Rousseau's Discourse of Inequality and the Resolution of Conflict

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The conflict between our true inner thoughts and societal constraints imposed by natural needs and interpersonal contact is certain and common as the society develops. Although authenticity to ourselves is praised, we cannot be both authentic to ourselves yet live in the company of others. The system of desire that enslaves us has determined the way we manage to fulfill our necessities; the operation of modern society that grants us different roles has shaped the way we communicate with others.

In Rousseau’s Discourse of Inequality, we modern men have needs and our natures are deceiving. To live with others, desires and needs of all kinds are inevitable; to fulfill these needs, deception towards fellow citizens is necessary. Rousseau means needs are like socializing, food and, for example, “grandeur of palaces, the beauty of equipages, sumptuous furniture, the pomp of public entertainments, and all the refinements of luxury and effeminacy”. Although they are initially pleasurable, these new needs, which then become necessities, tide men together and shape our lives.

Ultimately, such necessities control and enslave men, making it hard to be indifferent to the secular desire. Being enslaved by the system of needs, a man is prone to be dominated when he requires others to fulfill his needs, or simply the needs of other people. As the system of needs grows stronger and irresistible, unnecessary needs and over-satisfaction could trigger social problems and become the foundation of modern inequality.

According to Rousseau, “the great inequality in manner of living, the extreme idleness of some, and the excessive labour of others, the easiness of exciting and gratifying our sensual appetites, the too exquisite foods of the wealthy which overheat and fill them with indigestion, and, on the other hand, the unwholesome food of the poor, often, bad as it is, insufficient for their needs, which induces them, when opportunity offers, to eat voraciously and overcharge their stomachs; all these, together with sitting up late, and excesses of every kind, immoderate transports of every passion, fatigue, mental exhaustion, the innumerable pains and anxieties inseparable from every condition of life, by which the mind of man is incessantly tormented” (Rousseau, 页码). Contrast to savage men, who “breathes only peace and liberty; he (savage man) desires only to live and be free from labour; even the ataraxia of the Stoic falls far short of his profound indifference to every other object” (Rousseau, 页码). Modern men forget the pure pleasure of nature and get tired of simple needs as freedom and liberty. In this way, men that are driven by sheer desire and needs are inauthentic to themselves.

On the other hand, modern men are not isolated in the society, and “outside of himself, (he) lives only in the opinion of others and it is, so to speak, from their judgment alone that he gets the sense of his own existence” (Rousseau, 页码). Therefore, a civilized man tends to use language as a disguise to get along with others that have different social roles, when his needs become stronger, and thus he is “always moving, sweating, toiling and racking his brains to find still more laborious occupations: he goes on in drudgery to his last moment, and even seeks death to put himself in a position to live, or renounces life to acquire immortality. He pays his court to men in power, whom he hates, and to the wealthy, whom he despises; he stops at nothing to have the honour of serving them; he is not ashamed to value himself on his own meanness and their protection; and, proud of his slavery, he speaks with disdain of those, who have not the honour of sharing it” (Rousseau, 页码). Overall, the over-satisfaction and the system of needs make eloquence and certain disguise useful tools to attain purposes. In the process of fulfillment, either of needs or dominance of others, we modern men become inauthentic to ourselves.

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Throughout the Discourse, Rousseau points out a problem of the modern social system. Modern men are “nothing more than a deceiving and frivolous exterior, honor without virtue, reason without wisdom, and pleasure without happiness” (Rousseau, 页码). The superficial nature creates the mental corruption among modern men. Mental corruption occurs when modern men become subjects to all kinds of needs and to the operation of amours, which make them “become of men who are left to this brutal and boundless rage, without modesty, without shame” (Rousseau, +页码). The corruption is apparent in the attention modern men pay to the opinion of others and their authentic feelings towards others that opposed to their superficial masks. As modern men are enslaved by their secular desire, the corruptive system of needs make them inauthentic to both themselves and others. One example Rousseau shares is that “he (Modern men) pays his court to men in power, whom he hates, and to the wealthy, whom he despises; he stops at nothing to have the honour of serving them; he is not ashamed to value himself on his own meanness and their protection; and, proud of his slavery, he speaks with disdain of those, who have not the honour of sharing it.” (Rousseau, 页码). When man wants to fulfill his needs and satisfaction, he is rather shameless to behave in an authentic way to his fellow, and cannot cease to deceive and dominate them.

