11. Rousseau’s The Social Contract

“‘Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.’ This ringing declaration, with which Rousseau opens The Social Contract, challenges us at once, but leaves us perplexed as to its truth. In what sense is man born free? Is it the case that men are everywhere in chains? Only when we have the answers to these questions are we prepared to understand Rousseau’s solution of the problem of freedom under government.” (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, volume 2 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1958, page 149)

In this post I’ll share the answers that Rousseau gives to those questions in the first two of the four books in The Social Contract guided by Adler and Wolff’s discussion of the two books in The Development of Political Theory and Government. Before doing so though I’ll sketch Rousseau’s life, and after doing so I’ll summarize Adler and Wolff’s discussion of the plausibility of Rousseau’s doctrine.

Rousseau’s Life

Jean Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva on June 28, 1712. His mother’s dying a few days after his birth, he was raised by his father. At the age of twelve or thirteen he was placed as an apprentice to a notary and, when that proved unsuccessful, to an engraver. The latter treated him roughly and in 1728 Rousseau abandoned him and, aided by a Madame de Warens, went to Turin and stayed for nine days at the Hospice of the Holy Spirit, where he received instruction in and converted to the Catholic faith. After serving a few months as a lackey, he returned to Madame de Warens, who took him into her house. During the nine or ten years that he was with her, he made several efforts to fit himself for an occupation, including studying the priesthood with the priests of St. Lazare and taking music lessons from the choir-master of the cathedral. The only systematic studying he did in those years was at a rural retreat where, prompted by Voltaire’s Philosophical Letters, he undertook to make a survey of all the sciences.

In 1741 Rousseau went to Paris, where he obtained the post of secretary to the French Ambassador at Venice. Returning to Paris in 1745, he copied music for a living, cultivated the society of the literary circles, became a contributor on music to Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie, and began living with Thérèse le Vasseur, a servant girl at his hotel (they had five children, all of whom were sent to a foundling home, and were finally married in 1768). In 1749 he entered the contest held by the Academy of Dijon for the best essay on “Has the progress of the arts and sciences contributed more to the corruption or purification of morals?” His essay attacking civilization as corrupting the goodness of nature won the prize and immediate literary fame for him. He continued writing. In 1756 he moved to the Hermitage, a small country house near Montmorency belonging to a friend, Madame d’Épinay. However in 1758, becoming involved in a quarrel between Diderot and the lover of Madame d’Épinay, he left the Hermitage and settled in Montlouis, a house near Montmorency belonging to another friend, where he wrote The Social Contract, which was published in 1762.

Unfortunately Rousseau’s views on politics and religion incurred the enmity of the French authorities. Learning that he’d be arrested if he didn’t go into exile, he went into exile–first in Neuchâtel, which then belonged to Prussia; then to the territory of Berne; and finally on the invitation of the philosopher David Hume in England. In 1767, quarrelling with Hume and having learned that he wouldn’t be arrested if he returned to France, he returned there. After wandering about for some time, he settled in Paris in 1770, resumed his former occupation of music-copying, and completed some autobiographical works. In May, 1778, he accepted the offer of a cottage at Ermenonville, where he died about six weeks later, on July 2.

The Social Contract

Rousseau opens The Social Contract by telling us, “I mean to inquire if, in the civil order, there can be any sure and legitimate rule of administration, men being taken as they are and laws as they might be” (Rousseau, The Social Contract in volume 38 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 387). Shortly after, he restates his purpose thus:

“Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they. How does this change come about? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? That question I think I can answer.” (page 387)

Rousseau hypothesizes a state of nature in which people are free. However because of what Rousseau calls “right of the strongest,” they are actually enslaved by states and their laws. The solution lies in their associating to form a civil society under civil government “in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before” (page 391). This is to be found in the social contract:

“Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole” (page 392).

How can the social contract enable a person to be free in civil society because he obeys himself only? Rousseau’s argument hinges on two points. First, man gives up natural freedom to gain civil freedom:

“What man loses by the social contract is his natural liberty and an unlimited right to everything he tries to get and succeeds in getting; what he gains is civil liberty and the proprietorship of all he possesses. If we are to avoid mistake in weighing one against the other, we must clearly distinguish natural liberty, which is bounded only by the strength of the individual, from civil liberty, which is limited by the general will.” (page 393)

Second, man in civil society obeys himself only. However citizens are often forced by government or laws to do things against their will. How can a citizen be understood to be obeying himself alone when he is forced to act against his will? He can be forced to be free:

“In order then that the social compact may not be an empty formula, it tacitly includes the undertaking, which alone can give force to the rest, that whosoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free; for this is the condition which, by giving each citizen to his country, secures him against all personal dependence.” (page 393)

The Plausibility of Rousseau’s Doctrine

“This doctrine seems quite implausible. But it may have some plausibility if we accept Rousseau’s understanding of the social contract, civil society, and, especially, the ‘general will.’ In the following section, we shall ask some questions about these basic notions.” (Adler and Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 157)

The general will is the will of the state. It “considers only the common interest” and therefore is “always right and tends to the public advantage” (Rousseau, The Social Contract, page 396). It is determined by voting and majority opinion. Each person voting expresses his particular interest, but in the final result these divergent particular interests tend to cancel each other and the pure general will remains. Rousseau admits that the existence of factions, such as political parties, means that there are no longer as many votes as there are people but only as many votes as there are such associations, obscuring the true general will. He recommends that if there are such partial societies there be as many as possible and that they be prevented from being unequal. “These precautions are the only ones that can guarantee that the general will shall always be enlightened” (page 396).

But how is a person free when the will of the majority forces him to do something that is contrary to his own particular will? Rousseau answers:

“I retort that the question is wrongly put. The citizen gives his consent to all the laws, including those which are passed in spite of his opposition, and even those which punish him when he dares to break any of them. The constant will of all the members of the State is the general will; by virtue of it they are citizens and free. When in the popular assembly a law is proposed what the people is asked is not exactly whether it approves or rejects the proposal, but whether it is in conformity with the general will, which is their will. Each man, in giving his vote, states his opinion on that point; and the general will is found by counting votes. When therefore the opinion that is contrary to my own prevails, this proves neither more nor less than that I was mistaken, and that what I thought to be the general will was not so. If my particular opinion had carried the day I should have achieved the opposite of what was my will; and it is in that case that I should not have been free.” (page 426; I’ve followed Adler and Wolff in quoting this passage although it doesn’t appear until Book IV of The Social Contract.)

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