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Voltaire and Rousseau: Irreconcilable Contradiction?

Discourse on Inequality

In Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men, Rousseau declares that a natural man is a loner and self-sufficient who should not live in society. Rousseau sees the cause of the misfortunes of the human race in private property. On the margins of this book, Voltaire made many notes.

Speaking about the benefits of people in the state of nature, Rousseau formulates the famous thesis, "If nature destined man to be healthy, I venture to declare that a state of reflection is a state contrary to nature, and that a thinking man is a depraved animal." This place is marked by Voltaire, and he especially underlined the unconvincing words "nature destined man to be healthy". On the bookmark, Voltaire wrote once more: "depraved" (fr. "dépravé").

Jean-Jacques Rousseau describes human nature as being basically good. But painting a picture of the greatest depravity of morals in society, he concludes, "Such is in miniature the moral picture, if not of human life, at least of the secret pretensions of the heart of civilised man." – And to an even greater degree, if it is possible, of a savage," Voltaire adds.

…What if I should undertake to show humanity attacked in its very source, and even in the most sacred of all ties, in which fortune is consulted before nature, and, the disorders of society confounding all virtue and vice, continence becomes a criminal precaution, and a refusal to give life to a fellow-creature, an act of humanity? But, without drawing aside the veil which hides all these horrors, let us content ourselves with pointing out the evil which others will have to remedy.
– The unfortunate Jean-Jacques, whose diseases are well known, the poor who has barely escaped from a bad illness, don't you know that the latter came from the savages?

Rousseau’s praise of the natural state is commented upon laconically, "Gallimatia".
I might observe that in general, the people of the North are more industrious than those of the South, because they cannot get on so well without being so: as if nature wanted to equalise matters by giving their understandings the fertility she had refused to their soil.
– This is not true, all the arts came from tropical countries.

Rousseau disproves the idea of Hobbes who says that people are naturally evil. Voltaire remarks on the margin:
– A savage is fierce as much as a hungry wolf.

…It is then certain that compassion is a natural feeling, which, by moderating the violence of love of self in each individual, contributes to the preservation of the whole species. It is this compassion that hurries us without reflection to the relief of those who are in distress: it is this which in a state of nature supplies the place of laws, morals and virtues, with the advantage that none are tempted to disobey its gentle voice: it is this which will always prevent a sturdy savage from robbing a weak child or a feeble old man of the sustenance they may have with pain and difficulty acquired.
Would we say that the Iroquois are more compassionate than us?

…let us conclude that, being self−sufficient and subject to so few passions, he could have no feelings or knowledge but such as befitted his situation; that he felt only his actual necessities, and disregarded everything he did not think himself immediately concerned to notice, and that his understanding made no greater progress than his vanity.
– The conclusion of a nasty novel, – Voltaire wrote, who used the word "novel" in a negative sense to describe various authors, but most of all Rousseau.

<…> it is easy to conceive how much less the difference between man and man must be in a state of nature than in a state of society, and how greatly the natural inequality of mankind must be increased by the inequalities of social institutions. <…> But even if nature really affected, in the distribution of her gifts, that partiality which is imputed to her, what advantage would the greatest of her favourites derive from it, to the detriment of others, in a state that admits of hardly any kind of relation between them? Where there is no love, of what advantage is beauty?
– The beauty will arouse love, and the reason will create art.

The second part of the Discourse on Inequality opens with the famous words:

The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society.
– What! – Voltaire protestes: Would those who planted, sowed, fence, not be able to enjoy the fruits of their labor?

From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, "Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody."

– What! Would this unjust man, this thief be a benefactor to the human race? That is the philosophy of a ragamuffin who would like for the rich to be robbed by the poor.

I could show that it is to this desire of being talked about, and this unremitting rage of distinguishing ourselves, that we owe the best and the worst things we possess, both our virtues and our vices, our science and our errors, our conquerors and our philosophers; that is to say, a great many bad things, and a very few good ones.

Voltaire underlines "this desire of being talked about" and comments: "A monkey of Diogenes, you have condemned youself."

I could prove that, if we have a few rich and powerful men on the pinnacle of fortune and grandeur, while the crowd grovels in want and obscurity, it is because the former prize what they enjoy only in so far as others are destitute of it; and because, without changing their condition, they would cease to be happy the moment the people ceased to be wretched.
– How you exaggerate everything, how you misinterpret all things!

Voltaire inserted his notes on margins of the Discourse on Inequality into the article “Man”. This article was included in Voltaire’s Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, where Voltaire developed his controversy with Rousseau.

Rousseau's Discourse on Inequality is cited from the translation of G. D. H. Cole.

Emile Lambert. Sculptures of Voltaire and Rousseau in the Castle of Ferney.
We are grateful to the Centre of National Monuments in France
(Centre des Monuments Nationaux, France) for the photograph.
Voltaire's note:
"The unfortunate Jean-Jacques, whose diseases are well known, the poor who has barely escaped from a bad illness, do not you know that the latter came from the savages"
"This is not true, all the arts have come from tropical countries"
"A savage is fierce as much as a hungry wolf"
"Does it not follow from this that the Iroquois are more compassionate than we are?"
"A conclusion of a nasty novel"
"Beauty will arouse love, and the mind will create art"
What! Would those who planted, sowed, fence, not be able to enjoy the fruits of their labor?

What! Would this unjust man, this thief be a benefactor to the human race? That is the philosophy of a ragamuffin who would like for the rich to be robbed by the poor.
"A monkey of Diogenes, you have condemned youself"

"How you exaggerate greatly, how you falsely represent all issuses!"
The genius leads Voltaire and Rousseau to the Temple of Fame and Immortality. Engraving of the period of the French Revolution.
Voltaire's remark: "And to an even greater degree, if it is possible, of a savage"
A copy of the "Letter on Providence" rewritten by Voltaire's Secretary J.-L. Vanière
"Quite the contrary. If it has the good right to regain its liberty, so there was no justification to take it away"
"It is an obscure and unclear passage. This right comes from nature, if nature has made us social beings"
"Therefore,,this right comes from nature"

"But we must admit that this convention results from nature"
"All this, it seems to me, comes out of the mouth of a cunning phrasemaker. It is clear that the war between State and State is a war between man and man. Let's order all our citizens to rush at each otherdiv>
"A funny assertion"
"All of this is wrong. I do not give myself completely to my fellow citizens. I do not give the right to kill me and rob me by the majority. I obey to help my fellow citizens and to get their assistance, to do justice and receive by right. There is no other agreement"
"Poor reasoning. If Jean-Jacques is punished with the rod, whether it means that the Republic would be whipped?"
"A loafer, such predictions are worth you!"
"What does he really care whether you think ill or well of him!"

"Do not you think the sun is more important than you?"
"What a fallacy!"

"Excellent possessions!"
"Does not all this prevent the animal from being as organized as you?"
"What harmony: floods, earthquakes, precipice"
"Liberty is just to do what you want"

"What a conclusion! Is my dog does not do what he wants?"

"How can anything be out of Providence?"
"An apparent contradiction"
"Who said it to you?"
"Children's reasoning"
"All this I say twenty times in verse and prose"
"Jean-Jacques is an unbeliever, libertine, posing as St. Augustine"
"What a strange absurdity! Have you ever seen dying gods, a wretched madman!"