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Rousseau’s Social Contract a Solution for a Synthesis of Freedom and Security

May 20, 2012

Rousseau’s Social Contract a Solution for a Synthesis of Freedom and Security

My plan of attack for this paper is to firstly give a brief background of Rousseau himself followed by a description of the historical and intellectual context within which he wrote his philosophical works. Next, I will attempt to show the process through which Rousseau came to the conclusion in his work, the Social Contact, that “the total alienation of each associate, together with all his rights, to the whole community” is the best solution for society. Since the Social Contract was written as an attempt to solve many of the problems that the Rousseau himself brought to light in his earlier works, it is therefore important to firstly give an overview of the arguments and ideas given in the Discourses and then move onto the Social Contract.

ean-Jacques Rousseau was born in Genevain 1712 and lived there till he was sixteen years old. Unlike many of the philosophers we encounter in the history of philosophy Rousseau was not from a privileged or wealthy background. His mother died when he was very young and because his father was unsuited to the task of raising a son Rousseau was raised by his uncle. In 1728 he ran away from an apprenticeship as an engraver and began “at the age of sixteen, fourteen years of semivagabondage.”[1] Rousseau attempted numerous times to make his mark upon society through his musical talent, the invention of a new musical notation system, writing operas and even working as public servant for the French foreign service. But in all these endeavors he was not rewarded with success and “what little employment he was able to obtain was clerical and routine, and Rousseau hated it.”[2] These repeated failures to break into society led Rousseau to the opposite extreme and he began to isolate himself.

In my attempt to try to understand Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s political philosophy and in particular to how society should be structured I used G.D.H Cole’s English translation of The Social Contract and Discourses by Jean-Jacques Rousseau which is available on the internet[3]. But before reading the primary text I read what other scholars have concluded and summarized regarding Rousseau’s work. What these scholars were able to provide which an exclusive reading of Rousseau’s Social Contract would not have been able to give was the background and context in which J.J Rousseau was writing.

The most comprehensive book in this regard which I consulted was Ronald Grimsley’s book titled Jean-Jacques Rousseau. As a student of philosophy it is interesting that Grimsley draws our attention in the very first page of his book to a quote from a set of correspondence between the Archbishop of Paris and Rousseau. Rousseau wrote: “I have never aspired to become a philosopher, I have never claimed to be one; I was not, am not and do not want to become one.[4]” Grimsley tells us that this shunning of philosophy and pursuit of common sense and truth was Rousseau way of proving his “sincere attachment to the pursuit of wisdom”[5].

The context in which Rousseau was writing is important as it will helps us to build bridges to the time and place in which he was writing. These bridges help us to understand what exactly it was that Rousseau meant at the time of writing. Rousseau was part of what is known as the French Enlightenment and to some extent could be described as being part of the philosophes although it seems that Rousseau remained on the outer fringe of this group of intellectuals.

Rousseau affiliation with the philosophes was tumultuous. The philosophes were a group defined by what is known as the esprit philosophique. The esprit philosophique is described by Grimsley as “a criticism of traditional metaphysical and religious absolutes, a marked predilection for nature at the expense of the supernatural, an admiration for science and reason and a fervent humanitarianism which protested against various forms of injustice.[6]” This was a time which was very much impressed by Newton’s discoveries which had been built not upon on an elaborate metaphysical system but on simple observable facts and experimentation. This inspired the philosophes to discover “a single interpretative principle (similar to Newton’s gravitation principle) which would enable thinkers to present a consistent and unified portrait of man’s essential being.”[7]

This is was the intellectual context within which Rousseau found himself when he started to write his first philosophical writing the Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences and the second work titled Discourse on the Origins of Inequality. According to Iain Hampsher-Monk the “Social Contract provides an answer to the questions raised in the Discourses…The two works need to be read together if sense is to be made of either.”[8] Taking this advice from Hampsher-Monk it will be prudent to understand the arguments made in the Discourses which are the foundations on which the Social Contract is based.

