POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY - A PRIMER
Jean-Jacques ROUSSEAU1712 – 1778. (pp10)
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‘… the human understanding is greatly indebted to the passions which, it is universally allowed, are also much indebted to the understanding. It is by the activity of the passions that our reason is improved, for we desire knowledge only because we wish to enjoy…’ (ed. GDH Cole: J-J Rousseau The Social Contract & Discourses p 61).
1. Life and Personality.
1.1 Rousseau was born
A complicated and contradictory person:
Rousseau was over-sensitive as a child - years later he remembered, and wrote in his Confessions how he blamed a nurse for the loss of a ribbon that he had taken himself... The guilt of this false accusation seemed to have stayed with him into adulthood. Maybe because he was brought up by women (mother, grandmother, friends of family), his outlook was introspective and sensitive. He was, he says, torn between "base" and "sublime" thoughts and feelings. This was not an age in which people discussed sexual urges openly, so we have to speculate about the “dark” feelings – though the blaming of a servant for his own stealing may be the sort of thing he meant. It is probable that he simply wanted approval, but found it difficult to deal with people. He may also have thought that any criticisms of his ideas were criticisms of him (we are sometimes told to separate the ideas, or the deeds, from the person… I have never myself been sure that this is that simple) He certainly seems to have suffered from a sense of insecurity, and maybe inadequacy.
Rousseau set up a household with a woman who he acknowledged was not on the same intellectual level as himself, as she was of peasant origin. He had several children by her, but gave them into care. This, from the man who was to write an influential book on child-centred upbringing and education!
Although he believed in the importance of fellow-feeling, to the extent of praising patriotism, he himself preferred to spend time alone...
Probably (unlike with other political philosophers?) with Rousseau we need to take into account his personality when we speculate as to whether his political theories could work: by this I mean that just as he was sensitive, romantic, and needed other people... so he probably expected others to be the same. If in fact everyone were something like this (without the persecution complex!) then his ideas of the General Will, and direct democracy in small communities could perhaps work?
Sabine suggests (p 576) that Rousseau projected his own guilt feelings
(self-doubt etc) onto society: “Rousseau’s passionate belief that all men are
naturally good, which he once said was the fundamental principle of his ethical
writings, was less an intellectual conviction than a reversal of his innate
fear that he was bad. By throwing the fault on society he was able at once to
satisfy his need for condemnation and to shelter himself in a comfortable
myth.” To which I would say: why a myth?
Is it not possible that Rousseau’s fear of being bad originated in the society
around him – especially in the Calvinism of 18th century
The contrast between the high moral principles he saw as ideal and the
corrupt society he found, in
Others (viz Jones, see below) regard him as a spoiled egoist… however, I note that Jones seems to overlook the emphasis in Rousseau on ‘compassion’, and to conclude that Rousseau’s thought about ‘human nature’ is full of inconsistencies. Whilst Jones presents very well the ‘evolutionary’ aspects of Rousseau’s picture of the change from pre-social life to society, I find Sabine’s account of Rousseau’s thinking more balanced.
He left school age 16 and travelled: he stayed in
However, Rousseau fell out with the other philosophes, and with many people e.g. Hume (the Scottish philosopher). He may have had a persecution complex, (Hume was a very good-natured and sociable man, but Rousseau – having accepted his hospitality – left accusing Hume of dark plotting against him). In terms of his thinking, it was because Rousseau felt sentiment (sensitivity, based on feelings) was more important, and more natural, than reason. He was in this a precursor of romanticism (cf. Wordsworth). He loved “nature” and wrote a book about his walks, and his dreaming as he walked through the countryside. He admired the newly “discovered” native peoples, whose lives were described by travellers, as he believed they led more natural lives than the civilised French. In retort, Voltaire sarcastically said that Rousseau's praise of the "noble savage" was so convincing that it made him want to get down on all fours.
This period also saw social upheaval, culminating in the French Revolution of 1789, which brought about the removal of the “ancien regime”, and absolutism.
Louis XIV epitomised absolutism: his Court was the centre of France – he was the “Sun King” – and everyone who wanted to be anyone came to the Court; for example they watched the King’s “levee” (getting up), and even the way he dressed was copied by people across the country. It has been said that if he wanted to stimulate the production of lace, all he had to do was increase the length of his lace cuffs…
The demand for change, however, was coming from the growing middle class.
