Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) Perhaps one of the single most important Enlightenment writers was the philosopher-novelist-composer-music theorist-language theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), not merely for his ideas (which generally recycled older Enlightenment idea) but for his passionate rhetoric which inflamed a generation. The central problem he stared down most of his life he sums up in the first sentence of his most famous work, The Social Contract: “Man is born free but everywhere is in chains.” The central term of Rousseau’s thought is “liberty,” and most of his works deal with the mechanisms through which humans are forced to give up their liberty. At the foundation of his thought on government and authority is the idea of the “social contract,” in which government and authority are a mutual contract between the governors and the governed; this contract implies that the governed agree to authority only so that their rights and property be protected by this authority. Once authority ceases to protect the governed, the contract is broken and the governed are free to choose another set of governors or magistrates. Rousseau examines the socioeconomic evolution of man through his gradual acquisition of responsibilities, forcing him, in turn, to react, and at the same time defining the concept of freedom. A man in the state of nature was self-reliant, only bound by his physical and mental limitations.
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Since his life was simple and he was not bound by modern day passions, laws, or expectations, he was happier. He was happy because he did not know the meaning of unhappiness. He did not yet realize he had options or choices. Yet civilization continued to form, and this gradual acquisition drew man out of his previously independent, survivalist origins and forced him to interrelate within a social system.
Through this interaction, man lost the equality he maintained in the stat of nature and found himself subservient to laws, societal morals and ethics, political whims, and class stratification. In essence, man had developed, but in the process, lost his valued autonomy and freedom. Rousseau must be understood in terms of his relationship to both the 18 th-century Enlightenment and to his influence on 19 th-century romanticism. To begin with, he shared the Enlightenment view that society had perverted natural man, the “noble savage” who lived harmoniously with nature, free from selfishness, want, possessiveness, and jealousy. He argued that the restoration of the arts and sciences had not contributed to the purification of humankind but to its corruption. Rousseau also believed that social relationships of all kinds were based on an inequality that resulted from an unnatural distribution of power and wealth which could not occur until a society formed.
In Rousseau’s Social Contract, he examines how man lost his freedom by having the freedom to make such decisions to have government in the first place. Man’s origins were rooted in a survivalist methodology in which Rousseau compares him to an animal. In this comparison, man is illustrated as having purely a survivalist ideal, and therefore, lives only to hunt and vice versa-nothing occurs without reason. Man is hungry, he hunts and kills for food; man needs shelter, he builds it; man needs warmth, he uses hides or learns how to make fire.
This latter development marks the crude origins of man’s desire-or more appropriately, his need-to advance, while also illustrating the differences between man and animal. Man was organized, where animals were not, adapting to the changing environment. Man himself did not realize this discreet transformation and redirection, because he was too preoccupied with surviving. It was this preoccupation, this fear of death, that formed the catalyst for development.
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The fear of death perpetuated man’s survivalist psyche, but because he possessed no real understanding of the mechanism, he remained “courageous, robust, vigorous, and strong”, enabling him, in turn, to acquire the only thing he felt he needed-food and the physical relationship of a woman, for man did not have the capacity to realize emotional love. Through these physical relations, however, the seeds of advancement were planted. Intercourse produced children who then needed some degree of nurture, pushing man’s mental envelope by making him understand the responsibility of the situation. While the child did become self-reliant at a very early age, and identification with his / her family occurs. Though not traditional-a child will kill or maim his parents or relatives to survive-this connection perpetuated communication and the sharing of ideas. Even in this simple state of existence, where survival and basic needs were the driving force of humanity, Rousseau shows that people had freedom to act as they felt required to, uninhibited by government or society law.
While man did not yet create many options for himself for living, he still maintained freedom never again found in civilized society. At this point, man was stuck in “the state of nature” because there was nothing forcing him to advance. There was no reason for man to develop so the idea of needing to develop never presented itself. Because man was able to live without responsibility (as we know it today, i. e. , bills, family, education), he was left with the same anomalistic / instinctual mental qualities as he did in the physical sense.
