J.J.ROUSSEAU (1712-78)

The third great exponent of the social contract was the French philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau. He was by birth a Swiss, but adopted France as his country. He lived in the pre-Revolutionary Eighteenth* Century France, then ruled by the absolutist Bourbon Kings Unlike his two English predecessors, Hobbes and Locke, Rousseau had no political axe to grind—no rebellion to condemn, and no revolution to commend, but while the political philosophies of the Englishmen did not bear much fruit in the future, Rousseau’s writings inspired the great French Revolution of 1789. He presented his theory in two books, namely, A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality and The Social Contract (1762).

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Rousseau on the State of nature:

Rousseau was a great but not a consistent thinker. He too began his theory with a description of the State of nature, but only “because the entire world was thinking and talking about it”. His views on the State of nature are found in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. Like Locke, Rousseau believed that man lived a free, happy and peaceful life in the State of nature. It was an idyllic condition. But two things put an end to this happy existence. One of them was the growth of population, and the other was the origin of private property, which divided men because they began to think in terms of mine and thine. With these development peace, equality and freedom of the State of nature were gone, and in their place war, murder, disputes and quarrels broke out among men. They however, escaped from this miserable existence only by entering into contract and instituting a civil society.

The Contract:

In his second and more famous book, ‘Social Contract, Rousseau does not concern himself with the question of the State of nature. He begins his book with these memorable words: “Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains”. It means that man lived free in the earlier natural State but is now everywhere bound by the laws and customs of civilised life. The problem is how to justify the obedience of these laws. Its solution lies in substituting natural freedom by civil freedom. But the problem is deeper still, that is, how to harmonise the absolute freedom of an individual, which he enjoyed in the State of nature, with the absolute authority of the State which he must obey now. For this purpose, one has “to find a form of association which may defend and protect, with the whole force of the community, the person and property of each associate (i.e. citizen) and, by means of which, each uniting with all, may nevertheless obey himself and remain as free as before”.

This is the paradox of freedom. The problem is solved by the social contract. The contract which created the civil society or State is, according to Rousseau, as thus founded: “Each of us puts into a single mass his person and all his power under the supreme direction of the general will, and we receive as a body each member as an indivisible part of the whole”. As in Hobbes’s theory, so in Rousseau’s, the individual surrenders his all, but, unlike Hobbes, he surrenders not to a single person or body of persons but to the whole community. Rousseau’s contract, like that of Locke, makes not one person but the whole community sovereign.

Rousseau’s doctrine of General Will and Popular Sovereignty:

The individuals surrendered completely and unconditionally their natural freedom and powers to the community as a whole, which became, thereby, the sovereign body. The body so created is a moral and collective body, because it is under the general will, that is, the Will of the whole community. The general will is sovereign. It is sovereign because,, firstly, it is created by the free act of those who entered into the contract and have surrendered their individual wills and interests to the supreme direction of the general will, and, secondly, because it is the custodian of the interests of all and aims at the common and collective good of the community as a whole.

The general will always aims at the common good and it can never err. It is supreme over all individual interests. Hence Rousseau proclaims that the sovereignty is absolute, unlimited, inalienable, indivisible and infallible. From these attributes of the general will and sovereignty of the community follow some startling conclusions regarding the liberty of the individual.

According to Rousseau, the individuals have surrendered all their rights and have surrendered them not to one person but to the whole community. This complete and unconditional surrender ensures the equality and liberty of all, and also of the life and property of each individual. As Rousseau puts it, “Since each gives himself up to all, he gives himself to none, and as there is acquired for every associate the same right that is given up by himself there is gained the equivalent of what is lost with greater power to preserve what is left”. Such an explanation of liberty and equality is both simple and subtle, and writers have since discussed what Rousseau really meant by it. It is, however, one of the paradoxes in which he loved to express himself. What he meant by it was that men in the State continue to enjoy the same degree of equality and freedom as they did in the State of nature. They have merely exchanged natural equality and freedom for civil equality and freedom.