Rousseau opposed the absolute monarchy, and social inequalities, as did
the other “philosophes”..., and hence contributed to the spread of
Revolutionary ideas – especially the idea of the sovereignty of the people, based on the general will (though it is
most likely that Rousseau believed that this would only be only possible in
small communities). This differed from the other political ideas of the time in
The General Will is a controversial idea (see below), and at the time it was very radical idea. Another radical side to Rousseau was in his rejection of representative democracy, in favour of what we would call direct democracy... and of course his whole outlook is based on a belief in social equality.
1749: Discourse on Language
1749/50: Discourse on Arts and Sciences
1753/4: Discourse on Inequality
1755: Discourse on Political Economy - article for Encyclopaedia
1756: working on Political Institutions (abandoned, and replaced by CS), Julie (novel) Emile (educational treatise)
1762: "The Social Contract"
3. Key Ideas:
general will (which is never wrong)
society shapes people (for good and bad)
language, reason and morality originate with society (did not exist before)
social contract (founds society)
false social contract (not based on general will) creates a corrupt society
natural (pre-social) sentiments (sensibilité) (which are the basis of the general will):
amour de soi
4. Early Ideas: writings prior to The Social Contract – the “Discourses”
Rousseau tells us that his first interest (1743) was in political institutions; however, his first writings were a series of three Discourses:
4.1 Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences (1749/50): the innocence of “natural” man.
This essay was written for a competition set by
(Marx was not by any means the first to talk of contradictions in the existing social system…)
Rousseau’s answer was quite unexpected: nearly everyone in the Age of Reason would have praised the arts and sciences for their contribution to civilisation. Rousseau declared they were the cause of a corruption of our natural innocence, they serve to make us accept the existing "civilised" order, i.e. to accept our slavery. He went on to argue that this was most likely to happen when they were in the wrong hands, or used for the wrong ends. Thus, the study of literary style was carried out to develop "manners" – and this simply leads to hypocrisy...
Because of “taste, manners, politeness, decorum” etc, “We no longer dare seem what we really are, but lie under a perpetual restraint… What a train of vices must attend this uncertainty! Sincere friendship, real esteem, and perfect confidence are banished from among men. Jealousy, suspicion, fear, coldness, reserve, hate and fraud lie constantly concealed under that uniform and deceitful veil of politeness; that boasted candour and urbanity, for which we are indebted to the enlightened spirit of this age.”(ed. Cole p 7).
In other words in this very early text Rousseau was beginning to develop the argument that society corrupts man, even though it brings benefits (see below.. ). From this, Rousseau was to develop the view that ordinary people and their natural sentiments should be the basis of society. See Quote 1.
In the Discourse on Language (1749): Rousseau addressed the question: which came first, language or society? (The Discourse was originally intended to be part of a history of music... Rousseau was an authority on music and I believe devised a system of musical notation).
4.2 1753/4: Discourse on Inequality: the fundamental nature of man – self-respect and compassion – the origin of society, private property and conflict.
Using evidence from the writings of travellers and naturalists such as Buffon, Rousseau explores the nature of man: natural man would be roving individuals; there would be no permanent relationships, but a "loose companionship"; there would be no love, no family, no morality, and no property; people would be free, but without knowledge, language, morality, or industry – they would be neither moral nor vicious: in a word – “innocent”. (Berki)
Rousseau saw society as unnatural, and a social sense is therefore also not natural it appeared as the result of chance. See Quote 2: we can imagine the horror of his contemporaries, when he says that society is the result of chance and not a natural, rationally devised institution (as other philosophers such as Locke argued)! But, again, Rousseau is saying that society brought advantages and benefits (sociability), as well as “costs”.
Since Rousseau believed that existing societies were so clearly defective, he could not accept that their origins were natural. Here he also argues that war is not natural but a product of society; contrary to Hobbes, he believed that war could not arise in pre-social conditions.