On a basic level, man was timid of the unknown, as he only had his body as a tool. But at the same time, because man did not fear death because he had no concept or personal connection to death, he was courageous, robust, vigorous and strong. Man was able to live this way because the luxuries of modern life had not “domesticated” or stripped away his natural instincts. Also, because of the lack of knowledge, reason or wisdom, man in “the state of nature” had no imagination and the best things he could conceive were nourishment and a woman. Man had no concept of having a soul or a future. Rather he lived day to day, trying to avoid hunger and pain and share physical pleasures.
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These physical pleasure brought birth and consequent growth of children which created a physical society. The population itself created a group that comprised a society through its mere existence. This societal group differed from the relative isolation man previously encountered, and what used to be individualized survival-based goals became united goals of the group. Hunting was now performed in groups, shelter was both built for and by groups, and limited agricultural means were attempted to feed the group as a whole. As the group interacted with each other, ideas and methods were exchanged and built upon. Rousseau believed that as man, in his survivalist state, can to realize that such survival was easier with the assistance of others, that they began to form social contracts, and social contracts began the decline of freedom.
The social-contract theory concerns the origin of organized society, holding that the state originally was created through a voluntary agreement entered into among individuals living in an anarchical state of nature (Rousseau, ).
This contract defines and regulates the relations among the members of society and between the individual and the governing authority. The social contract theory challenged the divine right of kings as the basis for a state’s legitimacy and laid the foundation for theories of constitutional government. The individual’s natural right to self-government was surrendered by means of the social contract to an absolute ruler, or totalitarian state. The state was brought into being to protect the natural rights of the citizen to life, liberty, and property.
These rights, however, remain with the individual. Citizens are entitled to resist or rebel if the state abrogates the original contract by not protecting these rights. Rousseau extended the concept of rights to encompass all the people and not the narrow propertied class of citizens. In Rousseau’s state, political authority reflects the “general will” of the people, thus his politics do not reflect the complete governmental authority assumed by a totalitarian state. Rousseau continues to chart community and individual property, to define ownership and show how people resolved discrepancies between group members. In accordance with implementing such policy, obstacles and boundaries were imposed, beginning to effectively remove man from his previous bonds to nature.
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Group living, together with concept of property, caused man to organize himself according to both others organization and that of nature-i. e. the seasons, harvest time, animal hibernation and mating periods. This, in turn, propagated more communication and understanding, language development, and man’s eventual realization that, though the group had essentially the same goals, the individuals who comprised it were different. This realization also illustrated that some group members did other things better than others, and that still others caused more problems than the rest of the group. Consequently, the more intelligent members rose to the top, leading to eventual class differentiation and stratification.
Because of this, leaders were elected to both guide, protect, and maintain cohesiveness within the group. This election illustrated a the concept of inequality, for those who reached a position of leadership were, in effect, singled out for their abilities and skills, creating an gap between those who were to be led. As leaders emerged, those who were to follow lost some individual freedom because they now had to act for the good of the group instead of just for the survival of the one. At the same time, the leader also had to consider the good of the group, and, hence, had to listen to the desires of the group, opening an opportunity for individual freedoms to be expressed. So implementation of government did result in some loss of freedom, but that government must consider the needs of the people as expressed by those people to remain effective. In this sense, Rousseau’s idea of freedom does not institute a totalitarian government.
However, the concept of freedom does not only allot opportunity for the followers or citizens to express their needs, but also for leaders. As leadership was implemented, so too was an infrastructure, within which, more stratification occurred-for those who were superior most often exploited those subservient to them. Leaders, using their freedom, could exert control over others, thus limiting the freedom of the common society. Even though this could occur, the leader could never obtain a complete totalitarian state because the leader could not curtail the personal freedom of every individual.
