Learn about the differences between the political ideas of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau.
Comparison # Political Ideas of Hobbes:
1. Nature of State:
It is necessary to make a comparative study of the three contractualists (Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau) because they differ from each other regarding the important aspects of the social contract.
All the three philosophers held the view that the state or civil society or body politic was the product of contract made by men who lived in the state of nature. There are few similarities among them, but differences are more prominent.
In this comparative survey we first deal with the nature of state as it is revealed in the writings of these three writers. Hobbes conceived of an all powerful state which is also called an autocratic or collectivist state.
Why did he propound the idea of such a state? The chief factor is, in his opinion, the people in the state of nature were quarrelsome, hostile with each other and restless. Moreover, there were no peace and security.
All these led to the non-development of art, literature, trade, commerce and transport. Hobbes believed that a very powerful state with absolute sovereign authority could restore peace and security and bring about general progress.
To Hobbes the state is a machine. He depicted a gloomy picture of state of nature which was analogous to the picture of the British society of his time. In order to change the picture an all-powerful state was required and, in that case, the state will act as a machine. Except state no other organisation had the capacity to fulfill this demand. He reposed his confidence only on the state, to him any other organisation had no importance. People could rely upon the state.
The consequence of Hobbesian logic is a despotic state. To him there was no difference between monarchy and tyranny.
Hobbes thought that only a state with on absolute sovereignty at the top of power could free the society from anarchy. Naturally, individual freedom had no importance to him. The individuals must surrender to the wills and authority of the absolute sovereign power.
After the formation of the civil society the individuals surrendered all their rights to the sovereignty. Even they had no right to resist the state. Hobbes denied sovereign power’s accountability to the people.
We conclude that the Hobbesian state is not democratic, it is absolutist. But Ebenstein observes that Hobbes cannot be called a totalitarian or collectivist thinker because he made special provisions for individuals. He said that none could force a person from taking food or medicine. Individuals have freedom to pursue their own faith.
Hobbes’s is a utilitarian state. It was set up to achieve certain special purposes—especially peace and security. Peace and security are both collective and individual matters. Hence we can say that Hobbes made room for individuals.
Hobbes envisaged of a secular state. In the Leviathan he said that there was no place of a separate government for religion or church. The church was a spiritual organization under the temporal authority and on that ground it was obliged to show loyalty to the king.
Dunning has said that in the opinion of Hobbes there was no room for separate authority of church. This is obvious in his exaltation of political sovereignty. From the analysis of Hobbes it appears to us that he was thinking of a state which would be free from the authority and influence of the church. This is nearer to the idea of a secular state. The concept of a secular state was envisaged by Machiavelli.
In Leviathan Hobbes declared— “I authorize and give up my right of governing myself to this man or to this assembly of men”.
Another statement runs “Covenants Without sword are but words and of no strength to secure a man at all”.
Interpreters of Hobbes’s philosophy treat these two statements as basic sources of his concept of sovereignty. Hobbes was so much preoccupied with the maintenance of peace and security that he had no time to think of any other thing.
His ideas about the state of nature (though imaginary) and the social economic condition of contemporary Britain inspired him to arrive at the conclusion that a sovereign authority with absolute power could be the only remedy to the uncalled-for situation. For this reason Hobbes made the sovereign power absolute.
Not only it is absolute, it is indivisible and inalienable. Since Hobbes, these are being treated as the most important characteristics of sovereignty.
The sovereign power may be vested in the hands of a single person or group of persons. But Hobbes had always a preference for one person because it is quite easy for one person to exercise absolute power.
Even Austin and several other thinkers have supported that sovereign power is to be vested in a single person. When one man is sovereign his will and decision are final.
Hobbes has suggested that the sovereign will rule with the help of law or terms and conditions of the covenant and when these will establish their inefficiency or insufficiency he will not hesitate to use arms or sword.
It is said that he had no weakness or special preference for law. The use of arms or laws fully depends upon the gravity of the situation. Some critics say that Hobbes had special preference for weapons.
3. Obligation and Resistance:
Hobbes has not directly dealt with the concept of obligation in his great work Leviathan. But an in-depth analysis of the various aspects of contract reveals that he had an idea about obligation. The state of nature was infested with war, suspicion against each other, involvement in war or conflicts centering around pretty interests.
The residents of the state of nature were quite eager to find out a way out and finally they decided to set-up a commonwealth which could defend them from the invasion of foreigners and the injuries of one another.
It is now obvious that the inhabitants of the state of nature on their own accord decided to form a political organization.
Explaining Hobbes’s stand on obligation, D. D. Raphael (Problems of Political Philosophy) says “The citizens are obliged to obey the laws both because they have promised to do so and because the alternative to a politically organized society is the state of nature”.
This obligation of Hobbes is of two types—moral and prudential. It is moral because leaving the state of nature they formed commonwealth and framed laws.
Since these were their own creation they had no moral right to withdraw obligation from these conditions and rules. It is also prudential obligation because the only alternative to civil society is the state of nature which is tantamount to disorder and chaos.
