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A Transformational Read with 'The Social Contract' - Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Vision for a Better Society
The Social Contract - Book Overview and Thoughts
“Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.”
You’ve possibly seen this quote somewhere, perhaps on an Instagram photo or elsewhere on the internet, but you would be surprised to know that this is one of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s most famous quotes; and that one that expresses the central thesis of his work “The Social Contract.”
Rousseau was a Swiss philosopher who made significant contributions to political thought and theory. In a modern view, the “The Social Contract” is one of those works that is both insightful and narrow-minded. It includes many ideas with which I agree, as well as many others that I believe should be questioned and revisited. He covers a broad range of topics that are highly influenced by the era in which he wrote, but that are still worth reading and understanding.
We’ll go over some of the main ideas in detail, as well as make some observations. But here are the highlights:
Rousseau believed that in their natural state, humans were good and compassionate, rather than violent, as Hobbes claimed.
“The general will” is the collective will of the people in a society or community. It represents the common good and it differs from the individual will. According to Rousseau, “the general will” always aims towards the public good, even if it does not reflect the opinions of some group minorities.
Rousseau believed that the people were the true sovereignty, and that the laws that mandate them should represent them.
He defines various types of laws, which he categorizes as political laws, civil laws, and criminal laws.
Rousseau’s opinions on religion are mixed. He criticized religion for having a negative impact on society, but acknowledged the value of it in providing a moral framework and a sense of community.
Now let’s delve deeper into them below!
Rousseau’s Important Concept of the Natural State
One significant aspect of Rousseau’s thought is his view on humanity’s natural state, which he saw as positive because he believed that, despite a natural instinct for self-preservation and competition for resources, people are naturally compassionate towards one another. This opposes Hobbes’s belief that people are always in a state of conflict and war.
What’s more, for Rousseau, no one has any natural power over another individual. He criticized Hobbes, who thought the same thing, but claimed that individuals needed a single ruler to whom we would give up our individual rights in exchange for security and protection, and that this was the only way to avoid the chaos and violence that existed in our natural state.
As a result, Rousseau viewed the natural state as positive because it allowed individuals to live in freedom without being subjected to external control or domination. However, he recognized that the natural state was not sustainable in the long run, and that in order to exist in a civil society, individuals needed to enter into a social contract and give up some of their natural freedoms.
This contract is based on “the general will,” which I’ll explain shortly, and reflects the common good and the interests of the entire community.
Rousseau wanted to solve the issue of how people could retain as much of their natural freedom as possible while also being a part of a society that does not impose regulations, but rather one in which people follow no one but themselves and contribute to the collective benefit of society. He then claimed that freedom meant the ability to live under our own laws.
Unlike Hobbes, who thought that the sovereign should mandate, Rousseau claimed that the true sovereign was the people themselves. He believed that by joining a society, we give up our natural state in exchange for civil and moral freedom, which provides a higher degree of security than our natural state. Because, as seen earlier, living in a natural state in which people are free to do whatever they want; we get constrained by the limitless power of everyone doing whatever they consider proper at all times.
The lawful title to property rights is thus founded not on individual interests, but on the common good. It is a contract that requires individuals to agree to respect the property of others in return for the protection of their own. This meant that by agreeing to be a part of a community, we were giving up our natural survival instincts and agreeing to moral and civil laws. Because, as claimed by Rousseau, what distinguishes us as moral beings is our ability to choose contrary to our natural instincts.
The General Will
Now, let’s talk about “the general will,” which is an important concept in Rousseau’s theory.
Unlike Hobbes, Rousseau believed that sovereignty can only be exercised by the unity of the people and not only by some representatives. The general will refers to individuals considering what is best for society as a whole, and it emerges from a group where all citizens decide together. It is the driving force that pushes society to strive for the common good.
Rousseau clarified that it was important to make a distinction between the general will and the will of all, which is the sum of individual wills, as opposed to the former, which provides for the common good or public interest of a community.
But what would happen if a majority decides on a law that leaves some minority groups aside?
In a system like the one Rousseau proposed, minorities will be outvoted and forced to obey a law that they do not agree with. With this in mind, Rousseau claimed the following:
"Whoever refuses to obey “the general will” shall be constrained to do so by the entire body: which means nothing other than that he shall be forced to be free."
Which basically means that people should be forced to obey. He believed that if a minority group continually resisted the general will and posed a threat to the stability of the society, then it might be necessary for the society to use force to compel them to obey the general will. He believed that in some cases, individuals must be “forced to be free” for the greater good of the community. In other words, he did not provide any solution for minority groups or diversity of opinion, despite being aware of the problem. Which is a big issue, in my opinion.
Many people have criticized this argument, particularly John Stuart Mill, who claimed that “the general will” justifies oppression and ignores diversity and individual freedom. Some others, like Friedrich Hayek, have criticized the concept as being ambivalent or contradictory.
However, Hegel’s political philosophy could help us in clarifying what is wrong with the general will. For Hegel modernity was defined by the emergence of rationality in consciousness, which led people to expect the government to reflect their will. In other words, if the state is not providing what is anticipated, it is not actualizing people’s consciousness into the society and its institutions.
