Rousseau, Jean Jacques

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Compare and contrast the political philosophies of Rousseau and Aristotle.

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Aristotle was born in Stagira, Greece in 384 BCE and became one of the world’s greatest philosophers. He studied at Plato’s Academy and developed a version of virtue ethics, or acting morally to achieve good results, that remains popular today as a part of political theory. He was centuries ahead...

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Aristotle was born in Stagira, Greece in 384 BCE and became one of the world’s greatest philosophers. He studied at Plato’s Academy and developed a version of virtue ethics, or acting morally to achieve good results, that remains popular today as a part of political theory. He was centuries ahead of his time as an empirical scientist who believed that knowledge and wisdom stemmed from sensory perceptions. In his view, perceptions change, and human beings must develop a social character to be able to respond to different situations.

In his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle introduces what he believes to be the pathway to “the good life” for all to follow. He envisions people being in sync with nature when they act in accordance with virtue. To Aristotle, virtue ethics stresses virtuosity in social settings and argues that people must be able to adapt to societal changes. This is achieved by developing a good character by using practical reason to determine human actions.

In Politics, Aristotle merges his notion of individual virtue with societal virtues. In his view, the ethics of a community should mirror the ethics of its citizenry. In order to live a happy and virtuous life, members of a community must develop practical knowledge of the world. In a nutshell, ethics is concerned with the actions of individuals, and politics deals with the actions of people in relation to communities. Societies must reflect the values of their citizens.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) was an Enlightenment thinker who believed that science corrupts virtue and morality. While Aristotle believed good consequences result from adherence to good values, Rousseau suggests that human beings are innately good. They are born in sync with nature but are subsequently corrupted by societal events. As part of his political theories, he turns to nature to discover universal and unchanging characteristics of human beings that are not corrupted by societal influences.

To Rousseau, human beings are inherently amoral—that is, unconcerned with the concepts of right and wrong. In his Discourse on Political Economy and Social Contract, he argues that human beings are naturally happy, virtuous, and equal. However, after forming social communities, they become creatures of self-interest. Once they form governments, there is a division of labor and a level of competition that results in inequality. In his Second Discourse, Rousseau states,

All ran to meet their chains thinking they secured their freedom, for although they had enough reason to feel the advantages of political establishment, they did not have enough experience to foresee its dangers.

Rousseau had his own version of social contract theory. Traditionally, since the time of Socrates, the concept of a social contract meant the morals and obligations implicitly formed in a society to which all members must adhere. However, Rousseau believes that societies inevitably corrupt virtue and morality. In his Social Contract, Rousseau systematically describes how governments ought to protect the equality of its citizens.

In contrast to Aristotle’s political view that favors flexibility and adaptation to societal changes that lead to a virtuous government that reflects the will of the people, Rousseau argues two apparently conflicting propositions: government has the obligations to protect the freedom of individuals and simultaneously reflect the general will of the people, although his method for achieving both at the same time is somewhat ambiguous.

While there are similarities between Aristotle’s vision of a good and virtuous society and Rousseau’s vision of government, Rousseau emphasizes individual rights of freedom and equality, whereas Aristotle prefers virtuous sacrifice for the good of the whole, even in cases where the benefit of the whole conflicts with individual preferences.

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There is a lot to be said about a comparison between Aristotle and Rousseau, but I will focus on the one most important aspect: their claims about the relationship between the individual and the social/political.

Aristotle is most famous for his claim, in Book II of Politics, that humans are essentially political/social animals (zoon politikon); the Greek word "politikon" can be translated "social" as well as "political". His claim is that the individual is not prior to society but can only be understood in abstraction from it. The primary political unit is the society and humans are essentially embedded in society.

Rousseau, writing centuries after Aristotle—Aristotle was a 4th century BCE Greek philosopher and Jean-Jacques Rousseau an 18th century French philosopher—inverts the Aristotelian relationship between the individual and the society. Rousseau can be read as the fore-runner of much of later liberal thought, since he views the individual as the fundamental political unit and society as something that is only created when a group of different individuals agree to subsume their individual wills for the sake of the General Will.

Thus, the most fundamental difference, to use the language of contemporary political philosophy, is that Rousseau is an individualist whereas Aristotle is a communitarian.

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To analyze each philosopher's view of politics, you must first examine his ideas on man's place in society. Aristotle proposed in Politics that mankind is only a part of a whole; he claimed that the state came first, and that the family and then the individual evolved from the state. He theorized that if a physical body ceases to be, you can not be left with an independent hand or a foot, because a part can not exist separated from its whole. The same, Aristotle says, is true for individuals apart from society:

"Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god."

This society is what makes mankind morally upright, and our morality is what makes us better than the animals. Rousseau, on the other hand, believed that society actually corrupted mankind, and that our moral evolution worked backward from what Aristotle described. Rousseau describes the "noble savage," the man that, if left to nature, would be uncorrupted in his natural state. Rousseau theorized that society only works because we (somewhat subconsciously) enter into what he called a "social contract" that allows us all to band together so that our common needs are met. He felt that this mutual agreement had many political drawbacks, as it caused the development of pride over natural self-love, and pride caused vanity:

“The first person who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him was the true founder of civil society. What crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors would the human race have been spared, had some one pulled up the stakes or filled in the ditch and cried out to his fellow men: "Do not listen to this imposter. You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all and the earth to no one!”

So while Aristotle believed mankind thrived on society and was born a political being, Rousseau believed mankind was forced to become political out of a mutual benefit that outweighed remaining independent.

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