Another aspect of Hobbes’s idea of obligation is because of the un-favourable situation the state of nature lacked peace and security, but these were indispensable for peaceful living and progress of society. But they thought that a sovereign with absolute power was the only remedy and thinking in this line people of state of nature thought it prudent to show unconditional obligation.
We believe that Hobbes’s emphasis is more upon prudential obligation than on moral obligation. A state with absolute sovereignty is preferable to anarchical state. This can be viewed as the utilitarian character of obligation. People forming the commonwealth were sure of maximizing benefit from such organization.
Naturally, withdrawal of obligation would lead to the collapse of a commonwealth. There must be unconditional obligation to the state authority. It may be pointed out that Hobbes was conscious of conditional and unconditional obligation and he was in favour of the latter.
Generally speaking Hobbes’s idea of obligation is viewed as unconditional. But he had some feeling for people and that feeling led him to make some concession for the people. In Part II, Chapter 21 he has said “The obligation of subjects to the sovereign is understood to last as long and no longer, than the power lasts, by which he is able to protect themselves. When none else can protect them. The end of obedience is protection; which wheresoever’s a man sees it either in his own or in another”.
Moreover, if the sovereign prevents the subjects from taking medicine or food, in that case they may refuse to show obligation. We thus see that Hobbes’s view on obligation is associated with some sort of give-and-take policy.
The sovereign must do something for the individuals and in exchange of that he can demand obligation.
In this sense it is to some extent conditional. We have already noted that there are few and a sporadic view about individualism in his writings and his idea of conditional obligation strengthens that stand.
To support the absolute monarchy in unequivocal language and the surrender of all rights to the sovereign authority, it is said; provide the powerful weapons for collectivist administration.
The collectivism advocated by Hobbes has kept no room for democracy and for that reason Hobbes has never been regarded as a worshipper of democracy.
Perhaps he did not intend to be so. If we study his Leviathan from top to bottom we shall not find him to be very much sympathetic with individual freedoms and rights.
A king with absolute power was a model to him. But one-sided evaluation must not be allowed to preoccupy our mind.
It is not final that he was the staunchest advocate of collectivism. In his analysis we witness certain passages which display his sympathy for democracy. In other words it may be said that he had sympathy for democracy. Harmon, Sabine and Ebenstein are of opinion that he was not an out-and-out collectivist thinker.
In the words of Harmon “Despite Hobbes’s proposal to vest enormous powers to the hands of the sovereign, he did not advocate a totalitarian state”.
Ebenstein writes “yet to call Hobbes one of the spiritual fathers of totalitarian fascism or communism is more untenable than would appear from a cursory glance at several key phrases in Leviathan”.
There is reason behind this comment. Hobbes makes certain comments which are contradictory or convey different meaning at the same time. In spite of this, the fact remains that he had sufficient weakness for absolutism because he thought that this could save a turmoil society. At the same time he had soft corner for individuals’ life-saving needs. So both absolutism and democracy co-exist in his political philosophy.
Oakshot is of opinion that the source of modern individualism is nominalism. Its central idea is reality which is to be judged by the individual, society and social events. The central theme of Hobbesian thought system was individual and his interests.
He categorically said that without peace and security development of arts, literature, trade and commerce was not possible. Needless to say that all these were related with the overall progress of individuals as important units of society. He thought for development not for any other purpose. If so, how can we jump upon the conclusion that he directed his arrow against the welfare and interests of individuals?
By emphasizing upon the development of the environment of society and individuality Hobbes had strengthened the foundation of democracy.
Modern democracy thinks about both individual and society. It is observed that both Plato and Aristotle neglected the individuals and idolized the state. But a deeper analysis will reveal that a proper ideal state—also properly administered—was capable of meeting the requirement of men.
Hobbes focused on absolute sovereignty and he thought that if law, order and proper administration were restored, life and living of all individuals would be normal and the purpose of democracy—to some extent—is this.
Hobbes’s sovereignty is very powerful, but his covenant is more powerful. Modern interpreters of Hobbesian thought are of opinion that by making the covenant powerful Hobbes has acted as the forerunner of the sovereignty of constitution. It is known to all that in democracy (if it is proper) the constitution is always supreme.
In democracy, individual’s rights are always in prior position and Hobbes gave priority to right. Let us quote Ebenstein again: “Hobbes recognizes the inalienable right of the individual to resist when life is at stake”. If so, on what logic should we say that he was against democracy? He gave recognition to individual.
Comparison # Political Ideas of Locke:
1. Nature of State:
Commenting upon the difference in approaches of Hobbes and Locke towards the state Prof. Harold Laski has said “Hobbes’s immense edifice is built, in the last analysis, upon the dual foundation of a belief that human nature is evil and that only an irritable sovereign can maintain order against its inherent tendency to evil. Locke starts with a belief in the goodness of human nature and the danger of any government which can act without regard to the wishes of its subjects”. Here lies the basic difference between Hobbes and Locke so far as the state is concerned.
According to Hobbes the state of nature lacked peace and security and, for that purpose, people of the state of nature entered into a contract for laying down the foundation of the state. But Locke has observed that the people of the state of nature were happy, but they were confronted with certain inconveniences which they could not remove.
