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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


ROUSSEAU

(1712 — 78)

 

SOCIAL CONTRACT THEORY

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva, the son of a poor watchmaker, and received only an elementary education. He was for a time an apprentice engraver, but left because of brutal treatment and settled in Savoy. He took up residence with an older woman, Mme de Warens, a Roman Catholic — to which faith he converted. After some years of travel and a variety of occupations he arrived in Paris in 1742, was appointed secretary to the French Ambassador in Venice in 1743, lost the post in 1744, and returned to Paris, where he entered into a relationship with a servant girl (who bore him five children). He also met Mme d'Épinay, who became his patroness. In 1754 he was received back into the Protestant Church. It was now that his literary career, which included a dictionary of music, a novel, an autobiography, and works on education, as well as political and moral philosophy, started in earnest; and he was in close touch with many of the Enlightenment philosophes. However, the condemnation of his Émile in 1762 led him to leave Paris in a hurry. He settled in Neuchtel, but because of his increasing radicalism and criticisms of Christianity he went to England in 1765. He stayed with Hume, but they quarrelled (Rousseau, suffering from psychological problems, was not an easy person to get on with), and he returned to Paris. Quite a life!

 

PHILOSOPHY OF MAN/ POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY

SOCIAL CONTRACT THEORY

[1] Rousseau's central thesis initially was, broadly, that man was once in a 'state of nature' and was naturally good, but that on entering into society he became corrupted by the 'artificiality' of civilization [a], and indeed that the arts and sciences contributed to his downfall. In his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality [Part I] he says that we cannot of course know what man was actually like in the state of nature (Rousseau regards his investigations as hypothetical and explanatory rather than as a quest for historical truths). But by extrapolating backwards in time we acquire a picture of primitive man as self-sufficient (nature supplying his needs), strong, skilful, and seeking only for his self-preservation. Such a man differs from animals in that he has natural liberty and is capable of improving himself: he is perfectible, though in the earliest times this was a capacity rather than being realized in particular ways.

Rousseau argues that man's primary concern for his own well-being — indeed his duty to secure it — is a manifestation of self-love (amour de soi). This is always good in so far as it accords with the order of nature; or it is indifferent to good and evil in a narrower sense of the term. It is thus to be contrasted with egoism or pride (amour-propre), which 'artificial' society turns self-love into [b]. Rousseau identifies within self-love a concern for the good of one's body, promoted by the 'sense-appetite', and the desire for order, which promotes the good of the soul. At the same time, while living in the primitive state, in which there were no formal social structures, natural man was aware of his fellow creatures; and through an identification of himself with their sufferings he experienced natural feelings (sentiments intérieurs) of compassion and love growing out of his own self-love. These feelings are for Rousseau the basis of morality. As he comes to know other men more completely, his feelings give rise to conscience, and the concepts of justice, generosity, and humanity [c]. Self-love thus develops into love of mankind.

Awareness and articulation of these and other concepts does of course require language. Primitive man, according to Rousseau, lacked this ability, but he supposes that it originated from "simple cries" which became conventionally associated as names with particular things, and thence gave rise to "general ideas" [d]. Within this naturally good primitive state, however, there lurks a darker aspect. From the first awareness of others closer relationships developed. And central for Rousseau is the emergence of private property. "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" [Discourse, Part II]. As a direct consequence inequality, injustice, misery, ambition, and amour propre were introduced [e]: man experienced a loss of innocence; evil civil society had come into being.

Rousseau's political philosophy, central to which is his doctrine of the social 'compact' or contract [Discourse on Inequality; The Social Contract] is essentially a response to the human condition thus perceived. "Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave" [Social Contract, I, i]. Rousseau recognises that there can be no return to the natural state. But while in the Discourse he regards actual civil and political society as an evil, in The Social Contract he sees civil society as an ideal — as providing the framework within which man can fulfil, realize, perfect himself [f]. How is this to be achieved? Rousseau's proposal [I, vi] is that each person should place himself and his power under a 'collective body'. He distinguishes three aspects of this body: considered as passive it is called the State; considered as active it is the Sovereign; in relation to other societies it is called the Power. The individuals collectively constitute the people and are therefore identical with the Sovereign. Sovereignty [I, vii] in this sense is thus to be contrasted with an individual sovereign such as a monarch. To the extent that they share in the Sovereign's power they are citizens: but considered as having to conform to the laws of the state they are (passive) subjects. As a consequence of their contract or agreement, there thus emerges a new entity which becomes the ultimate foundation of morality; for according to Rousseau the State is "a moral being possessed of a will". This is what he calls the general will [II, i] and it is in identifying and subordinating their individual wills to the general will that each citizen is enabled to realize himself as a moral and rational being. The duty of the sovereign legislator must be to frame laws which as far as possible which conform to the general will (with reference to natural law, which comes from God) [see sec. 2] and which therefore will be in the public interest and thus contribute to the common good [g].

