the city of his birth did not, however,
overcome the loss of his mother. When only fifteen, he was introduced
to a Swiss baroness, Madame de Warens, who lived at Annecy in the
Duchy of Savoy, just west of Geneva. Madame de Warens had by the still
tender age of twenty-nine already made something of a career of
converting Protestant refugees to Catholicism, and she brought
Rousseau into her home and her bosom with an intimate hospitality
that accorded well with his own rapturous enthusiasm. For the next ten
years, first at Annecy and then Chambéry and finally in the idyllic retreat
of the valley of Les Charmettes, he was to become both her lover and
pupil. With her guidance and some assistance from her own patrons
and religious confessors, he completed his education, especially in
philosophy and modern literature, of which he had had little knowledge
before, and began to contemplate a career as a writer. Partly inspired


by Madame de Warens’ pietist enthusiasms, furthermore, Rousseau
formed an attachment to the Deity and to the marvels of His Creation
which was to distinguish his religious beliefs from those of most of his
contemporaries among the philosophes, who were either atheists or
sceptics and suspicious of his zealotry, regarding it as akin to the
mystical superstitions of a clerical Church that they aimed to bring
down. Throughout their time as lovers, and for the rest of his life,
Rousseau was to call Madame de Warens his maman, ascribing to her
those qualities of sweetness, grace, and beauty which, as a motherless
child, he longed to find in all the women under whose spell he was later
to fall.
Thérèse Levasseur, with whom he lived from about 1745 until his death,
and whom he was eventually to marry, was a somewhat less attractive
and far less educated woman, who despite her originally compelling
unspoiled freshness never came to command his affections in the same
way. Rather in need of maternal care as well as sexual gratification from
both of the leading women in his life, he could never tolerate a family of
his own, and he abandoned the five children he had by Thérèse to the
uncertain fate of a public orphanage. Rousseau would later claim that he

had been too impoverished to care for his children properly, but his own
conduct towards them filled him with remorse and shame. It certainly
made readers wonder how he could write so sublime a treatise on the
education of children as Emile, which may in some respects be read as a
work of personal atonement. To this day, his abandonment of his
children has coloured the popular image of his character far more than
any of his other traits.
He was also to prove less solicitous than he might have been of the
needs of Madame de Warens, when in the 1750s she fell into a condition
of extreme financial hardship and was even forced to register as a
pauper. She was to die, with no relief from her poverty, and no contact
anxieties for his own safety following the denunciation of his writings by

2. Silhouette of Thérèse Levasseur.

The life and times of a citizen of Geneva

with Rousseau, in the summer of 1762, when he was absorbed with

religious or secular authorities in both France and Switzerland. On Palm
Sunday, or 12 April, 1778, a few weeks away from death himself, he
penned one of his most eloquent pages, the Tenth Walk of his Reveries,
where he reflects that it was then fifty years to the day since he had first
met Madame de Warens, with whom his destiny had been intertwined
and in whose arms he had enjoyed a brief and tender period of his life in
which he had been utterly himself, ‘without obstacle or mixed emotion
and when [he] could truly say that [he] had lived’ (P i 1098–9; R 153).
When in his late twenties Rousseau finally began to make his
independent way in the world, he earned a modest livelihood mainly
from private tuition and from the transcription of music, resolving to
conquer Paris with a comic play, Narcissus, and a new system of musical
notation. Soon after his arrival there in 1742 he was befriended by


Diderot, who was of similar age, background, and ambition and was to
become his most intimate companion over the next fifteen years. The
two men did not really possess the same temperament, with Diderot
rather more urbane and affable, and Rousseau more sensitive and
earnest, but they shared common interests in the theatre, the sciences,
and especially music. On Diderot’s appointment with d’Alembert as
joint editors of the Encyclopédie, Rousseau was commissioned to write
most of the articles on musical subjects and another on political
economy. In 1749, following the publication of his Letter on the Blind,
Diderot suffered a brief period of detention in the prison of Vincennes,
and Rousseau came to see him almost daily, imploring the authorities to
release his companion. It was on his way there one day from his
lodgings in Paris that he came across the notice of a prize essay
competition on the subject of the arts and sciences and their moral
impact on mankind, which was to alter the course of his life. Diderot at
first shared Rousseau’s enthusiasm for the argument against civilization
that forms the first Discourse, but only because he warmed to the
provocative idea that a principal contributor to his dictionary of the arts
and sciences should also undertake to discredit them. He was later to
espouse radical moral ideas of his own, some of which were to bear a

striking resemblance to those of Rousseau himself, although he always
remained convinced of what Rousseau had denied – that the progress of
knowledge and culture leads to the improvement of human conduct
and behaviour, whenever it springs from such genuine curiosity as is
compatible with man’s nature.
Rousseau’s stay in Paris had been interrupted briefly by his appointment
in 1743–4 as Secretary to the French Ambassador in Venice. As a youth
he had already visited Turin and learned Italian there, relishing Italian
music, which he heard frequently, with an ardent enthusiasm for its
spontaneity and directness that would never be tempered by any
similar appreciation of the refinement of French musical textures. In
accompanied the liturgy of the mass more appealing than the austere
psalms that passed for music in the churches of Geneva, and in Venice
he enthused as well over secular and vernacular music, which suffused
his senses with popular tunes drawn from the streets and taverns no
less than from the stage. Later, on his return to Paris, he was to contrast
Italian opera favourably with that of France, on the grounds that the
French language was less amenable to musical expression and that the
French style of vocal music characteristically lacked a clear melodic line
and was too much encumbered by superficial ornamentation and
harmonic embellishments.
His mid-century quarrel with Rameau, France’s leading composer and
musical theorist of the day, was to turn on just such themes, and his
Letter on French Music of 1753, for which he was to be hanged in effigy
because its reflections on music were thought seditious, was to prove
one of his most combustible works, and the only one which, as he
claims in his Confessions (P i 384; C 358), ever put a halt to a political
uprising in France. The monarchy’s expulsion of the magistrates of the
Paris Parlement in November of that year, in a national crisis which also
turned upon the conflict between Jansenists and Jesuits, had caused
great turmoil, but not, he maintains, so much as had been stirred by his

The life and times of a citizen of Geneva

Turin he had found the splendid orchestral performances which

3. Engraved title-page of Le Devin du village (Paris, 1753).

work on music, which had averted a potential revolution against the
state by turning it into a revolution against him. Paradoxically, the Letter
on French Music proved to be his sole composition to win the almost
universal endorsement of the philosophes, who took up the cause of
Italian music with scarcely less enthusiasm. In 1752 Rousseau
composed an opera, Le Devin du village or Village Soothsayer, which he
produced in the Italian style and which came to be admired and even
imitated, as well as surpassed in quality, by Gluck and Mozart. When
he published his Dictionary of Music in 1767, largely developed from his
articles for the Encyclopédie, he was to pursue his earlier ideas on
music and opera in more detail than ever before, while in the Essay on
the Origin of Languages, dating mainly from the early 1760s, he
greater musical vitality to classical Latin over contemporary French,
and more virtue and liberty to the citizens of ancient republics, who
had, he suggests, expressed their fraternal feelings in open-textured
song of a kind no longer prevalent among the modern subjects of
monarchical rule.
In his Confessions Rousseau remarks on his having also discovered, in
Venice, that ‘Everything depends entirely upon politics’, and that
therefore ‘a people is everywhere nothing but what its government
makes of it’ (P i 404; C 377). Mankind was not naturally evil, he was
convinced, but all too frequently became so under poor governments
which generated vice. If everything depends upon politics then the
upright character of his Genevan compatriots, on the one hand, and the
moral corruption of a once-illustrious Venetian Republic, on the other,
could both be traced to a similar source. Following his stay in Venice and
his return to Paris, the capital of the greatest monarchy of the day,
Rousseau was thus in a position to compare the contributions of three
very distinct regimes, each having responsibility for shaping the
character of its people. His first opportunity to draw together his ideas
about the decline of culture and the political roots of vice arose in 1749,
when he drafted his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences. While our

