Civil Society and the Rights of Individuals Term Paper

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Civil Society and the Rights of Individuals

Through the years, civil society and the rights of man have come to know many things. Many philosophers have helped lay the groundwork for how we govern ourselves today. We have words like democracy, autocracy, dictatorship, and other ways of defining a society and rules that determine what the rights of individuals will be. It was in the hands of philosophers like Rousseau and Burke who began the discussions concerning what governs a society. These philosophers studied society and defined very particular beliefs concerning social, political, and economic ideas that were present in society. These philosophers tackled questions such as what the state of Man actually is, social regimes, religion, and other forms of nature. Rousseau and Burke were philosophers with conflicting views on man and civil society. This paper will discuss their beliefs and how they are seemingly trying to teach the same thing, while contradicting one another.


Unlike Burke, Rousseau did not come from a political background. He saw himself as unique with a valuable contribution to make to modern thought and society. He was not a member of the cliques that dominated eighteenth century European society and he made his home traveling from one society to another. He believed himself to be fully conscious at a very young age and took advantage of this state by writing about his beliefs at a young age. His political beliefs stemmed from the romantic enlightenment strand of thought. This foundation was the basis for his beliefs on civil society.

Rousseau believed that all rights are conventional. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and those basic rights of man are the result of an agreement or social contract between man and government. These rights therefore depend on the will of government. "What government grants, government can take away." (Rousseau, 26) In Rousseau's mind, then, rights do not extend beyond the hand of government. But he does believe strongly about what rights should be granted to individuals.

Rousseau's text, The Social Contract, reflected this train of thought regarding civil society. It was with this influential text that he began to be thought of as a totalitarian, one interested in individual rights. It was known by many that Rousseau was uncomfortable in civil society. He simply could not find his place anywhere and was disgusted with how civil society was defined in his time. Civil society, Rousseau, thought, had a positive effect on humanity, they were "transformed from a stupid animal to an intelligent being and a man," (Rousseau, 19).

However, in his opinion, civil society was not organized in the right way; this disorganization, he thought, was the root of injustice. In his view, "civil social organization had removed 'natural' rights from people but had not yet instilled civil liberty." (Rousseau, 31) In nature, humans are free, but in civil society, humans are at the mercy of the government and the rules of which they impose. According to Rousseau, society creates artificial needs, destroying the balance between will and power, losing independence and placing people in chains.

It was Rousseau contention, then, that people needed more freedom in the civil society. His starting point was that "Man is born free, and yet we see him everywhere in chains." (Rousseau, 5). He didn't believe that man should conform completely to the rules of civil society and be governed by other men. Freedom and independence in civil society was what he fought for. This totalitarian view stemmed from the feelings of suffocation present in his life. He feared society would turn into a prison where everyone was artificial and freedom no longer existed. However, he believed in the necessity of law and the rule of it to lead men to better lives.

In Rousseau's Social Contract, man is depicted as a "stupid and unimaginative animal." In his view, in the civil society man has no conscience or identity and this is what's wrong with the organization of the society. But Rousseau also believed that men could be made better by their government and that if they "believe they are part of the government, they will work, fight, and build, without complaining in the belief that what helps the good of all people is going to be beneficial to them." (Rousseau, 21) In Rousseau's social contract, people convert their liberty from independence in the original state, into political and moral freedom.

While Rousseau certainly believed in the power of government, he believed in the power of man more. A just society for Rousseau, then, was one where each man was able to act with individual freedom, while still heeding the advice and direction of government. Early in The Social Contract, Rousseau asserts that "rule by force is not moral and does not work well even if it was considered so, for when there is no force, there is no obligation." (Rousseau, 5) He also touches on the subject of slavery stating, "no man has any natural authority over his fellows and since force produces no right to any, all justifiable authority among men must be established on the basis of conventions." (Rousseau, 8).

Rousseau believed in man and man's choice to believe in himself. But he struggled with the idea of how freedom was supposed to be granted in a civil society. How was government supposed to be in control without taking away the rights or freedoms of man? He puts the problem in these words: "where shall we find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and the property of each associate, and by which each person, while uniting himself with all, shall obey himself and remain free as before." (Rousseau, 15)

His answer was a social contract which can be summarized in one line: "total alienation of each associate, and all his rights, to the community whereby each and every individual gives themselves up completely so it would not be in the interests of anyone to render that condition offensive to others." (Rousseau, 15). What Rousseau was saying was that people are strengthened as individuals in a collective body. The individual, then, is the strongest thing present in any society, while still remaining a society. In his mind, then, the government was responsible for making laws where no partial interests restrict the independence and authority of the people. "The collective body then legislates as a collective on general issues and forms laws that are just, to which all are bound, and will want to be bound." (Rousseau, 16) Rousseau did not believe man's liberties should ever be taken away. He wanted justice, fairness and liberty and he believed all of these rights were possible in the civil society, even if he had yet to see it.


Burke is best known for his arguments against the political rationalism and radicalism of the French revolution. In 1790 he wrote one of his most famous works, Reflections on the Revolution in France, in which he argues against these ideas. In this work, he layed out conservative ideas that people are still referring to. Burke wrote mainly about the political controversies of his day. He wrote about the reform of the 18th century government, the result of the American colonies, British relations with Ireland, and India, and the French revolution. Burke was a statesman and not a political philosopher, but just like Rousseau he had very definite thoughts concerning civil society.

In Burke's eyes, civilized society was nothing more than the sum of its men. He believed that his modern society was destined to "undo the work of the ages, erode the historically transmitted "prejudices" that upheld civilized society against the vulgar and the barbaric." (Burke, 11) He believed that the men of his day were nothing short of fragile and that they needed a strong society to keep them from being beasts. He was captivated by the power of social organization and the rules of the state.

According to Burke, "without a reverence for the state, there can be no continuity of the state through time, and actually this consecration of continuity, leads to the notion of the state's history being providentially guided." (Burke, 14) Burke insisted that civil society be governed by history and not by social contract. The rights of the individual were not as important to him as the state and its history of doing things that were best for mankind. He was not interested in the notion of man's freedom and liberties, he was interested in the needs of the state.

According to Burke, there is no difference between what a man is and what he will become. A man in society is a product of his context and his challenges; he is the sum of the wants and needs of himself and his environment. In regard to man and civil society, Burke says, "The legislators who framed the ancient republics knew that... they had to do with men, and they were obliged…

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