Rousseau on the State: Servitude and Misery


I just finished discussing the Second Discourse with my undergraduate students.  What struck me today (among many other things) is that in addition to saying that property is the primary cause of the downfall of man and the origin of inequality, Rousseau is very clear that the modern State, as it was laid out by Hobbes and Locke, is essentially a scheme thought up by the rich (those who owned property) to protect their property from the poor.  The lack of order in the state of nature (whether it be Hobbes’ chaotic one or Locke’s relatively peaceful one) is not a concern for everyone, as Hobbes and Locke would have us believe, it is really a concern for the rich who hold property.  So for Rousseau the modern State is a solution to the problems of the rich, not a solution to the problems of “man” in general.  The Leviathan “gave new fetters to the weak and new forces to the rich,” he says, and “established forever the law of property and of inequality…and for the profit of a few ambitious men [the rich] henceforth subjected the entire human race to labor, servitude, and misery” (p. 70 of the Hackett edition).  In establishing the State, he says, the rich gave up their liberty to gain protection for their property, but the poor “had nothing to lose but their [natural] liberty,” and so nothing to gain by surrendering that liberty to the State (p. 71).

My students came to the conclusion that for Rousseau, while the establishment of the State is not necessarily the cause of inequality, it is what codifies and institutionalizes that inequality, what ensures inequality will endure.  That conclusion is, by the way, perfectly consistent with the argument in both Hobbes and Locke.  Both agree that the state of nature is a state of equality, and so any observable inequality in civil society (i.e. “politic society” or life under the State) would, logically, only be possible as a stable condition because it is being actively protected by the State.

So, again, it seems to me there is lots to appreciate in Rousseau (even if there is also lots to recoil from).


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