The life and times of a citizen of Geneva

managed to join those ideas with his philosophy of history, ascribing

forebears had been robust, the excess of luxury upon which
enlightenment feeds has sapped us of our vitality and made us slaves to
the trappings of culture, he contends there. Sparta had formed a
durable nation so long as it was unadorned by the arts and sciences, but
Athens, the most civilized state of antiquity, had been unable to arrest
its decay into despotism, and the increasing grandeur of Rome and
other empires had been accompanied by the decline of their military
and political strength. Everywhere, Rousseau remarks, ‘the arts, letters,
and sciences are spread like garlands of flowers round the iron chains by
which [men] are weighed down’ (P iii 7; G 6). As much as any other
theme in his later writings, this principle – in effect, that savoir springs
from pouvoir – was henceforth to remain the cornerstone of his
philosophy. Inspired by ancient Sophists and reformulated by Marx and
Nietzsche, it was also to become a central tenet of the post-modernist


critique of the age of Enlightenment in general.
This first of Rousseau’s two Discourses won the literary prize for which
he entered it, and almost overnight the fuss it excited transformed him
from an obscure man of letters approaching his middle age to the most
celebrated scourge of modern civilization. One of the main factors
underlying its notoriety was its manner of reversing a stock-in-trade
eighteenth-century perspective of the epic struggle between virtue and
vice. Voltaire spoke on behalf of many men of enlightened opinion in his
day when, in his Philosophical Letters and elsewhere, he joined virtue to
the advancement of learning and science and portrayed the progressive
improvement of human conduct in the light of modern Europe’s slow
awakening from dark centuries of superstition and ignorance. Diderot
and d’Alembert conceived their Encyclopédie along much the same lines.
Rousseau, by contrast, appeared to extol the merits of a barbarous
golden age, from which mankind had fallen and lost grace because of an
idolatrous lust for learning. Not only did he thus give the impression of
favouring savagery over culture; to his enlightened contemporaries he
seemed also to have forgotten that the principal source of misery and
despair in the contemporary world, the Christian Church, drew its

power from much the same mysticism reinforced by ignorance which
in the ancient world he applauded. Voltaire and his followers
denounced this vision of our uncultivated innocence, and they accused
Rousseau of having abandoned the causes of political and religious
reform to which he ought to have subscribed in order to return instead
to an uncouth state of stupidity. That assessment of his theory of
man’s nature was in many ways wide of the mark, but it did place due
weight upon one of the central tenets of his philosophy – which he
often avowed to be the guiding thread of his works – that while our
Creator had made everything good, all that had been forged by
man was corrupt and depraved. Evil, Rousseau believed, was the
characteristic outcome of human enterprise, if not always the object

In the early 1750s he was absorbed mainly with his writings on music
and with meeting the objections of some of the critics of his Discourse
on the Arts and Sciences. To those who directed his attention away from
the depravity of culture and towards the pernicious influence of political
and economic factors instead, he owed a certain debt, since they
reiterated the truth, as he saw it, of his Venetian discovery. By the
autumn of 1753 he was to embark on a new and more subtle version of
his philosophy of history, in which the pursuit of inequality rather than
of luxury would be held responsible for our moral corruption, and
in which he would take the relations of authority built round the
institution of private property as the principal cause of humanity’s
decline. The publicly authorized appropriation of the earth by some
men at the expense of others must have led to the establishment of
civil society through guile and injustice, Rousseau contends in his
Discourse on Inequality of 1755, where he pursues that thesis in terms
of a conjectural history of the human race, in which he also attempts
to explain the social genesis of the family and of agriculture, and
depicts the origins of different types of government in terms of the
unequal distributions of private property that must have underpinned

The life and times of a citizen of Geneva

of human design.

In this hypothetical reconstruction of the past, he makes several
observations of importance to his political and social theory which he
had not articulated before. His fresh emphasis upon the institution of
private property, rather than the pursuit of culture and learning, as the
main source of our moral corruption was designed to challenge what
Rousseau had come to understand as the foundations of modern
jurisprudence from Grotius and Hobbes to Pufendorf and Locke. No
other thinker of the Enlightenment was to confront that tradition so
directly as Rousseau in his second Discourse, and no other
eighteenth-century critique of earlier views of human nature was to
offer such a dramatic conception of the evolutionary metamorphosis of
our societal traits. Rousseau’s abstraction of primitive from civilized
man in this work, moreover, came to be drawn around a dichotomy
between our physical and moral attributes which he had not previously


addressed. Morality, he now insisted, did not stem from human nature
but rather from the denaturation of man in society, with the striking
inequalities that shaped our lives utterly different in kind from the
insignificant natural variations between us. So far from expressing the
best of what was latent in human nature, the establishment of private
property, he argues in the Discourse on Inequality, had deformed it,
turning the pursuit of honour and public esteem into an ignoble and
dispiriting kind of competition. The hypothetical portrait of our original
traits which he offers here for the first time actually drew savage man
closer to other animals than to civilized man, giving Rousseau scope to
speculate on zoological themes and on our differences from apes and
other primates. Mankind, he had come to believe, was for better or
worse the only species in the natural world which could make its own
history, and the abuse of our capacities had ensured that in society we
lived more anxious and miserable lives than all other creatures.
The second Discourse was in time to exercise a profound influence upon
the development of European thought in a variety of disciplines, but
initially it had a less dramatic impact on its readers than his Discourse on
the Arts and Sciences or his Letter on French Music. For the philosophes

with whom he had been previously allied, however, it confirmed and
compounded their fears that his first Discourse was a statement of
genuine belief and that he could no longer be regarded as an ally of
enlightenment or progress. The need for him to part company with
some of his former friends had certainly become apparent to Rousseau
himself, who had always felt uneasy among atheists and sceptics. His
unfashionable zeal, masked only by a certain timidity in public, had no
doubt been inspired partly by Madame de Warens, and, in turn, it struck
some of his Parisian friends, eventually Diderot himself, as evidence of
insufferable self-righteousness and vanity.
When he began to quarrel with his companions in the mid-1750s, he
first he planned to return to Geneva but was dissuaded from that move
mainly by Voltaire’s decision to settle there himself. Already twice
imprisoned in the Bastille, Voltaire had merely sought a haven from
which he might pursue his interests with less risk to his safety and in a
milieu more congenial than the world of King Frederick the Great of
Prussia, where bayonets had been preferred to books; but Rousseau
perceived sinister motives in this encroachment of his native city.
Voltaire would transform the simple manners of his compatriots into
those of corrupt Parisians, he feared, so that in returning to his
birthplace he would confront the same vices as had made him flee from
France. He therefore decided instead to accept a country retreat called
L’Ermitage, just north of Paris in the forest of Montmorency, offered to
him by a friend of Diderot, Madame d’Épinay, who for a brief period was
his benefactress and closest confidante, though she later proved the
fiercest of all his adversaries who had known him well. With his arrival at
L’Ermitage on 9 April 1756 began his disengagement from nearly all the
philosophes with whom he had been allied since the early 1740s. He was
soon to quarrel with Diderot, who had written a play in this period, The
Natural Son, dealing in part with the evils of solitude, which he read as a
personal gesture of contempt. When in 1756 Voltaire produced his
poems on Natural Law and on the Lisbon earthquake of the previous

The life and times of a citizen of Geneva

claimed that he could no longer tolerate their moral complacency. At

year, in which he mocked the folly of blind faith in Providence that all
was as it should be, Rousseau replied with his so-called ‘Letter on
Providence’ that God was not responsible for evil and that the world of
human suffering of which Voltaire complained had been manufactured
only by man. Voltaire’s sarcastic response to Rousseau (as well as to
Leibniz and Pope) was to take the form of a moral tale, which he entitled
By 1758 Rousseau had effectively come to break off all relations with his
former associates. A year earlier d’Alembert had produced a substantial
article on Geneva for volume vii of the Encyclopédie, in which he put the
case for the establishment of a theatre in that city, which would
enhance its culture and thereby promote the moral sophistication of its
citizens. Rousseau was convinced that Voltaire had conspired with


d’Alembert in writing this essay, and he conceived his Letter to
d’Alembert on the Theatre as much to refute that usurper of his birthright
as to confront d’Alembert himself. He decried the art of stagecraft as
unsuited to the spirit of fraternal love which had once prevailed, and
was now in need of restoration, in his native city. Just as Plato had

