After reading this article you will learn about Jean Jacques Rousseau: 1. Life and Time of Jean Jacques Rousseau 2. Political Ideas of Jean Jacques Rousseau 3. Influence on Political Thought.
Life and Time of Jean Jacques Rousseau:
The Everyman’s edition of The Social Contract notes the following short life history of J. J. Rousseau (henceforth only Rousseau); “Jean Jacques Rousseau, born at Geneva in 1712, the son of a watchmaker. Attended a seminary at Turin and obtained favour with Madame de Warens, who supported him for ten years. He left her in 1740 and in 1756 went to live in Montmorency with Madame d’Epinay. David Hume (1711-1776) invited him to England in 1766, and he returned to France in 1770. Died in 1778.”
There is a gap of eight years between the death and birth of Locke and Rousseau. His birth place was Geneva which was Calvinist, that is, it was under the tremendous influence of Calvin. Rousseau was a bohemian.
He did not settle anywhere, rather roamed from one place to another. He spent a larger part of his life in Paris. He went to Paris in 1743 and by 1746 he came in contact with Diderot.
There was an exchange of academic matters between the two. He wrote an essay on “Has the revival of arts and sciences done more to corrupt or purify morals?” Rousseau wrote an essay and sent it to the organizers.
He was adjudged for the first prize and got 300 francs and a gold medal. He wrote another essay but it failed to bring a prize for him. Rousseau, however, was able to establish himself as an author or writer at the age of thirty eight. The winning of prize lifted him from obscurity and placed him at the centre-stage of the academic circles of Geneva.
Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote several books; A Discourse on the Arts and Sciences—In Everyman’s edition and with an Introduction by G. D. H. Cale, there is no hyphen between Jean and Jacques. But majority writers use hyphen.
A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. These two books were published, respectively, in 1750 and 1755. His next work Political Economy was published in 1758. The most important work The Social Contract in 1762.
He also authored few other books such as Emile and The Letters from the Mount. Rousseau is read and remembered for The Social Contract. We know that every thinker or philosopher is more or less influenced by the events and ideas that develop and flourish around him and Rousseau is not an exception.
Though Geneva was his birth place he travelled France and lived there several years. So we can easily say that he was a piquant observer of various events and especially political ones that grew around him. France was the heaven of autocracy and the autocratic rule of French rulers created an intolerable situation in French society.
The irresponsible activities of the autocratic ruler drained huge amount of money from the state treasury and, in order to replenish it, the ruler levied taxes upon the masses of men. Autocracy was the system of the day when Rousseau started his political and other writings.
The absence of democracy and the shortening condition of liberty created a tremendous impact upon the mind of Jean Jacques Rousseau. From the very childhood Rousseau was a great worshipper of liberty. Immediately after his birth his mother died.
His father was not fully normal. He lived few years under the guardianship of an educated and aristocrat lady. But this guardianship was intolerable to him. He was, in fact, a nature’s child. It is quite natural that such a man would be the lover of liberty .But the physical environment around him was not favourable for liberty and democracy. This disturbed his mind and thought considerably.
Literally, the Industrial Revolution started its journey in the sixties of the eighteenth century and Rousseau’s Social Contract was published in 1762. Many critics are of opinion that there were favourable conditions of industrialisation in various parts of Europe.
In this situation Rousseau observed that there was generation of wealth and accumulation of property in society. Particularly in agriculture and commercial sectors there was large amount of wealth and property. But it was not properly distributed among various sections of the population. Because of this, inequality came to be the main feature of society.
This inequality not only drew his attention, it disturbed his mind considerably. He wrote a small book entitled – A Dissertation on the Origin and Foundation of the Inequality of Mankind. It means that Rousseau was quite conscious of the inequality with which he was confronted.
Again, this book has another title .What is the Origin of Inequality among Men, and Is it Authorized by Natural Law? All these are proofs of the fact that he seriously thought about inequality and it is also true that he did not approve of this inequality.
The fact is that the second half of the eighteenth century was characterized by the unequal distribution of wealth. Rousseau thought that the unequal distribution of wealth was also the cause of political discontent. He thought that this inequality was one of the causes of unrest.
In France and several other countries there were religious conflicts among various religious communities. He could not tolerate this. He also saw that the church and other religious organisations were eager to establish their own identity and to control the behaviour of the general public. All these led to the curtailment of people’s liberty. Rousseau could not accept it as normal. Rather, he raised his voice. He was the great worshipper of liberty and its loss or curtailment was a source of great anxiety to him.
The general condition of Britain was not acceptable to him. He vehemently criticized the British form of parliamentary democracy. Even he did not hesitate to say that the British people were free only at the time of election.
