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Jean Jacques Rousseau: The Origin of Civil Society PDF Print E-mail
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Wednesday, 05 May 2010 10:40

In 1762, Rousseau published The Social Contract and another major work, Emile, or On Education. Both works criticized religion, and were consequently banned in France and his native Geneva. As a result, Rousseau was forced to flee his homeland and live under the protection of others for the rest of his life.


The idea of a social contract had existed since at the least the Renaissance, but previous versions claimed that there was a binding contract between rulers and the ruled. Other versions of the social contract viewed the contract as being between the people, but still asserted that they were obligated to obey their government. This theory provided the foundation of enlightened despotism, I which the king was sovereign and ruled in the best interests of the people. Rousseau, however, was not content to justify these old theories of sovereignty. He claimed that sovereignty belonged to the people and that government was only a representative of the sovereign, charged with executing the general will. Although this is idea is commonplace today, it was shocking to contemporary readers to Rousseau’s work.


The Social Contract influenced governments throughout Europe and helped to promote political reform and revolution. Although Rousseau, for the most part, avoids discussion of contemporary political affairs, his criticism of luxury and his emphasis on popular sovereignty certainly contributed to the ideals of the French Revolution. In addition, many political leaders believed that Rousseau’s political theo0ries provided a solid foundation for any state. Rousseau was invited to draft constitution for both Corsica and Poland, although his recommendations were never implemented because of foreign invasions.

The Social Contract is, in many ways, a follow-up to Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality among Men. In the earlier work, Rousseau, attacks private property for causing inequality and exploitation. These vices are responsible for the “chains” that Rousseau refers to in the first sentence of On the Social Contract. Accepting that some loss of liberty is inevitable, Rousseau seek to establish a legitimate, political authority. The Social Contract thus examines what constitutes such an authority.

Rousseau begins The Social Contract with the notable phrase “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains”. Because these chains are not found in the state of nature, they must contractions of convention. Rousseau thus seeks the basis for a legitimate, political authority in which people must give up their natural liberty. He sets two conditions for a lawful polity and creates several clauses to ensure that they are carried out. First, there must be no relationships of particular dependence in the state, and second, by obeying the laws, an individual only obeys himself.


Rousseau’s solution to the problem of legitimate authority is the “social contract”, an agreement by which the people band together for their mutual preservation. This act of association crates a collective body called the “sovereign”. The sovereign is the supreme authority in the state, and has its own life and will. The sovereign’s interest, or the “general will”, always promotes the common good. This is in contrast to the private will of each citizen, which strives only for personal benefit.


The law expressed the general will, and must only make regulations that affect the entire populace. The goal of legislation is to protect liberty and equality and to promote the common good. However, the people may not always know how to pursue the common good and may need the help of a legislator to guide them in lawmaking. The legislator prevents private interest from influencing legislation and aids the populace in weighing short-term benefits against log-term costs.


Although the sovereign exercises legislative authority, the state also needs executive power to implement the general will. There are three main types of government: democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy. The type is chosen based on several factors, including population and climate. Smaller governments have more force than larger ones, and the population becomes more unruly as it grows. Rousseau thus argues that in general, there should be an inverse relationship between the size of government and the size of the population. Thus, large states should have a monarchy, intermediate states should have an aristocracy, and small states should have a democracy.


Rousseau asserts that the establishment of government is not, as philosophers such as Hobbes and Gratius have argued a contract. The sovereign employs the government as a representative of the people in charge of carrying out the general will. The sovereign thus can alter the form of government and replace its leaders as it chooses.


As the natural tendency of every government is to usurp sovereignty and to invalidate the social contract, the government’s interests are always in conflict with those of the sovereign. The best means of restraining the executive is holding periodic assemblies. Although this may seem difficult, Rousseau cites Ancient Rome to show that this can be achieved even in large states. When the people convene, they must decide whether they approve of the current form of government and their leaders.

Periodic assemblies can prolong the life of a state, but eventually every state will fall because of the usurpationss of government. However, all citizens must fulfill their civic duties while the state exists. They cannot employ representatives to articulate the general will because sovereignty cannot be transferred. They also cannot use money to avoid their responsibilities, because this corrupts the state and destroys civil liberty.


