The Essential Writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Vintage Classics)

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This may partly concern issues of compliance, since selfish citizens who can will the general will might still not be moved to obey it. But Rousseau also seems to believe that citizen virtue is a necessary condition for the emergence of the general will in the first place. This presents him with a problem for which his figure of the legislator is one attempted solution. As a believer in the plasticity of human nature, Rousseau holds that good laws make for good citizens.

However, he also believes both that good laws can only be willed by good citizens and that, in order to be legitimate, they must be agreed upon by the assembly. This puts him in some difficulty, as it is unlikely that the citizens who come together to form a new state will have the moral qualities required to will good laws, shaped as those citizens will have been by unjust institutions. The legislator or lawgiver therefore has the function of inspiring a sense of collective identity in the new citizens that allows them to identify with the whole and be moved to support legislation that will eventually transform them and their children into good citizens.


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In this story, however, the new citizens at first lack the capacity to discern the good reasons that support the new laws and the lawgiver has to persuade them by non-rational means to legislate in their own best interests. The figure of the legislator is a puzzle. Like the tutor in Emile , the legislator has the role of manipulating the desires of his charges, giving them the illusion of free choice without its substance.

Little wonder then that many critics have seen these characters in a somewhat sinister light. In both cases there is a mystery concerning where the educator figure comes from and how he could have acquired the knowledge and virtue necessary to perform his role.

This, in turn, raises a problem of regress. Since he uses the notion in several distinct ways, though, it is important to distinguish several uses of the term. First, we should note that Rousseau regards the capacity for choice, and therefore the ability to act against instinct and inclination, as one of the features that distinguishes the human race from animal species and makes truly moral action possible.

In the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality , for example, he characterizes animal species in essentially Cartesian terms, as mechanisms programmed to a fixed pattern of behavior. Human beings, on the other hand are not tied to any particular mode of life and can reject the promptings of instinct. Rousseau also takes this freedom to choose to act as the basis of all distinctively moral action.

In Book I chapter 8 of the The Social Contract , Rousseau tries to illuminate his claim that the formation of the legitimate state involves no net loss of freedom, but in fact, he makes a slightly different claim. The new claim involves the idea of an exchange of one type of freedom natural freedom for another type civil freedom. Since all human beings enjoy this liberty right to all things, it is clear that in a world occupied by many interdependent humans, the practical value of that liberty may be almost nonexistent. Further, inevitable conflict over scarce resources will pit individuals against each other, so that unhindered exercise of natural freedom will result in violence and uncertainty.

The formation of the state, and the promulgation of laws willed by the general will, transforms this condition. With sovereign power in place, individuals are guaranteed a sphere of equal freedom under the law with protection for their own persons and security for their property. Provided that the law bearing equally on everyone is not meddlesome or intrusive and Rousseau believes it will not be, since no individual has a motive to legislate burdensome laws there will be a net benefit compared to the pre-political state. On the face of it, this claim looks difficult to reconcile with the fact of majorities and minorities within a democratic state, since those citizens who find themselves outvoted would seem to be constrained by a decision with which they disagree.

Many commentators have not found this argument fully convincing. The picture is further complicated by the fact that he also relies on a fourth conception of freedom, related to civil freedom but distinct from it, which he nowhere names explicitly. This hostility to the representation of sovereignty also extends to the election of representatives to sovereign assemblies, even where those representatives are subject to periodic re-election.

Even in that case, the assembly would be legislating on a range of topics on which citizens have not deliberated. Laws passed by such assemblies would therefore bind citizens in terms that they have not themselves agreed upon. Not only does the representation of sovereignty constitute, for Rousseau, a surrender of moral agency, the widespread desire to be represented in the business of self-rule is a symptom of moral decline and the loss of virtue.

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The Essential Writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The practical difficulties of direct self-rule by the entire citizen body are obvious. Such arrangements are potentially onerous and must severely limit the size of legitimate states. It is noteworthy that Rousseau takes a different view in a text aimed at practical politics: Considerations on the Government of Poland. Nevertheless, it is not entirely clear that the widespread interpretation of Rousseau as rejecting all forms of representative government is correct.

One of the key distinctions in The Social Contract is between sovereign and government.

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The sovereign, composed of the people as a whole, promulgates laws as an expression of its general will. The government is a more limited body that administers the state within the bounds set by the laws, and which issues decrees applying the laws in particular cases. In effect, the institution of the sovereign may be inconsistent with a representative model, where the executive power of the government can be understood as requiring it. Although a variety of forms of government turn out to be theoretically compatible with popular sovereignty, Rousseau is sceptical about the prospects for both democracy where the people conduct the day to day running of the state and the application of the laws and monarchy.