Jean Jacques Rousseau saw that the British politics and economy were fully controlled by aristocrats, capitalists and feudal landlords. General public was far away from the real platform of democracy. In some parts of Europe the impact of Enlightenment was perceptible and he strongly felt the influence of Enlightenment.
Being under the influence of Enlightenment, general people longed for more liberty and various opportunities. But because of the domination of propertied class and influential politicians they could not get their due share.
There is an interesting similarity between Plato and Rousseau. The thought of these two philosophers was enormously influenced by contemporary events. The downward movement of democracy, morality, ethics etc. disturbed Plato and as a remedy, he planned for an ideal state.
Jean Jacques Rousseau was also influenced by Plato. He observed that morality, dignity of man, liberty and several other eternal values are at stake and the advancement of sciences and arts was primarily responsible for this.
Ebenstein rightly says:
“Rousseau sees a direct causal relation between luxury, constantly expanding needs and the rise of art and science, after which true courage flags and the virtues disappear.” He thought that poor and simple Rome commanded respect. Wealthy and luxurious Rome failed to achieve that.
Political Ideas of Jean Jacques Rousseau:
1. Revolt against Reason:
Jean Jacques Rousseau viewed and analysed the contemporary society in his own way and his way was a different one. He wanted the revival of freedom and simplicity that prevailed in the state of nature.
He squarely blamed the progress of arts and sciences for the loss of morality freedom etc. Again, for the loss of freedom and morality the development of reason is responsible.
He thinks – “A thinking man is a depraved animal,” Sabine says; “Rousseau did not appeal to reason, on the contrary he turned the contrast into an attack upon reason”. He revolted against intelligence, the growth of knowledge and progress of science.
In his judgment all these are responsible for the general deterioration of society. Naturally men should not be moved or guided by reason. Rather, they should act in accordance with emotion, feelings and instincts.
According to Jean Jacques Rousseau, the feelings, affections and bond of family life the joy and beauty of motherhood, man’s love for arts and beauty are of eternal value and man should cultivate all these seriously and sincerely. The cultivation of all these will give man real joy and satisfaction. He believes that there is no place of reason in all these things. He believes that science cannot give man proper satisfaction in life.
“Science is the fruit of idle curiosity, philosophy is mere intellectual frippery the amenities of polite life are tinsel”.
The development of trade, commerce and the general economic condition drastically changed the physical condition of society and, at the same time, gave birth to a new and wealthy class which may be called bourgeois.
In the observation of Sabine we find the following remark – In a Discourse on the Arts and Sciences Rousseau has openly denounced the negativeness of the progress of arts and sciences.
In this book he has said that the progress of arts and science has not been able to contribute anything to the augmentation of human happiness. Rather because of the progress of these, man’s mind, thought and action are vitiated and corrupted.
The simplicity of mind and action as well as thought is lost and in the opinion of Rousseau, this is a great loss. Man is actually helpless in the rapid .progress of arts and science. In order to save and revive the honesty, simplicity and virtue of man the best way is to stop the progress of science and arts.
Rousseau has said those whom nature intended for her disciples have not needed masters- Bacon, Descartes and Newton, those teachers of mankind, had themselves no teachers.
Jean Jacques Rousseau could not accept the progress of arts and science on the ground that these made man reasonable and a reasonable man is corrupt and complex-minded.
Commenting upon Rousseau’s view on the bad effect of progress Sabine says:
“In short, intelligence is dangerous because it undermines reverence; science is destructive because it takes away faith, reason is bad because it sets prudence against moral intuition. Without reverence, faith and moral intuition there is neither character nor society”.
So it is obvious that morality, ethics, reverence and faith were much more important than the progress of arts and science. Somehow Rousseau arrived at the conclusion that morality and reverence had the power to make man perfect and honest. Hence reason is abandoned.
2. State of Nature and Social Contract:
When Rousseau was the Secretary to the French Ambassador in 1743-44 he planned to write a comprehensive book on various aspects of body politic. But the adverse circumstances forced him to abandon the project. But the prize awarded to him by the Academy of Dijon inflamed his thought of writing a book and he started the implementation of the idea.
Like Hobbes he started his analysis of the state of nature but his depiction of the state of nature is in direct opposite to Hobbes’s depiction.
In A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality he directly criticized Hobbes’s view:
“Hobbes contends that man is naturally intrepid and is intent only upon attacking and fighting… Such circumstances, however, rarely occur in a state of nature, in which all things proceed in a uniform manner, and the face of the earth is not subject to those sudden and continual changes which arise from the passions and caprices of bodies of men living together”.
