Jean-Jacques Rousseau, "The Social Contract" - SUMMARIES

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With the famous phrase, "man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains," Rousseau asserts that modern states repress the physical freedom that is our birthright, and do nothing to secure the civil freedom for the sake of which we enter into civil society. Legitimate political authority, he suggests, comes only from a social contract agreed upon by all citizens for their mutual preservation.

Rousseau calls the collective grouping of all citizens the "sovereign," and claims that it should be considered in many ways to be like an individual person. While each individual has a particular will that aims for his own best interest, the sovereign expresses the general will that aims for the common good. The sovereign only has authority over matters that are of public concern, but in this domain its authority is absolute: Rousseau recommends the death penalty for those who violate the social contract.

The general will finds its clearest expression in the general and abstract laws of the state, which are created early in that state's life by an impartial, non-citizen lawgiver. All laws must ensure liberty and equality: beyond that, they may vary depending on local circumstances.

While the sovereign exercises legislative power by means of the laws, states also need a government to exercise executive power, carrying out day-to-day business. There are many different forms of government, but they can roughly be divided into democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy, depending on their size. Monarchy is the strongest form of government, and is best suited to large populations and hot climates. While different states are suited to different forms of government, Rousseau maintains that aristocracies tend to be the most stable.

The government is distinct from the sovereign, and the two are almost always in friction. This friction will ultimately destroy the state, but healthy states can last many centuries before they dissolve.

The people exercise their sovereignty by meeting in regular, periodic assemblies. It is often difficult to persuade all citizens to attend these assemblies, but attendance is essential to the well-being of the state. When citizens elect representatives or try to buy their way out of public service, the general will shall not be heard and the state will become endangered. When voting in assemblies, people should not vote for what they want personally, but for what they believe is the general will. In a healthy state, the results of these votes should approach unanimity. To prove that even large states can assemble all their citizens, Rousseau takes the example of the Roman republic and its comitia.

Rousseau recommends the establishment of a tribunate to mediate between government and sovereign and government and people. In cases of emergency, brief dictatorships may be necessary. The role of the censor's office is to voice public opinion.

While everyone should be free to observe their personal beliefs in private, Rousseau suggests that the state also require all citizens to observe a public religion that encourages good citizenship.
Rousseau's principal aim in writing The Social Contract is to determine how freedom may be possible in civil society, and we might do well to pause briefly and understand what he means by "freedom." In the state of nature we enjoy the physical freedom of having no restraints on our behavior. By entering into the social contract, we place restraints on our behavior, which make it possible to live in a community. By giving up our physical freedom, however, we gain the civil freedom of being able to think rationally. We can put a check on our impulses and desires, and thus learn to think morally. The term "morality" only has significance within the confines of civil society, according to Rousseau.

Not just freedom, then, but also rationality and morality, are only possible within civil society. And civil society, says Rousseau, is only possible if we agree to the social contract. Thus, we do not only have to thank society for the mutual protection and peace it affords us; we also owe our rationality and morality to civil society. In short, we would not be human if we were not active participants in society.

This last step determines the heavily communitarian perspective that Rousseau adopts. If we can only be fully human under the auspices of the social contract, then that contract is more important than the individuals that agree to it. After all, those individuals only have value because they agree to that contract. The contract is not affirmed by each individual separately so much as it is affirmed by the group collectively. Thus, the group collectively is more important than each individual that makes it up. The sovereign and the general will are more important than its subjects and their particular wills. Rousseau goes so far as to speak of the sovereign as a distinct individual that can act of its own accord.

We might react to these arguments with serious reservations, and indeed, Rousseau has been accused of endorsing totalitarianism. We live in an age where individual rights are considered vitally important, and it is insulting to think that we are just small parts of a greater whole. Rather than make freedom possible, it would seem to us that Rousseau's system revokes freedom.

Rousseau would not take these charges lying down, however. Looking at us in the new millennium, he might suggest that we are not free at all. On the whole, we may lack any kind of personal agency or initiative. We often have difficulty interacting with one another in any meaningful way, and it could be argued that our decisions and behavior are largely dictated to us by a consumer culture that discourages individual thought.

