Rousseau was a political philosopher, composer, and social critic born in 1712 in Geneva. He is best known for his political writings such as A Discourse on Inequality, where he argues that man had greater freedom in the “state of nature” than in modern times, and The Social Contract where he presents a plan for how men can come together and live under a true “social contract” which enables them to be free. Rousseau felt that the people should be able to determine the laws under which they were to live, and that to abdicate your freedom to an external authority, as Hobbes recommended, led to governmental abuse and increased human misery. Rousseau was also an educational theorist, believing in the importance of cultivating a child’s virtue and reason in order that he would be fit to live in a properly organized and “free” society.
Rousseau first became famous after winning a competition which asked whether progress in the arts and sciences were helping men become more or less moral. In his essay Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, Rousseau answered contrary to most thinkers of the time, that the arts and sciences were actually responsible for man’s moral degeneration. Rousseau explained that the arts and sciences developed not from the needs of man in the original state of nature, but out of his desire for luxuries and his sense of pride. Likewise, Rousseau pointed out that the advances in science have led to governments becoming ever more powerful, resulting in people’s liberties being taken away. Rousseau created a sensation with these sentiments, which stood in contrast to most Enlightenment thinkers of the time who believed that the progress of society was leading to the betterment of mankind.
When another competition posed the question of why there is inequality between men, Rousseau again took up the challenge and answered with his famous Discourse on Inequality. Here, he explains that there are two forms of inequality: natural and artificial. Rousseau sees the artificial inequalities between men, such as those between the rich and the poor, as the result of the development of society. Rousseau explains that all men in their original “state of nature” were equal. They were simple creatures, who had no concept of things such as pride, private property, fear of death or right and wrong. Like the other animals, “natural man” was content with survival, and had the freedom to do what he wanted.
Before Rousseau, other philosophers had described a “state of nature.” Most notably, the philosopher Hobbes had argued that in this original state life was “nasty, brutish and short.” He explained that every person was at war with everyone else. Hobbes’ argument was designed to encourage people to agree to live under the authority of anyone who came to power, in order to avoid the imagined anarchic state he envisioned. Rousseau felt that Hobbes’ views did not adequately describe man’s true “state of nature,” since Hobbes had not looked back far enough into man’s history. In contrast, Rousseau sees the state of nature in better terms, and views all the problems Hobbes had described as occurring once man became organized in communities.
Rousseau describes man as having made the transition from the original state of nature, where he acts purely as an individual, to what he calls the state of “nascent society.” Rousseau writes in the Discourse on Inequality that this period lies between “the stupidity of brutes and the disastrous enlightenment of civil man.” Here, men and women came together to live as families in a sort of golden era where people have not yet begun to inflict harm on others. Rousseau explains that since here society is still pre-political, people avoided confrontation out of the desire for self-preservation (what he calls “self-love,” amour de soi-meme). Unfortunately, as the result of natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods, as well as the increase in population size, people were eventually forced to come together and form communities.
Once people were forced to live together in communities in order to survive, Rousseau explains that a whole host of problems emerged. People became aware of the situation of others, and began to compare what other people’s situations to their own. People therefore became concerned with the opinions of others, developing what he calls “pride” (amour-propre). Once pride set in, Rousseau writes that “the least obstacle becomes an inflamed fury; jealously awakens with love, discord triumphs and the gentlest of passions receives the sacrifice of human blood.” Furthermore, every man living in his own hut, people developed the concept of personal property. Rousseau explains that people therefore developed attachments to their possessions, such that their “loss became much more cruel than the possession of them was sweet.”
Having become concerned with things such as pride and property, man had distanced himself from his original state of nature. Rousseau then explains that man, recognizing the value of giving up some of his freedom in order to live under the protection of law, entered into a “social contract” with his fellow men. However, Rousseau points out that this was actually a “fraudulent social contract,” because at the time that people entered into it, society had already become unequal. Some people were richer and others poorer. Rousseau explains that this “contract” was designed by the rich to trick poor people into making this state of inequality permanent under law. Poor people, thinking they were bettering their situation, unknowingly agreed to this injustice.
In The Social Contract, Rousseau writes “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” Continuing where he left off in his Discourse on Inequality, he believes that modern societies are based on those false contracts which have made permanent the inequalities between rich and poor. Here, Rousseau presents an alternative, what he believes is a true social contract, which will allow all citizens in a society to live with freedom and equality under the law.
He explains that rather than giving up one’s authority to make laws to an external power, the people must retain this authority (i.e. the people must have sovereignty). Rousseau explains that if the people are responsible for creating their own laws, they will not create laws that are unjust to them. They will therefore have love and respect for the laws which govern them. Rousseau explains that in the process of creating a true social contract, the people all agree to live by the “general will,” in contrast to their own particular desires (i.e. their “private wills”). By retaining sovereignty, and agreeing to obey the laws which they have created, the social contract allows men to be equal and exchange the personal freedom they had in the state of nature for “civil freedom” where they are “forced to be free.”
In order to keep society from becoming corrupt, where a group of people subvert the general will by pursuing their own private interests, Rousseau believed it was important that people cultivate virtue and reason. Rousseau advocated the idea of a “civil religion” which would be comprehensive enough to include many faiths, seeing the religious beliefs such as the belief in God and an afterlife as important for ensuring that people act properly. Seeing the natural world as being created by God, he also encouraged embracing the wonders of being in nature. Furthermore, he developed an educational theory in his work Emile which describes how a child can be brought up so as not to lose his natural goodness by being encouraged to discover things on his own.
Although Rousseau was pessimistic himself about the possibility of a society being able to implement and live by a true social contract, his political philosophy inspired reforms and revolutions throughout Europe, such as the French Revolution. In addition to his social and political theories, Rousseau was also a musical theorist and composer who influenced the development of Romanticism in the 18th century. His political philosophy would influence many subsequent philosophers such as Kant, Hegel and Marx. Repudiating fame while attaining it, and being a great writer and composer all the while pointing out how the arts were bringing man to higher degrees of vanity, surrounded by Enlightenment thinkers yet reaching back to man’s true nature, Rousseau stands as an intriguing and paradoxical thinker.