Rousseaus principal aim in writing The Social Contract is to determine how freedom may be possible in civil society. In the state of nature we enjoy the physical freedom of having no restraints on our behavior. By entering into the social contract, we place restraints on our behavior, which make it possible to live in a community. By giving up our physical freedom, however, we gain the civil freedom of being able to think rationally. We can put a check on our impulses and desires, and thus learn to think morally. The term “morality” only has significance within the confines of civil society, according to Rousseau.
Click here to find out more!The first chapter opens with the famous phrase: “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.” These “chains” are the constraints placed on the freedom of citizens in modern states. The stated aim of this book is to determine whether there can be legitimate political authority–whether a state can exist that upholds, rather than constrains, liberty. Rousseau rejects the idea that legitimate political authority is found in nature. The only natural form of authority is the authority a father has over a child, which exists only for the preservation of the child. Political thinkers–particularly Grotius and Hobbes–have asserted that the relationship between ruler and subject is similar to that between father and child: the ruler cares for his subjects and so has unlimited rights over them. This kind of reasoning assumes the natural superiority of rulers over the ruled. Such superiority is perpetuated by force, not by nature, so political authority has no basis in nature. Nor is legitimate political authority founded on force. The maxim that “might makes right” does not imply that the less strong should be obedient to the strong. If might is the only determinant of right, then people obey rulers not because they should, but because they have no choice. And if they are able to overthrow their ruler, then this also is right since they are exercising their superior might. In such circumstances, there is no political authority; people simply do whatever is within their power.
Rousseau’s suggested answer is that legitimate political authority rests on a covenant (a “social contract”) forged between the members of society. He has a number of predecessors in theorizing a social contract, including Grotius, who proposes that there is a covenant between the king and his people–a “right of slavery”–where the people agree to surrender their freedom to the king. However there must be something the people gain from entering this social contract, because only a lunatic would give up his freedom for nothing, and a covenant made by a lunatic would be void. Besides, even if people were able to surrender their own freedom, they could not justifiably surrender the freedom of their children as well.
The concept of nature is very important throughout Rousseau’s philosophy. He is famous for countering the common Enlightenment position that reason and progress were steadily improving humankind with the suggestion that we are better off in our state of nature, as “noble savages.” This opinion is expressed more forcefully in his earlier work, the Discourse on Inequality; in The Social Contract Rousseau is more ready to accept the possibility that modern society can potentially benefit us.
Rousseau is not interested in history or archaeology so much as he is interested in understanding human nature as it exists in the present. His political philosophy is driven by the conviction that the political associations we participate in shape our thoughts and behavior to a great extent. His interest in a “natural state,” then, is an effort to determine what we would be like if political institutions had never existed. Whatever is not a part of this “natural state” has come about as a result of human society, and is thus “unnatural.”
If human beings today were suddenly to find themselves without political institutions, they would indeed lead unpleasant lives because they would have all the selfishness and greed that society has bred in them without any of the safeguards and protections of that society. Rousseau’s hypothetical natural state is pre-societal: before we were corrupted by politics, we had none of the unpleasant characteristics. It is important to understand that Rousseau believes it is impossible to return to this natural state.
Rousseau’s suggestion is that it is formed by a “social contract”: people living in a state of nature come together and agree to certain constraints in order that they might all benefit. The idea of a social contract is not original to Rousseau, and could even be traced as far back as Plato’s Crito. More significantly, Rousseau is drawing on the ideas of Hobbes, Grotius, and Pufendorf, among others, who used the idea of a social contract to justify absolute monarchy. These thinkers suggested that people consent to be governed by an absolute monarch in exchange for the protection and elevation from the state of nature that this affords them.
Rousseau’s own social contract theory is meant to overturn the theories of these predecessors, suggesting that no legitimate social contract can be forged in an absolute monarchy. His arguments are diverse, but they rest on the fundamental assertion that in surrendering their liberty to their monarch, people surrender the freedom and authority to consent to a social contract, and so render void any contract they make with the monarch. According to Rousseau, our freedom and our humanity are closely tied to our ability to deliberate and make choices. If a monarch has absolute power over us, we lose both our freedom and humanity, and become slaves.