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Instead, he favors some form of elective aristocracy: in other words, he supports the idea that the day-to-day administration should be in the hands of a subset of the population, elected by them according to merit. The first of these concerns his political pessimism, even in the case of the best-designed and most perfect republic. Just as any group has a collective will as opposed to the individual private will of its members, so does the government. As the state becomes larger and more diffuse, and as citizens become more distant from one another both spatially and emotionally, so the effective government of the republic will need a proportionally smaller and more cohesive group of magistrates.

The second issue concerns how democratic Rousseau envisaged his republic to be.


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He sometimes suggests a picture in which the people would be subject to elite domination by the government, since the magistrates would reserve the business of agenda-setting for the assembly to themselves. In other cases, he endorses a conception of a more fully democratic republic. For competing views of this question see Fralin and Cohen He rejects the idea that individuals associated together in a political community retain some natural rights over themselves and their property.

Rather, such rights as individuals have over themselves, land, and external objects, are a matter of sovereign competence and decision. Contemporary readers were scandalized by it, and particularly by its claim that true original or early Christianity is useless in fostering the spirit of patriotism and social solidarity necessary for a flourishing state. In many ways the chapter represents a striking departure from the main themes of the book. First, it is the only occasion where Rousseau prescribes the content of a law that a just republic must have.

Second, it amounts to his acceptance of the inevitability of pluralism in matters of religion, and thus of religious toleration; this is in some tension with his encouragement elsewhere of cultural homogeneity as a propitious environment for the emergence of a general will. Third, it represents a very concrete example of the limits of sovereign power: following Locke, Rousseau insists upon the inability of the sovereign to examine the private beliefs of citizens.

In addition, the civil religion requires the provision that all those willing to tolerate others should themselves be tolerated, but those who insist that there is no salvation outside their particular church cannot be citizens of the state. The structure of religious beliefs within the just state is that of an overlapping consensus: the dogmas of the civil religion are such that they can be affirmed by adherents of a number of different faiths, both Christian and non-Christian.

Rousseau argues that those who cannot accept the dogmas can be banished from the state. This is because he believes that atheists, having no fear of divine punishment, cannot be trusted by their fellow citizens to obey the law.

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He goes even further, to suggest the death penalty for those who affirm the dogmas but later act as if they do not believe them. In the Essay , Rousseau tells us that human beings want to communicate as soon as they recognize that there are other beings like themselves. But he also raises the question of why language, specifically, rather than gesture is needed for this purpose. The answer, strangely enough, is that language permits the communication of the passions in a way that gesture does not, and that the tone and stress of linguistic communication are crucial, rather than its content.

This point enables Rousseau to make a close connection between the purposes of speech and melody. Such vocabulary as there originally was, according to Rousseau, was merely figurative and words only acquire a literal meaning much later. Theories that locate the origin of language in the need to reason together about matters of fact are, according to Rousseau, deeply mistaken.

While the cry of the other awakens our natural compassion and causes us to imagine the inner life of others, our purely physical needs have an anti-social tendency because they scatter human beings more widely across the earth in search of subsistence. Although language and song have a common origin in the need to communicate emotion, over time the two become separated, a process that becomes accelerated as a result of the invention of writing.

In the south, language stays closer to its natural origins and southern languages retain their melodic and emotional quality a fact that suits them for song and opera. Northern languages, by contrast, become oriented to more practical tasks and are better for practical and theoretical reasoning. Rousseau proposes need as the cause of the development of language, but since language depends on convention to assign arbitrary signs to objects, he puzzles about how it could ever get started and how primitive people could accomplish the feat of giving names to universals.

This is in contrast to a model of education where the teacher is a figure of authority who conveys knowledge and skills according to a pre-determined curriculum.

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Up to adolescence at least, the educational program comprises a sequence of manipulations of the environment by the tutor. The child is not told what to do or think but is led to draw its own conclusions as a result of its own explorations, the context for which has been carefully arranged. Though the young child must be protected from physical harm, Rousseau is keen that it gets used to the exercise of its bodily powers and he therefore advises that the child be left as free as possible rather than being confined or constrained.

From the age of about twelve or so, the program moves on to the acquisition of abstract skills and concepts. This is not done with the use of books or formal lessons, but rather through practical experience. The third phase of education coincides with puberty and early adulthood. The period of isolation comes to an end and the child starts to take an interest in others particularly the opposite sex , and in how he or she is regarded.

At this stage the great danger is that excessive amour propre will extend to exacting recognition from others, disregarding their worth, and demanding subordination. The young and autonomous adult finds a spouse who can be another source of secure and non-competitive recognition. In modern political philosophy, for example, it is possible to detect Rousseau as a source of inspiration for liberal theories, communitarian ideas, civic republicanism, and in theories of deliberative and participatory democracy.

Hostile writers have portrayed Rousseau as a source of inspiration for the more authoritarian aspects of the French revolution and thence for aspects of fascism and communism. The cases of Hegel and Marx are more complex.