In A Discourse on Inequality Rousseau sets out to demonstrate how the growth of civilization corrupts man's natural happiness and freedom by creating artificial inequalities of wealth, power and social privilege. Contending that primitive man was equal to his fellows, Rousseau believed that as societies become more sophisticated, the strongest and most intelligent members of the community gain an unnatural advantage over their weaker brethren, and that constitutions set up to rectify these imbalances through peace and justice in fact do nothing but perpetuate them. Rousseau's political and social arguments in the Discourse were a hugely influential denunciation of the social conditions of his time and one of the most revolutionary documents of the eighteenth-century.
JEAN-JACQUES ROUSSEAU was born in Geneva in 1712. Abandoned by his father at the age of ten he tried his hand as an engraver's apprentice before he left the city in 1728. From then on he was to wander Europe seeking an elusive happiness. At Turin he became a Catholic convert; and as a footman, seminarist, music teacher or tutor visited many parts of Switzerland and France. In 1732 he settled for eight years at Chambery or Les Charmettes, the country house of Madame de Warens, remembered by Rousseau as an idyllic place in the Confessions. In 1741 he set out for Paris where he met Diderot who commissioned him to write the musical articles for the Encyclopedie. In the meantime he fathered five children by Therese Levasseur, a servant girl, and abandoned them to a foundling home. The 1750s witnessed a breach with Voltaire and Diderot and his writing struck a new note of defiant independence. In his Discours sur les sciences et les arts and the Discours sur l'origine de l'inegalite he showed how the growth of civilization corrupted natural goodness and increased inequality between men. In 1758 he attacked his former friends, the Encyclopaedists, in the Lettre a d'Alembert sur les spectacles which pilloried cultured society. In 1757 he moved to Montmorency and these five years were the most fruitful of his life. His remarkable novel La nouvelle Heloise (1761), met with immediate and enormous success. In this and in Emile, which followed a year later, Rousseau invoked the inviolability of personal ideals against the power of the state and the pressures of society. The crowning achievement of his political philosophy was The Social Contract, published in 1762. That same year he wrote an attack on revealed religion, the Profession de foi du vicaire savoyard. He was driven from Switzerland and fled to England where he only succeeded in making an enemy of Hume and returned to his continental peregrinations. In 1770 Rousseau completed his Confessions. His last years were spent largely in France where he died in 1778.