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Jean-Jacques Rousseau is perhaps best known for A Treatise on the Social Contract, one of the great classics in political philosophy. Rousseau was concerned with the relationship between the state and the individual. He recognized that the state has tremendous power over individuals, that it can command them, coerce them, and determine the sort of life they are to live, and also that individuals make many demands on society, even if they do not have the power to back them up. However, he insisted, the relations between the state and the individual cannot be simply those of naked power, threats, coercion, arbitrary decrees, and fearful or cunning submission, for people do speak of justified authority, the legitimate exercise of force, the rights of citizens, and the duties of rulers. The big question, then, is this: What is the source of the rights and responsibilities of both the citizen and the ruler?

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In A Treatise on the Social Contract, Rousseau repudiates those who argue that the stronger have the right to rule the weaker, insisting that strength as such amounts to coercion. If a robber brandishing a pistol stops me and demands my purse, I am forced to hand it over, but his strength does not justify his act and my weakness does not make my reluctance blameworthy. Nor does this right of society over the individual flow from nature. True, the simplest social group, the family, does rest upon the natural requirement that the parents care for the child—survival is the first law of nature—but because the family often holds together much longer than is needed to satisfy this requirement, it is evident that the rights and obligations that continue to exist within the family organization are not supported or required by nature. Rather, these obligations and rights depend upon tacit agreements between parents and children that certain relationships shall be maintained and respected within the group, agreements tacitly admitted when the son chooses to stay within the family and the father welcomes his continued presence. Agreements of this sort mark the transition from the amoral state of power and submission to power to the moral state of acknowledged rights and responsibilities. What is true of the family is also true of that larger society, the state, for whatever rights and responsibilities the rulers and citizens possess could only have evolved as the result of some agreement. Rousseau insists, like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and many other philosophers, that society is based upon some implicit contract.

A Social Contract

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This social contract delivers us from a prior state of nature. Before people lived in societies, they were motivated primarily by the basic urge to preserve themselves, an urge that manifested itself in physical appetites and desires and released itself instinctively through actions designed to satisfy these. People were not governed by reason or by moral considerations, for there were no rights or moral relationships to be respected. Rousseau does not claim that presocietal people were vicious or that they had no gregarious instincts, but he does claim that each person’s life was dominated by the amoral, unreflective pursuit of the individual’s own welfare. As a result of this marked individualism and the rude circumstances of nature, life was uncertain and precarious, cooperation impossible, and aggression common. Such a state could be transcended only by instituting, by common consent, some sort of body politic within which cooperation would be possible and security guaranteed.

According to Rousseau, the society instituted by the contract brings about a marked transformation in humanity, for rational behavior replaces instinct, a sense of responsibility replaces physical motivation, and law replaces appetite. Latent capacities and faculties finally flower, and out of “a stupid and dull-witted animal,” there emerges “an intelligent being and a man.” In these respects, Rousseau differs from Locke and political leader Thomas Jefferson, who maintained that before the contract, humanity was already rational and moral and possessed rights. The contract does not change people or affect their rights; it only safeguards what they already have. However, for Rousseau a person’s debt to society is far greater because rights, morality, and an individual’s very status are consequences of being a member of a body politic. Rousseau also differs from Hobbes, not about the nonexistence of morality in a state of nature, but about human nature. For Hobbes, people are so egoistic that they can only be restrained, not transformed. For Hobbes, Locke, and Jefferson, people are essentially individualistic, whereas for Rousseau, they are essentially social creatures. This view leads to two different conceptions of the function of political society. In the former, social institutions have only the negative function of securing what people already have by controlling excessive individualism, whereas in the latter, social institutions have the positive function of enabling people to fulfill their natures. In the former, political institutions are a necessary evil, but for Rousseau, they are a blessing.

In the contract that establishes the state, people agree with one another to place both themselves and their possessions under the complete control of the resultant body politic and to give to it the power and responsibility of safeguarding them and of providing the framework within which they can jointly pursue their common welfare.

The Terms of the Contract

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It may sound as if Rousseau were advocating a rather extreme despotism, but this is not so. First, according to the terms of the contract, civil power and responsibility are not turned over to a king or to some small group of persons, but are kept in the hands of the contractors themselves, who thus become jointly sovereign. Consequently, when people contract to place themselves under the control of the sovereign, their action means only that they, like every other person, place themselves under the control of themselves and their fellow citizens.

