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Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a Swiss Enlightenment philosopher who argued passionately for democracy, equality, liberty and supporting the common good.

Rousseau was born in Geneva in 1712. He wrote several major works on politics, education, music and botany. But his controversial ideas made him many enemies, forcing him to flee France, Switzerland, and Prussia in turn. His ideas on education, toleration, state sovereignty, democracy, liberty and equality remain very influential.


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The State of Nature

Jean-Jacques Rousseau speculated about what the world was like before societies were created. It was important for political philosophers as it could be used to explain the motivation for creating and supporting a state.

Rousseau suggested that the state of nature was a morally neutral and peaceful condition in which individuals were self-sufficient, fairly solitary by choice, and sympathetic to others. Only when they move into society, human nature becomes corrupted.


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Questioning If Society Provides Anything Beneficial

Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that human nature only becomes corrupted after we move into society.

  • He thought problems like theft could only be problems after society formed.
  • He argues that art and science haven't improved most people's moral fibre.
  • He thought private property encouraged greed and egotism. He believed "you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody."


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The Social Contract Theory

If the state of nature is so pleasant and people in it so moral, why would anybody create a society or join up with one?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau suggested this natural evolution is the result of the need for individuals to cooperate. However, forming societies takes away the individual's freedom and protects the inequalities that lead rulers and people into vice. Rousseau's solution was to create a social contract that could enable all members of society to follow their own will while living in a society.


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The General Will

The general will is the key to Rousseau's social contract theory. He stated that any legitimate state must be based on the general will. All laws and actions the state undertakes must be in accordance with it.

The general will is the will of the sum of individual wills. In principle, a person can follow it and still follow their will, since they helped to form it. Individually, a person understands that the greater good is also in their interest, resulting in no friction between their interests and the society's interests.


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The Individual Will And The General Will

The shift between being able to follow the individual will and the general will is not so easy to establish.

Finding the general will is based on three approaches.

  • A highly democratic model is where citizenry discusses legislation at town hall meetings. Magistrates would be elected and be duty-bound to execute the legislation as determined by the people.
  • Another model is that a "legislator" (someone who knows what good laws and morals are) can show people the general will by either guiding discussion or helping people identify with the common cause.
  • A third is a hybrid of the two.


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Living In A Rousseauan Society

The positive:

  • The general will could ensure an equal society.
  • Major inequalities would be absent.
  • It would be a small society, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau feared a large country would not find the common cause.
  • People would be able to act freely within a sphere decided by the general will.

The negative:

  • Since the general will can be applied to almost any facet of life, the people, or legislator, may decide to create an oppressive society.
  • Individual rights only exist as far as the general will thinks they should.
  • If your interests differ from the general will, you can be dragged along.


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Examples Of A Near Rousseauan Society

  • In practice, the Quakers got the closest to a Jean-Jacques Rousseauan society even though it is a religious notion unrelated to Rousseau's philosophy. The Quakers seek God's will through discussion and end up in agreement on what it is.
  • The French Revolution can be viewed as an attempt to apply Rousseau's ideas. His ideas inspired Maximilien Robespierre. Robespierre agreed with the idea that the general will was the basis for state legitimacy and that people could be forced to be free by any means necessary.


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Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Ideas Can Broaden Our Thinking

As with most political philosophy, the real concern is how his big ideas are considered in our society.

Whenever we discuss topics like what it takes for a government to be legitimate, if modern society is good for us, or what we think should be subject to a vote, we draw from the same topics Rousseau considered.


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