Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his Philosophy

Jean Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) is the philosopher of the French revolution; he criticizes Hobbes for assuming that the human in the  “state of nature . . . has no idea of goodness; he must be naturally wicked; that he is vicious because he does not know virtue.” Rousseau assumes the opposite: in the natural state, humans have “uncorrupted morals“; not in the sense of a developed morality, but in the negative sense of a primitive morality that is not yet corrupted by society. It is a state prior to any socialization. In this state, human beings are free, self-sufficient, and because of this they are still peaceful; they are capable of experiencing compassion, and they live in small biologically determined groups. Rousseau’s vision of humans in their original constitution is very animal-like, it is a natural goodness that characterizes them, but this does not preclude the possibility that this man also becomes a ferocious fighter. He is neither a natural killer, as Hobbes saw it, nor a naturally good creature, as some romantic interpreters have seen it, who attributed the idea of a “noble savage” to Rousseau. Rousseau tries to imagine what human beings are like in a pre-political state, where there is no socially created inequality, and no artificial luxuries that corrupt our instincts, and he sees them very similar to animals like apes.

Rousseau has a more differential view of human nature than Hobbes or Locke. Some human qualities are given to us through nature and exist in a natural state as well as in a socialized state, unless they are suppressed, like compassion for others, simple needs like the sexual drive, and a basic love for oneself. Other qualities exist only as potentialities in the human nature; they have to be activated and will unfold through society, like language, and culture in general. Finally, there are those qualities that do not belong to the nature of the human being, but are acquired through socialization, like the hunger for power, for wealth, jealousy, and other culturally determined needs. The process of socialization changes man’s nature; it creates morality and forces him to develop rationality. [2]

What sets the process of socialization into motion are the advantages we gain from the division of labor. Rousseau describes the process through which primitive societies evolve in his treatise Discourse on Inequality, published in 1754. He argues that humans lived originally in small groups, and this allowed them to help each other.  Eventually the advantages of distributed labor become obvious; wealth begins to grow, and the desire for more grows as well. Inequality arises. With growing inequality private property becomes more and more important, and an artificial status hierarchy gets established within society. People try to gain status and property at the cost of others, and only then Hobbes’ situation of “war of all against all” becomes a reality. Rousseau constructs a state of nature that exists even before Hobbes’ state of nature, and he sees Hobbes’ starting point as the result of a wrong form of socialization.

The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,” and found people naive enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. 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. ”[3]

Inequality is a function of political socialization; and the evil in the human psyche is a result of society, and not given by nature. From Rousseaus’ point of view the Hobbesian social contract can only fail, because it gets created in a situation that is already determined by warfare and the attempts to gain and secure private property. The inequality in this state is overcome with even more inequality, now between the Sovereign and his subjects. In fact, Hobbes’ social contract institutes inequality as the fundamental condition of modern society. It can never create a stabile peace, but will spawn continuous wars and uprisings, because people are united under absolute rule: in this state they are now equal, but at the price of losing their freedom for good.

Is there a solution to this dilemma? Obviously, to go back to a state of nature is not only not desirable, but also impossible because human abilities are now already developed beyond this state. A new beginning is necessary, and Rousseau describes this process in his book The Social Contract, Or Principles of Political Right (1762). In the last chapter of this book, after describing the problems of a political order that creates inequality, he asks: what is to be done? And his answer is resignation: cultivate your personal virtues, and obey the current lawful rulers. However, he also claims that a new social contract is now necessary. Subsequently, Rousseau became the intellectual Godfather of the French Revolution, which started in 1789, and the Marxist revolutions of the 20th Century have their roots in his thinking.

