Jean-Jacques Rousseau was not an optimist. In response to the saying every cloud has a silver lining, he would say that the silver lining emphasises the blackness of the cloud. He did not believe that progress was inevitable and felt that change was more a threat than a promise. His ideas have a classical influence and he favoured most the societies of Sparta and the Roman Republic. His politics reflected an attachment to stability, simplicity and order. It is ironic then that he articulated the ideals that animated social and political radicals from his day until the present. Rousseau’s principle political contribution is the ‘Social Contract’, as well as his ‘Discourse on the Origin of Inequality’, which were written around the mid 18th century. His Discourse provides a social history that explains why and how we have made ourselves wretched. The Social Contract sets out the conditions for legitimate authority and the requirements for a society that can meet those conditions.

Discourse on the Origin of Inequality

Rousseau’s greatest innovation was the thought that the imperfections of human nature are the result of social, not natural causes. He accused society of making us self-destructive, and by thrusting the burden of original sin on to social organisation paved the way for the utopian optimism of radial political groups such as Marxism who believed that because our problems are social and not natural they are easier to cure.  Rousseau shared Hobbes’ view that the state exists to suppress a state of civil war, but overturned Hobbes’ description of the state of nature. What Hobbes described as human nature was actually socialised human nature. Rousseau situated politics within an evolutionary framework. To understand true human nature we must ask what humanity must have been like when first on earth.

In his ‘Discourse’ Rousseau describes natural man as like other animals; innocent (but without moral conceptions), and having the instincts of self preservation and a revulsion of the suffering of other members of the species. Natural man differs from animals in having the ability to develop, but has no sense of time or of our own mortality. With no settled possessions the inequalities of civilised life are unavailable. Natural man then is without the fears and jealousies described by Hobbes that lead to a state of misery without government. Groups are also small in number. Rousseau says that as population size grows, pressure on resources will require social organisation including the development of language and other skills. Then human history would begin. The arrival of language coincides with the arrival of reason and self-consciousness. Reason turns our emotions into moral sentiments. This is a movement from impulse to principle; “I want” becomes “I have a right to”. With morality comes also guilt and shame. When we have moral standards we realise that we sometimes fail to meet them, and we resent others who fail to meet the standards. Rousseau did not deny that reason and morality marked progress, but stressed that this progress came at a price. It is commonly said that humanity is corrupted by money. Rousseau believed it was corn and iron that civilised man and ruined humanity. By this he meant the agricultural revolution, and more broadly the ownership of property. This created a new division between those who performed the labour and those who owned the land, and began a subdued civil war that exists in every society based on private property. This is inherently unstable, but stability is achieved through a sinister social contract. The rich may exploit the poor, but will in return provide peace.

The Social Contract

Rousseau’s ‘The Social Contract’ opens as follows: “Man is born free and is everywhere in chains. How did this come about; I do not know. What can make it legitimate; I think I can say.” It aims to define the conditions under which a state can rightly demand and its citizens cannot rightly refuse obedience to its laws. What gives anyone the right to impose rules on us, and gives us the obligation to obey them? We might be forced to obey someone, but that person has no right to have us obey them. A legitimate state is created when we choose to place ourselves and our possessions under its authority, on the same terms for all. In this contract we give ourselves wholly to the sovereign, creating a ‘moral body’ with absolute authority over its members. This sounds like Hobbes. However this moral body has a will which is the general will of the community, so the good it aims for is the good of the community – the common good. This does not mean that every citizen has the same aims. A car company has a general will to make money by producing and selling cars. Its employees may have many different aims, but if they are satisfied in their job they will identify their private wills with the company’s will while at work. Like Hobbes, Rousseau believed that the contract only works when everyone is bound to it. However Rousseau’s sovereign exists only because it is authorised by us all, and when it embodies the general will. Hobbes believed that when we enter a contract we give away our freedom to the sovereign. For Rousseau, “obedience to a law we prescribe to ourselves is freedom”. Citizens both make and obey the laws. So long as the general will is discernible, such a state could no more mistreat its citizens than a rational man would wish to cut off his own hand for no reason.

The fact that people have conflicting interests makes politics necessary and the fact we have common interests makes politics possible, but how do we discern the general will if there are conflicting interests? Firstly, the general will applies to high level, structural principles of a state rather than minute details. Here there is more likely to be consensus. The general will is indivisible, infallible and omniscient. A federal state such as the U.S. may call into question the indivisibility of the general will. However, there remains a consensus on what the division of authority is in the U.S. (even if it is hard to discover it), as on all major questions. When there was no consensus such as whether slavery is acceptable, there were two states, i.e. civil war. Infallibility of the general will seems questionable when we consider that the general will must answer whether a proposal is in the long term interests of the state. As individuals we often make mistakes about our own long term interests. The general will represents whatever is in the state’s best interests, but Rousseau recognises that human beings will sometimes fail to understand what the general will requires. In practice, the clarity of the general depends on the extent to which members of a society have common interests. There are always some common interests. In any company owners and employees will have non-shared interests in the distribution of profits, but there is always a shared interest in the profitability of the firm. Nevertheless, an unequal society has fewer common interests, a weaker general will, and so is unstable and risks splitting apart.

There remains the practical question of who should decide what the general will requires, or in effect; what is the best form of government? Rousseau prefers an elected aristocracy in the Roman Republic style as the most competent form, but the more important point is that for those in charge to discover the general will everyone with a stake in society must have a voice, and they must ask the right question – not ‘what do I want?’ but ‘what does the general will require?’. Rousseau was hostile to subordinate allegiances within the state, believing that they would have a will that was general only with respect to their members, not the state as a whole. Conversely, if the general will is a moral body then it is made stronger by a society with a strong collective morality. This is achieved by religious faith, but Rousseau has in mind a civic faith rather than Christianity, similar to More’s Utopians, focused on belief in an omnipotent divinity, the happiness of the just and the sanctity of law.

If you are interested in finding out more about this topic, I strongly recommend getting a copy of Alan Ryan’s ‘On Politics’, which this blog is predominantly based on. Here are a few links you can use to find it:

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