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General Will and Rousseau’s Social Contract

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 contract. 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.

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