“A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau. 1993. Trans. Roger D. Masters. In Collected Writings of Rousseau (Volume 3) . Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.
In this work Rousseau offers a conjectural history of humanity. It begins in the primeval “state of nature,” in which individuals lead a solitary and utterly primitive life. Rousseau then offers an account of the gradual emergence of society, with the concomitant growth of unequal shares of property. He then explains the development of political institutions, rooted in an exploitative social contract, which he holds is designed to protect unequal property holdings. His general purpose in the Discourse is to critique the economic and social institutions that sustain inequality, attributing to them the unhappiness and moral iniquity that he holds characterizes modern societies.

In a previous post I proposed that Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s speculative genealogy of modern society in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1754) could serve a kind of creation myth which “might provide guidance for moral judgment in the Anthropocene.” In this post I’d like to develop my proposal one step—by laying out that genealogy, and indicating its relevance to the Anthropocene idea (at least in its “paleo” version). In a future post I’ll try to elaborate my suggestion that Rousseau provides at least a pattern for approaching the Anthropocene from a moral point of view.

Rousseau’s genealogy appears in Part Two of the Discourse; on my reading his account of the evolution of social life is simultaneously an account of humanity’s transformation of its own habitat: a landscape that begins as wilderness ends as a countryside shaped by agriculture. The term “second nature” has been used since antiquity to characterize landscapes shaped by the activities of their human inhabitants. Rousseau’s particular insight is that he links the activity of changing the landscape to the emergence of what he regards as human beings’ own second nature. This includes those features which enable us to be social creatures, such as language and reason; on Rousseau’s account, these were originally only latent in the human animal, but having been activated now define what we are. I believe that Rousseau recognizes and skillfully expresses the idea that the activities by which humanity actualizes its own capacities are the same activities by which it transforms the landscape. Rousseau’s insight is thus conveyed in a single narrative: the story of the alteration of the landscape and the story of the emergence of society, and the associated human intellectual and emotional transformations, are the same story, encompassed by the story of human beings manipulating their physical environment. That story unfolds in several stages.

Stage 1.0. Let us call the starting point of Rousseau’s conjectural history Stage 1.0, where we find Humanity 1.0—the savage proto-human he describes in Part One of the Discourse. Humanity 1.0 lives in genuine wilderness, Nature 1.0, because Rousseau argues that people at this stage would lack the capacities and desires that would enable and motivate them to transform their surroundings. The first step away from this baseline—to Humanity 1.1, let us say—comes with savages having to develop their own physical abilities (to become agile, fleet, and vigorous), and to begin to use found objects as weapons, all in order to overcome difficulties posed by their environment in securing food. This minimal disturbance of the landscape produces what we can call Nature 1.1.

Stage 1.2. Further difficulties for human beings come when, presumably due to population growth, people disperse into different climate zones: more and more effort is required to survive, prompting the invention of tools used for hunting. Thus at Stage 1.2, human beings intervene more intensively in the environment, as they begin to make use of other animals for food and clothing. Humanity 1.2 thus has some measure of increased capacity, and the Nature 1.2 it occupies is slightly more altered. Note however that at this stage, due to their indifference toward each other coupled with their lack of foresight, human beings lack the ability to coordinate their activities with others—in Rousseau’s famous example, a group is not able to successfully hunt a deer because each individual member would be distracted by the immediate prospect of catching a hare on his own. A lesson of the likely failure of collective action at this stage is that there is only so much an individual can do to his surroundings—the individual can catch a hare, but has to cooperate with others to catch something larger.

Stage 1.4. On the basis of these initial advances, the mutually reinforcing cycle of mental development and intervention in the landscape accelerates. As Rousseau puts it, “The more the mind was enlightened, the more industry perfected itself.”1 Thus, at what we can call Stage 1.4, noticeable alteration of the environment begins: rather than making use of found shelter, people fell trees and dig earth to construct huts. This moment initiates stable family life and a primitive form of property. In virtue of these developments (and the associated emergence of language) persisting social groups coalesce, characterized by their shared mode of interaction with the landscape they inhabit: they are, Rousseau says, “unified by . . . the same kind of life and foods and by the common influence of the Climate.”2 The construction of dwellings, primitive language use and rudimentary society are the hallmarks of Humanity 1.4; the altered landscape it inhabits is Nature 1.4.

Stage 1.6. At Stage 1.6 the ongoing interactions between people lessens their indifference toward each other—and indeed triggers the emergence of their psychological need for the esteem of others, which in turn locks them into a social mode of existence. We are now at Humanity 1.6 (or more precisely 1.618): the golden mean between the original savage condition and modern social man. The primitive people of this stage inhabit a landscape, Nature 1.6, they themselves have altered to enhance their survival. To the extent that this moment might be seen as Rousseau’s ideal human situation, we must emphasize that it does not involve people living in a “pristine” landscape, though indeed it is not built up. Rather, what makes this situation ideal for its inhabitants also explains the relatively low intensity of the disturbance they impose on the landscape: their relative independence from each other means that they interact with their surroundings primarily as individuals, not cooperatively.

Stage 1.8. That independence begins to disappear in the transition to Stage 1.8. At this stage human beings discover metallurgy and develop agriculture, and, no less importantly, they organize these activities into an economy based on the division of labor and collaborative exchanges. It is in virtue of this economic organization of society that the large-scale transformation of the landscape can be carried out, yielding Nature 1.8. The human cognitive development that underlies these efforts is the emergence of foresight; unlike their forebears, at the level of Humanity 1.8 people now understand both that present effort can yield future rewards, and that their lives must be socially organized to ensure that result. The corresponding social innovation is the establishment of a property regime for land, which protects people’s expectations regarding their labor.

