Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) is probably one of the greatest Political Philosophers produced by France. His ideas, especially those contained in his most famous book, Social Contract, influenced the French Revolution of 1789. His ideas also influenced other areas of human endeavor; his book, Emile, even set out to show how to raise children who would turn out well functioning citizens (a curious exercise in light of the fact that he abandoned his five children and never expended money or attention to their upbringing; ah, it is a lot easier to tell other people how to raise their children than raise children by ones self!).
Rousseau’s influence in Western thought can hardly be exaggerated. He is everywhere: in psychology, philosophy, politics, liberal thought, socialist thought, anarchist thought and today’s environmental thought; it appears Rousseau is somebody for all kinds of people to hang their ideas on.
In as much as we are focusing on social science let us examine what we might call Rousseau’s most deliberate social science book, the Social Contract. This little book essentially built on English writers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke and examined the foundation of government.
What makes government legitimate and why should the governed accept the rule of their rulers? What are the philosophical bases for the rulers ruling the ruled? That really is the issue tackled in the book.
To answer these questions, like Hobbes, Rousseau had to posit a state of nature where men lived before entering civil society. Unlike Hobbes and his paranoid view of man, Rousseau had a romantic view of man in nature.
As Rousseau saw it, in nature though people were noble savages in the sense that they were predatory and looked after their interests but they did not bother other people. Rousseau, apparently, had heard tales of Indians in the new world who, it was reported, individually would strike out on their own and roamed the wilds living by themselves undisturbed by the presence of other people. I suppose that if there is sufficient land in the world it is possible for each person to behave like a lion and live by himself and whenever he is hungry kill a buffalo and eats it.
In Rousseau’s wild imagination man in the state of nature was a benign predatory animal; he did not kill other human beings but killed animals to subsist on. Like himself, when the savage had children he abandoned them to the female members of the race to take care of (and why they should raise them is a question to be answered).
Let us then say it and say it quickly and move on. As Rousseau sees it, in nature man is free but in society he is in bondage. He began his book, Social Contact, with the famous quote that man is born free but everywhere is in chains. His goal is to remove the chain of society, to return man to his supposed status in the state of nature, free and able to do as he pleased without social consciousness, without feeling like he had to do what other people would approve (hence becoming neurotic).
The neurotic, aka the modern citified man, is self conscious from his awareness that other people are watching him, examining his behavior and he has to do what other people approve or else they would reject him and he fears social rejection, in fact, he feels anxious from anticipation of social rejection; he conforms to what he thinks that society would approve in his behavior and in the process is controlled, is living in chains ala Rousseau.
So, how do you get this noble savage chained by society to break the chains of society and live freely, for he is born free and his nature is freedom in the wild?
Rousseau is obviously a hopeless romantic; though he believed himself guided by reason he was really guided by his feelings, emotions; he wants to return human beings to an imaginary state of nature, an idyllic world that he imagined existed somewhere before civilization corrupted him.
That idyllic world certainly does not exist in what Rousseau believed are primitive societies. In so-called traditional societies even the little individuality that Rousseau saw in city men is not permitted; folk are punished from the slightest deviation from the group’s norms.
Clearly, in society human beings are controlled but it is doubtful that the solution is to return to an imaginary past where they were not controlled.
Interestingly, as society becomes more urbanized and technologized people do not have any connection to their next door neighbors and tend to have a measure of independence, certainly more so than is found in any so-called preliterate society that fascinated Rousseau. In their separated houses and apartments modern men feel no connection to any one and pretty much do whatever they feel like doing.
Why should they care what other people think of them? Would other people come to their help if they are sick? Would other people help them buy food if they are poor and hungry? Would passers by stop to take them to the hospital if they are involved in accidents?
The chances are that other people would not help the lone urban individual, so why should he bother his life with what they say about him? To hell with what the so-called other people say; the modern urban person does whatever he wants to do. If you do not like his behavior you can go jump into the lake and drown yourself. If the pope, that great parasite, does not like his behavior he can go have sex with boy children as dreadful Catholic Priests are said to specialize in doing; who cares about what perverted pedophiles say? Forget other people and live your life as you see fit, seem the logical philosophy of modern urban folk. You get the point.
So how would natural men live in society if they had a choice in formulating the parameters of that society? Rousseau talked about what he called the General Will. Like most convoluted French ideas it is really difficult to understand what the hell he was talking about. Was he talking about a number of individuals pulling their wills into a general will as the foundation of public policy making and law? I doubt that that was what he said.
If you want to understand the nature of representative democracy you are best served if you read Anglo-Saxon tracks, books by John Locke, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill and others.
Let us then say that Rousseau was saying something about the people as a collective making laws that ruled them. That is just about as much clarity as one can throw on the concept of general will. Let us not detain ourselves talking about convoluted concepts.
Rousseau wanted freedom but at the same time did not seem to know what freedom is. He was not sure what it means to rule ones self. In his private life he certainly did not rule himself and depended on one woman after another to support him. When he visited England and could not find wealthy women to depend on and had to depend on men he exhibited neurotic traits and accused the men he was living with of wanting to kill him. Eventually, he fled back to France and Switzerland where he had French madams willing to take care of him, the boy prodigy.
One can say without equivocation that Rousseau was a boy child who never grew up; he remained a child in an adult’s body.
Whatever were his unresolved issues, and they were legion, Rousseau had enormous influence on Western intellectual thought. He is everywhere you turn your attention to: in psychology, in education, in politics etc. He is one of those persons that you never quite understand what they stand for yet they appear everywhere you turn to. At present he appears to be the patron saint of environmentalists because of his seeming hatred of large urban areas and what they do to nature. He is the hero of anarchists who do not want any authority telling them what to do. He is a hero of socialists who talk about collective living though they are often the most narcissistic, power mongering persons who want to tell other people how to lives their lives. Back to nature freaks and tree huggers appear to find Rousseau their role model. This man has a lot of appeal to people; disparate folk find him a useful peg on which to hang their intellectual coats. So be it.
Jean Jacque Rousseau, Social Contact. (There are many editions)