The first Discourse argued that “morals had deteriorated as the arts and sciences had carried man away from his natural state of goodness.”[9] Rousseau argues that ultimately truth cannot be found through the use of reason. Truth he says can be found by relying on each individuals own feelings, faith, and emotions. Rousseau also attacks philosophy and “insists on the destructive effect of a philosophy not tied to practical political needs.”[10] The reason he gives for this is that philosophy produces skepticism which erodes traditional beliefs. The erosion of traditions and customary beliefs undermines a nation’s unity and convictions. The conclusion of the Discourse advocates stopping further corruption of society by stopping public intellectuals like the philosophes  from making available to the common peoples the more destructive skeptical  conclusions of modern philosophy.

It should be noted that Rousseau is not denying that the sciences, arts and reason produce progress. He is not advocating that all philosophy and science should be stopped. What he does say is that “it belongs only to these few to raise monuments to the glory of the

human understanding.”[11] This few individuals would be people like Descartes, Newton and Locke for example. The problem he sees with science and philosophy is the trend to allow ordinary people to have access to this knowledge. He says that knowledge is like a hazardous substance in the hands of a child. This substance would diffuse into the masses many contending theories or points of view on almost everything. For example, “if everyone was allowed to pursue their own thoughts about moral values or even about scientific truth, inevitably, there would be serious differences of opinion”[12] within the population. This would lead to a society which lacks cohesion. According to Rousseau what holds a society together is “a set of opinions or values that the majority accepts as the rule of their thought and behavior”[13]. So what modern sciences and arts are doing is undoing what holds society together.

In the second Discourse Rousseau deals with the problem of inequality and traces its origins. It is in this work that Rousseau begins to deal extensively with the question of man’s state of nature. Rousseau uses the idea of the state of nature to try ascertain how man lived before civil society existed. Rousseau accepts that what he trying to do is extremely difficult and he is only hypothesizing.

For it is by no means a light undertaking to distinguish properly between what is original and what is artificial in the actual nature of man, or to form a true idea of a state which longer exists, perhaps never did exist, and probably never will exist; and of which, it is, nevertheless, necessary to have true ideas, in order to form a proper judgment of our present state.[14]

Having admitted the hypothetical nature of his assertions Rousseau goes on in the second Discourse to say that the inequality found in the state of nature were simple differences in people’s natural abilities such as intelligence and strength. Rousseau disagrees with Hobbes’s conception of the state of nature which was characterized by constant conflict. In Rousseau’s state of nature primitive man is “timid and fearful and more likely to try to avoid combat than to seek it.”[15] This is because man at that time would have lived an isolated and solitary life surrounded by abundant natural resources. Furthermore, he would have been easily gratified due to his coarse tastes and lack of refinement. Which meant that one piece of fruit was as good as another so there would be no need to quarrel with another man over a particular piece of fruit, tree or any other desirable object.

The state of nature in the second Discourse is also lacks subordination, inequality and oppression of one man by another. The reason given for this by Rousseau is that in the state of nature it would be very difficult for one man to get another to obey him. The strong may steal the fruits of the weak but that would just mean that the weaker man would move away and find a new place to stay. Inequality and subordination require dependency because “it is only once we depend on others that we must obey them, and it is only once they have something we need that we can be brought to depend on them.”[16] But since in Rousseau’s state of nature one man does not possess anything which is a necessity for other men, this means that “every one there is his own master, and the law of the strongest is of no effect.”[17]

If there is no master-slave relationship in the state of nature, due to the isolated existence of men, how did such relationships come to be part of modern society? For what reasons would man choose to abandon the freedom he had in nature? Part of the reason was that working together allowed men to overcome difficulties which could not be accomplished alone. The increased socialization, says Rousseau, lead to development of self-awareness. This self-awareness within the social group leads to each individual wanting “to acquire qualities, or the appearance of them, which are acceptable to others.”[18] In C.EVaughan words: “man’s being and man’s appearance, now became two completely different matters.” This need to conform to society’s norms cuts away at man’s freedom and fundamentally challenges the psychology of man because he now sees himself through the eyes of others.