Stage 2.0. At Stage 1.8 the alteration of the landscape is now in full swing. Rousseau argues that the absence of political authority allows the processes now underway to culminate in Stage 2.0. That is, absent regulation, the social/economic institutions of division of labor, market exchange, and private property amplify natural differences between people into substantial inequality of wealth. This process yields the modern human beings of Humanity 2.0. “Behold all our faculties developed . . . and the mind having almost reached the limit of perfection of which it is susceptible.”[^3]  At this stage, Rousseau implies, the landscape has been fully transformed as well: “Now [farms] had increased in number and extent to the point of covering the entire earth.”[^4] The process by which, in Rousseau’s phrase, “vast forests became smiling fields” is complete; we have arrived at Nature 2.0, Rousseau’s vision of second nature.

I propose that the genealogy I have just sketched anticipates, in important ways, the Anthropocene idea. Now of course Rousseau is not thinking in terms of stratigraphy, or the fundamental alteration of Earth system processes (e.g. climate forcing) that some argue are essential for the correct use of the term. Nonetheless I believe that his story captures some key aspects of the idea. Most obviously, his account looks like an idealized version of the “paleoanthropocene” proposal (see the reference to Foley et al. (2013) below). Although Rousseau might be thought to foresee features of an industrial economy, it is no doubt true that the primary economic activity he seeks to theorize is agriculture, for which a limited industrial sector provides tools. He is therefore (quite literally) writing about the world prior to 1750, a conventional date for the beginning of the impacts on the Earth system of industry, both in terms of the release of carbon into the atmosphere and the greater power at human disposal to transform the landscape. Nonetheless as my summary makes clear, he is fully aware of the massive scale of landscape change attributable to agriculture. Rousseau was likely not able to imagine that agriculture feeds back into the climate system, as discussed by William Ruddiman. But he recognized that all but the very earliest human beings inhabit a landscape fashioned by their predecessors, and that modern human beings inhabit what Erle Ellis refers to as a “used planet.”

But my claim is not that Rousseau’s story is a template for current empirical work. Rather, the value of his narrative is that it makes two key conceptual connections. On the one hand, he suggests that it is impossible to imagine human beings as they are apart from their having transformed the landscape, at least in some way or another. Our mode of habitation—the way we modify our surroundings to make them conducive to the kind of life we wish to lead—is the activity that develops the cognitive and social capacities that characterize us. But on the other, he links the character of landscape transformation—the some way it is, rather than another—to the character of the social and economic organization of the human group carrying it out. Rousseau’s explicit theme, for which he is famous, is that human beings are as their society makes them—hence that the proper locus of moral critique is not some inherent flaw in human nature (i.e. Original Sin), but rather the social structures that condition people to behave in certain ways. But his theory of society explicitly recognizes, indeed makes central, the transformative effect of human social life on the landscape. Thus, I hold, it offers a way of conceptualizing the landscapes people inhabit, precisely as manifestations of their social (hence economic) lives. And (again) it points to social structures as the locus for moral critique when evaluating landscapes as, in effect, the aggregated result of the way people live.

The Anthropocene is the ultimate aggregation of the way people live. For that reason I believe that Rousseau’s view can serve as a model for an approach to it. Rousseau’s genealogy teaches us to see the physical environment, even at the scale of the Earth system, not as conceptually prior to but rather as a kind of outcome of the activities of human beings, as those activities are channeled through social and economic institutions. But Rousseau also teaches us ways to subject those institutions to moral criticism. In a future post I will consider how his moral outlook might also serve as a model for a moral approach to the Anthropocene.

Stephen F. Foley et al. 2013. The Palaeoanthropocene – The beginnings of anthropogenic environmental change. Anthropocene, v. 3, pp. 83-88. DOI: 10.1016/j.ancene.2013.11.002 This article makes the case that there was significant human influence on the Earth system well in advance of the impacts due to industrialization, and proposes the term “palaeoanthropocene” to denote the period of these initial anthropogenic transformations.
W. Steffan et al. 2011. The Anthropocene: conceptual and historical perspectives. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, v. 369, pp. 842–867. DOI: 10.1098/rsta.2010.0327 At the beginning of this seminal paper the authors provide a brief historical survey of several anticipations of the Anthropocene idea; they do not include Rousseau.

  1. OC III.167. 
  2. OC III.169.
    [^3]: OC III.174.
    [^4]: OC III.175. 

One thought on ““A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality”

  1. Very interesting, Zev. I am delinquent in responding to your comment/reply on your original Rousseau post, but since this post is fresh in my mind, I’ll comment here now, with the caveat that I haven’t read any Rousseau in years. From what you’ve written, I can definitely see the conceptual steps that Rousseau helps us take toward the Anthropocene idea. And I like what you say about his ideas push us to look to social institutions rather than human nature as the locus for moral critique: we are not somehow destined to destroy our planet. What I’m a little nervous about, though, is the evolutionism in Rousseau’s ideas: the more radically a particular form of agriculture modifies the landscape, the more cognitively advanced the practitioners of that agriculture must be. If we reject that premise (which I would argue we should do), then what do we substitute to fill out the Anthropocene creation myth (which was the topic of your earlier post)? I would propose a narrative that presents intensive agriculture as part of a cycle (virtuous or vicious, depending on one’s perspective) indicative not so much of cognitive advancement as of a growing entanglement of species through which humans have come to be controlled by certain nonhumans as much as they are controlled by us.

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