But Rousseau’s paradox of liberty does not end here. He goes on to say that no individual can justifiably disobey the general will. By obeying the general will, the individual really obeys himself, because he has created it. When he disobeys the law which is the expression of the general will, he really, disobeys himself, and when he is punished for it, he has himself ordered his punishment Real coercion is not possible in society.

When a criminal is punished, he has willed it himself. Coercion is only another aspect of freedom. Rousseau expresses it thus, “In order then, that the social compact may not be an empty formula, it tacitly includes the undertaking that whoever refuses to obey the general will, shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free”.31 Thus Rousseau declares that by obeying the sovereign unconditionally and unquestioningly, the individual becomes really free. The general will is always right Rousseau emphasizes that “what is not right is not the general will” In this way he subordinated the individual to the State.

Influence of Rousseau’s Theory:

Rousseau was a philosopher of revolution against arbitrary rule, and a preacher of political democracy and popular sovereignty. He exercised great influence on political thought and events, especially of France, Germany and America. Rousseau’s revolutionary philosophy proclaimed, firstly, that all men are by nature free and equal; secondly, that the authority of government is based on a contract freely entered into by the equal and independent individuals; and, thirdly, that the people are the sovereign.

This philosophy inspired the French revolutionaries, who embodied it in the Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789), and also influenced1 the American framers of the Declaration of Independence (1776). Furthermore, Rousseau was an admirer of direct democracy of the ancient Greek type. He emphasized that the people alone should be the law makers. We find his influence in the adoption of the methods of direct legislation by the people, e.g., the referendum and the initiative in such countries as Switzerland, etc. Popular sovereignty, the ideal of consent and direct legislation by the people were revolutionary teachings in the days of the absolute kings, and led to the French Revolution of 1789.”

he enjoyed in the State of nature, with the absolute authority of the State which he must obey now. For this purpose, one has “to find a form of association which may defend and protect, with the whole force of the community, the person and property of each associate (i.e. citizen) and, by means of which, each uniting with all, may nevertheless obey himself and remain as free as before”. This is the paradox of freedom. The problem is solved by the social contract.

The contract which created the civil society or State is, according to Rousseau, as thus founded: “Each of us puts into a single mass his person and all his power under the supreme direction of the general will, and we receive as a body each member as an indivisible part of the whole”. As in Hobbes’s theory, so in Rousseau’s, the individual surrenders his all, but, unlike Hobbes, he surrenders not to a single person or body of persons but to the whole community. Rousseau’s contract, like that of Locke, makes not one person but the whole community sovereign.

Rousseau’s doctrine of General Will and Popular Sovereignty:

The individuals surrendered completely and unconditionally their natural freedom and powers to the community as a whole, which became, thereby, the sovereign body. The body so created is a moral and collective body, because it is under the general will, that is, the Will of the whole community. The general will is sovereign. It is sovereign because,, firstly, it is created by the free act of those who entered into the contract and have surrendered their individual wills and interests to the supreme direction of the general will, and, secondly, because it is the custodian of the interests of all and aims at the common and collective good of the community as a whole. The general will always aims at the common good and it can never err. It is supreme over all individual interests. Hence Rousseau proclaims that the sovereignty is absolute, unlimited, inalienable, indivisible and infallible. From these attributes of the general will and sovereignty of the community follow some startling conclusions regarding the liberty of the individual.

According to Rousseau, the individuals have surrendered all their rights and have surrendered them not to one person but to the whole community. This complete and unconditional surrender ensures the equality and liberty of all, and also of the life and property of each individual. As Rousseau puts it, “Since each gives himself up to all, he gives himself to none, and as there is acquired for every associate the same right that is given up by himself there is gained the equivalent of what is lost with greater power to preserve what is left”. Such an explanation of liberty and equality is both simple and subtle, and writers have since discussed what Rousseau really meant by it. It is, however, one of the paradoxes in which he loved to express himself.

