What is amour-propre? What role does it play, according to Rousseau, in the Discourse on Inequality?
Tutor: Robert Cowan
In May 1755, Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality was published. The Discourse challenged contemporary philosophers in regards to the nature of man, and the fundamental principles of inequality. He highlighted that the inequality in current society developed due to the increase amour-propre has had on individuals. Examining amour-propre shows that it is fundamentally much more complex than simply being misconstrued as vanity; it could be described as a range of things such as pride, aggrandizement and prestige within society. It has played a decisive role within the development of society and has been attributed to being the source of the existing inequality within modern society. Although amour-propre is described in the Second Discourse as largely negative, it is responsible for the development of socialization and the individual drive for recognition.
Amour-propre is a reflective trait that is triggered when human beings started coming together, as it requires a human to be compared with another being. It is the need for self-love and the intrinsic need to feel a sense of importance within society. Rousseau suggests this trait is the fundamental drive in all human beings. It gives way for the need to be recognised as a rational human being. Amour-propre could also be described as the drive to find distinction within society; this could be manifested as the need to be championed as the best at something, having your views being considered as rational and valued, or establish superiority over one’s peers. The nature of amour-propre is interminable, and the more it is used the greater of an influence it becomes on a person’s character; the more someone is held in esteem, the more passionate they become in maintaining their status. As it becomes more powerful, it becomes a source of pathologies such as shame and vanity; it is described as the ‘’the source of personal corruption and suffering and social evil’’ (Dent, 1992, pg. 34) due to the overwhelming nature of it. Moreover, as people are influenced more by amour-propre, their drive for a fulfilled life relies solely on their status. As everyone has the same drive it creates ‘’a world in which the amour-propre of all but himself is ignored’’ (O’Hagan, 1999, pg.173).
Rousseau highlights amour-propre as being a reflective trait by examining the state of nature. As savage man is an unreflective and solitary being, the awareness of status would not yet be in his realms of understanding. Moreover, at this point, Rousseau highlights that they have no sense of morality, and only possess two main unreflective traits: amour de soi (self-preservation) and pitie (compassion). The former gives the savage man a drive for survival, addressing only the most basic needs e.g. food, water, sex. Rousseau highlights the primary distinctions of amour de soi and amour propre in the Second Part in the Discourse. He believes that amour-propre is a modification of our amour de soi. The two are very different by virtue of their nature; if amour de soi could be described as the wellbeing of self, amour-propre could be described as the wellbeing of social status. This wellbeing of self doesn’t impose on other savage humans for a number of reasons: being naturally solitary beings, having an abundance of supplies to adequately satisfy their basic needs, as well as not having the unreflective concept of what another savage human is. Although there is a basic natural inequality between savage humans (i.e. strength, height) the absence of society as well as reasons that led to one imposing on another makes this somewhat inexistent, further highlighting in Rousseau’s argument that society and the existence of amour-propre leads to the essence of inequality and corruption. As amour-propre...
Bibliography: The Social Contract and Discourses, Jean Jacques Rousseau, 1913, Everyman Publishing, Guernsey C.I
The Blackwell Philosopher Dictionaries, A Rousseau Dictionary, NJH Dent 1992 Blackwell Publishing, Oxford
The Cambridge Companion to Rousseau, Patrick Riley, 2001, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
Rousseau, Timothy O Hagan, 1999, Routledge Publishing London
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