According to him, a new social contract would first require that people give up property, because differences in private property generate differences in legal status and vice versa, and this defeats all attempts to create a society which restores the original equality that is given to us by nature. It is the goal of the social contract to create a just society. In order to achieve this there has to be equality, but it comes for a price: people have to voluntarily agree to give up their individual freedom by submitting to the “general will,” or, as Rousseau calls it, to the “volonté génerale”.  How does he define this concept of a general will, which is the centerpiece of his political philosophy? In Rousseaus’ view, it is manifested in the laws that a community creates for itself. It is not simply the will of all, or some kind of common denominator among all people, but the will that aims at the general. It is not defined by the number of participants, but by the content of the will. We can distinguish a particular and a general will in each individual. We have particular interests, but then we also have judgments about the justice of our actions, and what is good for all. This “common good” or what is good for the community as a whole, is not too complicated to determine, and therefore we can more or less agree about its contents after some discussion. Consensus itself is not the single feature that determines the general will, but only an indicator of its presence. According to Rousseau, the new social contract that creates the sovereign is radically democratic in the following sense: the sovereign is the politically organized and constituted community as such, not some absolute ruler who is separated by a deep gap from the people. Rousseau distinguishes between the sovereign, which is more or less synonymous with the fact that society is ruled by Law, and the government, which is charged with implementing and enforcing the general will. Whoever enters the social contract does so voluntarily, but once she accepted the social contract, she is bound by it. She has to absolutely accept the decisions once they are made, because she herself is a member of this political body, and when she joined, she agreed to honor this contract.

The sovereign is articulated through the “general will”, and this general will manifests itself in the laws of the society. One can see that in this conception, the general will actually protects the individual from arbitrary decisions of the majority, because a law by definition can only be general, and therefore must apply to all. The key passage in his book “The Social Contract” runs as follows:

When I say that the object of laws is always general, I mean that law considers subjects en masse and actions in the abstract, and never a particular person or action. Thus the law may indeed decree that there shall be privileges, but cannot confer them on anybody by name. It may set up several classes of citizens, and even lay down the qualifications for membership of these classes, but it cannot nominate such and such persons as belonging to them; it may establish a monarchical government and hereditary succession, but it cannot choose a king, or nominate a royal family. In a word, no function which has a particular object belongs to the legislative power.

On this view, we at once see that it can no longer be asked whose business it is to make laws, since they are acts of the general will; nor whether the prince is above the law, since he is a member of the State; nor whether the law can be unjust, since no one is unjust to himself; nor how we can be both free and subject to the laws, since they are but registers of our wills.

We see further that, as the law unites universality of will with universality of object, what a man, whoever he be, commands of his own motion cannot be a law; and even what the Sovereign commands with regard to a particular matter is no nearer being a law, but is a decree, an act, not of sovereignty, but of magistracy.

I therefore give the name “Republic” to every State that is governed by laws, no matter what the form of its administration may be: for only in such a case does the public interest govern, and the res publica rank as a reality. Every legitimate government is republican; what government is I will explain later on.[4]

We have become accustomed to think of Rousseau as a theoretician of direct democracy, and we often disqualify this form of government as impractical, especially in relation to large states. This is a misunderstanding: Rousseau does not advocate that the people should decide every single question, they should simply constitute the law together, and once it exists, the state should be ruled by it. This is what Rousseau calls a “republic”: a society which is governed by law, where no one is above it. The government itself can take different forms. It could be a constitutional monarchy, an aristocracy, or a democracy. Rousseau distinguishes strictly between the legislative powers and the executive, and he gives primacy to the legislative branch. He is actually skeptical towards a democracy, because he sees the problem that in the case of a democracy people have to act simultaneously as the legislative and the executive branch. He is a republican, and he defines this as the rule of law. (… every State that is governed by laws, no matter what the form of its administration may be.)  What is important for him is first the idea that there can only be freedom if the people themselves, by engaging in a social contract, become the origin of the law, and second, that the actual government is bound by the law, does not act arbitrarily, and does not impose the individual will of the ruler in a given situation, because this would become a form of tyranny. By emphasizing equality already in the state of nature, he requires that all political systems first and foremost have to implement equality, and he understands this primarily as the rule of law for everyone, which will protect the individual from arbitrary acts of the government. In this line of thinking, a pure democracy can become a tyranny as well, if it is based on the radical implementation of majority rule.

The political theories of early modernity we discussed all have in common that they comprise three elements: a state of nature which consists of the natural inclinations human beings bring into the social domain, a social contract phase, in which society constitutes itself as a political entity, and a constitution for the state in which the consequences of the first two phases get developed. These theories represent attempts to explain the creation of the state (and its deformations) as a natural process, and without the help of a divine foundation. They try to explain a secular (natural) foundation of the state, and they emerge only after the religious explanations have lost their credibility and cohesiveness.

