I discern two sorts of inequality in the human species: the first I call natural or physical because it is established by nature, and consists of differences in age, health, strength of the body and qualities of the mind or soul; the second we might call moral or political inequality because it derives from a sort of convention, and is established, or at least authorized, by the consent of men. This latter inequality consists of the different privileges which some enjoy to the prejudice of others - such as their being richer, more honoured, more powerful than others, and even getting themselves obeyed by others.
One cannot ask what is the source of natural inequality because the answer is proclaimed by the very definition of the word; still less can one inquire whether there is not some essential connection between the two types of inequality, for that would be asking in other words whether those who command are necessarily superior to those who obey, and whether bodily or intellectual strength, wisdom and virtue are always to be found in individuals in proportion to their power or wealth - a good question perhaps to be disputed among slaves in the hearing of their masters, but not at all suited to reasonable and free men in search of the truth.
What exactly is the object of this discourse? To pinpoint that moment in the progress of things when, with right succeeding violence, nature was subjected to the law; to explain by what sequence of prodigious events the strong could resolve to serve the weak, and the people to purchase imaginary repose at the price of real happiness.
The philosophers who have examined the foundations of society have all felt it necessary to go back to the state of nature, but none of them has succeeded in getting there. Some have not hesitated to attribute to men in that state of nature the concept of just and unjust, without bothering to show that they must have had such a concept, or even that it would be useful to them. Others have spoken of the natural right each has to keep and defend what he owns without saying what they mean by 'own'. Others again, starting out by giving the stronger authority over the weaker, promptly introduce government, without thinking of the time that must have elapsed before the words 'authority' and 'government' could have had any meaning among men. Finally, all these philosophers talking ceaselessly of need, greed, oppression, desire and pride have transported into the state of nature concepts formed in society. They speak of savage man and they depict civilized man. It has not even entered the heads of most of our philosophers to doubt that the state of nature once existed, yet it is evident from reading the Scripture that the first man, having received the light of reason and precepts at once from God, was not himself in the state of nature; and giving the writings of Moses that credence which every Christian philosopher owes them, one must deny that even before the Flood men were in the pure state of nature, unless they relapsed into it through some extraordinary event - a paradox that would be troublesome to uphold and altogether impossible to prove.
Let us begin by setting aside all the facts, because they do not affect the question. One must not take the kind of research which we enter into as the pursuit of truths of history, but solely as hypothetical and conditional reasonings, better fitted to clarify the nature of things than to expose their actual origin; reasonings similar to those used every day by our physicists to explain the formation of the earth. Religion commands us to believe that since God himself withdrew men from the state of nature they are unequal because he willed that they be; but it does not forbid us to make conjectures, based solely on the nature of man and the beings that surround him, as to what the human race might have become if it had been abandoned to itself This is what is asked of me and what I propose to examine in this discourse. Since my subject concerns men in general, I shall try to use terms intelligible to all peoples, or rather, forgetting time and place in order to think only of the men to whom I speak, I shall imagine myself in the Lyceum of Athens, repeating the lessons of my masters, having a Plato and a Xenocrates for my judges, and the human race for my audience.
O Man, to whatever country you belong and whatever your opinions, listen: here is your history as I believe I have read it, not in the books of your fellow men who are liars but in Nature which never lies. Everything which comes from her will be true; there will be nothing false except that which I have intermixed, unintentionally, of my own. The times of which I am going to speak are very remote - how much you have changed from what you were! It is, so to say, the life of your species that I am going to describe, in the light of the qualities which you once received and which your culture and your habits have been able to corrupt but not able to destroy. There is, I feel, an age at which the individual would like to stand still; you are going to search for the age at which you would wish your whole species had stood still. Discontented with your present condition for reasons which presage for your unfortunate posterity even greater discontent, you will wish perhaps you could go backwards in time - and this feeling must utter the eulogy of your first ancestors, the indictment of your contemporaries, and the terror of those who have the misfortune to live after you.