Self-preservation was the primary concern of man and this thought sometimes forced him to be involved in conflicts with other. But this did not take place at large scale. Few incidents of conflicts cannot be treated as the general feature. Men were subject to sickness and other problems in the state of nature. Since no remedies were available in the state of nature they were faced with many problems.
Rousseau also says:
“Let us not conclude, with Hobbes, that because man has no idea of goodness, he must be naturally wicked, that he is vicious because he does not know virtue that he always refuses to do his fellow-creatures services which he does not think they have a right to demand”.
Hobbes has further said that a bad man is a robust child. But it remains to be proved whether man in the state of nature is this robust child.
So we find that he does not agree with Hobbes about the real situation or condition of the state of nature.
His own idea about the state of nature has been succinctly stated in the following words:
“Being subject to so few causes of sickness, man, in the state of nature, can have no need of remedies and still less of physicians, nor is the human race in this respect worse off than other animals, and it is easy to learn from hunters whether they meet with many infirm animals in the course of the chase”
What Rousseau wants to say is that in the primitive atmosphere (what may be called the state of nature) the life of man was not easy.
They had to pass through numerous hurdles and the people could not face or solve these problems single-handedly. Men of the state of nature were not generally bad but the solution of the problems was beyond their capacity. He has also said that people of the state of nature loved each other and they had a desire to create a congenial atmosphere.
Jean Jacques Rousseau has said that in the state of nature people were alone. That is, each individual was separate from another and this was the greatest weakness. He says – “the obstacles in the way of their preservation in the state of nature show their power of resistance to be greater than the resources at the disposal of each individual for his maintenance in that state. The primitive condition can then subsist no. longer and the human race would perish unless it changed its manner of existence”.
The prediction of Rousseau is quite simple. Either the people of the state of nature change their mode of living or they shall be prepared for perish. They, however, did not want the latter consequence.
He thought that it was not possible for the people of the state of nature to generate or create new force. What they can do is to unite the existing forces and this unification will be far stronger than the existing single force. In other words, the aggregation of the existing forces can solve the problems.
This will enable them to overcome all the problems. Rousseau, therefore, suggests that all the existing forces will be brought under one umbrella and the new combined force will be far greater than the former force.
“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, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before”.
By creating a new society through the instrumentality of social contract the problems or inconveniences of the state of nature are thus solved. The social contract thus creates a new association and the problems are solved.
Jean Jacques Rousseau further observes that the association creates a moral and collective body. The association created by the compact is both a moral and collective body. Again, this association may be termed as Republic or body politic. The members who formed the association also call it state or sovereign. His state has several names- body politic or republic or sovereign.
It means that all have the same meaning. In his time all these terms carried almost identical meaning. He also used the power in place of state or body politic.
If we go through Rousseau’s Social Contract and the formation of state we shall find some features which are narrated in the following way:
(1) The contract enables each person to submit himself and the power he possesses under the common authority.
(2) This common authority will be guided by the general will. The body politic will be administered by the general will. The opinion of any single person will have no importance.
(3) In the state of nature people acted or behaved in individual capacity and in his opinion that was the root cause of problem .In the newly created society which is called the body politic all the individuals will act in corporate capacity. He has used two words—corporate body and collective body. Both have been used to mean the same idea.
(4) The people met together and adopted collective decisions. In other words, all the individuals were parties to the decisions and, hence, nobody can modify or change any decision according to his sweet will.
(5) An interesting feature of Rousseau’s social contract is the goods and persons are put under the authority of association or body politic. But the contracting individual does not surrender his freedom to the authority of the body politic.
He says; “While uniting himself with all, many still obey himself alone and remain as free as before.”
Rousseau’s Social Contract opens a flood gate of controversies and the above comment is one of them. But David Held (Models of Democracy, 1996) says that Rousseau saw the individuals are involved in all the activities of the state .The participation in the activities of the body politic is complete and universal.
The words “remain as free as before” are significant. The formation of the new society cannot curtail the freedom of the people. They will discharge their duties and responsibilities without being forced or influenced by other persons. They enjoyed complete freedom in the state of nature and that will remain intact.
Here we may say that Rousseau has imagined three stages. There was originally the state of nature. It was absolutely not ideal.
The development of arts and science changed the social structure and people were faced with some problems. There were also problems in the state of nature but the development of arts and sciences aggravated the situation and this condition forced the inhabitants to build up a new society.
He says that the society will be of different type but this new society must not curtail the freedom and other privileges which they enjoyed in the state of nature. He has openly declared his intention.
The people, after forming the new society, will remain as before. He uses the words “everywhere the same.” The formation of the new society will enable them to regain original rights and natural liberty.