Rousseau's concept of the general will colours his account of freedom or liberty [I, viii]. Men are of course naturally free to perform a physical action provided they have the will and the physical capacity. But Rousseau uses the term in a peculiar way. Men can be considered free (and can be guaranteed justice) only to the extent that they subordinate themselves to law [h]. While they have lost their natural liberty on entering the social contract, they have acquired moral liberty, "which alone makes him truly master of himself" [I, viii]. Indeed they must be "forced to be free" [I, vii] in that by virtue of the contract into which they have entered by virtue of their membership of society they have consented to all the laws. Law as the rational and universal expression of the general will is the real will of each individual will. This is the case even if the individual is not fully aware of it or has even opposed a particular law; for Rousseau seems to suggest that if such a person were fully aware he would assent to his real will and would be motivated to act in accordance with it through his 'inner feeling' (sentiment intérieur). Rousseau thus distinguishes here [II, iii] between the general will as such (la volonté générale) and the will of all (la volonté de tous) [i]. The latter is as it were but a numerical sum of individual interests; while the former is an organic concept transcending the 'private interests' of each individual and yet expressing the real will of all. It is directed towards each person's self-realization and thereby to the common good.

It follows from Rousseau's thesis that sovereignty (that is, the active body politic or the people as a whole) is not divisible. Neither can it when acting in its capacity as legislator of the general will be transferred; it is inalienable. This follows from the separation of sovereignty and government. Rousseau allows that the sovereign may delegate executive powers to government deputies but says they cannot be representatives. Different forms of government are compatible with his general thesis. Their suitability often depends on the size of the society: but all have their weaknesses and are subject to abuse. He does not therefore propose an 'ideal' type. Individual citizens give their continuous assent to the contract but can opt out (by leaving the society), and the contract itself can be terminated if all agree [j].

 

PHILOSOPHY OF RELIGION

[2] Rousseau rejected traditional Christianity — its dogma and alleged revelation, and argued (with reference to Hobbes's position as set out in his De Cive) that the "priestly interest would always be stronger than the state" [Social Contract, ch. VIII]. However, he was sympathetic to the message of the Christian Gospel, which he considered a "holy, sublime, and real religion" and which recognises the brotherhood of man. But this religion, he says, does not have any relation to the body politic and indeed is contrary to the social spirit. Accordingly (in his later years) he proposed a 'civil religion', the articles of which should be fixed by the Sovereign [ibid.] [a]. The minimal 'dogmas' confirm the existence of a powerful, intelligent, beneficent Divinity who possesses foresight and providence, the punishment of the wicked, happiness of the just, and preserves the sanctity of the social contract and its laws. There should be mutual tolerance of all religions so long as nothing is advocated which is contrary to the duties of citizenship. In Rousseau's deism God is the creator of the order and goodness of Nature. He finds evidence of His existence in man's deep feeling for Nature and in reason's recognition of a governing intelligence [b]. Still more significant is Rousseau's emphasis on conscience — the soul's inner voice, the "divine instinct" [c], which underpins our moral lives. [See 'Profession of Faith', in Émile, ch. IV; also, on his feelings for Nature, see 'Reveries'.]

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Whereas for Hobbes man in the hypothetical natural state, without the restraints of the social contract, is self-centred and hedonistic, concerned only with his self-preservation, Rousseau stresses man's natural goodness and perfectibility. Why then does the urge to appropriate goods, to claim "this is mine", with man's consequent loss of innocence, actually arise; and where does it come from? This is not really dealt with by Rousseau. The key feature of his philosophy, however, is undoubtedly the concept of the General Will. But this is open to serious difficulties. It is a metaphysical concept; and although Rousseau says it is not the sum of individual wills, it is not entirely clear what it actually is. Does he mean it is a kind of highest common factor of individual wills? The implications of his supposition that the General Will accords with natural moral law are not fully worked out. Is this revealed by the legislator or through individual conscience? What if there is a conflict between them? Is it right that an individual should be forced to conform to legislation (and thereby to realize his freedom)? Can the state when expressing the will of the majority not be wrong? Rousseau says that citizens are free to opt out of the 'contract', in so far as it is but a tacit acceptance of the Sovereign — equated with the people themselves as willing (in both senses) subjects. This would not be generally feasible today; where would one go? A return to the original state of natural freedom is of course ruled out. Despite difficulties such as these — and this is not to deny that solutions might be found to them within the framework of Rousseau's philosophy — his writings were immensely influential, particularly on Kant, Hegel, and Marx.