4. View of L’Ermitage engraved by Désiré after Gautier.

chosen to expel the captivating but factitious beauties of Homeric myth
from his virtuous republic, so Rousseau, in his Letter to d’Alembert,
attempted to preserve Geneva from the all-too-subtle irony of Molière,
who could wonderfully transform pious integrity into hypocritical
mischief through entertainments of gnarled subterfuge, making his
compatriots rapt spectators of devious intent and thereby sap the
nation of the unreflective and unmediated ardour of its own strength.
It was also in the period immediately following his flight from Paris that
Rousseau drafted his Julie, or The New Héloïse, the most popular work of
fiction in late eighteenth-century France. This epistolary tale about the
tribulations of frustrated love in its conflict with duty was partly inspired
Rousseau’s most lyrical passages on romantic affection, tender
sexuality, and rustic simplicity. If Candide was, in part, Voltaire’s fictional
response to his ‘Letter on Providence’, then the preface to the New
Héloïse may be regarded as the postscript to the Letter to d’Alembert
which Rousseau had really meant to address to Voltaire. ‘Theatre is
required in great cities’, Rousseau writes, ‘and a corrupt people needs
its novels. I have witnessed the morals of my times and have published
these letters. If only I could have lived in a century when I should have
been obliged to throw them away!’ (P ii 5; J 3).
In the same period, Rousseau completed his Emile, a work of almost
equal length to The New Héloïse and which bears some relation to it,
not least because it also concludes as a novel, although it begins as
a treatise on education. The first book of the text opens with the
statement of a principle which Rousseau had come by the mid-1750s
to regard as the mainspring of his philosophy in general: ‘Everything
is good when it springs from the hands of our Creator; everything
degenerates when shaped by the hands of man’ (P iv 245; E 37). He
conceived Emile’s central theme as a plan of education according to
Nature rather than art, in which the impulses of the child are allowed to
develop, each in its good time, rather than be forced, shaped

The life and times of a citizen of Geneva

by the novels of Richardson and Prévost, and it contains some of

5. Henry Fuseli’s frontispiece to his own Remarks on the Writings and
Conduct of J. J. Rousseau (London, 1767), depicting Rousseau pointing at
Voltaire, astride humanity, with justice and liberty on the gibbet.

prematurely, or subjected to exogenous control, by precept or
instruction. Rousseau here maps out a genetic account of the spiritual
growth of the individual along lines which reflect his evolutionary
perspective, in the second Discourse, of our passage from a savage to a
civilized state, albeit in Emile around images of sentiment and sexuality
rather than of reason and authority. But in the blossoming of the child’s
faculties, the rule that he must initally depend only on things and not
upon men offers him the prospect of an education entirely distinct from
that which must have led to the corruption of the human race in the
past. Emile was the first of Rousseau’s works to point the way to a form
of independence which might still be achieved by individuals even in
corrupt society, from whose grip escape might now be contemplated,
cautious, if unfulfilled, optimism about the prospects of humanity’s
conceivable development which was not apparent in his earlier writings.
No doubt this significant change of tone was partly inspired by
Rousseau’s own success in emancipating himself from the trappings of
Parisian society.
According to his Confessions, however, the first work to which he turned
in his new home was the Social Contract, a composition which he had
already begun to plan while in Venice, and which he was now resolved
to assemble into the finest of all his writings. The principles of the true
social contract are perhaps best understood in contradiction with the
sinister formula of agreement recounted in the second Discourse – such
a contract, when properly construed, attaining rather than destroying
the true liberty of citizens, by rendering them equal under law instead
of subservient to their appointed political masters. Liberty and equality
together are the two principles that ought to be the main objects of
every system of legislation, Rousseau proclaims here, and much of the
Social Contract is devoted to explaining why that should be so. Having
already differentiated the moral and political from the natural and
physical spheres of our lives, Rousseau contends that distinct forms of
liberty or freedom are appropriate to each. Without government, he

The life and times of a citizen of Geneva

by the cultivation of self-reliance. To that extent the work displays a

argues, persons can be naturally free in the sense of not being subject to
the will of others, but their freedom is attached merely to the
satisfaction of their organic impulses. Only in political society, whose
establishment requires that our natural liberty be abandoned, can we
realize either civil or moral liberty, of which the first makes us
dependent upon the whole community and the second obedient to
laws that express our own collective will. In the Social Contract he claims
that the state could serve as the instrument of freedom just if all its
subjects were at the same time sovereign, for then alone can the people
be truly said to rule themselves. Only when each of the state’s citizens
takes direct part in legislation can they jointly check the abuse of power
which some of them might seek to wield, he observes. While a number
of his contemporaries, such as Montesquieu and Voltaire, had praised
the liberal principles enshrined in the British Constitution, he instead,


on these grounds, judged the English system of parliamentary rule
incompatible with the electorate’s freedom, in delegating the people’s
sovereignty to their representatives.
After the publication of his Social Contract, Rousseau drafted a
Constitution for Corsica in 1765 and an essay on The Government of Poland
around 1771, in both instances on the invitation of leading citizens of
those fledgling regimes, who invited him to serve as their legislator. If
Corsica had escaped invasion, and Poland its partitions, it might have
been possible, in the late eighteenth century, to witness how the
principles of the Social Contract could be applied to the constitutions of
actual states. He had always intended that this should be the case,
Rousseau claimed, in seeking the conjunction of political theory and
practice, as much as his French Revolutionary admirers later, albeit in a
different way. Contrasting his philosophy with that of Plato and also
More, he maintained that he had not put forward an unworldly utopian
ideal. On the contrary, his Social Contract had been intended to elucidate
the theoretical foundations of an object close to home, in particular the
constitution of Geneva, and it was just because that constitution had
been forsaken, he believed, that he had incurred the wrath of the

current authorities of his native state (P iii 810). This was one of the main
arguments of his third major work devoted largely to politics, his Letters
from the Mountain of 1764.
The feature of his Social Contract which, in his lifetime, aroused the
deepest public fury, however, was its penultimate chapter on the civil
religion. Rousseau there stresses the significance of a religious as well as
political foundation for our civic responsibilities, according to which
citizens perform and love their duty as a matter of patriotic faith, joining
them together in common devotion to an almighty, benign, and
tolerant Divinity. That aspect of his thought, partly inspired by his
beloved Machiavelli, brought Rousseau into conflict both with the
leading critics. To philosophes intent upon reforming the ancien régime,
his religious zealotry seemed yet again a betrayal of the Enlightenment
and a dark reinvocation of blind faith in a dawning age of reason. On the
other hand, his express condemnation of Christianity, which he
described as best suited to tyrannical government, outraged the Church
and political authorities alike. His ‘Profession of Faith of the Savoyard
Vicar’ in Emile, moreover, published at almost the same time as the
Social Contract, set forth the fullest and most eloquent statement of his
philosophy of natural as opposed to revealed religion, which dismayed
those authorities even more.
From their censure, Rousseau was never really to recover. Both Emile and
the Social Contract were banned or confiscated in Paris and burned in
Geneva. Forced to flee from the one city and subject to arrest in the
other, he found himself in 1762 a fugitive from justice, surprised both at
the vehemence of the official reaction to claims which he thought
would be attributed to truly Christian scruples in contrast with the
atheism of so many philosophes, and at the initial failure of his
compatriots to come to his aid. In May 1763, in despair, having found
temporary refuge in Môtiers, near Neuchâtel, under the nominal
jurisdiction of Frederick the Great of Prussia, he repudiated his Genevan

The life and times of a citizen of Geneva

religious and political establishment of his day and with many of its


6. Portrait of Rousseau attributed to Greuze.

citizenship. Thereafter he remained homeless, often obliged to travel
incognito, at the mercy of protectors whose real aim, he sometimes
suspected, was to ensnare and malign him. One such protector was to
be David Hume, who in January 1766 personally accompanied Rousseau
to England, where he stayed almost eighteen months, principally at
Wootton, in Staffordshire – in that time, overwhelmed by suspicions of
an international conspiracy to discredit his character, managing to bring
great misery upon himself, and much discomfort to Hume. Real
persecution compounded the paranoia with which he was undoubtedly
afflicted at least from the mid-1760s, and for the rest of his life he was
convinced that his former companions in the vanguard of the

Enlightenment – Diderot, d’Alembert, d’Holbach, and Grimm – assisted
by Voltaire and his patrician friends, who had always loathed him, were
in league with his political enemies in a monumental network of
conspiracy against him. Having returned to France on an undertaking to
desist from publishing his writings, he found respite only in solitude, the
study of botany, and a romantically lyrical communion with Nature, as
recounted in his last major work, for some readers his greatest
masterpiece, the Reveries, which would appear posthumously with the
first part of his Confessions. In 1778, soon after being drawn yet again to
a refuge just north of Paris, at Ermenonville, provided by the Marquis de
Girardin, he died of apoplexy, ‘without uttering a single word’, his
widow reports (L 8344), contradicting groundless suggestions that he