Another reason for mankind’s inclination towards living as a society is that man’s foremost desire is for perfection not peace. So even though the state of nature provided a peaceful and innocent life; man wants to advance and progress which is not possible in seclusion. The next stage in the development of mankind towards the modern civil society was the invention of private property. From this point on the independence of the state of nature was no longer possible as each person focused on what he could grow on his own property. This had the consequence of making the society totally interdependent because each man could not produce or grow all that was required for his needs. The differences in intelligence and ability lead to inequalities in private property ownership.

As soon as all the property has been occupied only theft or slavery are the options left to choose from for men without property. The inequalities in private property lead to war and the rich in society needed to find a way to stop the poor from rising up against them. The position of the wealthy property owners was unjustifiable. The next development which lead to the modern civil society was a

“confidence trick of epic proportions designed to convert usurpation into what appeared to be right. They suggested that everyone associate together to use their common force to ‘secure the weak from oppression, restrain the ambitious, and assure to every man the possession of what belongs to him’. Crude and ingenuous as the poor were, they agreed and ‘all ran headlong to their chains believing they were ensuring liberty’.”[19]

With this Rousseau has described how the inequality that is found today in society came to be. The rich of society were able to dupe the weaker and poorer elements of society into accepting a common force which would preserve everybody’s property. This meant that the rich could keep their property and it was secured under this new association. It is in Rousseau’s later work The Social Contract that he describes how society can be re-structured so that there is not such high levels of inequality.

The Social Contract is the work in which Rousseau strives to find a balance which will allow an individual freedom and at the same the benefits and security of living in a society. In the Social Contract switches gears from explaining how political subordination came to exist and instead accepts that it exists and asking how political subordination can be made legitimate. He left us in the second Discourse with an explanation of political subordination which was based on deceit, dishonesty and inequality. Now he sets out to fix this.

One of the first things that Rousseau does in the Social Contract is to show how the idea of ‘the right of the strongest’ is not justifiable a political theory. He says “the strongest is never strong enough to be always the master, unless he transforms strength into right, and obedience into duty.”[20] But Rousseau finds no reason why a physical attribute like power should be given a moral interpretation. He goes on to say “I fail to see what moral effect it can have. To yield to force is an act of necessity, not of will — at the most, an act of prudence. In what sense can it be a duty?”[21] Rousseau concludes chapter III of Book I of the Social Contract by concluding that conventions are the sole legitimacy for authority in society. He writes “since no man has a natural authority over his fellow, and force creates no right, we must conclude that conventions form the basis of all legitimate authority among men.”[22]

Rousseau continues in Book I to show how conquest by a army is not justification for submitting to authority of the victorious army. In chapter V Rousseau states that even if we accept this rationale for obeying authority, or the ‘right of the strongest’, there is still one big problem. The problem is that such a setup would only create a society which consists of “no more than a master and his slaves, and certainly not a people and its ruler; I see what may be termed an aggregation, but not an association; there is as yet neither public good nor body politic.”[23] What Rousseau is showing here is that the traditional reason or theories given for why we should obey political institutions only provide justification for a master and slave relationship. Also, Rousseau argues that even if people had decided in the past to obey a ruler due to his strength it does not mean that the children of those people should also have to obey that same ruler. For a government to be legitimate Rousseau says that “it would have required endorsement from each [new] generation.”[24]

What Rousseau wants to find is a theory which explains why individuals should willingly obey but which allows the individual to remain as free as he was before he chose to enter into a contract with the rulers or authority. Rousseau gives his solution almost immediately after he explains what it is that the Social Contract hopes to achieve which the existing political theories have failed to do. Rousseau’s solution requires the giving up of all the rights of the individual to the community. His reasoning for this is that “in giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody; and as there is no associate over whom he does not acquire the same right as he yields over himself, he gains an equivalent for everything he loses, and an increase of force for the preservation of what he has.”[25] So because everybody is submitting his/her rights it means that in effect everybody is still equal and no one person has any more claim over another as was the case in the state of nature.