Important inconvenience, according Locke, was absence of man-made laws. This resulted in partial anarchy and loss of life, liberty and property. The chief objective of the state would be to protect these. The chief function of the state would be to provide security to life, liberty and property.
Pointing out the characteristic of Lockean state C. L. Wayper has said the state exists for the welfare of the people and not the opposite. Locke has said that the end of the government is the good of the community. The failure of the state to attain this goal will not justify its existence. It is an indication of the fact that Locke’s state envisaged a welfare state which was absent in Hobbes’s philosophy.
Locke’s state was a machine. This is the opinion of C. L. Wayper. Locke said that the state was created by people to fulfill certain specific purposes. People of the state of nature somehow came to the conclusion that only through the machinery of the state could they protect their natural rights—that is, right to life, liberty and property.
The human factor is the most important element of a state. Locke ruled out divinity from the arena of state. In this way state was converted into a machine.
So far as the formation and day-to-day functioning of the state are concerned Locke has introduced the ideas of consent and majority decision. The latter indicates how much a practical man Locke was.
Day to day administration would be impossibility if it were allowed to persist. For that reason Locke recommended majority opinion. This is a practical suggestion. Hobbes ruled out people’s participation in the administration.
Sovereign authority’s will was final. People were deprived of contradicting that will. We can say that while Hobbes’s state was autocratic, Locke’s was democratic.
From Locke’s contract theory we can draw the conclusion that his is the constitutional state because the government must follow the rules and principles laid down in the contract. This is called constitutionalism.
The relationship between the governor and governed would be determined by the rule of law and not by arbitrary orders.
The basis of the government and governance would be law. In Hobbes’s state there was a place of law, but the law was nothing but the dictate or will of the sovereign authority. Hobbes had no intention to allow people’s participation in the law-making process.
The theory of state envisaged by the contract is also a limited state. Some political scientists also call it a state like the night watchman. It means that the state will perform the duties prescribed by the contract. This concept influenced Bentham, Mill and many others.
On the other hand, Hobbes’s state is not limited, but an unlimited one. Hobbes did not think of limiting the power of the state.
Locke’s state is negative because it does not intend to improve the character of the people. Wayper has said that it is a transformer state, because it seeks to transform the self-interest into public good. Locke’s state is active and ebullient.
Locke did not recognize that the state should play definite and positive role in religious affairs. He was also against the interference of the church in the political affairs of the state.
Since Hobbes’s state was absolute he advised people to show unconditional allegiance to the state. While in the case of Locke the obligation to the state is conditional. So long as the state will be able to fulfill the terms of contract people will not hesitate to show obligation to the state. But the failure of the state will definitely invite resistance against the state.
While analysing the various aspects of state both Hobbes and Locke were considerably guided by bourgeois philosophy. Hobbes’s concept of the maintenance of peace and security and Locke’s theory—the attainment of natural rights—right to life, liberty and property—constitute the core of bourgeois philosophy. Both Hobbes and Locke did not think about the problems of common people.
The state was a machine to both—but it was a machine for the attainment of privileges of well-to-do people. Common, people deprived of basic necessities, cannot think of peace and security or life, liberty and property. This is the opinion of C. B. Macpherson.
Commenting upon Locke’s theory of sovereignty, Barker has said “Locke has no clear view of the nature or residence of sovereignty. He speaks at one time of the supreme power of the people or in other words the community; he speaks of another supreme power of the legislature”.
This indicates that Locke had no clear concept about sovereignty. On the question of sovereignty Hobbes’s stand is transparent though highly debatable. In regard to sovereignty Hobbes is to some extant nearer to Bodin and Locke is nearer to Rousseau. Both Hobbes and Bodin are the joint “proprietors” of the modern theory of sovereignty.
J. W. Gough (John Locke’s Political Philosophy) has said that Locke in his earlier writings was influenced by Hobbesian concept of absolute sovereignty but for unknown (or known reason unknown to us) reason he changed the “phraseology”. This opinion of Gough is controversial. To what extent and why Locke was influenced by Hobbes in respect of sovereignty is not known to us. His different writings prove that he was not in favour of an absolute sovereignty.
Hobbes was the staunch supporter of absolute sovereignty and we think that it is fully consistent with the main currents of his political philosophy. His chief purpose was to banish disorder and anarchy from society and thereby set-up peace and security.
Only an absolute power could achieve that objective. He had no sympathy or weakness for democratic government. This apathy to democracy led him to formulate the theory of absolute sovereignty.
On the contrary, Locke, on the other hand, was an ardent supporter of democracy and constitutionalism and all these are not consistent with the absoluteness of power in the hands of a single man. That is why he vested powers in the hands of persons or their representatives.
In Section 135 Locke has said that the legislative power may be placed at the hands of one or more persons, but it is always supreme power in the commonwealth. Therefore, all other powers or bodies are subordinate to the legislative authority.
In Section 149 he has said the same thing. The commonwealth may be constituted according to its own nature, but there shall be provision of supremacy of legislature.