The special identity which they had in the state of nature will be lost. It means that instead of being different all the contracting persons will be differently identified. Rousseau says “the total alienation of each associate, together with all his rights to the whole community.”
They surrender everything and make them as integral part of the new society on the condition that earlier privileges will be regained. In this way new body politic will be a perfect one.
The members of the new society will get everything and they will have nothing new to demand. Again he declares – “each man, in giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody”.
Being a member of the new society individuals will, no doubt, lose something which they enjoyed in the state of nature. But at the same time the new society gives him something which he did not have in the state of nature.
The gains are equivalent to losses. The new society will create a new force and it is capable of preserving the gains he has got from the body politic.
3. Concept of State:
Different scholars have interpreted Rousseau’s theory of state from different angles. But all of them have arrived at almost the same conclusion. If we seriously study his plan of state and other aspects we shall find that the entire structure of the body politic is modelled as republican.
His individuals are directly and “ideally” involved in the creation of law, its application, and, finally, in the management or administration of the state they have created. G. D. H. Cole writes “Active will, and not force or even mere consent, is the basis of the ‘republican’ state.” Cole wants to say that at every stage of the new society or social order there exists people’s participation or consent. Individuals will obey themselves and are not directed or dictated by others.
Cole further says that Rousseau’s “state is not a mere accident of human history or mere device for the protection of life and property, it responds to fundamental need of human nature”.
Rousseau planned a state for the fulfillment of special purpose and that purpose is realization of democratic principles through direct participation in the law making and administrative process. This is purely republican system.
David Held has interpreted Rousseau’s republicanism in a slightly different way. He says, in Rousseau’s account, the idea of self rule is posited as an end in itself, a political order offering opportunities for participation in the arrangement of public affairs should not be just a state, but rather the formation of a type of society, a society in which the affairs of the state are integrated into the affairs of the ordinary citizens.
In Rousseau’s state, sovereignty originates in the people, that people are the source of power and authority. This is Rousseau’s republicanism as well as popular sovereignty.
Rousseau is characterized as the progenitor of modern nation-states. This aspect has been analysed by Alfred Cobban in his thought-provoking book Rousseau and the Modern State (1934).
“Here Rousseau is regarded as the progenitor of the modern nation-state characterized by homogeneity of culture and language, by a certain territorial integrity, and by a state which at least in principle treats all its citizens in the same way by giving them all equal rights and duties”.
There are several reasons why Rousseau has been called the progenitor of modern nation-state:
1. Rousseau has called his body politic as a “moral person.” If it is a ‘moral person’ like every other person Rousseau’s ‘moral person’, that is, the state, has certain rights and duties. Though he has not designated the rights and duties of his body politic or moral person, from his analysis we can easily formulate an idea about these. The modern nation-states claim obligation from the citizens, Rousseau’s state also claims obligations from its citizens.
2. In every nation-state individuals have more important as well as responsible role and Rousseau thought that his citizens are responsible. This appears in his analysis of general will which is formed in open assembly. In this assembly the participation of individuals is compulsory. One person cannot represent another person. That is, there was no proxy.
3. J. S. McClelland says that modern states are characterized by uncomplicated patriotism and Rousseau painted the picture of such a state. There were several states in his time such as Corsica and Poland.
These states were ideal to him. He thought that his state which will come out of contract will be of this same type—that is, the nation-state. His state will have clear boundary and special administrative structure. Because of these reasons his state is called a nation- state.
4. General Will:
G. D. H. Cole in his Introduction writes the General Will (hereafter only G. W.) is the most disputed and certainly the most fundamental of all Rousseau’s political concepts. But it is a matter of great surprise that none has found any clear and acceptable definition of what is G. W.
In his A Discourse on Political Economy Rousseau says:
“The body politic is also 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 relations to one another and to it, the ride of what is just or unjust”.
Again in Chapter II he makes the following comment:
“To be general, a will need not always be unanimous, but every vote must be counted, any exclusion is a breach of generality.” This condition is very important.
Jean Jacques Rousseau has already announced that the body politic or state that comes out of the social contract is a moral being. Here he compares the body politic with human being and since every human being has his own will the body politic being a moral being cannot be an exception.
The will of the body politic (also a moral being) can reasonably be called a general will. The General Will is not the will of any particular person or group of persons.
It is the will of the entire body politic. Harmon says that G. W. is an expression of public mind. In other words, when the individuals of the body politic assemble at a public place and participate in the discussion they take certain decisions. These decisions finally form the body of G. W. Rousseau has added a powerful condition. A G. W. need not be unanimous. It means that it may be the majority will. But everyone must participate in the will.
