Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a philosopher in the eighteenth century who wrote about topics as varied as religion and politics. He famously worked on a treatise with respect to government that attempted to explain what government should be. His thoughts, called "On the Social Contract," were an attempt to reconcile the liberties of the ancients and the moderns (as they were called being, as yet, modern to Rousseau). His belief was that actual government should be as close to true human nature as is possible. This nature, he said, was such that it wanted no government, but that it needed to be a part of a collective to receive both protection and goods. He related that there were ancient societies which tried to do this, and that the liberty of the moderns was much the same because people did not change. The general nature of man had remained the same throughout history. However, it is exactly the natural character of people which modern governments are trying to get away from. In this essay, it will be argued, through the use of the philosophers own words and the counterpoints of his contemporaries, that Rousseau's marriage of ancient to modern liberty is a dangerous and disastrous road with respect to the establishment of government.
Rousseau believed that an ancient concept of government, actually the first attempt at government, was the family. He says many times "We are all born free." This seems to mean that everyone is born without any sort of governor, but that because all have needs which must be met they subjugate themselves to an authority which can provide for those needs. In fact he states, "The family may then be called the first model of political societies: the ruler corresponds to the father, and the people to the children; and all, being born free and equal, alienate their liberty only for their own advantage" (Rousseau 2). He then goes on to say that actually this is a little bit false because the father loves his children and provides for them out of that love, while the State father has no such love and provides those things that its "children" need because he (or she) wishes to command (Rousseau 2). Rousseau's contention throughout this book is that ancient societies that became monarchies or dictatorships did not follow the natural order, and were not true governments. They were the same as the relationship of a slave to its master (Rousseau 4). His belief is that people have to avoid what he calls subjugation; the cattle and god stance of Caligula (Rousseau 3). The ancient liberty then is the same as the modern. It is that people have to govern themselves and to turn over as little of themselves as possible to said government.
This can be seen in several points that he makes. First, he says "The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the goods and person of each associate, in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before " (Rousseau 9). It sounds like he is invoking personal anarchy, but in actuality it would be more akin to a Libertarian stance. He also judges that the Sovereign, or as modern representative republics would term it the executive, should be both inalienable and indivisible. He states that the general will of the people is embodied in the sovereign (Rousseau 16) and thus that position is inviolate. The legislature is another body that must be set up to protect the natural order of the government because the sovereign cannot be both the law maker and law enforcer (Rousseau 25). Whereas several of these statements correspond to the way modern representative republics operate, he is incorrect regarding where these ideas originate as will be seen in the counter arguments.
The nature of humans is toward the preservation of self (Rousseau 2) which is a correct statement. One only has to observe an infant before it is impacted by any law. The baby has only personal need in mind, and the only way to express that is to cry. The Roman government would often act on the same impulse as a parent when faced with the mob. Free bread, to keep the masses fed, and circuses, to keep them entertained, were inventions that modern political institutions often employ, and they are how an infant also remains satisfied. The ancients would either use power or some form of coercion to keep their subjects happy. Constant said that ancient rulers did not believe that their subjects had any voice. People were cattle to and they had no individual will (Constant 312). Liberty of the ancients consisted of "the enslavement of the individual existence to the collective body" (Constant 312). In other words, individual liberty was nonexistent unless the subject of said liberty happened to be the sovereign. Even in cases where there was a supposed democracy or republic, they were not in a true modern sense respective of persons. Remember that the Roman republic, which purported to be for the people, had a legislative body, and allowed landed citizens to vote, had a group-cognoscenti that was in control of the people, and acted in just as autocratic a role as any single monarch or dictator. This was the true governmental belief of the ancients. They believed this way because they were separate, small groups.
The ancients "All had to buy their security, their independence, their whole existence at the price of war. This was the constant interest, the almost habitual occupation of the free states of antiquity. Finally, by an equally necessary result of this way of being, all these states had slaves. The mechanical professions and even, among some nations, the industrial ones, were committed to people in chains" (Constant 313). So the ancient way that Rousseau wants to continue resulted in constant interstate war and the enslavement of opposing families. This can even be seen today among the more primitive nations, often called third world, that exist. Fighting within national boundaries is still between ancient family groups for power over the other family groups. This is not the modern idea of liberty. It is not what Rousseau envisioned, but it is the reality of what happened and happens.
The sovereign, in those actual cases, is the undisputed head of a clan. Government was not handed over to this leader so that they could exercise the will of the many as Rousseau claims, but to use and abuse their power. The modern version of liberty is much different than the ancient one because people now realize that the base human nature must be transformed. The actual form of modern government can be explained as "the reflective form of substantial ethical life, namely in the medium in which the members of somehow solitary communities become aware on their dependence on one another and, acting with full deliberation as citizens, further develop and shape existing relations of reciprocal recognition into an association of free and equal consociates under the law" (Habermas 21). The ethical portion of the definition is the most important piece. Rousseau did not believe in any ethic other than a personal one. The individual acted in the best interests of themselves. This is the stance of the ancients. In modern societies, government responds to the will of the people as a whole who have come to realize that others, and their welfare, sometimes supersedes the individual will.
Habermas calls this the republican politic (Habermas 22). He says that modern governments "guarantee not freedom from external compulsion but the possibility of participation in a common praxis." This actually gets back to what Rousseau argued was the liberty of the…