Rousseau identifies other corrupting factors as: inequality, luxury, idleness and the (false) political constitution. A labourer, he said, had more physical strength and vigour than a courtier:
“men in a state of nature, having no moral relations or determinate obligations one with another, could not be either good or bad, vicious or virtuous… Above all, let us not conclude, with Hobbes, that because man has no idea of goodness, he must naturally be wicked.” (ed. Cole p 71)
The only natural sentiments or capacities they would have would be - see Quote 3:
amour de soi – [love of oneself]. This, Rousseau points out is not the same as amour-propre, [self-love], which is the basis of false values such as "honour", pride and vanity... Amour de soi “is a natural feeling which leads every animal to look to its own preservation, and which guided in man by reason and compassion, creates humanity and virtue.” (ed. Cole p 73).
So, amour de soi could be self-respect or self-preservation. Simply: the desire to satisfy our own short-term needs. [But how different this picture is to Hobbes’s!]
pitié – [pity] but probably best translated as sympathy or compassion. [Adam Smith used the same term and made the same point – if we see someone suffering don’t we imagine what it must be like and feel for them?]. Pitié is not the same as altruism, but rather the desire not to hurt others.
Controversially (see Sabine) Rousseau seems to be saying that reason is not "natural". But he clearly does not entirely reject reason! Rather he seems to be saying that reason doesn’t arrive fully-developed with “man”, but is the product of social interaction (as is language, morality, culture generally).
He notes that we would have learned that occasionally people would need to work together in their “mutual interest”. However, he also stresses that we would not very often have had cause to mistrust each other – the self-love he describes is not as fearful as Hobbes’s version, and it is counter-balanced by pitié. Early forms of co-operation would be more like a "herd", with what he calls "gross ideas of mutual undertakings". A primitive language would exist, to help people to co-operate.
[The origins of language are hotly disputed: is this version any more or less convincing than any of the others?
Such activity as the building of houses leads to the development of a sense of property...
And this causes corruption: the rich exploit the poor, and inequality springs from this institution of private property...
In Quote 4 Rousseau describes the origins of society: as human numbers increase, so the difficulties of dealing with nature increase. Almost by chance, people find that working together enables them better to overcome difficulties. Tools are invented, which leads to a "new intelligence" (and this includes a sense of man’s superiority over animals, as well as an awareness of others' needs). [I am personally reminded of Marxist theory here – where “contradictions” are intrinsic to/endemic in (class) society].
There are echoes of Locke on property here – but whereas Locke is at pains to say how useful it was to go beyond common property and into private property and exchange, Rousseau seems to me to be closer to Marx or Proudhon (“Property is Theft”)!
Thus we have a sequence of ideas in the Discourses: natural man is innocent, simply feeling self-respect and compassion for others; society brings benefits (security through co-operation, language, morality) but also corrupts this innocence (through property and inequality); reason also is beneficial, and a social product, but therefore can be used wrongly; the main cause of social problems is private property, which leads to greed and war.
However, we are in for some surprises: Rousseau does not reject society, but sets out to “justify” it – that is, to suggest ways in which we can live in a “just” society.
4.3 Other writing before the Social Contract
1755 Discourse on Political Economy – this was an article for the Encyclopaedia: what activities by government can make man virtuous rather than corrupting him? Here he introduces (but does not explain or go into detail) the notion of the "general will" (which was first mentioned by Diderot) as providing a rule of justice for all good governments.
1756 at this time Rousseau was working on Political Institutions but this was abandoned, to be replaced by the Social Contract, Julie (a novel) Emile (an educational treatise) – Julie and Emile both describe the upbringing of a child, and use this to advocate a child-centred approach. However, these works are controversial today, since he believed that boys and girls should be brought up in very distinct ways – because they would play different roles in society. Many feminists (see Pateman especially) are hostile to Rousseau because of these views, but others have pointed out that he gave to mothers the crucial task of nurturing children’s sensitivity, and developing their social sensitivity.
5. Political writings: "The Social Contract" (1762).
Quote 5: the opening words of The Social Contract:
"Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One believes himself the master of others, and yet he is a greater slave than they. How has this change come about? I do not know. What can render it legitimate? I believe that I can settle this question."
It is quite startling to find, after the opening declaration that we are all in chains, that Rousseau has no intention of simply telling us we ought to remove the chains, or how. Despite what we have seen of his view of the happy condition of pre-social man, he tells us that he wants to “make [the chains] legitimate”. What he is now saying is that he wants to answer one of the age-old questions at the heart of political philosophy: what conditions should be fulfilled to make a government legitimate?
