Wednesday, 11 November 2009

HCJ. Jean Jacques Rousseau: The Social Contract, Book One

Jean Jacques Rousseau was born 28th June 1712 and died 2nd July 1778. He was a major French philosopher and writer. His political philosophy influenced the French Revolution and the development of modern political and educational thought.

The Social Contract (1762) explores a range of theories which try to explain the ways in which people form states and maintain social order. Rousseau speaks of the best way to set up a political community, which helped inspire political reform in Europe, especially in France. The Social Contract also tries to determine whether there can ever be a legitimate political authority.

This is merely my interpretation of some of the points Rousseau made in the Social Contract.
• ‘I feel that, however feeble the influence my voice can have on public affairs, the right of voting on them makes it my duty to study them.’ Rousseau seems to believe that if an issue is affecting him, others will be affected too and as he is voting politically, he has a right to speak up about issue influencing the country at the time.
Subject of the first book.
• ‘Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.’ This refers to the restrictions within society.
• Man created rules, we have therefore restricted ourselves, and it has nothing to do with nature. If we break free of these rules, it is justifiable since we created them.
The First Societies: Rousseau claims that only the natural society is family. As soon as a child’s need/ dependency on the parent ceases then the natural bond dissolves.
• If the child and parent s remain united, it is not natural but through choice and the bond is maintained through convention.
• Man becomes his own master. Rousseau suggests everyone is completely in control of their own lives. Independence and free thinking.
• Rousseau thinks society is divided into sections, each with its own leader. ‘The human species is divided into so many herds of cattle, each with its ruler, who keeps guard over them for the purpose of devouring them.’ Rousseau implies that the leaders are only after power, they are not governing for order or what is best for the people.
• Rousseau refers to Aristotle, ‘men are by no means equal naturally, but that some are born for slavery and others for domination.’ Suggests we have no choice in who we are or what we become but that it is all presupposed.
• Rousseau agreed with Aristotle but thought he took effect for cause.
• ‘Every man born in slavery is born for slavery.’ Rousseau appears to discount human ambition and motivation for change. No account of affects of events in a person’s life and how it may influence what they become and whether they have a choice in what they become.
The Right of the Strongest: Rousseau states that the strongest does not always become ‘master.’ If someone is to become a leader they must turn strength into right and obedience into duty.
• Rousseau questions whether ‘right’ actually exists.
• If we are not forced to obey, then we are not obliged to do so. Clearly the word ‘right’ adds nothing to force, in this connection it means absolutely nothing.
• Rousseau seems to imply force is the way to power. If nobody forced society to obey rules, nobody would feel obliged to obey them. Therefore if those in power are only there by force, what makes the rules they put in place ‘right?’
• ‘All power comes from God.’ If this is so, how is it chosen who has power in society?
• ‘Force does not create right, and that we are obliged to obey only legitimate powers.’ But what defines legitimate powers?
Slavery: ‘Since no man has a natural authority over his fellow, and force creates no right, we must conclude that conventions form the basis of all legitimate authority among men.’
• Rousseau questions who would willingly give themselves to serve another.
• ‘War is constituted by a relation between things not between persons...’ Is this attitude still applicable today? Could we justify recent wars with that reasoning and say that relationships between people are not the cause but the ‘things’ we want?
• ‘The words ‘slave’ and ‘right’ contradict each other.’ Rousseau does not seem to believe there is equality between men, which could be questioning towards men in power. Does Rousseau agree with the concept of slavery?
• Rousseau sees a man in power ruling over other individuals in the same way as a master controlling a slave.
• Rousseau presupposes unanimity. The minority would not be able to overrule the majority.
The Social Compact: The human race must constantly evolve in order to survive. Power of resistance- ‘must be greater than the resources at the disposal of each individual for his maintenance in that state.’
• We need some form of unity in order to survive.
• Force and liberty of each man are the chief instruments of his self preservation.
• Is freedom within society possible?
• Each individual has to take complete responsibility for themselves. ‘Each man, in giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody.’
• ‘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.’ Common identity from unity.
The Sovereign: The sovereign must abide by its own rules or it will eventually self annihilate, which can of course create nothing.
• Once a form of unity has been created, one person in that unit cannot offend another without offending the whole unit. It is a somewhat extreme view of unity, leaving no room for personal opinion of the individual.
• In regards to the above, perhaps this can be relevant to political parties, as each party has to support its members and they all hold the same view and wish for the same outcome.
• ‘Each individual, as a man, may have a particular will contrary or dissimilar to the general will which he has as a citizen.’ We will always have individual needs and our own motivations no matter which body of society we form a part of.
• ‘Whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body.’ Social pressure.
• Rousseau says conformity forces a man to be free, but surely by conforming to the general will, it is the opposite of freedom if the individual in fact holds an opposing view.
• Perhaps Rousseau views many things on a purely political basis; the divides he speaks of within society could be representative of differing political views. This makes much of what he says applicable to modern day society.
The Civil State: Rousseau speaks of the passage from ‘the state of nature to the civil state.’ Justice instead of instinct, actions are now paired with morality. Consults reason before inclination.
• Mental stimulation means ideas and thoughts can be continuously extended.
• ‘What a man loses by the social contract is his natural liberty and the proprietorship of all he possesses.’ Rousseau thinks that although we have lost some natural forms of freedom, we have gained civil rights.
Real Property: Rousseau speaks of the rights of the first occupier and how these rights must be gained.
• Does anybody really have the right to own a property since nature provided the land for us all?
• ‘The whole social system should rest, i.e. that, instead of destroying natural inequality... for such physical inequality... men, who may be unequal in strength or intelligence, become every one equal by convention and legal right.’ Rousseau focuses on the idea of equality/inequality throughout book one. It appears there is no natural equality, only that created by man through the creation of rules.

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