In Chapter III—whether the general will is infallible—Rousseau has drawn our attention to some features of G. W. He says the general will is always right and tends to the public interest or public advantage. Such a generalization may appear to us peculiar. But to Rousseau it was not so.
All the members of the body politic decided the general will and they did it after long and thorough discussion. Moreover, the actors of the general will are people themselves and, since they are not corrupt, their decision can never be wrong. Eulogising the nature of people Rousseau has further maintained that though they are not corrupted, they are very often deceived.
He has drawn the attention of his readers to a complicated feature and this can better be stated in his own words; “There is a great deal of difference between the will of ail and the general will, the latter considers only the common interest, while the former takes private interest into account, and is no more than a sum total of particular wills. In the G. W. the private interests have no dominating place. Only then will that aims at the common interest and the General Welfare that can claim to have a place in the general will.”
Jean Jacques Rousseau speaks of a peculiar nature of the G. W. He says that when there is only one society there can exist only one G. W. His state is undivided like a nation- state. Within the boundary of the body politic there is no place of groupism or partial or small societies where the members will be preoccupied with their own sectorial interests.
This was unacceptable to Rousseau. The agreement among all the citizens regarding their interests helps the formation of G. W. It is now obvious that he understood different thing about the G. W.
In A Discourse on Political Economy his analysis about the G. W. is “brief and lucid and furnishes the best guide to Rousseau’s general meaning.”
In support of this view we quote a passage:
“Every political society is composed of other smaller societies, of different kinds, each of which has its interests and its rules of conduct, but those societies which everybody perceives… are not the only ones that actually exist in the State”.
All individuals are united by a common interest. Rousseau wants to say that in states there may exist smaller groups or societies and the formation of the general will may create problem. But he assures us that in all the small groups and societies there exists common interest and the commonness of interests is the vital aspect of the general will.
In the body politic there is no place of partial or particular will. Rousseau admits that in the body politic there may exist smaller types of G. W. But he assures his readers that the existence of the smaller wills need not be a cause of worries and anxieties because ultimately all these wills will merge together and form a G. W. We here find a difference in his approach.
In The Social Contract his approach was against the particular wills. But in the A Discourse on Political Economy he argues that in the process of time the smaller general wills will merge together and form a greater and effective G. W. This change is due to the fact that while writing a Discourse on Political Economy he studied the political systems of his contemporary states and admitted the existence of smaller general wills. He had the belief that these will merge.
In Book IV, Chapter I, Rousseau has said that the General Will is indestructible. If the body politic is a united and single body or organization then there is no scope of division in the G. W. If the body politic is well organized, if the fissiparous tendencies are not allowed to develop and, if all the members aim at general welfare, there cannot exist partial interests and suctorial outlook.
The people are happy and live together peacefully. In such type of society the formation of general will is quite easy. Needless to say that Rousseau always imagined the existence or formation of such society.
In this type of society the formation of G. W. is easy and once such a will is formed, it exists for pretty long time. In such society once the G. W. is formed that exists and he says that it is indestructible.
Jean Jacques Rousseau has said that a very important precondition of the formation of G. W. is cordial and intimate relationship among the members of the state. The people will always regard themselves as the members of the state and there is friendship and brotherhood which is of extremely high standard.
There is no relaxation in the friendship. Naturally there is no scope of deficiency in relationship. So good relation and high standard of friendship are indispensable for a good G. W. That is why he has said that when the social bond begins to be relaxed and the state to grow weak, when particular interests begin to make themselves felt, the common interests changes and finds opponents, opinion is no longer unanimous.
We, therefore, find that complete agreement or unanimity is the most vital element of general will. When these disappear G. W. also faces critical situation.
The General Will is the most favourite subject of Rousseau and simultaneously it is the most controversial or disputed concept. Barker, in his Social Contract: Locke, Hume and Rousseau, says: There is a logical difficulty in his concept of General Will.
It is distinguished from the mere will of all. The G. W. is a true collectivity. How is it to be done? His reply is that if there are no parties in the open deliberations and if the discussion is held without party line the G. W. is bound to be correct.
In his time party was infested with factionalism or groupism. This condition of party generally misguided the general public. Today, however, party has appeared to be indispensable for any political system. The point is that his approach to party is not acceptable to us.
Rousseau makes common good as the fulcrum of his General Will. The question is what is exactly meant by common good? The idea may differ from person to person—and in that case the formation of G.W. may create problem or even it cannot be formed.
Let us quote Barker – “To distil the requirements of general good in something which requires both an intellectual effort of sustained reflection and a moral effort of abstinence from private and sinister interests, it will not come of itself, through the automatic cancellations of private interests by one another.”
