General Will And Rousseau

’s Social Contract Essay, Research Paper

When Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote the Social Contract, the concepts of liberty

and freedom were not new ideas. Many political theorists such as Thomas Hobbes and

John Locke had already developed their own interpretations of liberty, and in fact Locke

had already published his views on the social contract. What Rousseau did was to

revolutionize the concepts encompassed by such weighty words, and introduce us to

another approach to the social contract dilemma. What would bring man to leave the state

of nature, and enter into an organized society? Liberals believed it was the guarantee of

protection – liberty to them signified being free from harm towards one’s property.

Rousseau’s notion of freedom was completely different than that of traditional liberals. To

him, liberty meant a voice, and participation. It wasn’t enough to be simply protected

under the shield of a sovereign, Rousseau believed that to elevate ourselves out of the

state of nature, man must participate in the process of being the sovereign that provided

the protection.

The differences between Rousseau’s theories and those of the liberals of his time,

begin with different interpretations of the state of nature. Thomas Hobbes described the

state of nature as an unsafe place, where the threat of harm to one’s property was always

present. He felt that man could have no liberty in such a setting, as fear of persecution and

enslavement would control his every action. From this dismal setting, Hobbes proposed

that man would necessarily rise and enter into a social contract. By submitting himself to

the power of a sovereign, man would be protected by that same power, thereby gaining his

liberty. Rousseau’s version of the state of nature differs greatly. He makes no mention of

the constant fear which Hobbes believed would control man’s life in the state of nature,

rather he describes the setting as pleasant and peaceful. He described the people in this

primitive state as living free, healthy, honest and happy lives, and felt that man was timid,

and would always avoid conflict, rather than seek it out.

Building from this favorable description of the state of nature, why would man

want to enter into a social contract of any kind? If Rousseau was so fond of the state of

nature, why would he be advocating any form of social organization? The answer is two

fold. Firstly, Rousseau recognized that 18th century Europe was indeed very civilized, and

that it would be impossible for man to shake off these chains and return to a state of

nature. Secondly, Rousseau felt man in a state of nature was really quite ignorant and

undeveloped. He says in the Social Contract that they were rather simple, shy, and

innocent in the state of nature. Therefore for personal growth and self-actualization, man

must enter into a society with his fellow man. “We begin properly to become men,”

Rousseau said, “only after we have become citizens.” From here, Rousseau embarks on

his mission, envisioning a society which would embody all of the freedoms man had in the

state of nature yet one which would allow him to grow intellectually.

In setting out his Social Contract, Rousseau’s purpose is clear: “Find a form of

association that defends and protects the person and goods of each associate with all the

common force, and by means of which each one, uniting with all, nevertheless obeys only

himself and remains as free as before.” Rousseau wanted the best of both worlds, a

combination of the freedoms evident in the state of nature, and the intellectual

surroundings of civilized society. Utilizing the principle that the whole would be stronger

then the sum of the collective parts, Rousseau laid out a society in which all the individuals

would give up their individual powers in return for a new kind of equality and a new kind

of power. By this theory, if all members gave up their powers equally and wholly, they

would in effect reduce themselves to being equals amongst each other. He states this by

saying “Since each one gives up his entire self, the condition is equal for everyone, and

since the condition is equal for everyone, no one has an interest in making it burdensome

for the others.” This brought man one step closer to Rousseau’s Utopian view of the state

of nature where “Living in this happy savagery men enjoyed substantial equality; there

were few relations to beget inequality.” It was inequality which would bring about the

opportunity for oppression, which it turn took away a man’s liberty. For Rousseau this

solved the problem of inequality in conventional societies, because “The social contract

established an equality between citizens such they all engage themselves under the same

conditions and should all benefit from the same rights.”