His system, he might claim, only seems unattractive to us because we have totally lost the community spirit that makes people want to be together. Citizens in his ideal republic are not forced into a community: they agree to it for their mutual benefit. He might argue that the citizens of ancient Greece and Rome were very active and capable of achievements that we have not come close to emulating since. The community spirit that united them did not intrude upon their individuality; rather, it gave individuality an outlet for its fullest expression.

The best response to Rousseau (aside from pointing out that those societies relied on slavery and exploitation) might be to say that the world has changed since then. We could borrow from social theorist Jurgen Habermas the distinction between the public sphere and the private sphere, and suggest that Rousseau does not give careful enough attention to the latter. Though Rousseau does permit citizens to do whatever they please so long as it does not interfere with public interests, he still seems to assume that human personality is in some way public. He doesn't seem to perceive a distinction between who we are in public and what we are in private. By demanding such active citizenship, he is demanding that our public persona take precedence over our private self.
The first chapter opens with the famous phrase: "Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains." These "chains" are the constraints placed on the freedom of citizens in modern states. The stated aim of this book is to determine whether there can be legitimate political authority--whether a state can exist that upholds, rather than constrains, liberty.

Rousseau rejects the idea that legitimate political authority is found in nature. The only natural form of authority is the authority a father has over a child, which exists only for the preservation of the child. Political thinkers--particularly Grotius and ##Hobbes##--have asserted that the relationship between ruler and subject is similar to that between father and child: the ruler cares for his subjects and so has unlimited rights over them. This kind of reasoning assumes the natural superiority of rulers over the ruled. Such superiority is perpetuated by force, not by nature, so political authority has no basis in nature.

Nor is legitimate political authority founded on force. The maxim that "might makes right" does not imply that the less strong should be obedient to the strong. If might is the only determinant of right, then people obey rulers not because they should, but because they have no choice. And if they are able to overthrow their ruler, then this also is right since they are exercising their superior might. In such circumstances, there is no political authority; people simply do whatever is within their power.

Rousseau's suggested answer is that legitimate political authority rests on a covenant (a "social contract") forged between the members of society. He has a number of predecessors in theorizing a social contract, including Grotius, who proposes that there is a covenant between the king and his people--a "right of slavery"--where the people agree to surrender their freedom to the king. Grotius is less clear what the people get in return for their freedom. It is not preservation: the king keeps himself fed and contented off the labor of the people, and not the other way around. It is not security: civil peace is of little value if the king makes his people go to war, and desolates the country by stockpiling all its goods for his own consumption. Yet it must be something, because only a lunatic would give up his freedom for nothing, and a covenant made by a lunatic would be void. Besides, even if people were able to surrender their own freedom, they could not justifiably surrender the freedom of their children as well.

It is impossible to surrender one's freedom in a fair exchange. By surrendering their freedom to their ruler, people surrender all their rights, and are no longer in any position to ask for something in return. More importantly, Rousseau links freedom with moral significance: our actions can only be moral if those actions were done freely. In giving up our freedom we give up our morality and our humanity.

Rousseau also objects to the suggestion that prisoners of war could become slaves through an even exchange, where the conqueror spares the life of the vanquished in exchange for that person's freedom. Wars have nothing to do with individuals. Wars are conducted between states for the sake of property. When an enemy surrenders, he ceases to be an enemy, and becomes simply a man.

The people in an absolute monarchy are slaves, and slaves have no freedom and no rights. A people only become a people if they have the freedom to deliberate amongst themselves and agree about what is best for all.
The concept of nature is very important throughout Rousseau's philosophy. He is famous for countering the common Enlightenment position that reason and progress were steadily improving humankind with the suggestion that we are better off in our state of nature, as "noble savages." This opinion is expressed more forcefully in his earlier work, the Discourse on Inequality; in The Social Contract Rousseau is more ready to accept the possibility that modern society can potentially benefit us.

It is not entirely clear what Rousseau means when he talks about "nature" or our "natural state." In his Discourse on Inequality, he seems to be alluding to a prehistoric state of affairs where people had no government, law, or private property. However, he makes no effort to support the historicity of this claim, and later denied that he intended the Discourse to refer to an actual former state of affairs.