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Intelligence in the form of natural capacity or lack thereof, more defined who would be more apt to follow government, regardless of what motives drove it, and who used intelligence to express their freedom to live beyond the rules of government as man did before government existed-in a natural state of survival. Because the leaders reasoned that they must, in essence, take care of the ignorant and the unskilled, they realized their public value and, therefore, the differences between men became evident. It was this, almost total removal from his natural state, that caused unhappiness. It also, however, enlightened man, making him realize that he was never truly equal, for nature had originally imbued him with inherent inequalities. Inequality is not necessarily bad, however, when it is a physical or mental lacking or prowess. Without it, society would cease to exist, for people would not assist each other with those things that cannot be performed individually, fostering development, as well as societal cohesion.
While man’s ego may be effected by the notion that he cannot do everything himself, such interaction and integration is a necessity, for without it, man would not understand the concept of an ego, or many other concepts which form the basis of modern day civilization. Society must be dealt with, and this Rousseau does in his most influential work, The Social Contract. The individual, progressing in the development of a moral sense, can, for Rousseau, find genuine happiness and fulfillment only in a social situation. Thus one of the first principles of Rousseau’s political philosophy is that politics and morality never be separated.
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In this sense, freedom is again limited by what one can accomplish for the self, but always remembering some compromise must be made to deal with others. This necessary integration means that happiness also relies on integration with others, or making a social contract, so that one can live fully. Those who can form social contract well become leaders, organizing such contracts based on the needs of constituents. Here, freedom is maintained by how much an individual can do for the self as well as the contracts he or she negotiates with others. In the contract, some freedom is lost, but not all-hence, the idea of a contract, not a law.
Social integration requires give and take, thus some freedom of the individual is lost, yet for this lost, the individual seeks to gain greater needs or wants. Rousseau continues to focus on the important principle of freedom, which the state is created to preserve. The state is a unity and as such expresses the general will. This is contrasted to the will of all, which is merely the aggregate will, the accidentally mutual desires of the majority. Many assume that what the majority wants must be correct.
Rousseau questioned this assumption, arguing that the individuals who make up the majority may, in fact, wish something that is contrary to the goals or needs of the state, or to the common good. The general will is to secure freedom, equality, and justice within the state, regardless of the will of the majority, and in the Social Contract individual sovereignty is given up to the state in order that these goals might be achieved. Again, the individual gives some freedom to maintain the good of all which includes the remaining freedoms. When a state fails to act in a moral fashion, it ceases to function in the proper manner and ceases to exert genuine authority over the individual. If the state fails to consider the freedoms of the combined individuals, the individuals cease to relinquish some of their freedoms to the authority of the state.
While the individual gains certain freedoms back, still others are lost when social contracts begin to fail and the individual can no longer live happily or possibly survive. An important factor in ensuring the cohesion of the state and in ensuring its proper functioning is a sound civilization. This, for Rousseau, is necessary that all citizens subscribe to beliefs in a supreme being, as it establishes the given free will, personal immortality which reinforces the need for survival and maintaining social contracts the assist in such, the ultimate reward of virtue and punishment of vice which helps limit the idea of exerting personal freedom for the common good of all or repercussion will result, and the principle of toleration. The assumption should not be made, however, that Rousseau conceived of this as an external imposition of beliefs by the state, for to him these appeared to be clear and self-evident principles that could and should be adopted by any rational and moral agent. Rousseau’s politics did not include totalitarian beliefs because he believed individuals had to rely on each other beginning very early in man’s evolution to civilization, for survival. As this sense of enlightenment uncovered a need for industry, families stayed together, lived together and felt love.
As they learned to build and harvest, they also learned to build and harvest personal relations and individual pride. To protect their proud accomplishments, man felt the need to create politics-to elect leaders to defend them. Leaders meant someone who could take charge versus someone who could not, and this is where inequality surfaced. Political distinction translated into civil distinction, hence, inequality. Although such social integration made individual inequality evident and forced some compromise of freedoms, man could not truly live in a happy or complete state without the assistance of others. This social reliance required people to work together, with a leader or government coordinating the efforts for the good of all.
Only by keeping all of these factors in mind is it possible to constitute a state that fulfills, rather than corrupts, the natural goodness of humanity.