Thus, by giving up his individual powers, man would enter equally into a society in which

a full, moral life was possible. Rousseau’s next task was to show how this full, moral life

would be a good one, and how this equality would be maintained. By entering into a social

contract, man wouldn’t simply submit himself under the power of a sovereign, rather he

would submit himself to become part of the sovereign. Each citizen would have a voice in

this “organic society”, which could be viewed as a living person whose interest was the

protection of itself (and therefore its composite members). The citizens of this society

would have to give themselves up wholly and completely to the state, and make its best

interests their own. In return, since the sovereign was a composite of everyone in the

society, it would naturally take on as its best interests, the interests of all. For these

reasons, direction for the new sovereign would come from what Rousseau referred to as

the “general will”.

This general will would be the combination of the wills of each person in the society. Since the sovereign was directed by this general will, it would be impossible for

the its interests to conflict with the priorities of the citizens, since this would be doing

harm to itself. It would also be impossible for the sovereign to create laws which were

immoral, since its morals were simply a collection of all of the citizens morals. The general

will could not be swayed by any one section of the society, since it represented the entire

body. It would be impossible for anyone to will unfavorable conditions on another, since

these conditions would also be placed on them. Since Rousseau claims that man’s “first

law is to attend to his own preservation, his first cares are those he owes himself”, the

sovereign’s first concern would be for the liberty of it’s members. Therefore the general

will, by transferring man’s individual wills to the will of the sovereign, would guarantee

each man freedom under the new society.

Although Rousseau’s view of the social contract seems fairly logically, it does

contain some holes, which limit the existence of such a society. Rousseau does little to

establish how the general will is to be collected, and passed on to the sovereign. We are

left to assume that if general will is to drive the actions of the sovereign, this necessarily

demands a completely democratic society. Rousseau also states that “sovereignty, being

only the exercise of general will, can never be alienated, and that the sovereign, which is

only a collective being, can only be represented by itself.” Since it has been established

that all members of the society must take an active role in the sovereign, and here it is

stated that this power is not transferable, the citizens can only be represented by

themselves. This necessitates democratic voting by all members of society, on all issues.

Here the problem is obvious, especially in 18th century Europe. This will drastically limit

the size of a society, as well as the area it may cover. A country such as Canada could never be ruled without some form of representative democracy, but since Rousseau feels

that these powers are inalienable, we could therefore never enter into such a social


A second issue of contention arises when Rousseau’s logic is carefully examined.

He begins his essay by stating that man is by his very nature a selfish being, concerned

only with his own preservation. He goes on from here to place man in such a society, free

from inequalities, in which he must place his fellow citizen’s wills on an equal level with

his own. Rousseau feels man will subject himself to such a society because selfishly he will

see that it is to his own advantage to do so, as it will guarantee his own preservation.

Rousseau mentions the most basic form of a society as being the family, yet even a family

has its obvious inequalities. Perhaps if man was coming from the state of nature as

described by Hobbes he would see this advantage, however with the state of nature as

described by Rousseau, this “advantage” would not be abundantly obvious. In a world in

which man’s life is described as free, healthy, honest and happy why would he feel the

need to join a society under such a social contract? Rousseau solves this by expressing

that morals could be developed only in an environment in which people related to and

interacted with each other. After he has already established that man in a state of nature

is simple, ignorant, crude, unsophisticated and “more animal than human”, where would

man all of a sudden acquire the insight to realize that his life should be more fulfilling?

Granted even the most primitive tribes in Africa and elsewhere subject themselves to

societies, yet this is clearly for the preservation of each member, not for moral growth.

These primitive societies also come with their own hierarchy of power, and are far from

being free of inequality. Rousseau is in effect talking out of both sides of his mouth here: describing man in a negative light to originally suit his purpose, and then assuming him to

be more intelligent and introspective, when it serves the argument to do so.

The motivating force behind Rousseau’s vision of a perfect society is clear: he is

obviously displeased with the inequalities and oppression in the civilized societies he sees

in 18th century Europe. This becomes clear in the first line of his discourse: “Man was/is

born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” The society which he presents certainly solves

many of the problems present in these societies, and it appears that the citizens certainly

would benefit from its formation.


The Social Contract, Jean Jacques Rousseau


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