When voting, each person must assess whether a law is in accordance with the general will – not whether it supports his private interests. Thus, he has an obligation to follow even those laws to which he does not give his consent. In a healthy state, people share common sentiment and show unanimity in the assemblies. In a declining state, people place their private interests above the common good and try to manipulate the legislative process.


Although the sovereign must allow for the religious freedom of its members, it can impose a set of values that are necessary to bring a “good” citizen. This system of beliefs, which Rousseau calls “civil religion”, consists of belief in a God and the afterlife, universal justice, and respect for the sanctity of the social contract. The state has the power to banish from the state anyone who opposes the tenet of civil religion.


Rousseau’s theory of sovereignty differs dramatically from those espoused by other political philosophers. Unlike Hobbes and Grotius, Rousseau asserts that the people should exercise sovereignty rather than bend to the whims of an absolute monarch. By banding together, the people crate a “public person” called the “sovereign”, which aims for the common good. Every person is both a “citizen” (in that he is a member of the sovereign) and a “subject” (in that he must obey its decisions).

Rousseau places several stipulations on the sovereign to ensure the legitimacy of political authority. The sovereign must maintain equality, without which liberty cannot exist. It can only consider matter that affect the entire populace, and cannot demand more from any one subject than from any other. The sovereign must also ensure that the people obey only themselves and remain as free as they were prior to the institution of the social contract. Thus, sovereignty cannot be transferred to an individual or group, because only the people can express the general will. Sovereignty is also indivisible, because a part of the sovereign cannot legislate for the whole.


Rousseau establishes two conditions for a legitimate polity. Fist, there are no relationships of particu9lar dependence. Second, by obeying the laws, the people only obey themselves. To meet these two conditions, Rousseau crates several rules for the sovereign and the government that must carry out its decisions.


Rousseau claims that there is no contract between the people and its government. To ensure that the people only obey themselves, the sovereign must be the supreme authority in the state. Because a contract crates obligations for both parties, the people would no longer be the supreme authority if they had to obey the government. Another clause that ensures legitimate, political authority holds that the law can only deal with matters that affect the entire populace. The sovereign cannot make rules that only apply to certain people because this would violate the second condition of a legitimate polity.

Rousseau stresses the importance of morals throughout The Social Contract. In contrast to Grotis, Rousseau asserts that a right must create a sense of moral obligation. Force is thus unable to create a right. Slaves submit to their masters because they fear physical harm, not because they feel that they ought to obey them.


Civil society substitutes a moral existence, in which people have obligations to each other and to the state, for the independent existence of the state of nature. Rousseau praises this transformation, which forces man to listen to reason before action on any physical impulses. He claims that only after entering the social contract does man become fully human. However, Rousseau also criticizes the effect that civil society has no man. He states his objections most clearly in Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality among Men.


Rousseau aims to discover why people gave up their natural liberty, which they possessed in the state of nature, and how political authority became legitimate. He begins with the famous sentence, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”. These chains results from the obligations that each person has to the community. According to Rousseau, this sense of communal duty is founded upon convention. He denies that a legitimate, political authority can be found in the state of nature.

The oldest and only natural society is the family. However, children are only bound to their father as long they depend on him to take care of them. Once a child has reached maturity, the members of the family are the prototype for all political societies: the father is the leader, and his children are the populace. Each person gives up his liberty to receive the protection of the family and thus promote his own utility.


According to Rousseau, force cannot be the foundation for legitimate political authority. People obey those stronger than themselves out of necessity, not by choice. Thus, the right of the strongest cannot create the sense of a duty that is necessary to establishing a true right. In addition, because strength is a relative term, the effect of this right changes with the cause. As soon as one person makes himself the strongest, all previous claims established on the right of the strongest are nullified. Thus, the primary flaw with this right is that it can be broken legitimately.

Because no man has natural authority over other men and because force cannot establish right, all legitimate authority must depend upon convention. Rousseau goes on to refute Grotius, who argues that a state can be legitimate even if the people are slaves and the government is their master. Rousseau disputes his claim that the people can alienate their liberty and give themselves to a king. According to Rousseau, no one will give up his liberty without getting something in return. A popular argument made by political philosophers holds that people can renounce their freedom in exchange for the civil tranquility offered by a monarch. Referring to contemporary situations Rousseau asserts that this promise of civil tranquility becomes insignificant when kings drag their countries counties into numerous wars and place unnecessary demands on their citizens. Even if a person willingly sacrifices his own liberty, he cannot offer the freedom of his children without their consent. Thus, for such society to be legitimate, each generation must offer their expressed approval of it.