There reaches a point in the state of nature, Rousseau suggests, when people need to combine forces in order to survive. The problem resolved by the social contract is how people can bind themselves to one another and still preserve their freedom. The social contract essentially states that each individual must surrender himself unconditionally to the community as a whole. Rousseau draws three implications from this definition: (1) Because the conditions of the social contract are the same for everyone, everyone will want to make the social contract as easy as possible for all. (2) Because people surrender themselves unconditionally, the individual has no rights that can stand in opposition to the state. (3) Because no one is set above anyone else, people don’t lose their natural freedom by entering into the social contract.Click here to find out more!
The community that is formed by this social contract is not simply the sum total of the lives and wills of its members: it is a distinct and unified entity with a life and a will of its own. This entity, called a “city” or “polis” in ancient times, is now called a “republic” or a “body politic.” Because the sovereign is a distinct and unified whole, Rousseau treats it in many respects as if it were an individual. Since no individual can be bound by a contract made with himself, the social contract cannot impose any binding regulations on the sovereign. By contrast, subjects of the sovereign are doubly bound: as individuals they are bound to the sovereign, and as members of the sovereign they are bound to other individuals. Though the sovereign is not bound by the social contract, it cannot do anything that would violate the social contract since it owes its existence to that contract. Further, in hurting its subjects it would be hurting itself, so the sovereign will act in the best interests of its subjects without any binding commitment to do so. Individuals, on the other hand, need the incentive of law to remain loyal to the sovereign. Self-interested individuals might try to enjoy all the benefits of citizenship without obeying any of the duties of a subject. Thus, Rousseau suggests that unwilling subjects will be forced to obey the general will: they will be “forced to be free.”
Individual citizens have a life and a will of their own, but in binding themselves to the social contract, they also become a part of the larger life and will of the sovereign. Just as each part of the body is responsible for working with the rest of the body and ensuring that it functions smoothly, every individual is committed to the sovereign. However, the sovereign owes nothing to its subject, but will nonetheless work to ensure their well-being.
Rousseau’s communitarian point of view can be understood by referring to his contrast between the state of nature and civil society. The freedom we have in the state of nature is the freedom of animals: unconstrained and irrational. By entering into civil society we learn to restrain our instincts and to act rationally. By leaving our natural state of laissez faire, we come to recognize that we need reasons to justify our actions. This rationality is what defines our actions as moral. Rationality and morality distinguish us from animals, according to Rousseau, so it is only by becoming a part of civil society that we become human. The community is superior to the individual because it is a community of humans and the individual is just a solitary animal. Rousseau contrasts the physical freedom of following our instincts with the civil freedom of acting rationally. In civil society, we learn the freedom of self-control. Thus, according to Rousseau, we do not give up our freedom by binding ourselves to the social contract; rather, we fully realize it.
This background may help us understand Rousseau’s disturbing claim that unruly citizens should be “forced to be free.” If we only gain civil freedom by entering into civil society and binding ourselves to the social contract, any violation of that contract will also violate our civil freedom. We undermine our very rationality and morality by violating the contract that made us rational and moral. By forcing its subjects to obey the social contract, the sovereign essentially forces its subjects to maintain the civil freedom that is part and parcel of this social contract. Some commentators have gone so far as to accuse Rousseau of totalitarianism, though this is a bit far-fetched. However, his notion that the community comes first and the individuals in it, second is contrary to the notions of individual liberty that characterize most modern democracies, the United States in particular.
To a large extent, Rousseau is motivated by the fear that in modern states where citizens are not actively involved in politics, they become passive witnesses of the decisions that shape them rather than active participants. The civil freedom that comes through active political participation is largely the freedom to determine one’s own fate. Still, if the French Revolution, is any indication, Rousseau’s doctrines can be misused. Rousseau’s ideas formed an ideological backbone for the French Revolution, but as the evolving chaos of the Revolution so clearly indicates, it may not always be clear how the general will is determined, and in such instances terror and the guillotine can become an attractive means of forcing people to be “free.” Though to lay all the extreme excesses of the French Revolution at the feet of Rousseau is unfair, some critics have noted that while Rousseau is usually quite careful in distinguishing between force and right, he blurs that distinction dangerously in saying that people must be “forced to be free.”
Rousseau’s profound insight can be found in almost every trace of modern philosophy today. Somewhat complicated and ambiguous, Rousseau’s general philosophy tried to grasp an emotional and passionate side of man which he felt was left out of most previous philosophical thinking.
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