Notes on Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778)

The Social Contract (1762)

"Man was born free, and everywhere he is in chains. There are some who may believe themselves masters of others, are no less enslaved than they. How has this change come about? I do not know. How can it be made legitimate? That is a question which I believe I can resolve."

The Social Contract has been considered the legitimizing document of the French Revolution. The social contract is a convention made by men, not just handed over by nature. Man by nature is sociable. As society grows more complex, men become avaricious and ambitious and aim to enslave others. A social contract protects the general will against the will of each who entertains partisan, factional interests. The whole idea of slavery goes against the concept of rights. We deduce our rights from the precepts of reason writ large in nature. The people effect a complete transfer of rights to the whole community. The General Will gives civil society a supreme direction with absolute power in the hands of the appointed agency of the people. It becomes equated with the public interest and does not need defending. The individual is part of the whole. Rousseau intended a people’s republic. The agents of the General Will force all to be free from tyranny no matter how bloody the consequences. Those who do not abide by the social contract may be put to death, which is the imprimatur for the Red Terror during the worst days of the French Revolution under the Jacobin Robespierre.

The basic premise is Augustinian. In St. Augustine there was a fall from grace in the Garden of Eden by eating forbidden fruit; in Rousseau the fall is from the state of nature where man was happy and e was educated by nature through his self-evident faculties of reason. With the conquest of territories and acquisition of property, Rousseau saw that that government and the state had degenerated man out of necessity, though social order could now be maintained. There were two types of ego: the bad ego of avarice (amour de propre); and the good ego of rational self-enlightenment (amour de soi) in which man preserves his natural instincts in the state of nature, while it is still possible. If not, he must cultivate these moral sensibilities within the state and through the General Will, which is the public interest minus all selfish, factional interests. Hence, there was to be redemption through studying nature as an educational force in its own right. Censorship would be needed to cull bad ideas from the body politic.

Rousseau believed that property caused social discord; hence he believed the General Will must collectivize property that threatens social harmony. Revolution is therapeutic and it helps recover lost memories of a golden era where men were free in a state of nature. Rousseau felt that to be historically true. Civilization corrupted man. Then, men need masters, not liberators, who can enact the legislation of the General Will. In states of emergency, civil rights are temporarily suspended.

Great states expand. There is permanent revolution until all are free from tyrants. Of course, the historical irony is that a Napoleon emerges to champion the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. The agents of the General Will take back authority from the reigning sovereign. Those agents may sacrifice government and the rule of law to mob rule, the worst face of a democracy in action. The revolution swallows its children of necessity. Individual will is ineffectual and the momentum of passions drives toward the revolution to reconstitute the bases of authority. The corporate will is where government forms an interest group against the public good. The people are the ultimate legislators who become citizens by a process of political education.

The Estates General, the French Convention, the General Assembly, and the Paris Commune aligned themselves against the feudal monarchy of Louis XVI to bring him down. But the resultant representative government entailed a loss of freedom. What emerged was a compromise embodied in Napoleon. The Eagle and the Cross joined their powers in his charismatic leadership--an enlightened despot who was power mad. Rousseau believed that the citizen and true Christian are not compatible. Priests, the agents of the Vatican, would dominate the powers that be through marriage, communion, and excommunication. The philosophes and ideologues of the revolution opposed the theologians, because the former wished Enlightenment ideals to triumph in a reign of virtu and reason for all humanity. Hence, of necessity, they had to be atheists.

All rights revert to the community, which guarantees property held in common through the modernized, bureaucratic state. Individuals cannot not be fully trusted. This forms an aspect of the social contract to ensure public stability, rather than endure sectarian and regional strife. Rousseau advocated that all church property be expropriated during a revolution, which happened during the French Revolution. The revolutionaries deemed church leaders inimical to the public safety and thus had to be deprived of their unseemly base of power. Leaders became educators of piety and virtue in the people. Patriotism was the highest value in which you love your country and it becomes the driving demiurge of the emancipatory movement, eventuating in the levée en masse. There are to be due process of law and equal protection of property but subservient to the preeminence of the General Will, which has an interest in overseeing their proper use. There is a duty to enhance the power of the body politic through taxation, economy, and an attack on superfluous wealth that creates artificial barriers between men. The new commonwealth was to be a school of virtues with redistributive taxation through confiscation of wealth and property.

The enemy is religion. The clergy form a universal citizenry through communion. Hence, in the age of modernism, there is a conflict of superstition versus reason embodied in the General Will. Rousseau assumed that with the inevitability of progress man would rid himself of the feudal parasites who physically and spiritually enslaved men. Those chains had to be broken.

In order therefore that the social compact not be an empty formula, it contains an implicit obligation that alone can give force to the others, that anyone who refuses to obey the general will will be compelled to do so by the whole body; this means nothing else than that he will be forced to be free; for such is the condition which, giving each citizen to his country, guarantees he will not depend on any person. This condition is the device that ensures the operation of the political machine; it alone legitimizes civil obligations, which without it would be absurd and tyrannical, and subject to the most terrible abuses.

Discuss key concepts of The Nation; the General Will, the Will of All, and the Citizen in order to give this quotation historical context. Also, show how the relationship between the rich and poor determines republican virtue; the less difference the better.

I therefore assert that sovereignty, being only the exercise of the general will, can never be transferred, and that the sovereign, which cannot be other than a collective entity, cannot be represented except by itself; power can be delegated, but the will cannot.

The people are happy in the state of nature, except that as property and commercial relations develop in civil society there is a need for an arbitrator to assure that newly evolved natural rights are protected.

Instead of abandoning anything they have simply made a beneficial transfer, exchanging an uncertain and precarious mode of existence for a better and more secure one, natural independence for liberty, the power of hurting others for their own safety and reliance on their own strength, which others might overcome for a position of right that social unity makes invincible.

The good governor is like the physician who heals the sick patient that is the citizen, if necessary to the point of killing him for the public good. That is republican virtue, that is, the Terror of the French Revolution that found its inspiration in Rousseau. The goal was equality. The American Revolution’s goal was to establish freedom. The French Revolution was a political and socioeconomic revolution to change the very nature of man to embrace the General Will and the Nation, by self-immolation if necessary, in order to change the political culture and national character to one dedicated to liberty, equality, and fraternity. Freedom meant selfishness and reversion to societal chaos, where each pursued particular interests to the detriment of the public good. Direct democracy advocated the union of the cross and the crown.

There is therefore a purely civil profession of faith, the articles of which it is the business of the sovereign to determine, not exactly as religious dogmas, but as sentiments of sociability, without which it is impossible to be a good citizen or a loyal subject. Although no-one can be forced to believe them, a person can be banished, not for impiety, but for being unsociable, incapable of cherishing the laws and justice sincerely, or, if necessary, of sacrificing life for duty. If, having publicly accepted these dogmas, any person conducts himself as if he did not believe them, let him be punished by death. He has committed the greatest of crimes: he has lied before the law.

In the last months of Robespierre’s despotism, he had people put to death for showing lack of revolutionary enthusiasm—a completely subjectivist judgment. In essence, habeas corpus was suspended in the name of dispensing revolutionary justice.

He condemned the power of the church as universal and a threat to the public safety. Its power was that of communion and excommunication. Its kingdom was absolute, but not of this world. Nonetheless, the priestly caste could create political divisions that would undermine the unity of the nation.

The greatness of a nation lies in its collective virtues that emerge as the General Will. The remainder of all those mutually conflicting particular interests allows for a common denominator of good citizenship.