Rousseau also refutes Grotius’ idea that slavery can be considered as contract between master and servant. There is no possible compensation, Rousseau holds, for a person who has given up his freedom. Furthermore, Rousseau believes that actions can be moral only if they have been done freely. Grotius’ other argument for slavery is based in war: he claims that because they victors in war have to right kill the vanquished, the latter can sell their liberty in exchange for their lives. Rousseau disputes Grotius’ contention that the victors have a right to kill vanquished. Wars are fought by states, not by men. After a nation has lost in battle, its soldiers cease being enemies to the opposing state, and no one has a right to their lives.


People form societies when the obstacles faced in the state of nature become too arduous for any one person to overcome. Each person gives up his natural liberty – the freedom to do anything desires – in exchange for the greater power of the entire community. Because everyone gives himself and all of his rights to the community, the conditions of the social contract are equal for all those involved. The association of many individuals with the same interest creates a collective body with its own life and will. This body is called the “state” when it is passive and the “sovereign when it is active.


Because the sovereign can be considered a private individual, there is no law that is obligatory to the people as a body. This would be the same as a private individual making a contract with himself. However, the sovereign cannot do anything that harms the social contract, because that would result in its dissolution. In addition, because it is formed by the association of private individuals, the sovereign cannot have interests that contradict with those of its members. The same is not true about the relations of subjects to the sovereign. Each person may have a private interest that interferes with or even harms the general will, but the social contract tacitly requires an individual to act in accordance with the common interests.


Rousseau claims that the transition from the state of nature to civil society crates a sense of justice that men previously lacked. Whereas man acted only up his physical impulses in the state of nature, he feels a duty to his fellow men when placed in the context of society. Because of this moreal change, man’s mental faculties are developed, and his soul is elevated. This would be a very positive development if the demands of civil society were not so high. Each person gives himself – including all of his possessions – to the community when it is formed. The sovereign does not control the use of private property, but offers it better protection than any individual could give. This is because public possession is stronger and more easily accepted than private possession. The community legitimizes the right of the first occupant. It turns usurpation of natural resources into a true right, because all citizens acknowledge the legitimacy of private property.


Rousseau ends Book I by emphasizing the basic for every social system. Instead of destroying natural inequality, the social contract makes the physical differences found in the state of nature insignificant so that all men may be equal b convention and by right.


In The Social contract, Rousseau sets out to determine the basis for legitimate, political authority. To complete this task, Rousseau must examine how man transitioned from the state of nature to civil society. Rousseau clearly outlines his views on the state of nature in his earlier work, Discourse on the origin of Inequality. In Discourse, Rousseau claims that life before civil society was more peaceful, because people lived a simple existence without property or emotional attachments. Savage man thus had no sources of conflict and worried only about his own preservation. Rousseau’s idea of the state of nature contradicts with that of his contemporary, Thomas Hobbes, who portrays life in the stage of nature as “solitary, nasty, poor, brutish, and short”. The primary difference between the two philosophers is that in Rousseau’s opinion, Hobbes confuses savage man with modern man. Because Hobbes views modern man as greedy and ruthlessly ambitious, he assumes that these qualities are a part of human nature. In contrast, Rousseau believes that humans are born with a natural sense of compassion, and that the state of nature is not a “war of all against all”, as Hobbes believes.

It is important to emphasize that Rousseau does not specify when the transition from the state of nature to civil society took place. He also does not give any evidence that humans behave as he claims. In fact, Rousseau acknowledges in Discourse on the origin of Inequality that his account may not, in fact, be an accurate depiction of the true course of events. Critics of Rousseau have focused on this lack of historical evidence to undermine his political theory, but readers should understand that Rousseau admittedly crates an ideal type in an effort to further his arguments about political authority.