In the opinion of Sabine:
“The development of the theory of general will was involved in paradoxes, partly because of the candidness of Rousseau’s ideas, but partly because he had a rhetorician likes for paradox”.
Sabine is of opinion that his idea of contract is unrelated with the rights and powers of government. Furthermore, there is another paradox. The state or society is formed by an imaginary act. This imaginary act has no capacity to create and enforce rights and other things. Still there is another paradox.
Rousseau’s contract has formed an association and not an “aggregation.” So in an association the formation of G. W. in the formula prescribed by Rousseau is impossible.
Plamenatz has severely criticized Rousseau’s theory of G. W. in the following way. A critical analysis of Rousseau’s statements reveals that there is no clear definition of the idea. He has stated several ambiguous statements and the meaning of these statements is not clear.
Plamenatz says that such a concept of General Will is sheer nonsense. He has suggested the formula of plus and minus. This may have importance in mathematics or other sciences, but no value in social science or in Rousseau’s theory.
His theory of G. W. is applicable only in small societies. Because, in such societies the population is quite small and people can assemble in open place and can form G. W. through free deliberations. But its application in large societies is impossible. There is no scope of any open assembly and people cannot arrive at any unanimous decision.
In every society people express their opinion in the background of their political views or opinions. There may not exist any political party but people may hold political opinion and there is no bar to it. If so how could they arrive at a unanimous decision which is called the G. W.? The difference in opinion may stand on the way of G. W. It is unfortunate that Rousseau failed to consider this aspect.
The problem is Rousseau was very much influenced by Plato and, naturally, he had no intention to look into the practical aspects of general will.
G. D. H. Cole supports Rousseau’s G. W, from a different angle. He says that the General Will is “essentially ethical.”
“It is a principle of moral conduct applied to political behaviour” Rousseau was influence by ethics and morality and wanted to apply these eternal values to politics. Plato planned for an ideal state knowing well that this could never be realized.
Similarly Rousseau wanted to build a body politic whose foundation would be morality and ethics. In the contemporary city states he got the opportunity to witness the activities of direct democracy and to this system he added morality and ethics.
Cole further maintains that the G. W. aims at applying freedom to political institutions. He wanted to say that people must have freedom and they must be given full opportunity to apply this freedom in their day-to-day life. For that purpose Rousseau selected the G. W.
Rousseau’s general will is not only the central part of his theory or philosophy, it is the “most original and most interesting and historically the most important contribution which he made to political theory” (W. T. Jones).
Whether it is practicable or not is a different issue. But our point is the citizens must have full scope to exercise their opinion and participate in the affairs of state. This is the main point and even today we cannot deny the importance of this point. Even today many political systems try to arrive at a consensus. It is said that every opinion has value and that opinion must be allowed to express. Rousseau did that.
David Thompson in his article Rousseau and the General Will observes that the general will is a panegyric outburst and it throws light on several aspects of democracy. It is a qualitative idea. It has a patriotic spirit at the time of crisis.
People must for sake parochial interest when needs demand. The fault with Rousseau is that he wanted to make it a permanent feature of the body politic.
We are not concerned whether G. W. shall be the temporary or permanent feature of the state, our main concern is whether it has any validity or not. During the last two world wars a number of states knowingly or unknowingly took the help of G. W. to arouse the feeling of patriotism.
In other words, the crisis of a state demands the application of the concept of G. W. embodied in the general interest of the state. That is what the overall interest demand—the citizens must be prepared to surrender the private or sectarian interest and Rousseau wanted to emphasize this.
David Thompson in his article further claims that the G. W. “makes Rousseau a great democratic theorist. He argues that sovereignty cannot be surrendered or delegated to any one person or group of people. It cannot be exercised at all through elected representatives”. By advocating the open assembly and making people’s participation at the meeting Rousseau succeeded in establishing his reputation as a great democrat of extremely high standard.
He did not support the representative system of democracy of the British type and this form of government earned his wrath. It is to be added here that though he was the worshipper of democracy he was doubtful of its realization.
He said “were there a people of gods, their government would be democratic. So perfect a government is not for men”.
It is said that Rousseau planned to write his book The Social Contract keeping in mind a particular philosophy which may briefly be stated as morality, ethics or, in general term, idealism. In his view people were basically moral and honest but due to the advancement of arts and science all these were lost. Hence his chief concern was the revival of these values.
For that purpose he planned to set up a new society. It is clear in the following passage; “The passage from the state of nature to the civil state produces a very remarkable change in man, by substituting justice for instinct in his conduct and giving his actions the morality they had formerly backed”.
The attainment of morality was the important thing people gained from the setting up of the body politic. Cole says the same thing.