Hobbes has always used the word sovereignty, but Locke is evasive. He sometimes says sovereign power and sometimes supreme power. Of course, in general terms, both carry almost the same idea. However, we may draw an inference from this. Hobbes had a determination about the meaning and use of the term which Locke has not. This makes a clear difference between the two architects of social contract.
From Hobbesian theory of sovereignty we cannot deduce any idea of popular or parliamentary sovereignty. But it is possible from Lockean philosophy. He attributed sovereign power to the legislature.
That means parliament will exercise supreme power. The term parliamentary sovereignty is quite known to the students of political science and perhaps it would not be unreasonable to attribute the status of father of parliamentary sovereignty to Locke.
He did not directly use the term, but we believe that most probably he had the idea or an idea nearer to the concept.
It is also possible to draw another inference from this. Parliament is constituted by the representatives elected by the people. Hence popular will is reflected in parliament. Thus parliamentary sovereignty may be called popular sovereignty. He, of course, does not use the term.
Hobbes’s sovereignty had unlimited power over all persons and society. On the other hand, Locke had no intention to grant unlimited power to sovereign authority. He has said in “it is not, nor can possibly be absolutely arbitrary over the lives and fortunes of the people”.
The reason he cited was—legislative, being only fiduciary power to act for certain ends, these remain still in the people supreme power. It means that the legislature—though supreme authority was nothing but a fiduciary trust.
It was entrusted by the people to function in accordance with the terms and conditions of the contract.
We have already noted that while Hobbes is consistent in the analysis of sovereignty Locke is not. The latter has shifted his stand frequently. According to Hobbes supreme power would be vested in one person or group of persons.
This much Locke has said that the same may be vested in:
(b) The people
(c) The community
The last word (I. e., community) is available in Section 49. We, therefore, conclude that it is very difficult to arrive at a definite conclusion so far as sovereignty is concerned.
Though Locke is full of inconsistencies, we are of opinion that we always prefer Locke to Hobbes. This is due to the reason that absolute sovereignty is another name of autocracy and we do not like it at all.
The logical consistency of Hobbes has been the source of dislike and the logical inconsistency has led us to like Locke. Since political science is a normative science we cannot neglect this liking and disliking.
3. Obligation and Resistance:
John Locke is quite explicit about his approach to obligation and resistance. But if we analyse the various stages or the process of contract which brought about civil society we shall find that he had an idea about the two concepts.
Like Hobbes he did not depict gloomy picture of the state of nature. People left the state of nature and entered into a contract to build up a body-politic chiefly on the ground that the state of nature suffered from certain inconveniences which they could not remove.
In the state of nature individuals could not fully get life, liberty and property and pursuit of happiness was affected and this was due to clear positive law’s absence. Moreover, there was no impartial authority.
People finalizing the contract imposed responsibility upon the government to achieve these things. The idea of obligation emanates from this view of Locke. People will judge whether their life, liberty and property are adequately protected and pursuit of happiness is enhanced.
The non-fulfillment of these requirements would lead them to withdraw their obligation to the government. The support to the government which they formed was conditional.
In this respect Locke stands on the opposite pole held by Hobbes. Hobbes made no provision for withdrawing obligation in the situation of non-fulfillment of peace and security.
In a sense Locke’s view about obligation is prudential in the sense that it would be the primary duty of the authority of civil society to ensure the removal of drawbacks of the state of nature and in that field the success of authority will invite obligation.
Any failure will be followed by the withdrawal of obligation. It is in this sense prudential.
In Section 97, Locke hints at “original” compact which is an indication of the fact that there was non-original contract.
Interpreters of Lockean thought system have argued that there was another contract between people and the government. The central theme of any contract is either party shall have the freedom to withdraw in the case of failure of fulfilment of terms.
Scholars are of opinion that, as per the second contract, people reserve the right to withdraw their support when the government fails to translate the conditions of the contract into reality.
According to Locke the state is a type of fiduciary trust which means that it is always accountable to the people. The failure to follow the terms of the contract will be followed by the withdrawal of obligation.
The judgment of the people whether the state is doing according to the terms of contract is final.
Hence people may express its no-confidence against the authority. But before that they must be sure that the authority has failed. This conditional type of obligation is really unique in all constitutional systems of government.
Raphael has drawn our attention to another aspect of Locke’s theory of obligation. He says that our obligation to state laws depends upon their ability to meet or achieve justice. If the laws fail the individuals are not obliged to obey laws that are to show obligation to the authority.
Raphael has further observed that justice can be attained through the realisation of natural rights. These natural rights, according to Locke, are life, liberty, property and the opportunity to pursue happiness.
He was of opinion that the people of the state of nature were deprived of justice because of the non-fulfilment of these natural rights which were also “absolute moral rights”. Raphael concludes “Locke’s view was that the state is designed to guarantee and protect natural rights.
We may expand his doctrine and say that the state is designed and guarantee justice i.e., established rights plus fairness” Raphael has viewed Lockean idea of obligation in greater and deeper perspective.