 

READING

Rousseau: Discours de l'origine et les fondements de l'inégalité parmi les hommes (1755) (A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality among Men); Contrat sociale (1762) (The Social Contract); Émile (1762) (this includes La Profession de foi du vicaire savoyard — 'The Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar' ); Les Rèveries du promeneur solitaire (1779; publ. 1782) ( Reveries of a Solitary Walker). There are many editions of these and other writings of Rousseau. (See the Bibliography.) The Contract and Discourses are conveniently available in a translation G. D. H. Cole (with his introduction), revised by Brumfitt and Hall; and in World's Classics, ed. P. Franklin.

Studies:

Introductory

R. Wokler, Rousseau: A Very Short Introduction.

Advanced

J. H. Broome, Rousseau — A Study of his Thought.

J. C. Hall, Rousseau.

T. O'Hagan, Rousseau.

Collections of essays

M. Cranston and R. Peters (eds), Hobbes and Rousseau: A Collection of Critical Essays.

P. Riley (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Rousseau.

 

 

 

CONNECTIONS

Rousseau

 

[1a; cf. 1e] In 'state of nature' man naturally good but corrupted when in 'artificial' civilized society

   Hobbes

   Locke

Hume

[7b]

[4a]

[4a]

 

[1b] Self-love (not egoistic): man's concern for his well-being; accords with nature; morally neutral

   Aristotle

   Hobbes

   Diderot

   Holbach

   Ricoeur

[21c]

[7b c]

[3a]

[2a]

[8e]

 

[1c] Self-love gives rise to feeling of compassion; basis of morality → conscience, justice humanity

   Hobbes

   Hume

   Diderot

   Condillac

   Holbach

[7b c]

[3d]

[3b]

[4c]

[2a]

 

[1d] Naturalist theory of origin of language in cries → names of particular things → general ideas

   Condillac

Hamann

Herder

[1a]

[1c]

[2a]

 

[1e; cf. 1a] Private property cause of civil society, egoism, injustice, and evil

   Locke

Marx

[4b]

[2e]

 

[1f; also 1g h] The social contract — between all citizens and the state (the sovereign as active body politic); aim is ideal civil society which facilitates perfecting of citizens

   Hobbes

   Locke

Hume

   Diderot

Kant

Fichte

Hegel

Ricoeur

Rawls

[7d]

[4d]

[4c]

[3c]

[6f]

[4b]

[7c]

[9d]

[1d]

 

[1g; cf. 1f i] Individuals 'realize' themselves through identification and subordination to the general will brought into being by the social contract; legislation in accordance with natural law (voice of God) contributes to the common good

   [Grotius]

   Locke

   Hutcheson

   Diderot

   Condillac

Kant

Fichte

Hegel

    

[4d]

[1d]

[3c]

[4c]

[6a f 7a]

[4b 4c d]

[6b 7b c]

 

[1h] Natural liberty lost in social contract but moral liberty acquired and justice guaranteed through subordination to the law

   Hobbes

   Locke

Kant

Hegel

Rawls

[7c e-g]

[4d]

[6f]

[7a-c]

[1d]

 

[1i; cf. 1g j] Distinction between general will and will of all (individual wills)

   Hobbes

Hegel

[7d]

[7b]

 

[1j] Sovereignty (active body politic) not outside contract; indivisible and inalienable; separation from government; citizens give continuous assent; mutual opt-out of contract possible

   Hobbes

   Locke

   Holbach

[7d 7g]

[4e 4f]

[2b]

 

[2a] Civil religion — 'dogmas' fixed by Sovereign

   Hobbes

   Diderot

   Holbach

[7h]

[3d]

[2c]

 

[2b] Deism: God as source of order and goodness in Nature; man drawn to God through feeling for Nature and rational reflection

Kant

Hamann

[11a]

[1b]

 

[2c] Conscience as 'divine instinct' and soul's inner voice Kant [11a]