Second, while the state has control over the individual, the scope of its control is limited to matters pertaining to the preservation and welfare of all. If it transgresses these limits, the contract is void and the citizen is released. Thus, for instance, although new citizens hand all their possessions over to the state, the state immediately hands them back and, by giving them title to these possessions, institutes property rights as distinguished from mere possession. According to the contract, the state retains control only in the sense that it has the right to appropriate the individual’s property if the public interest should require that it do so. Similarly, the state can command the individual only to the extent that control is needed for the public welfare. At all other times and in all other respects, it guarantees the individual freedom from the encroachment of the government and of other individuals. In this way, the contract brings human rights into being and specifies their scope.

Again, the individual is safeguarded insofar as the function of the sovereign group is restricted to the making of laws and insofar as the object of the law is always general. The sovereign power can pass laws attaching rewards or punishments to types of action and privileges to certain offices, but it cannot pass judgment upon individuals. The latter is the function of the executive or administrative branch, not that of the legislative. Rousseau maintains emphatically that the legislative and administrative functions shall not be discharged by the same group.

The General Will

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The transformation wrought in the individual and the nature of the sovereign act are both expressed in what is perhaps the most basic of Rousseau’s concepts, that of the “general will.” Even though people are initially motivated by self-interest, the awareness that a contract is desirable forces them to think about others and their interests. Once the contract is made and the mechanism of democratic assemblies put into practice, individuals will be forced to consider those other interests more seriously than ever before. This consideration may result solely from prudence in the first place, but the deliberate joining of lots, the debating, the compromises to accommodate others, and the conscious recognition that they have common ideals cannot fail to encourage a genuine concern for the welfare of all. People become social creatures with social consciences, and what would otherwise have been a mere collection of individuals with individual goals and individual wills becomes a collective person with a single general will and a single goal. There comes into being a res publica, a republic, a body politic with many members.

Rousseau stressed that people are not really citizens as long as they accept society from prudence alone, that they become real citizens only when they develop a genuine concern for the welfare of all. There is an emphasis here that is not found in the English and American social contract writers. Of course, Rousseau does not write that people’s interest in themselves will disappear; he claims, rather, that a new dimension has been added. Insofar as people are still self-centered, they must be subjects, but insofar as they are socially conscious persons, they can assume their responsibilities as sovereigns.

Rousseau insists that the general will must be distinguished from the many individual wills. If the citizens jointly form a body politic, the general will is the will of that body, a will that comes into being when they jointly concentrate their attention on the needs of that body. This will exercises itself through democratic assemblies of all the citizens and lets its intentions be known through the decisions of such assemblies. An assembly expresses the will of the whole people and not that of a part, but it requires only the voice of the majority if the views of the minority have been fairly heard and fairly considered. The general will cannot be ill-intentioned; it is concerned with the good of all, and it cannot be mistaken unless it is ill-informed. Simple, unsophisticated people are quite capable of exercising sovereign power provided that they are socially conscious and well-informed and that they act after full discussion and are not subject to pressure groups. Because sovereignty is the expression of the general will, and the general will is the expression of the will of all, sovereignty cannot be alienated by anyone or delegated to anyone—king or elected representative.

Although he sometimes spoke in a rather idealistic manner, Rousseau could also be hardheaded. He was quite aware that the conditions just mentioned are not always fulfilled. Pressure groups do exist; citizens become so indifferent or so preoccupied with their own concerns that they fail to discharge their civic responsibilities, and administrators seek to control those they are supposed to serve. In these and other ways, sovereignty can be destroyed. No human institution, he writes, will last forever. In addition, it is not likely that simple people can themselves establish the proper kind of state. Some well-intentioned and exceedingly gifted lawgiver is needed to provide a constitution, help establish traditions, and guide the fledgling state with a hidden but firm hand until the people have developed the ability, stability, and desire to carry on for themselves.

A Small State

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Through the expression of their general will, then, the people exercise the sovereignty that they have and must retain in their own hands, but they do not administer the resultant laws. To do so, they establish an executive branch that functions as their agent. The form and structure of the administration will depend upon the size of the state, and other things being equal, the number of rulers tolerable for efficiency will vary inversely with the number of citizens. This is so because a larger state will require the tighter administrative control that can be achieved only if the executive power is restricted to a small number of administrators. On the other hand, a very small state might get along by allowing all the citizens to take part in the administration. Having in mind a moderately sized city-state, such as his native Geneva, Rousseau suggests that the ideal government would be a small elected group. He says that the function of the executive is restricted to the support and administration of the law and to the preservation of civil and political liberty and that the sovereign assembly is restricted to legislating, but he does not specify these functions in detail nor does he discuss the relationship between them. Furthermore, he does not discuss a judiciary, but this is presumably included in the administrative complex.

