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Discourse of the Origin of Inequality by Jean-Jacques Rousseau Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: May 21st, 2020


John Locke’s philosophical framework gives way to what most philosophers term as ‘classical liberalism’. According to his school of thought, he brings to fore some ideas that center on the human being and his inherent rights. On the other hand, another body of thought differs on the liberal framework articulated by Locke. Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Karl Marx are some of the greatest thinkers who criticize this framework. According to Rousseau, he advocates for ‘collectivism’ as opposed to Locke’s concept of ‘individualism’. Marx takes a more radical approach in his criticism. In his argument, he proposes that an ideal State can only be achieved by reversing the economic class structure. This paper will therefore bring to fore the concept of classical liberalism as a body of thought and thereafter compare and contrast the concept with the criticisms posed by Rousseau and Marx.

Understanding The Classical Liberalism

The principle of classical liberalism concerns itself with innate rights possessed by an individual, private property and unautocratic economy. In his Second Treatise of Government, Locke describes the state of nature as one that has ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’ (Locke 4). He further argues that individuals should try and emulate that particular state of nature. Further, the autonomy of the state is characterized by its ability to come up with laws and to ensure that the laws are equally administered. The state is therefore placed with a burden of protecting the rights of the individual. Locke holds the same ideology as Hobbes when he argues that individuals have inherent rights that they obtain from the state of nature. However, he takes a different approach from Hobbes’ view by stating that the power invested on the sovereign being should not contravene the said rights.

According to Locke, the right to private property is one of the most crucial rights that the State should protect. To protect this right among other inherent rights, there must be an impartial judge to determine and adjudicate upon disputes. He emphasizes on the significant of private property and goes on to infer that an individual can only access his rights to private property through labor. This leads to the distinction between common and private property. It is therefore upon the State to defend the hard earned right to acquire that property. According to Locke, the State is placed with the burden of protecting the rights of the individual. It is for this reason that classical liberalism adopts the concept of social contract. The social contract ensures that the individuals of such a State are governed by laws that they have laid down to guide them.

Rousseau’s Democratic Social Contract As An Alternative To Locke’s Liberalism

As earlier discussed, Locke’s philosophy describes a state of nature that is governed by certain laws. According to him, it is evident that man continues to engage in such activities of trade and barter that inherently lead to massive creation of wealth. His liberal social contract provides that an ideal government need to be put in place to protect the individual’s rights to private property acquired as a result of this wealth. Accordingly, the individuals come to a consensus to surrender their natural rights to a sovereign State.

Rousseau in some ways differs with the formulations articulated by Locke. In his Second discourse, he argues that Locke’s social contract is inaccurate as it lays a stronger emphasis on the protection of man’s property rights instead of the need to acquire a government. He views property and money creation as a social evil and thereby disparaging to the natural being. He seems to hold a similar view with that of Locke in regards to the equality of individuals in the state of nature. In his opinion he argues that human society exists through various stages. However, it is impossible for humans to coexist peacefully due to emergence of envy and conceit amongst each other as a result of competition. This therefore gives way to the corrupt stage which he views as the final stage of development. The individuals in this stage live an alienated life and are governed by their own desires. To control this problem, Rousseau proposes the political ‘social contracts’ as a solution that seeks to reduce the alienation through certain forces (Rousseau 3).

Both Rousseau and Locke seem to agree on the need to have social contracts to remedy the problem of inequality. They however differ fundamentally on the application of the social contracts. Rousseau’s approach disagrees with Locke’s approach that views social contracts as being ‘purely voluntary’. According to Rousseau, human beings surrender their liberty for the good will and not as a protective measure. It therefore becomes the duty of every individual to give up his freedom for all. He also views the social contracts as being ‘formative’. According to him, it is imperative to first reunite the government with the natural state of liberty. Further, he proposes that a legitimized structure of government be put in place. This policy will ensure that man will be taken ‘as he is’ and the law as it ‘might’ be.

Rousseau argues that this problem can only be solved through ‘general will’. In his opinion, the ‘general will’ will ensure that man acquires freedom and at the same time safeguard the semblance of the State. A significant characteristic of the formative sprain of social contract is the fact that individuals are generally competitive and easily succumb to desire, envy and vanity. It therefore becomes difficult for a normal being to appreciate the ‘general will’ of the society. It becomes the duty of the legislators to educate such persons. It is however important to note that unlike Marx, he holds a differing opinion in regard to revolutions as he views them as being more destructive due to the powerful influence of the superior powers over the minorities.

Marx’s Radical Alternative

It is not in doubt that both Marx and Locke hold a similar view on the need of fairness at the heart of the State. However, Marx criticizes the idea of liberal democratic capitalism as proposed by Locke. According to him, the classical liberalism disregards the significance of social context. This is because the concept of liberalism adopted by Locke portrays an idealistic view of the human being. Accordingly, the human is regarded as a ‘pre-social entity’ and the presence of the society is necessary to act as an intervention for the individuals and to mould them. The inference of this is that liberalism view freedom as an ‘isolated’ entity and thereby imbalanced. In his work On the Jewish Question, Marx asserts that, “None of these purported rights of an individual goes past the egoistic individual, as an individual detached from the ordinary social life and inhibited into his clandestine interests and caprice” (23). In his opinion, this contrasted view on freedom is distinguishable. This is because man look for pessimistic freedom in order to exercise optimistic freedom.

The pessimistic freedom is therefore necessary to achieve an optimistic freedom to ensure equality. It is for this reason that the liberal democratic approach fail to achieve the desired freedom and equality. Further, Locke’s approach to classical liberalism fails to bring to fore the importance of common beneficial relations. He concurs with Rousseau on the issue of classical liberalism being a ‘mere voluntarism’. In his opinion, the theory of politics is merely abridged to the issues of force. It is therefore imperative that both the pessimistic and optimistic freedom goes hand in hand to achieve the desired level of equality. However, he takes a different approach from that of Rousseau on the issue of general will as a solution to the political problem. According to him, there still exist an unresolved conflict between the normal and clandestine interests of both the government and the civil society.

Further, Marx asserts that the sovereign power invested in the public is bound to lose its political aspect thereby rendering the State useless. In The German Ideology, he argues that the government only cared about the bourgeoisie. According to him, the State ignored the proletariat thereby creating a significant imbalance. In response to Rousseau puzzle regarding ‘chained government’, he asserts that the ultimate democracy can only be achieved through the destruction of those economic classes.


In Discourse of the Origin of Inequality, Rousseau is of the opinion that inequality is derived from the rules and regulations that govern the citizens. These laws seem to empower the wealthy citizens and consequently obliterate the natural liberties. Marx on the other hand regards the predicament faced by the society as dwelling on its economic system. Both philosophers criticize the liberal individualistic framework adopted by Locke on the issue of equality. Though they are both in agreement that the issue of inequality poses a challenge, they differ on the mitigating effects required to solve the problem.

Works Cited

Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1980. Print.

Marx, Karl. On the Jewish Question, London: CreateSpace Publishing Platform, 2012. Print.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Discourse on the Origin and the Foundations of Inequality Among Men, New Delhi: Global Vision Publishing House, 2006. Print.

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