We can already start to see part of the answer as to why Rousseau advocates a “total alienation of each associate, together with all his rights, to the whole community.” The reason is that by each member of society submitting to society this results in each person loosing the same as everybody else and at the same time gaining the security and benefits of society. For Rousseau “legitimacy is only possible if sovereignty is retained by the people” and not given up to monarch as Hobbes had suggested, rather “the sovereign must be identical with the citizens themselves.”[26]

The sovereign of society for Rousseau are the people who make up the society. He argues that since the sovereign is the same as the people of society it makes sense that the sovereign would act in the interest of the people. What is more interesting is that Rousseau says that the sovereign does not need to give any guarantee of rights. This is because “the sovereign power need give no guarantee to its subjects, because it is impossible for the body to wish to hurt all its members.”[27] The sovereign is only an instrument of the individuals who compromise it and it has no powers of it’s own.

The members of the community are required to submit all their rights to the society because if they “retained some for themselves this would result in there being no common and superior authority to decide what they [rights] are or the extent to which they may be exercised.”[28]

The purpose of the newly created sovereign is to enact laws which are based on the “general will.” The general will is a concept which is used throughout the Social Contract and is the will of body politic which aims to preserve the welfare of the whole and every part of society. The general will is also the source of all the laws and regulates how all the members of the State are to relate to one another. The general will is not be confused with the “will of all” which in Rousseau writings refers to actions or policies which only benefit a particular group of citizens or an individual.

What the citizen loses in the social contract is her “natural liberty” which is what she had in the state of nature i.e unlimited right to everything. In place of natural liberty the social contract provides “civil liberty” which guarantees “proprietorship – secure enjoyment of what is ours.”[29] Rousseau’s theory relies on the self-imposed submission of the individual to the collective sovereign. But this also “tacitly assumes that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body; in short, ‘this means that he will be forced to be free’.” [30]

The forced to be free phrase at first seems to be highly questionable especially since it seems to negate the individual’s freedom which Rousseau has worked so hard to preserve so far. The sovereign consists of the general will, which is a reflection the sum of the wills of the individual citizens, who have agreed to limit their actions in order to  achieve the common good. All citizens understand that their own good and their own freedom is connected with the common good. The common good is threatened by individuals who choose to follow their own interests.

Rousseau assertion that the sovereign can compel individual citizens should not cause problems because all states even the most liberal and democratic do this. The wording of the phrase does seem objectionable. Hampsher-Monk gives an excellent explanation of this: “Rousseau does not talk about being forced to commit ‘free acts’ but of being forced in respect of acts which jeopardize (the state or condition of) freedom.” If we accept that the life under the rule of the general will constitutes a state of freedom then any person who tries to deviate from that must be considered as acting against freedom. It then makes sense to force such individuals to be free which simply means that they must follow the general will and the general will is synonymous with freedom for Rousseau.

Works Cited

Cassirer, Ernest. Rousseau Kant Goethe- Two Essays.Princeton UP, 1945. Print.

Grimsley, Ronald. Jean-Jacques Rousseau.Brighton,Sussex: Harvester, 1983. Print.

Hampsher-Monk, Iain. A History of Modern Political Thought: Major Political Thinkers from Hobbes to Marx.OxfordU.a.: Blackwell, 1994. Print.

Harmon, M. Judd. Political Thought: From Plato to the Present.New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964. Print

Leigh, R. A. Correspondence complete de Jean-Jacques Rousseau.GenevaandOxford. 1965. In course of publication

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract and Discourses by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, translated with an Introduction by G.D. H. Cole.London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1923. Print

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Political Writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau, introductions and notes by C. E. Vaughan.CambridgeUniversityPress, 1915. Vol. 1.