Rousseau is not interested in history or archaeology so much as he is interested in understanding human nature as it exists in the present. His political philosophy is driven by the conviction that the political associations we participate in shape our thoughts and behavior to a great extent. His interest in a "natural state," then, is an effort to determine what we would be like if political institutions had never existed. Whatever is not a part of this "natural state" has come about as a result of human society, and is thus "unnatural."

In the Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau paints a very rosy picture of this natural state: without property to quarrel over and governments to enforce inequality, our fundamental human nature is compassionate and free of strife. This view contrasts sharply with most of Rousseau's predecessors. In the ##Leviathan##, Thomas Hobbes famously asserts that human life without political institutions is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Hobbes and Grotius both claim that human society comes about in order to improve this unpleasant natural state. Rousseau suspects that Hobbes gives such a negative portrayal of our natural state out of an assumption that human nature remains unchanged with or without political institutions. If human beings today were suddenly to find themselves without political institutions, they would indeed lead unpleasant lives because they would have all the selfishness and greed that society has bred in them without any of the safeguards and protections of that society. Rousseau's hypothetical natural state is pre-societal: before we were corrupted by politics, we had none of the unpleasant characteristics that Hobbes identifies. It is important to understand that Rousseau believes it is impossible to return to this natural state.

It should be clear that Rousseau intends a sharp contrast between nature and civil society. Human society is not a part of our natural state; rather, it is formed artificially. Rousseau's suggestion is that it is formed by a "social contract": people living in a state of nature come together and agree to certain constraints in order that they might all benefit. The idea of a social contract is not original to Rousseau, and could even be traced as far back as Plato's Crito. More significantly, Rousseau is drawing on the ideas of Hobbes, Grotius, and Pufendorf, among others, who used the idea of a social contract to justify absolute monarchy. These thinkers suggested that people consent to be governed by an absolute monarch in exchange for the protection and elevation from the state of nature that this affords them.

Rousseau's own social contract theory is meant to overturn the theories of these predecessors, suggesting that no legitimate social contract can be forged in an absolute monarchy. His arguments are diverse, but they rest on the fundamental assertion that in surrendering their liberty to their monarch, people surrender the freedom and authority to consent to a social contract, and so render void any contract they make with the monarch. According to Rousseau, our freedom and our humanity are closely tied to our ability to deliberate and make choices. If a monarch has absolute power over us, we lose both our freedom and humanity, and become slaves.
There reaches a point in the state of nature, Rousseau suggests, when people need to combine forces in order to survive. The problem resolved by the social contract is how people can bind themselves to one another and still preserve their freedom. The social contract essentially states that each individual must surrender himself unconditionally to the community as a whole. Rousseau draws three implications from this definition: (1) Because the conditions of the social contract are the same for everyone, everyone will want to make the social contract as easy as possible for all. (2) Because people surrender themselves unconditionally, the individual has no rights that can stand in opposition to the state. (3) Because no one is set above anyone else, people don't lose their natural freedom by entering into the social contract.

The community that is formed by this social contract is not simply the sum total of the lives and wills of its members: it is a distinct and unified entity with a life and a will of its own. This entity, called a "city" or "polis" in ancient times, is now called a "republic" or a "body politic." Some further definitions: in its passive role it is a "state," in its active role a "sovereign," and in relation to other states a "power"; the community that forms it is "a people," and individually they are "citizens"; they are "subjects" insofar as they submit themselves to the sovereign.

Because the sovereign is a distinct and unified whole, Rousseau treats it in many respects as if it were an individual. Since no individual can be bound by a contract made with himself, the social contract cannot impose any binding regulations on the sovereign. By contrast, subjects of the sovereign are doubly bound: as individuals they are bound to the sovereign, and as members of the sovereign they are bound to other individuals. Though the sovereign is not bound by the social contract, it cannot do anything that would violate the social contract since it owes its existence to that contract. Further, in hurting its subjects it would be hurting itself, so the sovereign will act in the best interests of its subjects without any binding commitment to do so.