Yet while Rousseau had become estranged from mainstream
Enlightenment thinkers, he had a great many passionate followers as
well, throughout France and among radical circles in Geneva and above
all, perhaps, in enlightened Europe’s peripheries – Italy, Scotland, and
Germany, where Kant and Goethe were to prove the most prominent of
his admirers of the next generation or two. In the course of the French
Revolution, especially, when the manuscript of his Confessions was
presented to the Convention and his body was ceremoniously
transported to Paris, his influence upon eighteenth-century life and
thought was at its zenith. No other figure of his age had more clearly
expressed the Revolutionaries’ commitment to the principles of liberty,
equality, and fraternity, nor a deeper devotion to the ideal of popular
sovereignty, whose adoption in France signalled an end to the ancien
régime. In the political career of the Incorruptible Robespierre in
particular – his opposition to patronage and to priestly theology, his
patriotism and promotion of the Cult of the Supreme Being – can be
found, as well as much else besides, the most zealous practical
exposition of Rousseau’s doctrines. Rousseau himself never advocated
revolution, judged political uprisings worse than the disease they were
intended to cure, and held little hope for the political salvation of

The life and times of a citizen of Geneva

had committed suicide.

mankind. But he foresaw Europe’s impending crisis and the advent of a
revolutionary age, hoping it might be averted. When the French
Revolution was launched a decade after his death, many of its leaders
nevertheless drew up their programmes and constitutions in the fiery
light of his philosophy. Because of that connection, he would come to
be decried as the most villainous thinker of the whole of the eighteenth
century when the Revolution soured and gave birth, first to the Jacobin
Terror, then to Bonapartism, and, according to his critics, eventually to


modern totalitarianism in general.


Chapter 2
Culture, music, and the
corruption of morals

Rousseau remarks in his Confessions that he had been thunderstruck on
reading the notice of the Academy of Dijon in the Mercure de France of
October 1749, heralding a competition for the best essay on the
question ‘Has the rebirth of the arts and sciences contributed to the
purification of morals?’. ‘The moment I read this announcement I saw
another universe and became a different man’, he writes (P i 351; C 327).
He had stopped by a tree to catch his breath, moved almost to delirium
by a fiery vision of the natural goodness of humanity and the evil
contradictions of our social order, which had kindled in his mind most
of the leading ideas of what would become his principal works, even
though he was never to recapture more than its faint shadow. Yet
while the Discourse on the Arts and Sciences forms the most immediate
expression of that vision, Rousseau eventually came to regard it as
among the worst of his major writings. The text which launched his
literary career had neither order, nor logic, nor structure, he lamented,
and, though it was full of warmth and vigour, it was, on his own
testimony, the feeblest and least elegant of his celebrated works
(P i 352; C 328–9). It is also, as was soon to be noted by his detractors,
the least original.
Its central theme is that civilization has been the bane of humanity and
that the perfection of our arts and sciences has been accompanied by
the corruption of our morals. Before we acquired the skills and

attributes of cultured men, and before our patterns of life came to be
moulded by false values and factitious needs, our manners were ‘rustic
but natural’. With the birth and dissemination of knowledge, however,
our original purity became progressively debased by sophistical taste
and custom, by the ‘perfidious veil of politeness’, and by ‘all those
vicious ornaments’ of fashion, until our pristine virtue had disappeared
as if carried away by an ebbing tide (P iii 8, 10, 21; G 7–9, 20). We cannot
but regret our loss of the simplicity of that earliest epoch when our
forebears had lived together in huts and sought little more than the
approval of their gods, Rousseau maintains. In the beginning the
world’s only adornments would have been sculpted by Nature herself,
and thereafter it has been those civilizations which remain closest to
Her, least burdened by the trappings of culture and learning, which have
proved the most vigorous and robust. Our arts and sciences, he


observes, do not inspire individuals with courage or the spirit of
patriotism; on the contrary they sap men of both their devotion to the
state and their strength to preserve it from invasion. Since the
marvellous inventions of the Chinese failed to ward off their subjection
to the coarse and ignorant Tartars, the erudition of their sages was
manifestly useless. On the other hand, the Persians, who mastered
virtue rather than science, were easily able to conquer Asia, while the
greatness of the German and Scythian nations was firmly grounded on
the simplicity, innocence, and patriotic spirit of their inhabitants (P iii 11,
22; G 10–11, 20).
Above all, the history of Sparta, when contrasted with that of Athens,
demonstrates how much more durable and resistant to the vices of
tyranny are those communities which have been spared the vain
monuments of culture. Socrates, the wisest person in Athens, cautioned
his fellow citizens of the dangerous consequences of their arrogance,
and later, at Rome, Cato followed his example and inveighed against the
venomously seductive delights of art and ostentation that undermined
the vitality of his compatriots. Yet each man’s warnings went unheeded,
and an entirely specious form of learning came to prevail in both Athens

and Rome, to the detriment of military discipline, agricultural
production, and political vigilance. The Roman Republic, in particular,
once the temple of virtue, soon became the decadent theatre of crime,
slowly succumbing under the yoke with which it had earlier harnessed
its barbarian captives. Much the same pattern of decline had also
marked the collapse of the ancient empires of Egypt, Greece, and
Constantinople, Rousseau adds, proclaiming it a general rule that
great civilizations decay under the weight of their scientific and artistic
progress (P iii 10–14; G 9–13).
The first Discourse offers little explanation of these developments,
however, barely sketching the way the arts and sciences could have
On the one hand, all our sciences, Rousseau suggests, have been formed
out of idleness, each discipline stemming from the vices to which
indolence gives rise – astronomy from superstition, for instance,
geometry from avarice, and physics from excessive curiosity. On the
other hand, our arts are everywhere nourished by luxury, which is itself
born out of sloth and the vanity of men. Luxury is presented as a crucial
feature, since Rousseau maintains that it can seldom thrive in the
absence of the arts and sciences, while they never exist without it.
According to his argument, it seems that the dissolution of morals must
have been a necessary consequence of luxury, which, in turn, stemmed
from idleness, with the human corruption and enslavement that have
been such characteristic features of the history of all civilizations
presented as appropriate punishment for our swollen endeavour to
advance beyond that state of happy ignorance in which it would have
been a blessing to remain forever (P iii 15, 17–19, 21; G 14, 16–17, 20).
In all these respects, the Discourse on the Arts and Sciences comprises the
first major statement of the philosophy of history – to the effect that
our apparent cultural and social progress has led only to our real moral
degradation – which Rousseau was to develop as one of the most
central themes of his works. But in the first Discourse that philosophy of

Culture, music, and the corruption of morals

been so comprehensively responsible for the moral decadence of man.


7. Frontispiece and title-page of the Discours sur les sciences et
les arts (1750).

history still appears rudimentary and obscure, comprised, as it is there,
of at least three distinct theses about the course and circumstances of
our corruption: first, the suggestion that mankind has declined
progressively from the innocence of its earliest primitive state; second,
the claim that nations which are artistically and scientifically
underdeveloped are morally superior to their sophisticated
counterparts; and third, the contention that great civilizations have
become decadent under the weight of their own cultural progress. To
his readers, these propositions seemed not to accord easily with one
another, especially since the tribute Rousseau pays to the mode of life of
primitive man, on the one hand, and to robust civilization which
succeeds savage society, on the other, is compounded by his further
proposition – so fashionable in the Enlightenment – that human history
had been interrupted by a reversion, under several centuries of medieval
barbarism and superstition, to a state worse than that of our original
ignorance. At the end of his text Rousseau even launches upon an
entirely new thesis to the effect that it is not really the arts and sciences