Justice is achieved through natural rights and their protection or realization is the duty of state. Any failure in this regard will affect justice and people will think whether they will continue to display the obligation.
Locke’s theory of resistance is closely associated with his theory of obligation. In general there is a subtle difference between the two. However, Locke was of opinion that if any foreign power by means of military strength could conquer a territory the individuals might rise against the authority. The individuals would have every right to resist any sort of foreign aggression.
The right to resist enunciated by Locke is the product of his conception of contract and establishment of civil society. People coming from the state of nature unanimously decided to setup body-politic and also formed the rules for its management.
If any external power proceeds to destroy their creation they cannot accept the power. In Sections 185 to 190 of The Second Treatise of Government Locke has elaborated resistance.
In Sections 220-223 he has also explained the resistance. If the legislature or prince violates the trust reposed upon it people would not hesitate to resist that. “Governments are dissolved… When the legislative or prince act contrary to their trust” .
Locke has also stated other situations which are the reasons of resistances. These are if the authority forcibly deprived people of their legal property, if it is involved in corrupt practices, forfeits the power of the people and tries to satisfy the high ambition.
A section of critics holds that an important drawback of Locke’s theory of obligation is it is conditional. But we do not agree with this view. The constitutional structure of a civil society was alive in his mind and in such a system people cannot act whimsically.
In one fine morning they cannot withdraw their support to the government and cannot create anarchical situation. For every small mistake people cannot withdraw support. The relation between the ruler and the ruled must be cordial and this is a reason why the obligation is conditional.
Only in the case of major and far-reaching consequences resulting from the governmental act people may think of withdrawing support.
Hobbes vis-a vis democracy is controversial. Locke’s case is different. He is regarded as the symbol of democracy and constitutionalism. Starting from the foundation of civil society right up to the day-to-day administration Locke has adopted a liberal attitude which makes the way for the arrival and functioning of democracy. His love for democracy is undiluted and receives accolade from all corners of society.
In Section 96 Locke has observed that the residents of the state of nature built up community taking the consent of all persons. The repetition of the same thing is to be found in Section 97.
Since behind the establishment of the community there was the consent of each and every individual, each is bound to obey the law of the community,
Locke was a clever man and he had experience of administration. Though unanimity was the factor of foundation of body politic, it could not be treated as an important factor of day-to-day administration.
He, for this reason, introduced majority opinion—which constitutes the main part of parliamentary rule.
Locke’s main preoccupation was with the preservation of natural rights which people in the state of nature possessed. He regarded these as embodiment of justice and for the sake of justice he thought that these rights must be protected.
To him these rights were also moral rights. However, the attainment and preservation of rights is the core of democracy. Locke said that the government must take measures for the attainment of life, liberty, property and pursuit of happiness.
It would be no business of the government to neglect the individual by neglecting the natural rights. Locke’s contemporary society became the victim of absolute monarchy. Absolutism is the greatest enemy of individual freedom and democracy. We, therefore, see Locke to throw his unqualified support for constitutional government.
He accompanied William and Mary from Holland to England and during their reign British Parliament passed the Bill of Rights which is a landmark event in the history of democracy in Britain.
As to the holder of supreme power the opinion of Locke is confusing. In a number of places he has said that the supreme authority of the civil society is vested in the legislature. It is all right.
Elsewhere we find him saying the entire community is the holder of supreme power. The readers are in dilemma. Wherein exactly lays the supreme authority. Some critics are of the view that Locke had strong preference for parliamentary sovereignty.
If we go through the entire book Second Treatise we shall find that he had great sympathy and lot of feelings for individuals and this makes him an individualist. On this issue his position is direct opposite to Hobbes’s stand.
His heartfelt sympathy for common men is beyond question. At least Gough, the noted interpreter of Lockean philosophy, thinks so. This estimate, we believe, is an oversimplification. He was a democrat.
Comparison # Political Ideas of Rousseau:
1. Nature of State:
The natures of state as well as the other aspects of state as found in Rousseau are different from those of Hobbes and Locke. Rousseau’s state was created not to ensure peace and security or to protect life, liberty and property its purpose is more sublime that is ethical and ideological.
Rousseau was influenced by Plato. Rousseau’s state is a moral body or organization and its duty is to make its citizens moral and ideal. Only through the membership of state can individuals become moral persons and exercise moral principles and objectives.
Rousseau believed that the morality and idealism of a state are not different from those of the individuals. This is the idealist version of a state. About 2,000 years after Plato, Rousseau revived idealism or idealist theory of state.
It is very difficult or, so to say, impossible, to separate state from the g.w.(General Will) Rousseau’s state acts or discharges its function through the g.w. Again this g.w. is the product of the people assembled in an open assembly. The general administration of the state, under no circumstances can violate the principles of the g.w.
If necessity arises to change anything about the g.w. the people assembled together will do it, the state administration has no jurisdiction in this regard.
This relationship between state and general will lead us to conclude that Rousseau’s state is not only democratic but also republic. The general will is arrived at by the people’s direct participation in open assembly. In his state there is not only democracy, but his democracy is of direct type. We may say Rousseau thought of a state in the line of the Greek city-state. In both places there was direct democracy.
