Oh I so rue the day I saw this text (oh the puns). I found this text extremely frustrating, not because it was hard to read, but because goddamn it everything Rousseau said felt so wrong. While reading the text the only thing I wanted to do was learn French, grab a time machine, visit Rousseau and tell him off.
What this text reminds me a lot of is Fight Club, with it’s espousing of anarcho-primitivism as the best stage of human life. I enjoyed both Rousseau and Fight Club when I was 14, but visiting it now a lot of the revolutionary, dissident charm has worn off. But like Tyler Durden, Rousseau is extremely charming and well-spoken, but also gratingly condescending.
For one, he’s so Euro-centric and surprisingly colonial. The way he refers to ‘savages’ and how they’re closer to the state of nature than we are, which completely undermines the civilizations of these people that have developed completely differently from our own. Inevitably, for Rousseau, civilization means ‘European civilization’, and he even says at one point that Europe has been “continuously and better civilized than the rest of the world” (p. 116). Even when he discusses the evolution of language, he paints its developmental trajectory as basically following that of English, of discovering all the clauses and tenses and cases which are not necessarily endemic to language.
Also, his ‘scientific reasoning’ in the text now seems hilariously backward and completely unfounded on any biological, anthropological, or historical research. The book is ridiculously conjectural and some of the claims it makes about human nature seem very logically underdeveloped and not as sound as Rousseau would have us believe (the number of times he uses ‘obviously’, ‘clearly’, and etc. is ridiculously smug). Also, why does he spend half the discourse establishing the state of humans in nature?
I just find that Roussea picked the least interesting section of the question ‘What is the origin of inequality among men and is it authorized by natural law?’ He focuses on the first half but all that he establishes is that, yes, people are unequal. Well, Rousseau what (I’m so sorry, my puns are getting worse)? Maybe it’s because of this text, but I feel like that is already established. But even of the state of nature Rousseau describes, a state he himself said that we may never have been in, it’s clearly one we can’t return to. So where is the constructive criticism? A Discourse on Inequality feels to me almost childish; it’s blatantly reactionary, but instead of providing anything useful, it just nostalgically pines for a lost ‘golden age’ that probably isn’t as great as Rousseau thinks it was, and completely ignores the benefits society has given us.