It is important to note, however, that Hegel’s concept of freedom differs greatly from Rousseau’s. The latter believed that freedom is achieved through submission to the general will, which represents the common good of the community, whereas the former believed that freedom is achieved through the realization of individual self-consciousness and recognition within a community, and that this demands the presence of a state that provides a rational structure to guide people towards the realization of that freedom.
In another post, I discuss Hegel’s ideas about freedom and self-consciousness. (here)
Rousseau’s thoughts on democracy, types of laws and the ideal state
We could now say that Rousseau supported democracy, and we would be right. However, Rousseau defines democracy as a form of government in which people create the laws and rules that govern their society, implying that they are the ones sitting down and making the laws themselves. That is, it was never implemented and, until this day, it hasn’t. Thus, Rousseau’s ideal society can be described more as a hybrid of democracy and aristocracy.
Just as with Hobbes, Rousseau shared the belief that sovereignty is inalienable and indivisible, differing only in that sovereign power, that is, the power to create the laws that govern us, comes from the will of the people rather than from a monarchy or election.
This means that there is someone, whom he refers to as “the lawgiver” or “legislator,” who emerges from the will of the people; someone knowledgeable enough to determine what kind of laws should be implemented in a community, which sounds more like an aristocracy, and has the people’s trust and respect. He also argued that, in order to prevent giving only a few people power, this individual should be given power only once and then retire from politics indefinitely.
In addition to that, he also believed that the government should be purely executive, which means that it should only carry out the laws created by the legislator, rather than creating them and executing them. In a nutshell, he believed in the value of popular sovereignty, and the obligation of those in power to act in the best interests of society as a whole.
What’s more, he also argued that the only way for a democracy to function is within a small culturally homogeneous territory where people share a common set of values and beliefs that enable them to communicate effectively. He also believed that luxury should be avoided because it promotes inequality and corruption. In general, he thought that there should be more equality and that there should not be a large gap in economic social classes, so that people can be treated the same way in the eyes of the law, and contribute to society in order to improve the common good.
Lastly, Rousseau makes a clear distinction between different types of laws that he divides into three types: political laws, civil laws, and criminal laws.
Political laws are those that govern the relations between the government and the citizens. Civil laws regulate the relations between citizens, and criminal laws establish the punishments for those who violate the laws. He argues that political laws are the most important because they establish the principles of the state, such as the form of government, the distribution of powers, and the rights and duties of citizens.
I think it is crucial to talk about how Rousseau’s views on religion were mixed, but still merely conservative for a modern reader.
To begin, he thought that religion had various depths, each with its own set of positive and negative effects.
For example, man’s religion, which created pure theism, differed from state religion, which created dogmas, rituals, and cults mandated by a community. He also described a third depth, that of the legislative code, which merges with the state and establishes duties that may be contrary to the common good of all citizens.
With this in mind, Rousseau then argued that religion was important on the second level, since it creates a sense of community that is crucial for a society to function. However, he also recognized the negative effects it brings, on the third depth for instance, and how religion was used as a political instrument to control people.
“Religion is founded in error, it makes men credulous and it has the potential to become tyrannous and exclusive, making people intolerant.”
Finally, Rousseau believed that the state was not compatible with Christianity, since the priestly interest was always bigger than that one of the state. On the other hand, he also argued that religious beliefs should be respected and tolerated as long as they do not interfere with the duties of an individual to strive for the common good.
There is more to the book, but these are the most important aspects of it in my view.
The Social Contract is a book that has been criticized and claimed by a lot of thinkers along the political spectrum. As we saw, Rousseau’s ideas on cultural homogeneity might be attractive for conservatives, who believed that in order to have stability within a society, we must share beliefs, values and traditions. On the other side of the spectrum, socialists like the importance of the general will and popular sovereignty, which aligns with their ideas of collective decision-making and democratic governance. Rousseau’s idea of humanity being more compassionate by nature is also something that socialists sympathize with, in contrast with the capitalistic view that claims that humans are selfish, greedy and violent by nature.
The concept of freedom, I believe, is the one that most resonates with me, but I like to think it was impossible for Rousseau to completely grasp it. This concept has been touched on numerous occasions by contemporary thinkers such as Žižek, but Rousseau only scratched the surface of it. It’s as if he knew but didn’t want to know or admit that he knew. Or, to put it in another way, it is as if he knew and simply attempted to cover or solve the problem of freedom by claiming that the state is the one who provides it in the first place, despite the fact that this claim is contradictory in nature.
However, this issue might be fixed by saying that Rousseau had a completely different perspective of freedom, and that this was due to the influence he had when he wrote his ideas down.
But what then, for us, for you, and for everyone, is freedom really?
What defines it? What characterizes it? How can we accomplish it? Is it here? Did it ever happen?
Those questions are still being asked and reinterpreted.
(n.d.). On Liberty - John Stuart Mill. Gutenberg. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/34901/34901-h/34901-h.htm
(n.d.). The Constitution of Liberty - F.A. Hayek. Internet Archive. https://ia800702.us.archive.org/26/items/TheConstitutionOfLiberty/The%20Constitution%20of%20Liberty.pdf
(n.d.). Hegel's Philosophy or Right. Marxists.org. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/pr/philosophy-of-right.pdf
Rousseau, J. J. (1762). The Social Contract. Penguin Classics.
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