At the end of the 18th century, public sentiment had changed enough that monarchies everywhere had severe difficulties justifying their existence. The American and the French revolutions led the way; Hobbes and Locke were inspirational for the Americans, and Rousseau was celebrated by the French revolutionaries, especially Robespierre and Justin. The 19th century brought restoration, wars, more revolutions, and the rise of European nation states that competed with each other for the control of overseas territories. It also brought many scientific discoveries, technological inventions like the steam engine, which facilitated the beginnings of industrialization. Our relationship to nature changed profoundly, and with it the understanding of our own human nature. The speculations about a “state of nature” for the human being became less important, because such a state can almost nowhere be found in reality. The question that motivated the search for a state of nature originally, however, became less and less answerable: What can we consider as the foundation of political order, if this order is not decreed by God, or deducible from nature? The discovery that changed everything, and unsettled the view of ourselves as the rulers over nature the most, came from biology: it was the discovery of evolution.

Works by Rousseau:

Below is a list of Rousseau’s major works in chronological order, with a brief description:

  • Discours sur les Sciences et les Arts (Discourse on the Sciences and Arts), 1750.
    • Often referred to as the “First Discourse,” this work was a submission to the Academy of Dijon’s essay contest, which it won, on the question, “Has the restoration of the sciences and arts tended to purify morals?”
  • Le Devin du Village (The Village Soothsayer), 1753.
    • Rousseau’s opera: it was performed in France and widely successful.
  • Narcisse ou l’amant de lui-même (Narcissus or the lover of himself), 1753.
    • A play written by Rousseau.
  • Lettre sur la musique francaise (Letter on French music), 1753.
  • Discours sur l’origine et les fondments de l’inegalite (Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality), 1755.
    • Often referred to as the “Second Discourse,” this was another submission to an essay contest sponsored by the Academy of Dijon, though unlike the First Discourse, it did not win the prize. The Second Discourse is a response to the question, “What is the Origin of Inequality Among Men and is it Authorized by the Natural Law?”
  • Discours sur l’Économie politique (Discourse on Political Economy), 1755.
    • Sometimes called the “Third Discourse,” this work originally appeared in the Encyclopédie of Diderot and d’Alembert.
  • Lettre á d’Alembert sur les Spectacles (Letter to Alembert on the Theater), 1758.
  • Juli ou la Nouvelle Héloïse (Julie or the New Heloise), 1761.
    • A novel that was widely read and successful immediately after its publication.
  • Du Contract Social (The Social Contract), 1762.
    • Rousseau’s most comprehensive work on politics.
  • Émile ou de l’Éducation (Émile or On Education), 1762.
    • Rousseau’s major work on education. It also contains the Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar, which documents Rousseau’s views on metaphysics, free will, and his controversial views on natural religion for which the work was banned by Parisian authorities.
  • Lettre á Christophe de Beaumont, Archévêque de Paris (Letter to Christopher de Beaumont, Archbishop of Paris), 1763.
  • Lettres écrites de la Montagne (Letters Written from the Mountain), 1764.
  • Dictionnaire de Musique (Dictionary of Music), 1767.
  • Émile et Sophie ou les Solitaires (Émile and Sophie or the Solitaries), 1780.
    • A short sequel to the Émile.
  • Considérations sur le gouverment de la Pologne (Considerations on the Government of Poland), 1782.
  • Les Confessions (The Confessions), Part I 1782, Part II 1789.
    • Rousseau’s autobiography.
  • Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques, Dialogues (Rousseau judge of Jean-Jacques, Dialogues), First Dialogue 1780, Complete 1782.
  • Les Rêveries du Promeneur Solitaire (Reveries of the Solitary Walker), 1782.

[1] Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, 72-73

[2]The passage from the state of nature to the civil state produces a very remarkable change in man, by substituting justice for instinct in his conduct, and giving his actions the morality they had formerly lacked. Then only, when the voice of duty takes the place of physical impulses and right of appetite, does man, who so far had considered only himself, find that he is forced to act on different principles, and to consult his reason before listening to his inclinations. Although, in this state, he deprives himself of some advantages which he got from nature, he gains in return others so great, his faculties are so stimulated and developed, his ideas so extended, his feelings so ennobled, and his whole soul so uplifted, that, did not the abuses of this new condition often degrade him below that which he left, he would be bound to bless continually the happy moment which took him from it forever, and, instead of a stupid and unimaginative animal, made him an intelligent being and a man.”  Rousseau, The Social Contract, Book I Chapter 8.

[3] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, 1754

[4] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Social Contract, Book 2, Chapter 6. 1762.

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