Stumpf, Samuel E. Socrates to Sartre and Beyond. Eighth ed.New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008. Print


[1] Harmon, M. Judd. Political Thought: From Plato to the Present. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964. 295. Print.

[2] Ibid

[3] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract and Discourses by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, translated with an Introduction by G.D. H. Cole.London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1923. Print (Accessed from http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/638 on 2012-05-08)

[4] Leigh, R. A. Correspondance complete de Jean-Jacques Rousseau.Geneva andOxford. 1965. In course of publication

[5] Grimsley, Ronald. Jean-Jacques Rousseau.Brighton,Sussex: Harvester, 1983. 1. Print.

[6] Grimsley, Ronald. Jean-Jacques Rousseau.Brighton,Sussex: Harvester, 1983. 11. Print.

[7] Ibid, 12

[8] Hampsher-Monk, Iain. A History of Modern Political Thought: Major Political Thinkers from Hobbes to Marx.Oxford U.a.: Blackwell, 1994. 157. Print.

[9] Harmon, M. Judd. Political Thought: From Plato to the Present. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964. 296. Print

[10] Hampsher-Monk, Iain. A History of Modern Political Thought: Major Political Thinkers from Hobbes to Marx.Oxford U.a.: Blackwell, 1994. 159. Print.

[11] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract and Discourses by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, translated with an Introduction by G.D. H. Cole.London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1923. 152. Print

[12] Stumpf, Samuel E. Socrates to Sartre and Beyond. Eighth ed.New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008. 262. Print.

[13] Ibid

[14] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract and Discourses by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, translated with an Introduction by G.D. H. Cole.London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1923. 169. Print

[15] Harmon, M. Judd. Political Thought: From Plato to the Present. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964. 300. Print

[16] Hampsher-Monk, Iain. A History of Modern Political Thought: Major Political Thinkers from Hobbes to Marx.Oxford U.a.: Blackwell, 1994. 160. Print.

[17] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract and Discourses by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, translated with an Introduction by G.D. H. Cole.London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1923.205. Print

[18] Hampsher-Monk, Iain. A History of Modern Political Thought: Major Political Thinkers from Hobbes to Marx.Oxford U.a.: Blackwell, 1994. 169. Print.

[19] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Political Writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau, introductions and notes by C. E. Vaughan.CambridgeUniversity Press, 1915. Vol. 1.

[20] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract and Discourses by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, translated with an Introduction by G.D. H. Cole.London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1923. 8. Print

[21] Ibid

[22] Ibid. 9

[23] Ibid. 13

[24] Hampsher-Monk, Iain. A History of Modern Political Thought: Major Political Thinkers from Hobbes to Marx.Oxford U.a.: Blackwell, 1994. 177. Print.

[25]Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract and Discourses by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, translated with an Introduction by G.D. H. Cole.London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1923. 15. Print

[26] Hampsher-Monk, Iain. A History of Modern Political Thought: Major Political Thinkers from Hobbes to Marx.Oxford U.a.: Blackwell, 1994. 177. Print.

[27] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract and Discourses by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, translated with an Introduction by G.D. H. Cole.London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1923. 15. Print

[28] Harmon, M. Judd. Political Thought: From Plato to the Present. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964. 304. Print

[29] Hampsher-Monk, Iain. A History of Modern Political Thought: Major Political Thinkers from Hobbes to Marx.Oxford U.a.: Blackwell, 1994. 178. Print.

[30] Stumpf, Samuel E. Socrates to Sartre and Beyond. Eighth ed.New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008. 264. Print

Rousseau’s Social Contract a Solution for a Synthesis of Freedom and Security

Faraz H Laldin. Presented to  Professor Dr M. Miller.  Philosophy 202.  09 May 2012

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