Behind the formation of general will there is a social process. It implies that Rousseau’s state is always active and never in hibernation. Harold Laski observes “Rousseau sought a formula of state which, in its operations, would secure an equal interest for all citizens in the result of the social process”.
Rousseau’s state stands for the full realization of freedom. In Chapter I of Social Contract Rousseau made the following remark: “Man is born free; but everywhere he is in chains”. Outside the state, man cannot achieve freedom.
In an oblique way we can say that Rousseau treated state as a kind of machine—a machine for achieving freedom. So far as this aspect is concerned he is not very much different from Hobbes and Locke.
Hobbes and Locke thought of establishing a state through the contract and this state was simply a political organization. But Rousseau’s state is a moral organization and public person. It is not simply a political organization.
Rousseau had no intention to give a political colour to state. His state will fulfill political and other objectives as well. Rousseau said “The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate”.
According to Rousseau, absolute power will be vested in the state. This resembles Hobbes’s view about state. But Rousseau thought that the power must come from the people through the means of general will. Hobbes—in the furthest sense could not imagine of a general will. This means that the administrators had no power to go against the general will. Locke made the state a fiduciary trust. People could not dislodge a government from power so long it honestly obeyed the terms and conditions of the contract.
The state envisaged by Rousseau is of organic character. All the individuals are integral parts of the state. They will lose their significance when separated from the main body of the state. In other words, their significance lies in the fact that they are members of the body politic. Rousseau’s state is a “moral and collective body”.
Four Chapters (1 to 4) of Book II of Social Contract have been devoted to analysis of sovereignty. Rousseau has dealt with the subject sporadically in other parts of his book. According to Rousseau the general will is sovereign.
Let us quote him “…the general will alone can direct the state according to the object for which it was instituted, i.e., common good”.
In other words, the sovereign power is vested in the general will. And the purpose of the general will is to translate common good into reality. So every one of the body politic will be governed by the common good.
It would be the sole basis of the governance of society. He has further said “Sovereignty being nothing less than the exercise of the general will can never be alienated.” We thus see that Rousseau’s sovereignty is inalienable.
In Chapter II he has noted that it is also indivisible. Rousseau’s sovereignty is, further, absolute, as well as infallible. The general will being arrived at in an open assembly participated by all (or almost all) can never do any wrong. From the analysis Rousseau made in the above-noted Chapters in regard to sovereignty, three salient features can be deduced—sovereignty is inalienable, indivisible and absolute.
So far as the concept of sovereignty is concerned Rousseau stands very close to Hobbes. In fact there is very striking similarity between the two. But this similarity is a misnomer.
There are more differences than similarity between the two and the differences have made Rousseau popular to his readers.
Rousseau’s general will is sovereign and it is again the embodiment of common good which aims at the general well being of the body politic. In fact, this is the central idea of his theory of sovereignty.
In Hobbes’s opinion the will of the sovereignty is absolute and all other wills are subordinate to it. But he is silent on the wishes or wills of all individuals are reflected on the will of the sovereignty. Whereas, in Rousseau’s judgment, general will is the embodiment of all wills of the society. It is never the particular will of a particular person. Therefore, in Rousseau’s concept, there is no scope of the prevalence of any individual will.
In this connection it may further be observed that both Hobbes and Rousseau strengthened the foundation of nation-state through their formulations of sovereignty. In the Middle Ages the sovereignty was divided.
Power was exercised simultaneously by the church, the king and the feudal lords. But the division of sovereignty practically leads to nothing about it.
Hobbes, Bodin and Rousseau made remarkable contribution to the concept of sovereignty. But the point is to be noted that Rousseau’s sovereignty is both absolute and popular.
If Rousseau is closer in certain respects to Hobbes he is also closer to Locke in other respects. In fact, Rousseau, in his formulation of sovereignty, combined both Hobbes and Locke.
Dunning’s comment is worth quoting:
“Rousseau, with his characteristic boldness, proceeded to reconcile the absolutist with the liberal doctrine. He defined sovereignty with the fullness and precision of Hobbes and gave it an abode and an operation that satisfied the feeling of Locke”.
Locke’s theory of sovereignty was not a full-fledged popular sovereignty, but it was not at all the absolute sovereignty envisaged by Hobbes. However, in Locke’s theory of sovereignty, there was a place of popular will.
Rousseau made his sovereignty popular by introducing the concept that the general will is the determiner of everything. Assembling at an open place, people from the general will. We can, therefore, say that Rousseau has removed all doubts about the fact that general will or, so to say, the common good, is the sovereign power.
Locke has said, “The community perpetually retains a supreme power of saving themselves from the attempts and designs of anybody”.
The implication is, if the existence of community is not threatened the community will go on exercising its power. But if any other organ of the government proceeds to threaten the unity or existence of the community it will withdraw its support to it.
From Locke’s idea it appears that the constitution is sovereign. He does not directly refer to this but we can form such an idea from his analysis. But if the authority obeys the constitution or law none can dislodge the authority from power.