Individuals, on the other hand, need the incentive of law to remain loyal to the sovereign. Self-interested individuals might try to enjoy all the benefits of citizenship without obeying any of the duties of a subject. Thus, Rousseau suggests that unwilling subjects will be forced to obey the general will: they will be "forced to be free."

In contrast to the Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau here draws a distinction between nature and civil society that heavily favors the latter. While we lose the physical liberty of being able to follow our instincts freely and do whatever we please, we gain the civil liberty that places the limits of reason and the general will on our behavior, thereby rendering us moral. In civil society, we take responsibility for our actions, and become nobler as a result.

Rousseau concludes Book I with a discussion of property. He suggests that ownership of land is only legitimate if no one else claims that land, if the owner occupies no more land than he needs, and if he cultivates that land for his subsistence. In the social contract, each individual surrenders all his property along with himself to the sovereign and the general will. In doing so, he does not give up his property since he is also a subject of the sovereign.
Fans of the Transformers may recall the "Constructicons," a group of smaller robots who could join together to form one, large robot: one Constructicon would be the left arm of this larger robot, another would be the right leg, and so on. This is the same sort of principle that Rousseau is applying here. Individual citizens have a life and a will of their own, but in binding themselves to the social contract, they also become a part of the larger life and will of the sovereign. Like the large robot formed by the individual Constructicons, the sovereign is not simply the sum total of its individual members, but is treated by Rousseau as an individual itself.

Just as each part of the body is responsible for working with the rest of the body and ensuring that it functions smoothly, every individual is committed to the sovereign. However, the sovereign owes nothing to its subjects in the same way as a person owes nothing to his pinky finger or his left knee. We try to keep our fingers and knees from harm not because we are bound by some sort of contract, but because our fingers and knees are a part of our body, and in harming them we would be harming ourselves. Similarly, the sovereign owes nothing to its subjects, but will nonetheless work to ensure their well-being.

Rousseau's communitarian point of view can be understood by referring to his contrast between the state of nature and civil society. The freedom we have in the state of nature is the freedom of animals: unconstrained and irrational. By entering into civil society we learn to restrain our instincts and to act rationally. By leaving our natural state of do-as-you-please, we come to recognize that we need reasons to justify our actions. This rationality is what defines our actions as moral. Rationality and morality distinguish us from animals, according to Rousseau, so it is only by becoming a part of civil society that we become human. The community is superior to the individual because it is a community of humans and the individual is just a solitary animal.

Rousseau contrasts the physical freedom of following our instincts with the civil freedom of acting rationally. In civil society, we learn the freedom of self-control. Thus, according to Rousseau, we do not give up our freedom by binding ourselves to the social contract; rather, we fully realize it.

This background may help us understand Rousseau's disturbing claim that recalcitrant citizens should be "forced to be free." If we only gain civil freedom by entering into civil society and binding ourselves to the social contract, any violation of that contract will also violate our civil freedom. We undermine our very rationality and morality by violating the contract that made us rational and moral. By forcing its subjects to obey the social contract, the sovereign essentially forces its subjects to maintain the civil freedom that is part and parcel of this social contract.

If you find yourself uncomfortable with all this, you are not alone. Some commentators have gone so far as to accuse Rousseau of totalitarianism, though this is a bit far-fetched. However, his notion that the community comes first and the individuals in it second is contrary to the notions of individual liberty that characterize most modern democracies, the United States in particular.

To a large extent, Rousseau is motivated by the fear that in modern states where citizens are not actively involved in politics, they become passive witnesses of the decisions that shape them rather than active participants. The civil freedom that comes through active political participation is largely the freedom to determine one's own fate.

Still, if the ##French Revolution##, is any indication, Rousseau's doctrines can be misused. Rousseau's ideas formed an ideological backbone for the French Revolution, but as the evolving chaos of the Revolution so clearly indicates, it may not always be clear how the general will is determined, and in such instances terror and the guillotine can become an attractive means of forcing people to be "free." Though to lay all the extreme excesses of the French Revolution at the feet of Rousseau is unfair, some critics have noted that while Rousseau is usually quite careful in distinguishing between force and right, he blurs that distinction dangerously in saying that people must be "forced to be free."
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