Rousseau advised the people to sacrifice the personal interest for the sake of general interest of the state. This is not anti-democratic or totalitarian though the tone is totalitarian.
Swami Vivekananda also advised people to sacrifice personal interests for the sake of general interests. Should we say that he was totalitarian? It is a general idea that the interests of the community must precede the interests of the individual.
The priority of the personal interests and fostering it will lead to the balkanization of the state or community. It is said that in the general will Rousseau did not recognize the freedom of the individuals. But this allegation has no value at all. The man who chalked out a plan for the revival of human freedom he cannot suggest its loss or destruction.
There shall exist difference of opinion but he thought that his people will settle all disputes remembering that by submitting to the G. W their objectives will be achieved. They would also realize that insistence on personal interests would ultimately be harmful for the body politic. Remembering all the aspects of the general will, we hold the view that it is a unique creation of Rousseau that influenced subsequent generations.
5. Liberty and Authority:
Rousseau’s theory of liberty is, again, a controversial issue because in his analysis of G. W. he suggested to surrender the private will and interests to the general will and interests and this is clearly in opposition to human liberty. But in recent years the scholars have thoroughly investigated the various aspects of Rousseau’s idea on liberty and have arrived at the conclusion that he was unquestionably a champion of liberty. J. S. McClelland in his scholarly work History of Western Political Thought says; “Rousseau’s concept of liberty is a ‘positive’ concept of liberty in the classic sense outlined by Sir Isaiah Berlin in his celebrated essay Two Concepts of Liberty”. If so we shall try to show what is exactly meant by positive idea of liberty.
Berlin defines positive liberty in this way “The positive sense of the word ‘liberty’ derives from the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master. I wish my life and decisions to depend on myself, not on external forces. I wish to be the instrument of my own, not of other men’s acts of will. I wish to be a subject, not an object, to be moved by reasons, by conscious purposes, which are my own” The positive idea of liberty also consists in the freedom which consists in not being prevented from choosing as I do by other men.”
This is Berlin’s positive meaning of liberty; on the other hand, negative liberty means the absence of restraints.
Rousseau’s theory of positive liberty implies that liberty is a form of self- coercion. It means that individuals have the freedom to take steps for the realization of his goals but, at the same time, he feels that his steps will not stand on the way of the fulfillment of others goals. The individuals will follow self-coercion.
The pursuit of liberty will adopt a rational method or number of rational methods. Hence the idea of positive liberty is closely connected with rationality and self-coercion. Self-coercion means people adopt certain resolutions and promise to follow them with all sincerity. These resolutions form the part of self-coercion and positive liberty.
If we properly analyse his view of liberty it will be found that it has a close relation with G. W. Rather, positive freedom is part of the G. W. Therefore, in Rousseau’s view, the liberty is a part of the whole body politic.
It is a collective venture. Something we do, not something I do. The positive freedom rests on the idea that the individual is an integral part of the whole and everything concerning him is part of the whole.
He does not decide anything that goes against the general interest of the state or civil society. Again, the whole body of society will not do anything that will destroy the real will and interest of the individual who is an integral part of the state.
Rousseau was sure that there was no conflict between G. W. and freedom of the individuals because Rousseau speaks of the G. W. as if it were something like Kant’s “good will.”
The will of the people will not aim at the sectarian benefits. Gettel says; “Rousseau believed that there could be no conflict between authority vested in the people as a whole and their liberty as individuals” Gettel is right.
The G. W. is not something different from people. In the G. W. there is the real will of every man and, naturally, when the members of the body politic start to implement the decisions or objectives of the G. W. they are not expected to do anything that will go against the G. W. as well as the interests or liberty of the members.
The amalgamation of individuals will or welfare with the G. W. and common welfare is not slavery. He wanted to emphasize this. We have already stated that, to Rousseau, liberty is positive. That is, he looks liberty in the positive sense.
If so, the authority of the state can interfere with the freedom of the individuals when it is faced with problems: “The freedom which is realized in the general will is the freedom of the state as a whole, but the state exists to acquire individual freedom for its members”.
Hence it is not correct to say that the state’s interference in the affairs of individuals is designed to curtail freed on of men. Rousseau definitely did not mean that. He wanted to enhance the amount of freedom through the leadership of the state.
The true purpose of Rousseau will be clear from the following comment made by him; “The sovereign cannot impose upon its subjects any fetters that are useless to the community, nor can it even wish to do so.”
Rousseau’s sovereign power has moral and ethical sense and, because of this reason, it will not impose any restrictions upon its subjects mainly for the purpose of curtailing their freedom.
He has said that, while the members of the body politic are uniting with others they will keep their freedom in safe custody. They will never surrender their freedom which they enjoyed in the state of nature.