In the case of Rousseau the g.w. is absolute and its decision is final. Even if the g.w. commits mistake or violates rule none can remove it from power. This difference between Locke and Rousseau is vital and interesting.
Finally it may be pointed out that though Rousseau’s sovereign power is absolute it has no authority to infringe the right and liberty of the people.
He has in clear language stated that people formed the association to combine the power of all members so that the joint force could protect the liberty of all. But this condition does not weaken the idea that sovereign is absolute.
Rousseau has not directly and elaborately analysed the concept of obligation. But the theory of general will contains practically all the major aspects of obligation. Let us start with the contention that there is a very small similarity between Hobbes and Rousseau so far as obligation is concerned. Both Hobbes and Rousseau were in favour of unconditional obligation.
Hobbes advised his people to show unconditional obligation to the sovereign authority without which there could not be peace and security.
Rousseau also advised his people to obey the general will because herein lies the welfare of all men and it cannot do any wrong. Naturally the obligation to such a will should never be conditional. Again, if anybody refuses to show obligation he will be forced to show obligation.
The chief difference between the two philosophers is that obligation of Hobbes’s people was to a single person whereas obligation of Rousseau’s people was towards the general will and people themselves were the architects of that will. So by showing obligation to general will Rousseau’s men practically showed obligation to themselves.
In order to make a comprehensive analysis of obligation conceived by Rousseau we want to quote a lengthy passage from his A Discourse on Political Economy.
“The body politic is a moral being possessed of a will; and this general will, which tends always to the preservation and welfare of the whole and of every part and is the source of the laws, constitutes for all the members of the state, in their relation to one another and to it, the rule of what is just or unjust”.
It emphasizes the following aspects:
(a) To him the general will was a moral being.
(b) The general will always aims at the welfare of the whole society. Its purpose is also the preservation of the body politic.
(c) General will is the source of all laws.
(d) There is a close relation between general will and members of the body politic.
This nature of the general will force the people to be obliged to it unconditionally. An alternative course of action will lead the body politic to destruction. But people will refrain from adopting that extreme and dangerous path.
It was beyond the imagination of Rousseau that his individuals (i.e., the individuals of the body- politic) would take that action. This is the very foundation of Rousseau’s theory of obligation. Moreover, laws are enacted to realize the welfare and preservation of the body-politic.
Behind the enactment of law there was the active participation of people to disobey such meant to disobey themselves. The general will, again, is the manifestation of morality and, naturally, non-obligation cannot arise.
We have noted elsewhere that Rousseau imagined a state resembling human body. “The body-politic, taken individually, may be considered as an organized, living body, resembling that of man. The sovereign power represents the head, the laws and customs are the brain.”
As individuals are the parts of the body politic, there is hardly any scope for any particular individual to non-cooperate with the body politic. This observation of Rousseau regarding the organic character of state is similar to Plato’s theory of state.
Different parts of state are interdependent. Since Rousseau’s body politic possesses the features of living body the obligation to such an organization appears to be unconditional. All the parts of the organization are closely related with each other and in such a case obligation is bound to be unconditional.
Rousseau apprehended that a conditional obligation may lead the state to collapse. G. D. H. Cole in his Introduction to Social Contract has interpreted Rousseau’s idea of obligation in the following way.
Since his general will is rational and infallible and men are also rational they are supposed to show unqualified obligation to the general will. Any aberration will expose the irrationality of the people and this is in opposition to Rousseau’s main contention. So in the vortex of arguments Rousseau’s concept of obligation has come to be an unqualified one.
It would be quite wrong to treat Rousseau’s view of obligation as a mere conjecture or wishful thought. It is far more than that. It embodies a very high ideal. Through the instrumentality of general will he wanted to state that the members of the body politic would keep themselves above narrow and personal interests.
He was of firm belief that the deviation of people from showing obligation to general will would threaten the very foundation of the body politic. His rational people would not resort to that technique.
He did not consider the obligation simply as a relation between the governors and governed. It is far more sublime and full of ideals and morality. The main pillar of Rousseau’s political thought is general will and the core of the general will is obligation. He has viewed it from a comprehensive perspective. It is back grounded by Plato’s idealism.
It constituted the central theme of direct democracy. It reveals people’s rationality and pursuit of happiness. Rousseau adopted a sublime and universal outlook. So we can say that Rousseau kept himself above narrowness of personal interest.
Mere attainment of certain rights was not important to him. Neither Hobbes nor Locke thought of morality or idealism. Nor did they treat obligation as a weapon for the advancement of welfare and preservation of the state. While considering obligation of the three philosophers we should keep this in mind.
It may further he added that through the general will and civil society Rousseau made a modest attempt to revive Plato’s idealism to which he was attracted. Plato made all the citizens as integral parts of the ideal state and he kept no scope of difference between citizens and ruler.
Plato’s ruler is not an ordinary person—he is a philosopher-king. There is hardly any scope of raising allegation against such a ruler. General will is the manifestation of morality, idealism and the best wishes of all men. Naturally, there is no question of withdrawing obligation.
