Does Rousseau’s _Du Contrat Social_ signal the advent of modern democracy? Or does it represent a dangerous recipe for the suppression of individual human freedom?
Rousseau’s social contract is often likened to modern democracy, however, most political ideologies can be likened to one another in some form and one doesn’t have to dig deep before they find some major differences between the two ideologies. In his writing, Rousseau tries to develop an ideology that maintains humans individual freedom, but in a social way. However his ideology is full of flaws and is missing a key ingredient for implementation into human life. In order to understand these flaws one must explore the features of his ideology. Firstly in order to understand his ideology one must first understand the emphasis he places on human freedom.
Secondly this essay will look at the basic essence of the social contract and look at how Rousseau tries to justify the movement of natural freedom to social freedom. Thirdly this essay will explore the ways in which Rousseau intended the state to be protected from dissolution. The fourth paragraph will look at the formation and the purpose of law in the state. The fifth paragraph will discuss the role of the government, and the differences between the social contract and democracy. Paragraph six will look at the flaws and inconsistencies in his ideology and what effect these would have on people. Lastly the essay will be concluded by tying in all the major points and the formulation of an appropriate answer to the question at hand.
Central to Rousseau’s writings is his focus on human and individual freedom. He begins by making the point that man could not be free if he belonged to a monarch. He viewed men under a king as slaves. For a citizen to be free he needed to belong to a republic whose laws are drawn up by its people. (Keens-Soper, 1988, p.173). He believed that man had moved from a position of freedom to a position of servitude under monarchist states. In his view each man is to be seen as a self-sufficient being. As freedom is essential to man it cannot be given up without violating natural law and therefore at some stage in history man lost his freedom and was subjected to servitude. (Keens-Soper, 1988, p.174).
Rousseau then made the deduction that man had come to the conclusion that it was necessary to belong to a social order. Rousseau then questioned how man regained their independent self-sufficient state while being part of a social order. He then wrote that a state needed to be established in such a way as it would be compatible with individual freedom and man’s need for self-sufficiency. This truth was the catalyst which led to his creation of a state that could fulfil such a requirement. This state was formed based on the laws of the social contract. (Keens-Soper, 1988, p.175).
The very principle of the social contract is that its laws need to be moulded around the behaviour of men, not the other way around. (Keens-Soper, 1988, p.173). He makes the point that the social contract needs to be centred on the preservation of man’s freedom. The basic idea behind the social contract is that each man must surrender himself and his rights to the whole community. Every individual gives themselves completely to the community, formulating a kind of single entity with a single goal. (Keens-Soper, 1988, p.177). Having placed all of their powers into the community they must, for the survival of their independence, put the general will ahead of their own and make each member equally as essential to the whole. The general will makes the interests of the entire group, the interests of the individual, and thus natural freedom is transformed into social freedom. (Keens-Soper, 1988, p.178).
The alienation of any part of the group or the surrender of the group to another power is considered a violation of the social contract and therefore negates the validity of the group. There are only two parts to this particular body politic; the individual members, and the whole it creates. (Keens-Soper, 1988, p.179). He justifies the freedom of this grouping in a comparison to slavery. He calls the relationship between a master and a slave aggregation whereas he calls the relation between a people and their leader an association. Rousseau emphasises the importance of the difference between these relationships in saying that a master and his slave have no bond of union, whereas a people is already a whole before they come to the unanimous decision of electing their leader to execute their will. (Keens-Soper, 1988, p.176). Rousseau further justifies the freedom of the individual by stating that, each man having given himself to the whole has given himself to no one. (Keens-Soper, 1988, p.178).
While one can see positives to this unity it is impossible to ignore that men remain private individuals with private interests. Rousseau’s solution to this problem is to fashion the members of the group in such a way that they develop and incorruptible identification with their state. This would require a massive level of prevention in the form of not allowing anything to come between the citizen and the state. Rousseau realises that the general will is constantly threatened by individual will, which has the power to dissolve the unity of the group. Part of protecting the unity is a strict and unwavering dedication to equality within the group. (Keens-Soper, 1988, p.183). The extreme necessity for unity can be seen in Rousseau’s view that any member who violates the social contract would need to be killed or expelled from the state in order for the state to survive. At times Rousseau likens the moral and emotional commitment one needs to show the state, as similar to marriage. (Keens-Soper, 1988, p.184).