Rousseau has clearly shifted his ground here: the state of nature – as Locke had said – must have “things wanting” to it. However, Rousseau did not want to simply repeat Locke’s arguments – especially as they raised several problems: first, (as we argued before) the initial contract or agreement to set up the state does not bind future generations; secondly, in practice it is unlikely that everyone will consent to every piece of legislation, so we have another age-old problem for political philosophy: how to justify, or make legitimate, “majority rule”? (Later liberal thinkers such as J.S. Mill were particularly concerned about a dictatorship of the majority. The majority, after all, is not necessarily right…)
The answer Rousseau gives eventually (see Quote 10 below) is that society must be based on the sovereignty of what he called the “general will”; the “general will” by his definition identifies what is for the good of all society. It is not simply a matter of opinion; rather, claims Rousseau, there must always be an optimum policy if only everyone thinks about it in the right way – that is, to ensure the good of all (when this is done the outcome is the “general will”). We will return to whether this makes sense later…
Quote 6. However, first Rousseau discusses the difference between a society founded on force, and one based on consent, and (unsurprisingly perhaps) argues that consent must be the basis of any legitimate authority.
That this is unsurprising to us is because Locke and Rousseau in fact laid down the basis for our way of thinking.
Rousseau, along with Locke, is taking a different position to that of Hobbes (or before him Machiavelli), because, as Jones says, once the kings had won supreme power over rival forces, the political/philosophical problem was no longer to justify and argue to strengthen the power of the king (as Machiavelli and Hobbes had done) – rather, as with Locke, the problem was to limit this power in the interests of the people.
Quote 7. Rousseau’s very clear definition of the problem for political theory is set out here.
Before coming to Rousseau’s solution in more detail, it is very important to note two things:
(i) that although Rousseau is using the same terminology as Locke and others (viz. “social contract”), he seems to be meaning something quite different by it (again, more on this in 3.10 below) and
(ii) that he distinguishes between existing social contracts – that is, how existing society may have been set up – and what he believed a genuine social contract involved. The text is not always clear as to when he is talking about existing contracts and when he means the ideal he proposes (see 3.10).
Quote 8 gives his view of on existing social contracts, and what a radical sentiment it seems to express! Inequality in wealth is related to inequality in power... and we are expected to be grateful for the “pains” taken by our rulers to protect us!
Quote 9 Rousseau follows many other political philosophers in trying to trace the origins of society and of political organisation. This spells out the point made above about the “unnaturalness” of society.
Note the equation of adulthood with independence (provided people follow what is natural – “convention” allows alternatives of course).
This extract also includes Quote 6 about legitimate authority, and Rousseau adds that our own freedom is so essential to us that if we give it up (permanently, I presume he means) we lose our “nature and rights”).
The rest of the statement is pretty uncontroversial: however, the emphasis is not on individual security and survival, but on “the human species”…
Quote 10 sets out the terms of the social contract, and describes exactly what Rousseau meant by the term. And it is here that we can see why some oppose Rousseau so strongly.
This is far from the liberal philosophy which puts individual rights at the basis of society, as the individual totally surrenders all rights to the collective. Rousseau’s argument is: that this “total alienation” is not a problem if we have arrived at the general will, because the general will is a formulation that we will have agreed with (or - see below - should do!).
As pointed out above, Rousseau uses the same term (“social contract or compact”) as Hobbes, Locke and others, but the meaning is different: for Rousseau this is an agreement to draw up society (not to have a ruler), and the agreement is between its members (not with a ruler). The contract is therefore separate from, and obviously precedes, a contract with/to form a government.
The other crucial – and controversial – point Rousseau makes concerns “freedom”: the whole people agree to draw up laws and are free so far as they agree to have and obey laws. Again, this formulation aims to avoid the problem of minority rule. But the argument so far brings up two problems:
(i) does it make sense to talk of a contract which involves the “total dedication” of every individual to the state/community? Several commentators have said this is not a contract at all!