He is clear, though, in his insistence that the administrator be the servant of the assembly. To ensure that this be so, the people enter into no contract with their administrator and, unlike the Hobbesian contractors, transfer no rights. They extend to him nothing more than a revocable commission, thereby retaining control without being bound. When the sovereign assembly meets, as it does very frequently, all commissions granted by it at previous meetings become void until they are renewed.

Rousseau favors a moderately sized state something like the communes of Switzerland, wherein every citizen can come to know all the others, for in the large state relations between citizens become impersonal, and their interests, problems, and fortunes become diversified. If there are many provinces, customs will not be uniform and one body of law will not be sufficient. The number and levels of subordinate government will multiply, and as the cost increases, liberty will decrease. Chains of command become attenuated to such an extent that administration at the bottom levels becomes indifferent, weak, or corrupt, and supervision from the top becomes difficult. The control of the government by the people becomes impossible, as does the democratic legislative process. Indeed, a very large state cannot avoid being a dictatorship both legislatively and administratively, and that is the best form of government for it. If a state is to be a democratic state, it must be small, as small as it can be without inviting encroachment by its neighbors.

It is interesting to speculate what Rousseau would say of modern democracies, which have millions of citizens and embrace hundreds of thousands of square miles. Would he find that contemporary means of communication obviate some of the difficulties he had in mind and that security usually requires a considerably larger state than was necessary in his day? Quite possibly, he would admire many of the ingenious ways by which people have delegated both legislative and administrative powers and controlled these powers, but he might argue sadly that people are bedeviled by many of the difficulties inherent in size. Gone forever is the small autonomous political group with its intimacies, its personal concern, its shared interests and problems, and its joint endeavors.

Rousseau’s views have influenced many thinkers and political movements, partly because of the central problem with which he was concerned and partly because of the vigor and clarity with which he wrote. However, unresolved tensions in his thought have permitted partisan readers to place rather different interpretations upon him. His emphasis on equality, liberty, and the supremacy of the citizen made him a favorite author among the leaders of the French Revolution, and these emphases plus those on democracy and the control of the administrators have always made him attractive to those who have supported a republican form of government. However, his claim that people realize their full nature only by participating in the life of a society has impressed those who believe that the state should play more than a negative regulatory role. This claim, along with his assertion that the individual is under the complete control of the sovereign power and his sometimes near reification of the general will have seemed to others to foreshadow the engulfing national spirit of German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and his followers and to be congenial to tyrannical forms of nationalism. The truth, of course, is that each of the foregoing views requires that interpreters select passages and, in some cases, stretch them considerably, whereas in fact, Rousseau presents a rich array of ideas that are not worked out completely or consistently. These fresh ideas are what make A Treatise on the Social Contract one of the great classics of political philosophy.


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Additional Reading

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Modern Philosophy. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1964. Copleston places Jean-Jacques Rousseau against the backdrop of the Enlightenment, suggesting both his affinities and his points of disagreement with his philosophical contemporaries.

Cranston, Maurice William. The Solitary Self: Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Exile and Adversity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. Explores Rousseau’s views on individual experience with special reference to solitude, exile, and adversity.

Crocker, Lester G. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Quest (1712-1758). New York: Macmillan, 1968. A biography that places heavy emphasis on Rousseau’s eccentric psychological development.

Cullen, Daniel E. Freedom in Rousseau’s Political Philosophy. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1993. An assessment of Rousseau’s philosophy of freedom and its impact on his broader moral and political views.

Dent, N. J. H. Rousseau: An Introduction to His Psychological, Social, and Political Theory. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1988. A helpful analysis of Rousseau’s views about education, rights, community, and other social and political issues.

Grant, Ruth H. Hypocrisy and Integrity: Machiavelli, Rousseau, and the Ethics of Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. An instructive comparative analysis of two important figures in political philosophy.

Grimsley, Ronald. The Philosophy of Rousseau. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973. A reliable survey of Rousseau’s ideas with an emphasis on his social thought.

Havens, George R. Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Boston: Twayne, 1978. A concise introductory account of Rousseau’s life and career with analyses of his major works.

Hulliung, Mark. The Autocritique of Enlightenment: Rousseau and the Philosophes. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994. Shows how Rousseau both reflected and departed from main currents in Enlightenment philosophy.

Morgenstern, Mira. Rousseau and the Politics of Ambiguity: Self, Culture, and Society. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. Analyzes Rousseau’s political theory and its historical context, showing how Rousseau’s thought introduced notes of ambiguity that remain in contemporary political life.

Wokler, Robert. Rousseau. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. A concise and lucid introduction to Rousseau’s life and thought.

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