Criticism

Merits:

Rousseau distinguished clearly between the State and the government. He expounded a theory of popular sovereignty. He is the father of modem democracy. He tries to reconcile the absolute authority of the State with the absolute freedom of the individual. He demonstrated one great political truth:

that the authority of the government is finally based on the consent of the governed and that will not force, is the basis of the State.

Defects:

Rousseau’s philosophy also contains certain defects and paradoxes. He makes no distinction between the State and society, a defect which is found in all idealistic thinking. His main defect, however, lies in his explanation of the general will. He has endowed it with absolute powers. But he failed to see that the unrestricted power of the general Will might prove to be as arbitrary and tyrannical to certain individuals and sections of the people as was the absolute power of the kings. For there is no guarantee that the general will is absolutely disinterested and impartial among the conflicting, wiHs of all the individuals. Rousseau asserts that the general will is neither the will of all nor the will of the majority.

Theoretically it is correct, but in practice the general will is expressed as the will of the majority, and not as the will of all. Lastly, by subordinating the individual will completely to the general will Rousseau subordinated the individual to die unrestricted authority of the State. He thus paved the way for the authoritarian or totalitarian States of the present times.

Rousseau compared with Hobbes and Locke:

As he came after the other two, Rousseau had one advantage; he was influenced by and could learn much from what Hobbes and Locke had said. In fact, “he began with the arguments of Locke and ended with die conclusions of Hobbes”. For instance, like Locke, Rousseau described the State of nature as an idyllic condition of peace, freedom and equality. But here the resemblance ends, and difference begins between them. In Locke, the State of nature ends because of the inconvenience of uncertain laws, and the absence of impartial judges and common authority. But Rousseau’s State of nature ends for more or less the same reasons as that of Hobbes, namely, due to the war of all against all. Here again there is a difference.

Hobbes’s State of nature is a stale of perpetual war from the very beginning because of the aggressive and selfish nature of man. Rousseau’s State of nature, however, degenerates into a condition of war due to the growth of population, the origin of private property and the dawn of reason and civilisation. Historically speaking, this explanation is more correct than that of Hobbes. In the second place, like Locke, Rousseau based his social contract on human desire for freedom: both substituted natural freedom for civil freedom.

Like Hobbes. Rousseau believed that there was only one contract, the social contract which created both the society and the State. Both asserted that men surrendered all their natural rights and powers to the sovereign, while Locke believed that they surrendered some rights in order to protect the rest. As a result of this difference, Hobbes and Rousseau make the sovereign absolute, but Locke limits his authority to a few powers surrendered to him. Rousseau and Hobbes also differ from each other. Rousseau establishes the sovereign power in the community as a whole, while Hobbes gives it to the monarch. ‘To use our modem terminology,” writes Prof. Gilchrist, “just as Hobbes’s theory supports absolutism and Locke’s upholds constitutional government, Rousseau’s theory supports popular sovereignty.”

Rousseau’s popular sovereign exercises as much absolute, unlimited, inalienable and indivisible power as does the single or several rulers of Hobbes. Yet Rousseau’s theory of sovereignty is based on the consent of the individual, just as Locke’s theory is. That is why it is said that Rousseau’s voice is the voice of Locke, but the hands are those of Hobbes.” He borrowed from Hobbes the theory of absolute sovereignty and from Locke the conception of individual consent and combined the two into his theory. of popular sovereignty. So Rousseau’s State is Hobbes’s Leviathan munus its crowned head.

Rousseau had learnt from Locke that men are bom free, equal and independent, but he did not believe, like Locke, that the people’s sovereign power is held in reserve to be exercised when the government or rulers fail to protect the people’s rights to life, liberty and property. Rousseau held that the people exercise sovereignty continually and constantly. Unlike Hobbes, both Locke and Rousseau distinguished the State from the government, but Rousseau held that the government has only executive function, while the legislative function belongs to the assembly of the whole people, the sovereign community. That was the reason why Rousseau did not distinguish the three organs of the government, the legislative, executive and judicial, whereas Locke was the first writer to give a theory of separation of powers.

 

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