as such but rather their abuse by persons of ordinary talent which has
been the true source of our misfortunes, and he actually concludes his
work with the observation that great scientists and artists should be
entrusted with the task of building monuments to honour the glory of
the human spirit. The rest of us lesser mortals, he exclaims, should
aspire to no more than the obscurity and mediocrity to which we have
been destined. It is difficult to grasp why Rousseau thought such
sentiments appropriate to a critique of the arts and sciences and a
defence of the virtues of ignorance, innocence, and common humanity
(P iii 6, 22, 29–30; G 6, 20, 27–8).
Nor was he clear as to the precise nature of the contribution which he
appeared to be quite simply that the progress of the arts and sciences
has been responsible for the debasement of morals, but he also
supposed that the arts and sciences were nourished by the indolence,
vanity, and luxury to which men aspire and which some enjoy. Had the
advancement of culture been the cause of our corruption, then, or its
effect? Rousseau, whose main concern in the work is to portray the evils
which invariably derive from the pursuit of culture and knowledge, but
who equally proclaims that our arts and sciences owe their origin to our
vices (P iii 17, 19; G 16, 18), seems to have been unable to make up his
One of the reasons for his irresolution may be the fact that so many
features of his argument were borrowed from earlier thinkers, such as
Montesquieu, Fénelon, Montaigne, Seneca, Plato, and, above all,
Plutarch, whose writings he had read at length, and whose
commentaries on the superiority of nature over artifice, or the
oppressiveness of inequality, or the decadence of civilization, were so
much endorsed or recapitulated in his text. In his Essay on the Reigns of
Claudius and Nero Diderot later remarked that ‘a hundred apologies for
ignorance in the face of the arts’ and sciences’ advance had been made
before Rousseau’, and he was certainly correct. But the first Discourse

Culture, music, and the corruption of morals

believed the growth of culture had made to our decline. His thesis

8. Portrait of Diderot by Van Loo.

lacks originality not only because it bears the general influence of other
works in a similar vein to which Rousseau turned for guidance, or
because his scholarship is plainly second-hand – his account of the
Scythians, for instance, drawn essentially from Horace, his description
of the Germans from Tacitus, his sketch of the Persians from Montaigne,
and his contrast between Sparta and Athens from several writers, but
most especially Bossuet and the historian Charles Rollin. Its derivative
character is due above all to the fact that the very words Rousseau
employs to express his principal ideas were often borrowed from his
Apart from the numerous references whose sources are manifestly
Sciences drawn, without acknowledgement, from Montesquieu’s Spirit
of the Laws and one unattributed transcription from Bossuet’s Discourse
on Universal History; there are several snatches from Plutarch’s Lives and
upwards of fifteen extracts from the Essays of Montaigne, only a few of
which allude to their source; while the very last line of Rousseau’s text is
adapted from both Plutarch and Montaigne together. Dom Joseph
Cajot’s Plagiarisms of Rousseau, published in 1766, may have been
excessively severe – and in most instances incorrect – in its imputations,
but it remains the case that the Discourse on the Arts and Sciences is the
only one of Rousseau’s writings which invites such suspicions. Despite
the polemical tone and character of the argument, it is directed against
no other work in particular, and Rousseau appears to have turned to his
sources more in order to recapitulate them than to lend weight to his
own ideas. The difference between his first and second Discourse with
regard to this point could hardly be more stark, since in the Discourse on
Inequality he was to embark on a refutation of most of the figures
mentioned in his text, whereas in the Discourse on the Arts and Sciences
he managed little more than to reflect, albeit perhaps in a more
powerful idiom of his own, the disparate views already advanced
by its precursors. His first major work enunciates a philosophy of
history to which he was to adhere for the rest of his life and which his

Culture, music, and the corruption of morals

clear, there is at least one passage in the Discourse on the Arts and

contemporaries, at least, came to recognize as his most central
doctrine. It was the first of his writings emblazoned with his signature
‘Citizen of Geneva’, thereby proclaiming his proud identity and
authorship. Yet in launching his literary career, it was to prove his least
characteristic, least personal, achievement.
Rousseau’s development as a writer, nevertheless, owed much to the
dispute which exploded around his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences
immediately following its publication and which raged for at least three
years thereafter. In the course of that controversy, by way of attempting
to vindicate his work against his critics, he came to assemble, elaborate,
and refine his original claims in a manner that was often different from
their first formulation. He made no effort to reply to all his detractors,
but he tried to rebut at least six works in particular that came to his


notice. Several of his critics charged that he had failed to specify the
precise point of our moral decline, so that he had given the impression
of preferring Europe’s centuries of barbarism to the renaissance of the
sciences which followed, and a few decried his general lack of
scholarship, in his misunderstanding of the brutal nature of the ancient
Scythians, or his neglect of the fact that some of the figures he had
praised, such as Seneca, believed that virtue was enhanced and not
debased by literature. To these allegations Rousseau retorted,
particularly in a ‘Letter to the abbé Raynal’, that his aim had been to put
forward a general thesis about the connection between artistic and
scientific advance, on the one hand, and moral decadence, on the other,
rather than to trace the course of any particular set of events, so that
such critics had misunderstood the purpose of his work (P iii 31–2;
G 29–30).
He was to pursue this theme of generality much further in his
Discourse on Inequality, where he shifts his attention from the
untainted civilizations of the ancient world to the nature of primeval
man and to a condition of humanity so remote that no historical
research could possibly uncover its true features. After the publication

of his first Discourse, Rousseau was to become progressively more
concerned with the ultimate sources of our decadence and less with
its particular manifestations in different cultures. Paradoxically,
however, while he gradually set his sights upon our most distant past,
his evidence came to be drawn from an increasingly contemporary
world, in effect populated by savages who had thus far escaped the
miseries of human history rather than by the heroes and sages of
antiquity. By the mid-1750s, that is, his fidelity to the venerable Lives of
Plutarch came at least to be counterbalanced by a new enthusiasm for
the General History of Voyages, edited by the author of Manon Lescaut,
the abbé Prévost. As the divisions between man’s nature and culture
which Rousseau perceived grew sharper and bolder, so too did the
course of the development of his early social theory the deficiencies of
his historical scholarship were soon to be overcome by the breadth
and sweep of his speculative insights into the general plight of our
species as a whole.
Several of the critics of his first Discourse also accused him of
resuscitating the nostalgic chimera of an ancient golden age, which
had existed in myth and poetry but never in fact. To this objection
Rousseau replied, especially in his answer to Borde’s Discourse on the
Advantages of the Arts and Sciences of 1751, that the idea of an ancient
golden age was not a historical illusion but a philosophical
abstraction, no more chimerical in substance, and no less necessary
for our self-understanding and well-being, than the concept of virtue
itself (P iii 80; G 71). He had not juxtaposed past and present epochs
of our history in order to encourage the rescue of fictitious virtues or
the lost innocence of antiquity. In two of his works stemming from
the first Discourse, the ‘Observations’ addressed to King Stanislaw of
Poland and the preface to his play Narcissus, he observes that a
people, once it was corrupted, could never return to a virtuous state,
and this was a thesis to which he was to subscribe throughout his life.
Above all, he took great offence at the suggestion, first made by the

Culture, music, and the corruption of morals

arguments he put forward to portray these differences, and in the

mathematician and historian Joseph Gautier, that he had become an
apologist of ignorance who appeared to believe that our culture
should be crushed and our libraries burned. Of course we must not
plunge Europe back into a state of barbarism, he responded, nor was
he advocating the obliteration of our libraries, academies, or
universities, least of all the destruction of society itself (P ii 971–2; P iii
55–6, 95; G 50–1, 84–5, 103). Reversion to a natural state is no more
possible for civilized man than would be the recovery of innocence or
ignorance of vice. Following such objections to his Discourse on the
Arts and Sciences, Rousseau was always to stress that the morally
upright citizen must attempt to make his way in this world rather than
in some ancient paradise of remote imagination. The alternative
course of solitude and communion with Nature which he would
personally espouse towards the end of his life was not one he was to


recommend as a strategy for disenchanted subjects of modern states,
and he remained adamant that his ideas were neither utopian nor
violent in their implications.
He was impressed by the force of some of the objections raised by
his critics, and occasionally modified or abandoned certain features
of his theory in the light of them. Thus when King Stanislaw challenged
his account of the connection between virtue and ignorance, on the
grounds that uncultured men whom Rousseau had applauded were
sometimes brutal rather than benign, he accepted the point and
proposed a distinction between two forms of ignorance, of which one
was odious and terrible, and the other modest and pure (P iii 53–4;
G 48–9). Yet without further elaboration this reply was hardly
convincing, and in his later writings he was to prove more hesitant in
ascribing the moral innocence of primitive men to their mere lack of
learning. The philosopher Charles Borde, whom Rousseau had
befriended in the early 1740s, claimed that the author of the Discourse
on the Arts and Sciences had also been unwise to praise the military
prowess of uncivilized peoples, whose barbarous conquests had been
evidence of their injustice rather than innocence. Rousseau was quick to

