Throughout Rousseau’s work, The Social Contract, he reveals many theories and components of government. He continually brainstorms on the particular question of, “How freedom may be possible in civil society?” Rousseau believes that upon entering a civil society one leaves the state of nature. He argues that in the state of nature one enjoys the physical freedom of having no restraints on behavior. But by entering civil society, through the social contract, we place restraints on our behavior making it possible to live communally. By giving up our physical freedom, Rousseau suggests we gain the civil freedom of being able to think rationally.
Rousseau is not the only philosopher to define real freedom as the ability to think rationally. Rationally further defined by putting checks on our impulses and desires, and therefore learn to live morally. Enlightenment thinkers such as Kant, Smith, Voltaire and Hume believed that reason and knowledge were attainable in a state of nature under the constructs of “natural laws.” The same enlightenment thinkers that favored a natural state, did not however push for an alternative to monarchy as a form of rule. This is where Rousseau can be distinguished from then enlightenment movement. He believes in the natural state we are slaves of our instincts and impulses, therefore needing laws of some sort (not “natural laws”) to become free from ourselves. Rousseau, challenging monarchy as a form of rule, states that if our behavior is restrained by the laws of some outside force, then we are not free, but slaves to that outside force.
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As a solution, Rousseau proposes that freedom be defined as behavior that is restrained only by the laws of our own making. Explaining further, he states that the only laws that can maintain the freedom of citizens are those laws that the citizens as a whole agree upon. This solution contrasts with the ideals of enlightenment thinkers by offering a bottom-up system of rule versus the top-down system of monarchy.
Rousseau along with Voltaire placed great emphasis on the importance of morality. He reveals another rift between his theories and those of the Philosophes by giving significance to “morality” in civil society but not in the state of nature. Summarizing his statements, Rousseau argues that not just freedom but rationality and morality are only attainable through civil society. Since rationality, morality, and freedom are characteristics basic to being human one can conclude that Rousseau is saying we are not human if we do not participate in society.
The “Social Contract” is defined by Rousseau as, people living in a state of nature come together and agree to certain constraints in order that they might all benefit. This definition differs from that of his predecessors who used the idea of social contract to justify absolute monarchy. These thinkers suggested that in exchange for protection and safety from the state of nature people would consent to be governed or ruled by an absolute monarch. Rousseau defended his theory and hoped to influence the beliefs of his contemporaries by stating, in giving up freedom (to a king) we give up our morality and our humanity. A key element to Rousseau’s view of the social contract is that a people only become a people if they have freedom to deliberate amongst themselves and agree about what is best for all. Linking freedom with moral significance once again, Rousseau believes our actions can be moral only if those actions were done freely.
Another element of Rousseau’s social contract is each individual must surrender himself unconditionally to the community as a whole. Rousseau uses three pieces of evidence to support this argument. First, because conditions of the social contract are the same for everyone, everyone will want to make the social contract as easy as possible for all. Second, because people surrender themselves unconditionally, the individual has no rights that can stand in opposition to the state. Third, because no one is set above anyone else, people do not lose their natural freedom by entering the social contract. This argument emphasizes that we do not give up our freedom by entering into the social contract; rather the contract helps us fully realize that freedom.
Rousseau became famous for opposing the popular Enlightenment position that reason and progress were steadily improving the quality of life. In his earliest writings, Rousseau suggests that we are better off in our state of nature, as “noble savages”. By the time he writes The Social Contract, Rousseau begins to accept the idea that modern society’s emphasis on reason could potentially benefit humankind. As Rousseau draws out a clear distinction between state of nature and civil society his arguments heavily favor that of society. An example of this change in opinion, siding with other prominent enlightenment theory, is demonstrated by Rousseau’s comments; 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.
Once Rousseau establishes his preference for civil society over state of nature he begins to reveal key elements within his ideal republic; sovereignty, general will, and common good. A topic that Rousseau deals with during much of The Social Contract is sovereignty. Sovereign generally defined as the ultimate authority with regard to a certain group of people. During the period of history in which Rousseau writes, the sovereign was commonly a single monarch possessing absolute power over his subjects. But Rousseau again challenged the ideals of his contemporaries and argued that the idea of sovereignty needed to be changed. Rousseau maintains the key element of sovereignty to be, a power with absolute and inalienable influence over its subjects. But refuses the common belief of his time that an elite group or single monarch can act as sovereign. As emphasized throughout The Social Contract, Rousseau believes that the people, not the king, are sovereign.
If the people are sovereign, in Rousseau’s case, then authority is expressed in the general will. This is another major concept discussed by Rousseau throughout The Social Contract. The general will is not the will of any particular individual, it is the people acting together using authority to gain what is best for all. Rousseau believes that citizens should vote according to the general will and not their private interests. Today voters pursue programs of their own interests, examples being the rich favoring tax cuts and the poor favoring social programs.
Rousseau anticipating this factionalism states, if a significant number of people band together because of shared private interests and agree to promote the interests by voting as a block, they will manage to unbalance the general will. Rousseau argues that the general will aims toward the common good, each person voting with the interest of achieving what is best for all. Back to the example of today, following Rousseau’s theory would entice the rich to recognize that taxation for social programs will help those in need, and the poor to recognize that lower taxes can spur the economy. Rousseau states the consequences of voting based on private interests is the state will begin moving away from the common good and begin aiming toward the good of the most powerful faction.
To conclude, Rousseau distinguishes himself from the enlightenment movement in his claim that freedom is not innate but acquired through civic participation. Rousseau describes a state that maintains freedom for all citizens because they are governed with the laws that all citizens agree upon. This model is a bottom-up system of rule; which differs again from the Philosophes, who believed their theories could be implemented to the top-down system of monarchy.
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