Monday, July 25, 2011

Rosseau - The Social Contract

"Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.  One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they."

These are the famous opening lines to Rousseau's book The Social Contract, a work that outlines the importance of equality and liberty in modern republican governments. The idea of subjugation would have been familiar to many of Rousseau's contemporaries.  Most governments during Rousseau's time were absolute monarchies with very few rights for their subjects. This was true in Rousseau's day and for many previous centuries, as it was the only form of government most people knew.  This left the common man subjugated by the ruling class, a system that Rousseau vehemently rejected.  Instead he proposed two revolutionary concepts: the only legitimate government is a republic where people govern themselves and that all citizens enjoy equal rights under that government.  Paradoxically, Rousseau later goes on to challenge us with the provocative idea that our subjugation to a state or an idea is actually necessary for us to be truly free.

Man in his "state of nature"

Rousseau's is critical of Thomas Hobbes, the English philosopher who coined the idea of a "state of nature" before governments existed where life was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Hobbes said that men will do anything to get out of the state of nature to protect themselves, even if that means living under a despot.  Rousseau recognized the hypothetical idea of a "state of nature" but he did not think this justified the reason why man was now in chains, especially under absolute monarchs.

Unlike Hobbes, Rousseau thought that man did not need to completely submit himself to a sovereign - man should "remain as free as before".  The solution in Rousseau's mind was the social contract: "Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole."  Therefore, the "chains" we live under is the "social contract".  So man gives up freedom in a state of nature in exchange for freedom in a civil society.

Rousseau's Liberty and Equality

Rousseau said that the two most important ends of law are equality and liberty.

"What man loses by the social contract is his natural liberty and an unlimited right to everything he tries to get and succeeds in getting; what he gains is civil liberty and the proprietorship of all he possesses."

The cost of freedom is freedom

Rousseau's idea of "liberty" is a bit different than our current concept. He wrote about liberty stating that it "can consist only in the power of doing what we ought to will" which is not the same as doing whatever we please. However, this is similar to what Thomas Aquinas suggested in his Summa Theologica.

Rousseau thought that we only truly had liberty when were followed rules, even personal guidelines we have set for ourselves.  Obedience to our own personal laws is liberty "for the mere impulse of appetite is slavery, while obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves is liberty".  Therefore, saying to yourself that you won't eat cookies after 10 pm at night gives you liberty, but breaking that rule to yourself takes away your liberty, since you are a literal slave to your appetites.

More equal than others?
 The second pillar of Rousseau's social structure was equality, however, Rousseau also believed that excess equality could ruin a democracy.  A successful democracy should protect every one's rights and give them the opportunity for happiness, but it should not try to force equality - sounds like capitalism!  

The whole social system should rest not on destroying inequality, but on providing equal legal rights for everyone regardless of their innate intelligence or strength. "Under bad governments, this equality is only apparent and illusory: it serves only to keep the pauper in his poverty and the rich man in the position he has usurped. In fact, laws are always of use to those who possess and harmful to those who have nothing: from which it follows that the social state is advantageous to men only when all have something and none too much." 


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