concur, allowing that it is not our natural destiny to destroy one
another. Although he at first suggests that devotion to war for the sake
of conquest is unlike willingness to fight for the defence of liberty
(P iii 82; G 72), he was never again to portray the ideal of military valour
in quite the shining colours he had employed in the first Discourse. He
did not abandon his belief, inspired by Machiavelli, that the liberties
of the Roman Republic had been sustained by its citizens’ militia, but
in the Discourse on Inequality and afterwards he was to portray all
wars as criminal, murderous, execrable, and – for the combatants
themselves – pointless.
While Rousseau thus made a few concessions to his critics, he turned
This is particularly true of his replies to the claims of Stanislaw and
Borde that the moral degradation of man was attributable to an excess
of wealth rather than learning, and of his response to Borde’s
contention that the decline of nations could ultimately be due only to
political causes. In his ‘Observations’ he acknowledges that diverse
customs, climate, laws, economies, and governments (to which
d’Alembert had drawn attention in objecting to Rousseau’s thesis in his
‘Preliminary Discourse’ to the Encyclopédie of 1751) must all have figured
in the formation of peoples’ moral traits (P iii 42–3; G 39), and thereafter
he was to address the impact of such factors more directly. In his ‘Last
Reply’ to Borde of 1752, for instance, he notes that luxury, which he had
earlier condemned as the principal cause of our decadence, was itself
due largely to the decline of agriculture in the modern world (P iii 79;
G 70). In the same text, and subsequently in his preface to Narcissus, he
draws attention for the first time in his writings to the nefarious influence
of private property. In the ‘Last Reply’ he deals mainly with the concept
of ownership, and with the brutal division of the earth between masters
and slaves which the practical application of that concept entails, largely
in order to challenge Borde’s thesis that men in their most primitive state
must already have been fierce and aggressive. ‘Before those dreadful
words thine and mine were invented’, he exclaims, ‘before there were

Culture, music, and the corruption of morals

other charges to more productive use in the development of his theory.

men so abominable as to crave for superfluities while others starve of
hunger’, I should like to know just what our ancestors’ vices could have
been (P iii 80; G 71). In the preface to Narcissus he concentrates instead
upon the fact that the moral attributes of the savage were markedly
superior to those of the European, because savages were unscathed by
the habitual vices of greed, envy, and deception which in the civilized
world have caused men to scorn and make enemies of one another.
‘The word property’, he reflects there, ‘has almost no meaning among
savages’. ‘They have no conflicting interests around it; nothing drives
them to deceive each other’, as covetous civilized men always do (P ii
969–70 n; G 101 n). In these two passages directed against the critics of
his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, we thus find Rousseau’s earliest
major statements of the thesis which he was later to expound in the
form of a challenge – on that occasion to Locke’s theory of property – in


the Discourse on Inequality.
Rousseau was now beginning to look more closely at the role of political
factors as well. The evils of contemporary society had been described
before by many figures, he reflects in the preface to Narcissus, but while
others had perceived the problem, he had actually uncovered its causes,
and the essential truth he had learned by 1753 was that all our vices stem
ultimately not from our nature but from the ways in which we have
been badly governed (P ii 969; G 101). He was to make the same point
again two years later in his Discourse on Political Economy, where he
remarks that ‘Peoples are in the long run what their governments make
of them’ (P iii 251; S 13). He was to stress it once more in the following
decade in his Letter to Christophe de Beaumont, where he proclaims that
the counterfeit behaviour of civilized men is caused by our ‘social order’,
which brings continual tyranny to bear upon our nature (P iv 966). And
around 1770 he was to reflect in his Confessions that the truth of this
principle had already been apparent to him thirty years earlier, during
his sojourn in Venice, when he had witnessed the dire consequences for
its people which followed from the defects of that nation’s government.
The preface to Narcissus thus embraces the first statement of an idea

whose elaboration in several contexts and in different forms was to
occupy a major part of Rousseau’s life and works.
With regard to the contribution made by wealth and riches to our moral
decline, Rousseau soon showed himself to be only partly in accord with
the ideas of Stanislaw and Borde. In several fragmentary writings of the
early 1750s, especially a short piece on ‘Luxury, Commerce, and the
Arts’, he acknowledges that the cupidity of man is a manifestation of his
desire to set himself above his neighbours, so that the introduction of
gold in human affairs had been unavoidably accompanied by the
inequality of its distribution, from which there then issued the vice of
poverty and the humiliation of the poor by the rich (P iii 522). But even
mankind’s moral corruption, he insists that it was not the principal
cause of our decline. On the contrary, as he declares in his
‘Observations’, wealth and poverty are relative terms which reflect
rather than determine the extent of inequality in society. Rearranging
the genealogy of vices which he had portrayed in the first Discourse,
he now proposes that pride of place in the dismal order of our
corruption should be granted to inequality, which was then followed
by wealth, which in turn made possible the growth of luxury and
indolence, which then gave rise to the arts, on the one hand, and to
the sciences, on the other (P iii 49–50; G 45). Here was a new version
of his argument, placing the arts and sciences last, and not first, as his
critics supposed.
At least part of the reason for this modification of his views may be
gleaned from his ‘Observations’ and the preface to Narcissus, where he
suggests that while the progress of culture has been responsible for a
whole train of vices, it is fundamentally our desire to shine through
learning rather than the achievement of learned men which undermines
our morals in civilized society. For our pursuit of culture above all else
expresses our resolve to distinguish ourselves from our neighbours and
compatriots, he claims, in both places elaborating a brief remark about

Culture, music, and the corruption of morals

in recognizing the part played by the accumulation of riches in

‘the rage for distinction’ that figures in the first Discourse itself,
recollecting perhaps the main thrust of Fénelon’s most central
contribution to the quarrel of the ancients and moderns which had
fermented in France for more than thirty years around the turn of the
eighteenth century. It is not so much our devotion to excellence as our
wish to command the respect of others that has prompted us to
manufacture the artefacts and instruments of advanced societies, so
that civilization seems only a fulfilment of our attempts to establish an
unequal distribution of public esteem (P ii 965; P iii 19, 48; G 18, 43–4,
97). Moral virtue cannot truly exist, Rousseau contends, unless
individual shares of talent are roughly equal. The only safeguard we had
ever had against corruption, he remarks in his ‘Observations’, was that
original equality, now irredeemably lost, which had once conserved our
innocence and been the true source of virtue (P iii 56; G 50–1). Thus


does he conclude that our craving for distinction in the arts and sciences
is a manifestation of much the same factitious feeling as the desire to
dominate in politics – a sentiment upon which he would soon focus his
attention in the Discourse on Inequality.
In all these respects, therefore, Rousseau’s replies to the critics of his
Discourse on the Arts and Sciences led him towards the more political,
social, and economic lines of argument that he was to pursue in the
second Discourse and beyond. Yet he never abandoned his earlier views
about the importance of the arts and sciences as causal agents of
human corruption. On the contrary, throughout the dispute
surrounding his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, he consistently
reaffirms the claims which he had made in his prize essay about the
interconnections between vanity, sloth, luxury, and culture, even while
extending his argument to accommodate other factors. One of his
critics, Claude-Nicolas Le Cat, a professor of anatomy and surgery and
Permanent Secretary of the Academy of Rouen, managed to provide
Rousseau with a whole new front for the development of his ideas, in
challenging him to be more precise as to which areas of culture were
subject to his imputations. Surely Rousseau did not propose to include

music among those arts and sciences which had brought about our
degradation, Le Cat exclaimed, confident that the Encyclopédie’s
principal contributor on musical subjects must know better than anyone
else how useful and advantageous this art has been, and how, at the
very least, it must form an exception to his general thesis.
Le Cat’s supposition could scarcely have been further from the truth. In
1753, at the height of the Querelle des Bouffons, the controversy
surrounding Pergolesi’s Serva padrona and Italian opera buffa which
divided the patrons of the Paris Opéra and the French court into musical
factions, Rousseau produced his Letter on French Music, which provoked
an even greater storm of protest than the Discourse on the Arts and
are more appropriate to music than others, on account of their more
mellifluous vowels, their more gentle inflections, and their more
precisely measured figures of speech. Such languages, above all Italian
in particular, he claims, lend themselves to clear melodic intonations
and to expression in song. Other languages, like French, are marked by a
lack of sonorous vowels and by consonants so coarse that agreeable
tunes cannot be sung in them, leaving composers from nations with
such a speech impediment obliged to embellish their music with the
strident noise of harmonic accompaniment. Articulation of the French
language in unadorned song is thus impossible, and if the people of
France should ever seek a form of music of their own, he concludes in
the last line of his text, so much the worse for them. Following this
provocative work and these defamatory remarks, Rousseau was widely
denounced for his affront to public taste. If his Letter on French Music did
not quite excite an insurrection, it made him appear, for the first time in
his life, an enemy of the French state. As Voltaire was later to recognize,
Rousseau is nowhere so politically inflammatory as when commenting
on music.
If Le Cat had been able to read the section devoted to that subject
which Rousseau originally drafted as a part of the Discourse on