However, the picture of the creation of a moral community is something new in political thought – this is a statement of what is known as the organic view – and it goes back to the classical Greeks; it also suffers from the same problems that their view raised: can there be individual freedom, or equality, in such a model?
(ii) the statement that obeying the law makes us free (and see Quote 12) has alarmed many, and has been seen as implying totalitarianism. It may remind you of the Nazi slogan “Arbeit macht Frei” (work makes you free) – but it is, to me, very different. My own view is that the last part of the statement, to the effect that simply following our appetites is not the same as freedom, is crucial.: if we simply do what our “drives” push us towards, we are “slaves’ to our “appetites”.
I believe that Rousseau is trying to do something that is very
difficult: to put into words the development of humans from instinctive to
moral beings. After all, if he is right, our very ability to use language and
to reason evolved over a long period of time – and surely we are still
evolving. For Rousseau, politics and morality couldn't be separated -
"moral liberty makes man truly master of himself" (in this he was a
precursor of Kant: the individual can
will a universal law). Rousseau's picture of the evolution from the state of
nature is also an account of a move from “freedom from” (negative freedom in
[This debate, about whether the state should simply leave us free to pursue what we want (the modern conservative line), or make sure that we develop moral standards etc (a socialist view?) goes on today. Conservatives criticise the “nanny state” because they believe in freedom “from” the state. Others argue that if all individuals pursue their own freedom there will be conflict, inequality, and exploitation; so the state has a duty to identify and encourage the values that our society holds to, even if this means either restricting some individual freedoms (no smoking) or promoting certain beliefs (e.g. tolerance, through outlawing anti-homosexual statements for example).
The idea of society evolving through a process into a situation where we have a “contract” that expresses the “general will” makes a good deal of sense. Moreover, as Jones points out: the contract cannot have been a single event: either before it we were selfish and ignorant and therefore unable to make a contract, or we were rational and sociable, in which case we didn’t need one!
Quote 11. However, as argued above, the crucial problem is with the “general will”, and here Rousseau seems, to many, to simply add to his problems! He makes a distinction between the general will and particular wills: a group of people who pursue a common end, or are united for some purpose, can identify the best way to realise that purpose - but only if individuals stop thinking of their own selfish preferences etc. If we simply “add together” all the individual, particular wills – i.e. what people want for themselves - we are not likely to end up with any kind of agreement! This is what Rousseau calls the “will of all”.
My own understanding of this is that he envisages a group of people who work together to arrive at a consensus, by agreeing to disregard suggestions which are aimed at individual preferences rather than at the good of all. There are communities (e.g. Quakers, even perhaps the various bodies in the United Nations) who work on this basis – it is slow, and sometimes may end in deadlock, but the end result is that everyone at least agrees with what has been decided. The writer on organisation theory, Douglas McGregor (The Human Side of Enterprise, 1960), argues that managers need to bear this in mind: effective groups are those that draw on all their members and make sure that all views are taken into account. Disregarding individuals or minority views leads to frustration and eventually may mean that action is obstructed or even sabotaged.
Rousseau speaks of adding and subtracting ("cancelling out the pluses and minuses" of) the wills of the members of the community to arrive at the general will; I think this is unhelpful, as it sounds like a mathematical process, when deliberations between people are more subtle and complex than that.
Quote 12. So we are talking about a unanimous view, or a consensus – not simply the will of the "majority". That is, the majority is not automatically right – though it may be. Here several worrying implications of the “general will” idea are spelled out by Rousseau himself:
(i) Rousseau disallows factions or parties, because what he believes we really should be aiming at is the general good.
[Many in the west would have difficulty with this idea – but for a long time in the Soviet Union it was argued that the Communist Party was the only body that could identify what was for the good of the people (it had “scientific knowledge”).
(ii) The other aspect of the general will that seems strange is that is “always just” – and by implication always right. This makes it seem as if the general will exists outside or independently of the group (though I do not believe Rousseau intended this). But the consequence must be that if anyone disagrees with the decision of the whole community, they must be in error. I am sure we can all see the dangers here! And surely what will happen in practice is “majority voting”? What is the criterion whereby we can judge whether a particular recommendation really represents the “general will” in the sense that Rousseau uses the term: the correct, just, decision that is for the good of all?