From the past study we may frame the following conclusion. Hobbes was not a hundred percent autocrat, nor was he a perfect democrat. He was less a democrat and more an autocrat. To Locke both the legislature and the community were the holders of supreme power. But Locke is an inconsistent thinker.
The legislature and community both cannot be holders of supreme power at the same time. But the stand of Rousseau in clear. The g.w. is the supreme authority and people assembling periodically decide the next course of action as well as policies. This is perfect democracy.
It is believed that his analysis of general will contains the idea of democracy.
In Book II, Chapter IV Rousseau makes the following remarkable observation:
“The general will, to be really such, must be general in its object, as well as its essence, that it must both come from all and apply to all; and that it loses its natural rectitude when it is directed to some particular and determinate object…what makes the will general is less the number of voters than the common interest uniting them”.
The central theme of democracy is that particular interest will never get any priority and Rousseau talked about that. In a democratic state the general welfare of the society will be placed above the personal interest and in the above passage Rousseau emphasized that. David Thomson in his essay “Rousseau and the General Will” has said “It is this that makes Rousseau a great democratic theorist” Rousseau did not judge democracy by number.
In a society majority may be guided by personal interests while the minority may consider the general welfare and in that case minority’s stand will be given approval. Even J. S. Mill (1806-1873) did not recognize majority rule as the criterion of successful democracy.
Rousseau frowned upon British parliamentary democracy and said the British people are free only at the time of election.
It has been observed by many critics that while penning Social Contract, the memory of Greek city states was highly active in Rousseau’s mind. But such a picture is quite irrelevant in our time.
Naturally his conception about democracy cannot be accepted. But it is to be remembered that he thought of Greek city states or of his native Geneva to facilitate the personal involvement of all citizens in the law-making and decision making process of the state and Rousseau considered this personal involvement as the vital aspect to democracy. So suspicion cannot be raised against Rousseau’s view about democracy.
Rousseau thought that balkanization of body politic is against the interest of society and he makes this point quite clear in Book II Chapter III where he said – “It is therefore essential if the general will is to be able to express itself, that there should be no partial society within the state.”
The implication is the division of society into small parts is against the proper functioning of g.w. and again if the g.w. does not function properly people’s democratic right and its realisation will be adversely affected.
In support of his contention Rousseau quotes Machiavelli. Machiavelli once said – “In fact there are some divisions that are harmful to a Republic”. His apprehension was that if the g.w. cannot get scope to work properly, then people’s democratic right turns into a fiasco.
Rousseau’s love for democracy is revealed from his view expressed in Book IV, Chapter II where he has said that behind every law there shall be consent of all citizens. That is he wanted to make the law of the state unanimous. In the same chapter he has said that it is the duty of citizen to give consent to a law.
The citizen shall have the right to express their opinion about any law but once it is accepted observing the norms of the general interest the dissenters must give their consent. We may say that by advancing this argument Rousseau had made the laws of the state really broad-based.
His intention was to bring the minority into the fold of majority, and to stop the division of society into majority and minority sections. In any case minority will have to consider whether the law consented by majority is in conformity with the objectives and principles of general will.
In A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Rousseau has maintained that in the state of nature there was hardly any inequality. This has been created and developed by the human faculties.
Human nature and mind have made it legitimate and permanent. What Rousseau has not explicitly stated is that inequality is the creation of man for the gratification of parochial interests.
This inequality is responsible for the deterioration of democracy. The state of nature was free from this sort of harmful inequality and he wanted to banish this by general will. Even today we treat inequality in status and wealth as the great enemy of democracy.
We are surprised at the farsightedness of Rousseau who eloquently talked about inequality more than two hundred years ago. Rousseau was not a statesman or a powerful leader of any mass party.
With a deep insight he viewed the nature and working of government of his time. After this he came to the conclusion that the social evils are due to the social inequality.
The greatest worshippers of today’s world say the same thing. There is no doubt that Rousseau was extremely anxious on seeing the condition of democracy. His anxiety is reflected on the last few lines in a Discourse on the Origin of Inequality – “Since it is plainly contrary to the law of nature, however defined, that children should command old men, fools wise men and that the privileged few should gorge themselves with superfluities, while the starving multitude are in want of the bare necessities of life”.
This view also reveals Rousseau’s love for democracy. Democracy cannot thrive in a society divided into rich and poor because the former will dominate the latter. This is against democracy. His idea was that a real democracy should be preceded by economic equality.
We have briefly stated Rousseau’s view on democracy. Whatever may be his love for democracy he was quite apprehensive of its practical side. He thought that real democracy could never be seen in actual life.
In Book III, Chapter IV he said “It is unimaginable that the people should remain continually assembled to devote their time to public affairs”.
This means that he was quite conscious of the limitations of people. That is why he thought that democracy could not be achieved in real life.
The last two lines of this chapter are worth quoting:
“Were there a people of gods, their government would be democratic; so perfect a government is not for men.”
A question may arise why did he devote so much space to the analysis of general will and democracy? The most probable answer is he was very much influenced by the political idealism of Plato’s Republic and he ignored the practical aspects of his thought.