Social Contract Theory. Jean Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau’s Biography. Rousseau was both a child of the Enlightenment as well as one of its most fierce critics.
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Rousseau was both a child of the Enlightenment as well as one of its most fierce critics.
Born in Geneva in 1712, which was then an independent fiercely-Calvinist stronghold outside both France and the Swiss Confederation Rousseau began his career as a writer and an admirer of Voltaire and an enthusiastic contributor to his friend Diderot’s Encyclopedia
He first came to fame as author of a short essay called the Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, which he wrote in 1750, and submitted to the Academy of Dijon in an essay competition
The topic: a response to the question posed by the Academy as to whether the arts and sciences have a purifying effect upon morals
His work ended up winning first prize. In this essay he launches a frontal attack on one of the movement’s central tenets, namely the idea that human progress is identified with scientific knowledge and the spread of civilized manners.
His next work, the Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality depicted civilized man as artificial, unhappy, and servile, the victim of passions that are unknown in nature.
His later works included his classic political treatise called the Social Contract which explored the ways men and women might overcome or escape this disordered and degenerate social state through a radical restructuring of the social and political order.
Rousseau’s social contract was yet another version of the theory, which infused classical republican ideals with modern notions of human rights, giving us the idea of law as the expression of people’s collective will.
The authority of government, according to Rousseau, is based on consent that is periodically and actively renewed by citizens.
The model of government in the Social Contract is that of small, independent city-states, since Rousseau believed that true republican democracy could never take place in the large, modern nation-state: only in smaller social units does one understand the notions of radical equality and participation.
In Rousseau’s social contract, everyone is literally the author of the laws.
incorporates liberal ideals of rights, sovereignty, radical freedom, egalitarianism and democracy (mostly in his Social Contract)
Rousseau as a critic of the Enlightenment:
Rousseau criticizes of the Enlightenment’s faith in human reason and in the association of reason with development or progress. Rousseau’s main concerns are with the differences between man’s natural passions and the artificial ones engendered by society
He emphasizes the way in which the latter—these artificial passions—interfere with the construction of a morally legitimate political order and corrupt human relations.
Rousseau is writing at the cusp of the transformation of the world into “modern society”
The old, aristocratic, feudal order is crumbling and giving rise to a way of life defined by self-interest, trade, commerce, bourgeois society, & the rise of capitalism (remember, Adam Smith publishes the Wealth of Nations in the late 1700’s and Capitalism as a way of life has just taken hold).
Rousseau begins to anticipate the problems that rationality & calculated self-interest pose for morality and political legitimacy.
Instead, the Romantics called for man to be understood as part of a larger, organic whole, and the task of human self-understanding was to recover this organic unity, this connectedness with both nature and community, with his own spirit, and with the underlying spiritual elements of life that were now lost to man.
Individual reason and freedom, the foundational building blocks of the enlightenment, although they had liberated men from the chains of feudalism, were now in danger of dividing man against himself.
The price of the development of individual reason was the dissociation from sentiment, from intuition, from feeling and emotion. In freeing the individual from the shackles of prejudice, religious dogma, superstition, feudal relations, the Enlightenment had also reduced human beings to rational, self-interested, calculating individuals, who had lost their connection to nature, community and other sources of meaning.
Dedication: “Here I am a barbarian, because men understand me not.”
Preface: Articulates the notion of being a barbarian, misunderstood by his own society, seen as an outsider and a lunatic. Rousseau sets himself up here as the outsider, the barbarian, the free-thinker.
“It is not science that I am attacking but virtue that I am defending.”
Rousseau’s preoccupation with virtue stems from the disappearance that he sees all around him of the aristocratic world of virtue and honor.