Culture, music, and the corruption of morals

Sciences three years earlier. Some languages, Rousseau contends there,


9. Title-page of the second edition of the Lettre sur la musique française
(Paris, 1753).

Inequality, and which eventually appeared posthumously in 1781 as two
chapters of the Essay on the Origin of Languages, he would have
understood why music could form no exception to Rousseau’s general
thesis of the Discourse on the Arts and Sciences. On the contrary, the
corruption of human morality was most clearly manifested, according
to Rousseau, in the history of the development of music. Our first
languages, he contends in the Essay, probably arose in the southern
regions of the world, where the climate was mild and the land fertile.
They must have had a rhythmic and melodic character and would have
been poetic rather than prose, sung rather than spoken, so that in their
first articulations of impulsive passions our forebears must, in short,
have been enchanting (P v 407, 410–11, 416; G 278, 282, 287). But
languages which would subsequently have arisen in the inclement

conditions of the north would have first expressed men’s needs rather
than their passions and would have been less sonorous and more shrill
(P v 380, 407–9; G 253, 279–81). With the eventual conquest of the
Mediterranean world under a wave of barbarian invasions, the guttural
and staccato speech of northern men must have taken precedence over
the mellifluous intonations which had served for the expression of
human sentiments before, and all the sweetness, measure, and grace
of our original languages would have been lost (P v 425–7; G 296–8).
The melodic forms of diction would have been suppressed, claims
Rousseau, and our utterances would have been progressively deprived
of their initial charm. Under the bondage of barbarian rule and
agricultural labour, humdrum prose would in effect have taken
languages, particularly the earliest forms of French, English, and
German, accordingly would have become prosaic (P v 392, 409; G 265,
Music, on the other hand, would have been rendered senseless by the
loss of its semantic component when appropriated by the languages of
prose, and it would have come to be developed further only by the
Gothic innovation of harmony, implanting chordal patterns upon the
utterances of men that yielded artificial pleasures in place of the natural
delights of vernacular song. Under these pressures music would have
become more instrumental than vocal; and the calculation of intervals
would have been substituted for the finesse of melodic inflections
(P v 424; G 295). Prose would have come to be refined in writing rather
than speech, communicated no longer with expressive force but only
the exactitude of grammatical rules and a precise dictionary of terms,
which it would have been necessary to consult in order to ascertain
one’s feelings (P v 386, 415; G 258, 286).
As if to meet Le Cat’s challenge to his philosophy of history, Rousseau
entitled the final chapter of his essay ‘The Relation of Languages to
Government’ and proclaims there that languages which have come to

Culture, music, and the corruption of morals

precedence over poetic song, and with the emergence of prose,

be separated from music are inimical to freedom. A prosaic rhetoric
inspires servile manners, and speech made hollow by its lack of tone
and rhythm, he asserts, also makes for hollow men. The languages of
modern Europe have become suitable only for discourse at close
quarters, as the ineffectual chatter of persons who just murmur feebly
to one another with voices which lack inflection, and therefore spirit
and passion as well. As our speech has succumbed to the loss of its
musical traits it has been deprived of its original vigour and clarity and
become little more than the faint mutterings of individuals who have no
strength of character or purpose. And if this is the private aspect of our
contemporary languages, their public manifestation, according to
Rousseau, is more oppressive still. For men who govern others but have
nothing to say themselves can do little else when the people are
assembled apart from shout and preach to them, in intemperate and


unintelligible pronouncements. The proclamations of our rulers and the
supplications of our priests continually abuse our sensibilities and make
us numb, and tortuous harangues and sermons, delivered by both
secular and religious charlatans, have become the sole form of popular
oratory in the modern world (P v 428–9; G 299).
Both the private and public faces of language, Rousseau concludes, thus
provide an accurate portrait of the utterly degraded state into which
our societies have fallen. Conversation has become covert, political
discourse has become barren, and we have all succeeded in bringing our
original manner of speaking up to date only by becoming the speechless
auditors of those who rule by diatribes and recitations from the pulpit.
In fact since even these perverted forms of rhetoric are no longer
necessary to keep us in our allotted places, the rulers of modern states
have correctly come to understand that they can maintain their
authority without convening any popular meetings or assemblies at all.
They have only to direct the attention of their subjects to the many
things which they might exchange with each other and away from the
few thoughts that they might still wish to communicate, so that in their
latest form the vocal intonations which had once expressed our

pleasures have been reconstituted as the terms that denote our trades.
Whereas the words aimez-moi must in the past have been superseded
by aidez-moi, now all that we say to each other is donnez de l’argent
(P v 408, 428; G 279, 298–9). In Book iii, chapter 15 of the Social
Contract Rousseau would later pursue much the same argument, shorn
of its musical but not its political dimension.
Of course the Essay on the Origin of Languages must have been inspired
by much more besides Le Cat’s objection to the Discourse on the Arts and
Sciences. On Rousseau’s own testimony it originally formed a section of
the Discourse on Inequality, which he withdrew because it was too long
and out of place, and which in 1755 he then appended to a study of the
criticisms of his articles on music for the Encyclopédie, only to withdraw
it once again. The Essay’s stress upon the priority of melody over
harmony in music is central to the case developed by Rousseau against
Rameau, who throughout his life had insisted upon the supremacy of
harmony, which he explained in the light of his innovative notion of the
fundamental bass of a resonating body. But Rousseau’s treatment of
music and language in the Essay forms an intrinsic part of his philosophy
of history as well, and it comprises a more richly drawn illustration of his
claim that the progress of civilization has led to the corruption of morals
than can be found in his discussion of any of the other arts or sciences.
To that extent it takes up Le Cat’s challenge to his original thesis most
directly. In a note of his ‘Last Reply’ to Borde, Rousseau claims that he
had foreseen and dealt in advance with all his detractors’ plausible
complaints against his case (P iii 71–2; G 64), but he thereby does scant
justice to their ingenuity or to the subtlety of his own rejoinders, whose
fresh themes are largely imperceptible in his original text.
At least one objection to the first Discourse, however, was to remain
unanswered in Rousseau’s early writings. An anonymous critic –
possibly the abbé Raynal, who was later to collaborate with Diderot and
others in compiling a massive History of the Two Indies – complained that

Culture, music, and the corruption of morals

Principle of Melody that he had drafted partly in reply to Rameau’s


10. Manuscript title-page of Du principe de la mélodie.

Rousseau had failed to offer any practical conclusions following from his
thesis and had neglected to propose a remedy for the condition he
described. In his ‘Last Reply’ to Borde, Rousseau acknowledges the force
of this criticism and remarks only that he had seen the evil and had tried
to locate its sources. The search for a remedy, he claims at this stage of
his life, was a task he must leave to others (P iii 95; G 85). He did not
take up the challenge in his Discourse on Inequality nor anywhere else in
his writings of the early and mid-1750s, but neither did he abandon it
completely. In certain works of that period or soon afterwards which

were not destined for publication, he could permit his imagination to
soar in political reverie which might appear to counsel radical change, as
in the second chapter of Book i of his Manuscrit de Genève, an early
version of the Social Contract embracing his response to some remarks
of Diderot in the Encyclopédie, where he calls for the establishment
of ‘new associations to correct . . . the defect of society in general’
(P iii 288; S 159). Subsequently in his Letter to d’Alembert, and in the final
version of his Social Contract, by way of attempting to breathe fresh life
into ideals of civil association that mankind had lost, he was to propose
a set of principles according to which our moral sentiments might be
uplifted rather than debased, only to find the authorities of his native
Geneva and adopted France so alarmed as to regard even his presence


Culture, music, and the corruption of morals

among them a threat to public order.