Although authenticity towards ourselves is praised, especially by Rousseau in this case. He repeatedly compares the simple needs of savage men with sophistication of modern men. In the less complex society, as he writes, “…the good constitution of the savages, at least of those whom we have not ruined with our spirituous liquors, and reflect that they are troubled with hardly any disorders, save wounds and old age, we are tempted to believe that, in following the history of civil society, we shall be telling also that of human sickness” (Rousseau, 页码). However, as modern men step into new era and as individual interests have become so various that they may interfere with public restraints.

In the Discourse of Inequality, Rousseau himself points out the conflict as well, “we may admire human society as much as we please; it will be none the less true that it necessarily leads men to hate each other in proportion as their interests clash, and to do one another apparent services, while they are really doing every imaginable mischief. What can be thought of a relation, in which the interest of every individual dictates rules directly opposite to those the public reason dictates to the community in general −− in which every man finds his profit in the misfortunes of his neighbor” (Rousseau, 页码). Essentially, societal regulations constraints or even contrast modern men’s true needs, a situation that makes authenticity invisible or hard to demonstrate publicly. As connected with surroundings, we modern men are not isolated identities but bind with other people. Sometimes the inner authenticity, when too strong and evident, could cause possible trouble to others and ourselves.

In Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, for instance, the contradiction of authenticity and social trends and restrictions is trenchant and tragic. A sensitive soul, Werther enjoys the cheerfulness of life and dare to express his true inner thoughts. His uncarved virtue is close to the calmness of the nature and makes him prefer solitude. In his letters, he admires the nature and seek the wonder within it – “as I lie close to the earth, a thousand unknown plants are noticed by me: when I hear the buzz of the little world among the stalks, and grow familiar with the countless indescribable forms of the insects and flies, then I feel the presence of the Almighty, who formed us in his own image, and the breath of that universal love which bears and sustains us, as it floats around us in an eternity of bliss” (Goethe, 8); he also celebrates the solitude, “a wonderful serenity has taken possession of my entire soul, like these sweet mornings of spring which I enjoy with my whole heart. I am alone, and feel the charm of existence in this spot, which was created for the bliss of souls like mine” (Goethe, 4).

However, such passion is uncommon and seemed as absurd by others. Goethe’s close friend Albert replies to him in a letter that “for a man carried away by his passions loses all power of reflection and is viewed as drunk or mad” (Goethe, Sorrows, 40). Even though, Goethe still sticks to his authenticity and dare to articulate the shortage of society. As he writes, “…the dazzling wretchedness, the boredom of hideous folk all rubbing shoulders hereabouts, their obsession with status, how they watch and spy out their chances to get one step ahead – such wretched, lamentable passions, quite without fig-leaf… But in truth, my dear friend, I see every day more clearly how foolish it is to measure others by oneself… What irks me is the stupidity of social relations” (Goethe, Sorrows, 55).

The reality has confined Werther’s passion and gradually becomes shackle, for his body and soul. The brutality of reality and authentic passion have given rise to the disadvantages caused by his emotional life. Repeatedly creating frictions with other people, he becomes bizarre in the conservative environment. It is hard for him to earn a living because his “active powers have waned to a restless lassitude, I (Werther) can’t be idle nor can I do anything. I have no power of imagination, no feeling for nature, and books sicken me” (Goethe, Sorrows, 46).

Additionally, there is a gap between inner desires and reality, as there are many things in life that we cannot attain and fulfill. He loves Charlotte, who is also talented and sensitive. However, given her engagement, they could not fall in love with each other. However, his passion has affected his perception of the world. He would hold undoubted faith in his own believe. In his letter, he writes to his friend, “no, I am not deceiving myself. In her black eyes I read a sympathy for me and for my fate. Indeed, I feel, and trust my heart in this, that she – loves me… Is that hubris or a feeling of how things truly are? I don’t know from anyone whom I have anything to fear in Lotte’s heart. And yet, when she speaks of the man she is engaged to, speaks of him with such warmth, such love – then I’m a man stripped of all honor and status and whose sword as been taken from him” (Goethe, Sorrows, 33). In this context, his love for Charlotte is so ideal and he is so wholehearted that this impossible relationship has taken up his entire life and parched his vitality. At the end, his authenticity has imposed him a tragedy and leads him to death when reality disappoints his true thoughts.

Overall, under the conflict between public and individual interests, it is hard to maintain authenticity in some circumstances. Ideally, keeping authenticity shows the uncarved nature and is compatible to a less complex society. However, the pros and cons of evident authenticity change as the modern system develops. We could not only think about expressing personal authenticity while ignore the common good of the community.

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