But, for general and greater interest, the members may sacrifice their liberty. But this special situation cannot be treated as curtailment of freedom. Herbert Spencer was a great individualist and champion of human freedom.
Even he accepted—at limited scale—the interference of the state in individual affairs. In modern times, the state interferes with the affairs of some persons or institutions to prevent the loss of freedom of some persons. Rousseau also thought in the same line.
Influence of Jean Jacques Rousseau on Political Thought:
Almost all the political philosophers are more or less controversial, but in the list of the controversial thinkers, most probably Rousseau occupies the top position. In spite of this the students of Western political thought read his political ideas with all seriousness. The simple reason is his ideas still evoke our thought and interest.
The French philosopher Voltaire did not like him. On the contrary, the German philosophers were influenced by his thought—especially his ‘general will and idealism. Marx borrowed the concept of alienation from Rousseau. Marx’s socialist thought can be traced to Rousseau’s ideas about inequality and its origin.
The German idealism was enormously influenced by Rousseau’s idealist philosophy. In this connection we can remember what Gettel said. In Germany, Rousseau exerted a mighty though contrary, influence.
The school of German idealism was much influenced by Rousseau’s concept of general will. His concept of general will served as a basis for German nations of the “will of the people”.
Kant has admitted that while studying Rousseau’s Emile he formed several important conclusions which influenced his entire thought system. Both Rousseau and Kant desired to establish conciliation between politics and morality. Both were convinced that there was no conflict between politics and morality.
This idea was first pronounced by Plato and after him Rousseau revived it. Kant has said that in the field of natural science the discovery of Newton was epoch making. The place of Rousseau in social science may easily be compared with Newton.
The German philosophers have used the term ‘the will of the people’. This term is borrowed from Rousseau’s general will. The will of the people and G. W. are all assimilated in the will of the state.
The English idealists were also not free from the influence of Rousseau. Rather, their inspiration was chiefly drawn from Rousseau. T. H. Green’s noted work Principles of Political Obligations contains a chapter known as Sovereignty and General Will. This chapter contains the main ideas of Rousseau.
Green made an effort to reconcile between Rousseau’s idealism contained in the G. W. and Austin’s realism. To what extent Green achieved success is a different question but Rousseau’s influence on Green is undeniable. Green has said—Will, not force, is the basis of the state. This is Rousseau’s idea.
The impact of Rousseau’s philosophy upon the French Revolution is inestimable. In the opinion of Burke the works of Rousseau were the ideal source of action for the French revolutionaries.
He has been called the Godfather of the French Revolution. It is said the Parliament of Rennes quoted almost textually from Rousseau. Rousseau’s idea of liberty created a tremendous impact upon the thought and activities of the French revolutionaries.
Berki says, France saw tremendous eruptions, the overthrow of the whole social system, the appearance of a truly radical, truly disturbing doctrine in the centre…it is undeniable that there is some resemblance between his formulations and the pronouncements as well as actions of some of the most outstanding revolutionary leader. The leaders of the French Revolution uttered the words from A Discourse on Inequality and Social Contract.
Plamenatz says that Rousseau’s idea about liberty is really unique. According to Rousseau, men are not guided or controlled by impulse of appetite. His concept of freedom is not simply political or economic, it is moral and ethical. They want to get this freedom through the mechanism of G. W. or, more specifically, the body politic. But Rousseau’s state is different from other ordinary states.
It is a moral person. G.D.H. Gole said that the Social Contract is by far the best of all textbooks on political philosophy. Cole continues – “Rousseau’s political influence, so far from being dead, is everyday increasing and as new generations and new classes of men come to study his work, his conceptions, often hazy and undeveloped, but nearly always of lasting value, will assuredly form the basis of a new political philosophy, in which they will be taken up and transformed”.
Jean Jacques Rousseau is regarded by many as the grandfather of modern socialist thinkers. There is a certain amount of exaggeration in this opinion, but it is true that in his writings there lies socialist thought in embryonic form.
He was quite worried about the pitiable condition of the unprivileged people of society and growing inequalities among various people. For this undesirable condition he squarely blamed the growth of civilization and sciences. Loss of morality, ethics and values are also to be blamed.
“In the field of politics, Rousseau’s teaching was suggestive rather than conclusive, but the stimulating force of his suggestions long remained a cardinal fact of literature and history. His fancies, fallacies and quibbles often appealed more strongly than the sober observations and balanced reasoning of Montesquieu to the Zeitgeist of the later eighteenth century. But the pure philosophy of politics and the practical statesmanship of the time clearly illustrate this. His spirit and dogmas are seen everywhere both in speculative system and in organisation”.