Rousseau's Work on the Social Contract Begins Essay

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Rousseau's work on The Social Contract begins with a legendary ringing indictment of society as it exists: "Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains" (Rousseau 1993, p. 693). Before examining Rousseau's theory of government in greater detail, however, it is worth noting what assumptions are contained in this first sentence of The Social Contract, which is perhaps the most famous line that Rousseau ever wrote. It contains an assumption about human nature -- that somehow the nature of man is "free" and that the government that exists at the time of Rousseau's publication in 1762 is somehow an unjust imposition upon that freedom. This is important to note because Rousseau, not unlike his predecessors Locke and Hobbes, needs to establish a theory of human nature before he can outline a theory of just government. It is worth noting that in the same year Rousseau published The Social Contract he also published a work on "the philosophy of education" written in the form of a novel, entitled Emile (Delaney 2005, n.p.). These two strands in Rousseau's work are inextricably intertwined, as is arguably the case with Hobbes and Locke as well. With Hobbes, Duncan notes that "the first part of The Elements of Law is titled 'Human Nature'," which is a good indication that Hobbes' view of the state is build up as a response to a picture of human nature as basically wicked (Duncan 2012, n.p.). With Locke, of course, the two types of philosophical inquiry -- about human nature and about government -- are separated out into separate works as they are with Rousseau. Locke's famous Essay Concerning Human Understanding posits the existence of the human mind at birth as a "tabula rasa" or blank slate, upon which "experience in the form of sensation and reflection provide the basic materials -- simple ideas -- out of which most of our more complex knowledge is constructed" (Uzgalis, 2010, n.p.). If Hobbes has a picture of human nature which owes much to traditional Christian concepts like original sin, then Locke has a picture of human nature which is basically neutral and programmable, owing much perhaps to the revolution in physical science which was occurring at the time when he wrote. By contrast, Rousseau stakes out a position on human nature that is different from either the pessimism of Hobbes or the scientific neutrality of Locke: he is, in some important sense, an optimist about human nature, or about what he sees as the true nature of humanity before it is corrupted by existing institutions. Indeed, in his work on education, Rousseau could not be further from the Hobbesian position, when he claims that it is "an incontrovertible rule that the first impulses of nature are always right; there is no original sin in the human heart, the how and why of the entrance of every vice can be traced" (Rousseau 1993, p. 689). This is closer to a Lockean position, but it has a remarkably non-Lockean bias in favor of the inherent goodness (rather than the inherent neutrality and programmability) of human nature. In order to consider Rousseau's political philosophy, and his idea of the social contract, in any greater depth, it is important to bear in mind that this is his assumption about human nature, and perhaps to question where it comes from and what he does with it.

If we can understand Hobbes in the context of the English Civil War and Locke in the context of the Scientific Revolution, then it is worth noting that Rousseau might profitably be understood in the context of emerging anthropology, or comparative sociology. By the mid-eighteenth-century the colonization of North and South America was already well under way, and the observation of native societies had given European philosophers a way of viewing human existence outside the context not only of traditional forms of government but also outside the context of Christianity. Obviously both Hobbes and Locke would have the benefit of knowing about the existence of Native Americans when they considered their political philosophies as well, but the concept is not as central to them as it is to Rousseau. Rousseau's notions about the existence of man in a state of nature are tied up with his concept of the "noble savage," although it is worth noting that, according to Delaney, this concept is more subtle than it might appear and is easily misunderstood: "Although the human being is naturally good and the 'noble savage' is free from the vices that plague humans in civil society, Rousseau is not simply saying that humans in nature are good and humans in civil society are bad." (Delaney, 2005, n.p.). Instead, Rousseau is using the idea of the "noble savage" to undertake a critique of governmental systems as they exist, in the same way that he uses the idea of the child in his work on education. He is careful not to claim that either the "savage" or the child are good in themselves in this state of nature -- instead, he sees the state of nature as one where such a concept of goodness is almost irrelevant. But in The Social Contract, it is worth noting that the savage and the child are brought together, as Rousseau considers the basic model for all societies to be the family: he calls it "the most ancient of all societies, and the only one that is natural" but also indicates that what qualifies as a structure of government in the human family, namely the father, is only binding for as long as it is necessary for survival, after which "the natural bond is dissolved" (Rousseau 1993, p.693)

In terms of laying out a theory of government, however, it is worth noting that Rousseau's picture of human nature emphasizes something which is not particularly emphasized by either Hobbes or Locke: this is, as befits a picture of social organization which is based upon an idea of familial organization, the idea of love. Indeed in The Social Contract Rousseau notes that this is what is present in family structures but absent in political structures: "the love of the father for his children repays him for the care he takes of them, while, in the State, the pleasure of commanding takes the place of the love which the chief cannot have for the peoples under him" (Rousseau 1993, p. 693). This is important for understanding the peculiarity of the social system which Rousseau recommends in The Social Contract, which is one which does not necessarily seem to the twenty-first-century reader to be one which guarantees the kind of freedom and equality that Rousseau promotes. Instead, Rousseau's picture of civil society hinges upon a concept of "the Sovereign," which binds the individual in a social contract to a larger societal entity: the individual, according to Rousseau, is "bound in a double capacity; as a member of the Sovereign he is bound to the individuals, and as a member of the State to the Sovereign" (Rousseau, 1993, p. 803). In some sense, Rousseau's concept of "the Sovereign" is a contractual relationship entered into which promotes a higher familial relationship between all persons -- it is, perhaps, responsible for the inclusion of fraternity, along with liberty and equality, in the slogans of the French Revolution which had studied Rousseau and which idolized him sufficiently that they "transferred his remains to the Pantheon in Paris" sixteen years after his death in 1778 (Bertram 2011, n.p.). The problem here is that Rousseau is aware of the gap between personal interest and motivation, and a collective or general motivation on the part of all people who comprise a society. The concept of the "Sovereign" is his way of bridging this gap: he notes that "each individual, as a man, may have a particular will contrary or dissimilar to the general will which he has a citizen" (Rousseau 1993, p.804). But because the combination of all these individual wills into the general will which constitutes the "Sovereign" is imagined by Rousseau as a single human entity, it is seen as having the same sort of human nature that Rousseau imagines exists elsewhere: "the moral person which constitutes the State as a persona ficta" will have a kind of collective will which is also collectively good (Rousseau 1993, p.804). For this reason, Rousseau does not see the supremacy of this collective will over the individual will as being a form of enchainment that exists in the unjust societies out of which he hopes to theorize a path: instead, in somewhat paradoxical and troubling language, he acknowledges that "whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body" but rather than seeing this as an impingement upon human freedom, or a new version of the same old chains, he claims that instead it "means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free" (Rousseau 1993, p. 804). This is troubling and also possibly inconsistent -- it is…

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