[In Rousseau’s defence, I think he is grappling with notions that we have to deal with today, of the “collective person”, “collective responsibility”, a “corporate body” etc. After all, there has been quite a fight to get a law of “corporate manslaughter” passed in this country: opponents have argued that the corporation has no identity because it is a collective – this simply seems to me to be a way of avoiding pinning down responsibility. Rousseau certainly recognised that collectives have a real existence!
[Questions such as over the “collective responsibility” of the German people for Nazism come to my mind here. I was horrified to read that one estimate of the number of Germans who had committed war crimes ran into the millions… So there was a Jewish organisation that believed – since lawful punishment was never going to be meted out to so many – that they should deal with the problem by mass killings of Germans…
(iii) But perhaps the most disconcerting point Rousseau makes – and it is often quoted against him – is when he says that individuals who refuse to obey the general will can be “forced to be free”… There seems to me to be no way of defending this – though it does follow logically from Rousseau’s definitions and argument.
[Communitarians and others, posed with this sort of issue, either have to argue that the state must allow differences – or that individuals must be free to leave one state, or community, and find another that agrees with them!
6. Further comments and evaluation of Rousseau’s ideas, and his significance in relation to his own times and to later ideas:
6.1 The Sovereign body for Rousseau is that body in which supreme formal political ought to reside (not, as in jurisprudence, where it does reside), and it is clear that the people should be sovereign, not the government or any part of it. The government are the servants (“officers”) of the people, who carry out the will of the people - i.e. for Rousseau, the legislative is superior to the executive. It is also clear that he distinguished between specific “laws” or powers, such as when a war is declared, and the general right to make war: the latter belongs to the people, who may then devolve the power to an individual in a specific instance.
This position was taken up by those who supported the French Revolution of 1789. This revolution was a critical point in modern history, as it culminated in the defeat of absolutism and the birth of the democratic republic; many revolutionaries at the time took Rousseau as their inspiration. The Revolution saw the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen: and its slogan was equality, liberty, and fraternity...
6.2 A Legislator may be needed when establishing a state: the people, at this stage,
may need guidance. However, the Legislator has no role in the constitution once
established. Rousseau drew on historical knowledge here, and the fact that he
himself had been asked to help draw up constitutions (for, e.g.
6.3 Rousseau favoured tolerance of religion, and freedom of belief, but thought a kind of state secular religion would be needed to promote support for the community. (but how would this avoid chauvinism, i.e. excessive patriotism?
6.4 As noted, Rousseau had a controversial view of the role of women – in fact he saw them as a threat to public order, because they do not have men’s rationality!! Yet he gave them an important role in the home, bringing up children with a sense of responsibility, morality, duty etc, which underpins the civic virtues... this idea was seen by many women of the time as progressive – and perhaps part of its appeal was the importance Rousseau put on "natural" feelings. But this meant that woman would have a separate role, and not be allowed to take part in public life… Writers such as Carol Pateman today have little time for Rousseau.
6.5 He saw how economics was not just an individual concern but affects politics and culture – and since he also argued that there should be equality, with "no one wealthy enough to buy another, no one poor enough to be forced to sell himself..." we might see him as a precursor of socialism?
6.6 Some argue that he paved the way for a more radical view of democracy, viz. direct democracy – witness his attacks on existing forms of representative government, such as in Britain: "the British believe they are live in a democracy, but they are only exercising power when they vote, and that is only one every five years!" However, the most important thing about a state for him was that the people’s will should be sovereign: different forms of government might then follow – although he conceded that small states were preferable (and some would say that the kind of democracy he advocated could only exist in small communities.
6.7 In conclusion, Rousseau was a complex figure in many ways: his thought looks both forwards and backwards, as he uses language of civic period (contract etc) but thinks in a modern (organic, collectivist) way. In some respects he looks back to Plato (idealising the community; seeking the fulfilment of individual through his/her subordination to the community; giving the highest authority to ethics rather than the law), and he looks forward to Marx. and the socialists (his plea for equality and collective well-being; the insight into contradictions in the state; seeing history as marking the progress and development of man’s reasoning and morality).
G.D.H. Cole: Introduction to Everyman Edition of The Social Contract and Discourses, Dent 1990.
C.E. Vaughan: Introduction to Du Contrat Social,