Chapter 3
Human nature and
civil society

The Discourse on the Origins of Inequality is the most important and
substantial of Rousseau’s early writings, and with the Social Contract and
Emile it has come to exercise the widest influence of all his works. Yet
its impact on its readers was not so immediate or tempestuous as the
public response which had greeted his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences
or his Letter on French Music, since unlike the first Discourse it failed to
win the prize of the Academy of Dijon for which it had been entered in a
fresh competition, and it lacked the topicality of Rousseau’s
contribution to the Querelle des Bouffons, which had stirred strong
feelings among partisans of French and Italian music and politics alike.
Less embellished with the merely rhetorical flourishes of these earlier
works, it pursues a deeper analysis of civilization and its trappings by
way of more rigorous argument, for the first time in a political and social
idiom which marks the emergence of Rousseau’s philosophy of history
in its most mature form. While it attracted some praise and even more
hostility from reviewers in France, its greatest impact was probably first
felt in Scotland, where Adam Smith was to cast his Theory of Moral
Sentiments in part as a reply to it, and Lord Monboddo was to construct
his case for the humanity of great apes in his Origin and Progress of
Language in the light of propositions on this subject which it embraced.
In Germany, both Kant in his Idea for a Universal History and Herder in his
Ideas for a Philosophy of the History of Mankind were also to draw
inspiration from its evolutionary doctrines – Kant particularly from its

distinction between the refinement of culture and the cultivation of
morality, Herder most especially from its account of the social formation
of language. In our own day Claude Lévi-Strauss has deemed it the
inaugural Enlightenment contribution to the science of anthropology.
Although it surveys a more remote antiquity than any of Rousseau’s
other writings, it has come to be judged the most radical and progressive
of his major works, certainly among those published in his lifetime.
Part of the reason for its commanding that reputation is the critical
manner of its assessment of earlier political doctrines, including both
ancient and modern conceptions of natural law and contemporary
theories of the social contract. While Condillac’s philosophy of language
and Buffon’s natural history receive close attention as well and on
Hobbes, Pufendorf, and Locke, above all, which are subjected to sharpest
scrutiny and condemned at length by Rousseau in this text. He was
convinced that these thinkers had provided an account of the sources of
human depravity in terms which were quite generally correct, while
misconceiving the true significance of their ideas. On the one hand, they
had explained how men in the past might have been deluded into
accepting those institutions which had made them morally corrupt, but,
on the other hand, they believed that it was each man’s duty to uphold
such institutions, on account of their providing solutions to another –
for Rousseau entirely fictitious – problem. His rebuttal of Hobbes,
Pufendorf, and Locke was pursued along roughly the following lines.
In the exordium to the Discourse he contends that there must be two
kinds of inequality among men, one which is natural or physical, and
hence beyond our control, the other moral or political, because it
depends upon human choice (P iii 131; G 131). There is, Rousseau
observes, no fundamental link between these two types of inequality,
for the claims to dominance put forward by the few who govern the
many can have no force unless they are acknowledged to be proper, and
that acknowledgement was granted by individuals to other persons

Human nature and civil society

certain themes are taken to task, it is the political and social ideas of

rather than bestowed as a gift of Nature. The moral and political
divisions which obtain throughout the world are thus never to be
justified with reference to any of the physical traits which mark
individuals apart. If the opposite were true, then the exercise of force
might itself create an obligation to obey, and men would somehow
command the respect of their neighbours for the same reason that they
arouse their fears. In the Social Contract Rousseau was to explain at
greater length that force is not the foundation of right, and this is his
position in the Discourse on Inequality as well. Together with other social
contract theorists, he believed that the rules which differentiate persons
in society could only come to prevail through their consent, so that, as
he argues in Part i of this text, the inequalities produced by Nature must
have been transformed into such inequalities as were enjoined by man


(P iii 160–1; G 158).

11. Frontispiece (‘Il retourne chez ses Egaux’) and title-page of the Discours
sur l’inégalité (Amsterdam, 1755).

Rousseau conceived the central theme of his second Discourse as an
account of how the human race might have undergone a
transformation of this sort. Since in their natural state our ancestors
would have had only casual and infrequent contact with each other, he
claims that the earliest distinctions between individuals would have
been of no consequence. The inequalities established by men
themselves, however, formed the dominant features of each
community (P iii 162, 193–4; G 159–60, 187–8). In their original condition,
our forebears could have had ‘no moral relations with or determinate
obligations to one another’ (P iii 152; G 150), and since natural man had
neither any need for the company of other creatures like himself, nor
any wish to hurt them, it was only with the birth of social institutions
that his weakness became timidity or his strength a menace to his
society, by contrast, where fixed and determinate relations do prevail,
bind individuals together permanently through channels of
subservience and command.
Because they had been entirely mistaken in their conceptions of the
state of nature, Hobbes, Pufendorf, and Locke, by contrast, had wrongly
supposed that all individuals must there be equal in their powers, and
each of these thinkers had imagined that as a consequence of this
equality every person would be apprehensive of his neighbours and
unable to live in safety among them. Men of equal abilities, Hobbes had
alleged, could pursue the same objectives only at their peril, for without
a common power to keep them in awe, they would be in a state of war
(De cive, ch. 10; Leviathan, ch. 13). In order to achieve peace, men must
institute an artificial superior or ‘mortal god’, he had supposed,
commanding absolute authority to protect each person from the next,
so that the pernicious effects of equality might be overcome through
the subjection of the whole multitude to the Leviathan. Thus while for
Rousseau the inequalities of the natural state must have been entirely
without significance for mankind, according to Hobbes the fact that
there must be equality in a masterless world was of great importance

Human nature and civil society

neighbours. The inequalities which have arisen between persons in

and was one of the reasons which made the attainment of peace there
naturally impossible.
For Pufendorf, similarly, men must have been precariously equal in their
original condition. Agreeing with Hobbes that we were motivated by
selfishness rather than any impulse of benevolence or fellowship, he
nevertheless contended that in the state of nature we would have been
at the mercy of the elements and of fierce animals, drawn together on
account of our frailty and timidity, not positively but negatively, in
order to survive (De jure naturæ et gentium, II iii 20). This was
Pufendorf’s doctrine of socialitas or natural sociability – a trait which,
he claimed, would have led our ancestors to form communities of
ever-increasing complexity and sophistication, on account of the
limitless capacities and insatiable desires unique to our species. The


growth of a political commonwealth would accordingly have been
more gradual than Hobbes had imagined, but for Pufendorf it was
similarly designed to overcome the perilous instability of our natural
condition of equality through our acceptance of the rule of an
absolute sovereign. Civil society or civilization, thus conceived,
provided a remedy for the barbarous misery of our savage state. Kant
would later term such a theory of the genesis of society the doctrine
of ‘unsocial sociability’.
For Locke, too, it had been the fundamental equality of men in their
original condition, ‘wherein all power and jurisdiction is reciprocal’
(Second Treatise, ch. 2), which must have made the tenure of property
there uncertain and insecure. Only in civil society, he supposed, where it
was constantly defended by a superior power entrusted with its care,
could private property be safeguarded and our natural right to it
enforced. While Hobbes’s central focus had been the political dimension
of peace, Pufendorf’s the collective need for security, and Locke’s the
civil protection of property, the three writers appeared to be in
agreement that individuals were naturally unable to survive in the
absence of government, and thus that an artificial power must always

be established to reduce the dangers which accompany the unfettered
equality of mankind.
Rousseau’s account of inequality’s origins in his second Discourse was at
least partly designed to contradict these claims. In his view, the superior
authorities conceived by Hobbes, Pufendorf, and Locke must have
reinforced the antagonisms which set persons apart from one another,
and did not overcome such differences. He believed it was impossible to
discover from the works of any of these or other political thinkers why
men in the state of nature should seek protection from their
neighbours, but he thought their ideas collectively did none the less
explain how individuals might have established as legitimate just those
determinate and fixed relations which form the distinctions between
particular, it was true that men must have developed all their social
obligations so as to protect their lives