Rousseau is giving “virtue” a particular value: the sense of a kind of uncorrupted, primordial, almost primitive honesty of being, in contrast to the artifice and shallow elegance of modern life, which stem from the problem of luxury and comfort that modern life brings with it
“The honest man is sensible of his own ignorances”
Every form of “knowledge” emerges from vice! Law from injustice, geometry from avarice, astronomy from superstition, eloquence from ambition and flattery
The primitive state was one where “everybody, attentive only to the obligations of humanity and the necessities of nature, spent his whole life in serving his country, obliging his friends, and relieving the unhappy”
When Rousseau refers to “refined civilization” he doesn’t mean it as a compliment. Rousseau has a lot to say about opulence, elegance, pomp, refinement as problematic. He seems to pose this in opposition to manliness, rustic-ness, simplicity, as true virtue.
Example: “politeness and taste…From Athens we derive those astonishing performances, which will serve as models to every corrupt age.”
“what has become of those thatched roofs and rustic huts, which were formerly habitations of temperance and virtue?” Notice how he claims that the “honest man” is an athlete who loves to wrestle stark naked, and scorns vile trappings which conceal deformity and prevent him from exerting his strength.
On the virtues of “manliness” warrior-likeness (thymos) vs. philosophical inquiry:
“True health and manliness…strength and vigor of the body….true courage flags, military virtues disappear” where philosophy prevails. The Romans, he says, confessed that military virtue was extinguished among them, in proportion, as they began to cultivate the fine arts.
Rousseau articulates the idea that we all want to be praised, so we perform in order to receive this praise. Thus, we would rather perform in order to please the multitudes of popular opinion, rather than be honest or true to virtue.
“Every artist loves applause. The praise of his contemporaries is the most valuable part of his recompense.”
“Why should be we build our happiness on the opinions of others, when we can find it in our own hearts?”
The problem, Rousseau says stems from inequality. The problem is that distinctions are bestowed on people for the wrong things, for cleverness rather than honesty or virtue, for wit and ingenuity and fine discourses, rather good actions. So we end up valuing the wrong things, and creating inequality based on this valuing.
On Liberty: “They fling garlands of flowers over the chains that weigh them down. They stifle in men’s breasts that sense of original liberty…cause them to love their own slavery, and to make of them what is called a civilized people.”
Rousseau concludes that the real meaning of freedom is to get out of the enslavement of society that we impose on ourselves, that real liberty is not being prey to such conventions. Here’s where we get the first line of the Social Contract: “Man is born free; but everywhere he is in chains.”
Rousseau also anticipates the problem of “alienation” that Marx would develop: the idea that modern life increases the distance between us and alienates man from both other men as well as the things that are important to his being.
“The politicians of the ancient world were speaking of morals and virtue, ours speak of nothing but commerce or money.” In other words, the problem of calculation, reduction of human beings to their economic worth, source of value.
As society has developed, division of labor and private property required the human race to adopt institutions of law. These were originally established by the powerful and wealthy in order to protect their interests.
In this degenerate phase of society, man is prone to be in frequent competition with his fellow men (conditioned by the laws) while at the same time becoming increasingly dependent on them.
This dependence is a double edged sword as it both threatens his survival and offers him a way to his freedom. According to Rousseau, by joining together into civil society through the social contract and abandoning their claims of natural rights (a wholly false philosophical concept), individuals can both preserve themselves and remain free.
This is because submission to the authority of the “general will” of the people, as a whole, guarantees individuals against being subordinated to the will of the powerful and also ensures that they obey themselves because they are, collectively, the authors of the law.
Sovereignty (or the power to make the laws), then, should be in the hands of “the people” as opposed to the “government” which he sees as composed of magistrates, charged with implementing and enforcing the general will.
The "sovereign" is the rule of law, ideally decided on by direct democracy in an assembly. Under a monarchy, however, the real sovereign is still the law.
Rousseau was opposed to the idea that the people should exercise sovereignty via a national representative assembly. The kind of republican government of which Rousseau approved was that of the city state.
France could not meet Rousseau's criterion of an ideal state because it was too big.