In addition to Hobbes, Rousseau debates Hugo Grotius in book I. Grotius, born 1583, was a prominent figure in philosophy, political theory, and law during the 18th century. Grotius and Rousseau differ primarily in their ideas about rights. Grotius believes that a right is simply a power possessed by an agent, and does not require moral sanction. This contrasts sharply with Rousseau’s conception of a right, which has a significant moral component. Just because the victors in ware are capable of killing the vanquished, this does not give them the right to do son, according to Rousseau. Grotius also promotes the idea that rights can be transferred or sold like commodities. He uses this belief to support slavery and absolute monarchy. In contrast, Rousseau believes that rights (such as the right of freedom) are inalienable, and thus cannot be transferred under any circumstances.


Rousseau argues that at some point, the obstacles confronted in the state of nature become too much for one person to handle. People form a community to combine the powers and talents of many individuals. However this association presents the problem of how each person can retain his liberty while giving himself to the state. Rousseau establishes two conditions for a legitimate polity. The first is that no citizen can be in a relationship of personal dependence, and the second is that by obeying the law, a citizen only obeys himself. Throughout The Social Contract, Rousseau creates clauses for the social contract to ensure that these two conditions are met.


When people join together to form a community, they create a political body with a life and will of its own. By giving all of his rights to the sovereign and thus to all of its members, a citizen gives himself to no one in particular. He gains the equivalent of the freedom that he loses, and now has a greater amount of force to protect his life and property.


Although entering the social contract has many benefits, Rousseau acknowledges that people will often have interests that conflict with those of the sovereign. He asserts that anyone who does not obey the general will should be compelled to do so by the community, and thus “forced to be free”. This statement has troubled many readers of Rousseau’s work. Some have claimed that Rousseau supports tyranny and disregards individual rights because of this assertion. Although Rousseau’s statement may seem paradoxical, it is important to emphasize that Rousseau distinguishes several types of freedom. Natural freedom is the ability to do anything one wants, and is found only in the state of nature. When a person enters the social contract, he gives up hi s natural freedom in exchange for civil freedom, and must obey the law that he has helped to create. Rousseau clearly prefers civil freedom to natural freedom, and his concept that some people must be “forced to be free” is compatible with civil freedom.


This controversial statement can also be understood in another way. Rousseau believes that freedom and equality are inextricably linked: for each person to obey only himself, the laws must apply to everyone. A person who breaks the law creates an unequal relationship between himself and law-abiding citizens. In this situation, the state can use force to ensure equality among all its citizens.

Rousseau’s famous statement in The Social Contract has been called into question by a number of critics who believe that the idea of ‘force” negates the requirement that a contract be entered into voluntarily. Contract theory – as distinct from social contract theory – permits individuals to abstain from entering into a contract. Rousseau, however, holds that even individuals who disagree with elements of the social contract must nevertheless agree to abide by it or risk punishment. This perspective, however, ignores the fact that social contract theory is more of a philosophy than an actual contract, and is thus not held to the same standards.


Rousseau specifies that by taking up residence in civilized society, individuals tacitly consent to the dictates of the social contract. However, how can it be guaranteed that every resident is fully cognizant of the specifics of the social contract? For example, consider a squatter who has spent his entire life living in a small hut in the woods. One day, a government representative arrives to lay claim to the trees surrounding his abode. While the man has not legal right to what he considers “his” land, he certainly seems justified in being angered at the idea. Indeed, one might argue that he does not necessarily have an explicit awareness of the contract that he “signed’ simply by choosing not to flee the United States. Social contract theory includes no clause to exempt individuals who are not cognizant of the fact that they have entered into a contract from punishment.

While Rousseau’s work is certainly admissible on a moral or philosophical level, many criticize his apparent efforts to position social contract theory as a legitimate means for governing the people, as Ronald Dworkin writes in Low Empire (1986).


So some political philosophers have been tempted to say that we have in fact agreed to the social contract of that kind tacitly, by not just emigration when we reach the age of consent. But no one can argue that very long with a straight face. Consent cannot be binding on people, in the way this argument requires, unless it is given more freely, and with more genuine alternate choice, than just by declining to build a life from nothing under a foreign flag. And even if the consent were genuine, the argument would fail as an argument for legitimacy, because a person leaves one sovereign only to join another; he has no choice e to be free from sovereign altogether.

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