Crucial to the state, created by the social contract, is law. Rousseau views the law as the singular voice of the people when they are formulating the law for the people. The law is the action which creates sovereignty within a state. A problem, however, arises for Rousseau when discussing law as he believes the people are unsuited to create the laws for themselves. (Keens-Soper, 1988, p.184). He employs instead an outsider that provides the laws for the people. He calls this outsider the Lawgiver. He derives the idea of the Lawgiver from an historical figure known as Lycurgus who developed an entire constitution for the Spartan people.
Rousseau’s interest in the event comes from the idea that Lycurgus was detached from Spartan society, devoid of personal interest, but still dedicated his work to the welfare of the Spartan people. (Keens-Soper, 1988, p.185). Rousseau’s classification of laws constituted four categories; Constitutional, Civil, Criminal, and Moral law. (Keens-Soper, 1988, p.188). He argued that it was moral law that upheld the state. The inclusion of the Lawgiver, however, was necessary for the creation of moral law and this is problematic as will be shown later in the essay. (Keens-Soper, 1988, p.189).
The purpose of the government, for Rousseau, is to portray his principles. He makes it quite clear that the government is subordinate to the state. He argues that the government is an executive power whose authority derives directly from the people. In this view the government has no singular power. It is used as a tool by the people to run the people. (Keens-Soper, 1988, p.190). Rousseau depicts the government in geometrical terms to emphasise that the government is an entity capable of being understood and practised, similar to science. (Keens-Soper, 1988, p.191). While many compare the social contract to democracy, Rousseau states himself that democracy is a flawed system because it is too perfect for men, which is surprising considering his preference for a collective self-government. Rousseau himself prefers a governmental structure similar to that of an aristocracy.
He believes that it is more efficient that a small majority of wise men rule over the whole group. (Keens-Soper, 1988, p.192). He justifies an aristocracy by stating that the citizens are intelligent enough to elect the most intelligent leaders to govern them. He realises however that an aristocracy is at the most risk of overthrowing the general will for their own will. He clearly states that monarchism is unsuited for the structure of the social contract because king’s greed is everlasting. (Keens-Soper,1988, p.193). Rousseau realises that the government will relentlessly try to usurp sovereignty, just as the individual will continuously attempts to overthrow the general will. This, he believes, is prevented by a good constitution, at the centre of which stands law, which is formulated by the Lawgiver. (Keens-Soper, 1988, p.194). In such a state of collective unity, Rousseau describes political conflict as civil war. (Keens-Soper, 1988, p.195).
One does not have to look far to see all the flaws which exist within the ideology of the social contract. Rousseau’s ideologies throughout the social contract are paradoxical. Some of the ideas are even impossible, taking the Lawgiver as an example. After stating that the people are the rulers of themselves and that their individual will is also the will of the general public, he invents the Lawgiver which is meant to supply the people with the spine to their very society through law. The Lawgiver he describes is similar in its description to a deity, which presents the people with the law, which they must abide by. The Lawgiver is also an intruder upon the society which is meant to be strictly inclusive. (Keens-Soper, 1988, p.185).
Another paradox can be seen in Rousseau’s statement that politics should revolve around man however, the creation of a body politic based on the social contract requires that every man change his nature in order to belong. Rousseau’s right usage of the word freedom is also debatable. Rousseau explains that in order for the state to remain stable the Censorial Tribunal is needed, to prevent opinions from being corrupted. (Keens-Soper, 1988, p. 196). Also in order for people to share the same opinion, opinion needs to be taught throughout the education system. In this sense propaganda would be forced on all members of the society and those who refuse to conform would be expelled from the group. In a sense people are being forced to be a certain kind of free which isn’t really freedom at all. (Keens-Soper, 1988, p.197).
It is clear to see from this essay that the social contract is deeply flawed and inconsistent in many ways. The creation of such a body politic would require the existence of the Lawgiver, an entity with superhuman abilities. As the Lawgiver is the inventor of the state’s laws, the very backbone of its existence, it is difficult to imagine the possibility of such a body politic ever existing. The social contract also undermines the idea of freedom and the idea of formulating politics around man instead of the opposite. The social contract describes a people more similar to machines that are programed to think and act in a certain way. In conclusion the social contract is a flawed and dangerous recipe for the suppression of individual human freedom.
Keens-Soper, M. (1988) ‘Jean-Jacques Rousseau: _The Social Contract_’ in Forsyth, M. and Keens-Soper, M. (eds) _The Political Classics, A Guide to the Essential Texts from Plato to Rousseau_ (Oxford University Press 2003), 171-202
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