20. Democracy and Participation: Rousseau’s Social Contract, I-II
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20. Democracy and Participation: Rousseau’s Social Contract, I-II

November 12, 2019


Professor Steven Smith:
There’s so much to say and so little time. Today, I want to talk about the
general will, Rousseau’s most important
contribution to political science and I will also want to
talk about the legacies of Rousseau and what he’s meant for
the world that he did so much to shape.
But I want to start first with the general will which is his
answer to the problems of civilization or the political
problem of the Second Discourse that we talked
about last week, the problems of inequality,
the problem of amour-propre,
the problem of our general discontent.
Social contract is his answer to the problem of natural
freedom. This is so, in a way,
because for Rousseau nature, he tells us,
provides no standards or guidelines for determining who
should rule. Unlike Aristotle,
man is not here a political animal, and notice that when
Rousseau speaks of the social contract in the general will as
the foundation of all legitimate authority,
he means, literally, that all standards of justice
and right have their origins in the will in this unique human
property of the will or free agency.
It is this liberation of the will from all transcendent
sources or standards, whether those be found in
nature, in custom, in revelation,
in any other source. The liberation of the will from
all of these sources that is the true, as it were,
center of gravity of Rousseau’s philosophy.
It is a world that begins to emphasize the primacy and the
priority of the will, a moral point of view that I
want to indicate a little later, finds its, in many ways,
very powerful expression in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.
But given Rousseau’s, let’s call it libertarian
conception of human nature, his description of the actual
mechanism of the social contract may come as something of a
surprise to us. The problem,
to which the formula of the general will is the answer,
is stated succinctly by Rousseau in Book I,
chapter 6 of the Social Contract.
“Find a form of association,” he writes, “which defends and
protects with all the common force,
the person and goods of each associate and by means of which
each one while uniting with all obeys only himself and remains
as free as before.” This, he calls,
the fundamental problem for which the social contract is the
solution. That statement,
a famous statement, Book I, chapter 6,
really contains two parts that merit close attention.
The first part says–the first part of that clause says that
the aim of the contract is to protect and defend with the
common force the goods and person of each member.
So far, think of that, this is entirely consistent
with Locke’s claim or even Hobbes’ claim that the purpose
of society is to protect the security or the life,
liberty, and estate of each of its members.
Yet, Rousseau adds to this Lockean or liberal clause you
might say, a second and more distinctly Rousseauian claim,
namely, that the contract must ensure not only the conditions
for mutual protection and the preservation of self and
property, but rather also that in uniting
with one another, he says, each person obeys only
himself and then he says, “remains as free as they were
before.” But how is this possible,
we want to know. Isn’t the essence of the social
contract that we give up some part of our natural freedom to
guarantee mutual peace and security?
How can we remain as free as we were before, and as he says,
obey only our–that the participant obey only himself.
That is the paradox, in many ways,
or the fundamental problem, as he calls it,
to which his contract is a solution.
Rousseau provides an answer as follows;
he says, “Properly understood these clauses are all reducible
to one. Namely,” he says,
“the total alienation of each associate together with all of
his rights to the entire community.”
The total alienation of each associate with all of his rights
to the entire community. And those two phrases,
“total alienation” and “entire community” are obviously central
here. In the first place,
all persons must give themselves entirely over to the
social contract to ensure that the terms of the agreement are
equal for all. The total alienation clause as
it were, is Rousseau’s manner of ensuring that the terms of the
contract are the same for everyone.
But secondly, when we alienate ourselves,
it is crucial, he says, that this be done or
given to the entire community, for only then he wants to
argue, is the individual beholden not to any private will
or any private association, or to some other person but to
the general will, the will of the entire
community. The social contract is the
foundation of the general will which is, for Rousseau,
the only legitimate sovereign. Not kings, not parliaments,
not representative assemblies, not presidents,
but the general will of the entire community is the only
general sovereign, the doctrine of the famous
doctrine of what we call the sovereignty of the people or
popular sovereignty. Since everyone combines to make
up this will, when we give ourselves over to
it entirely, he wants to argue, we do nothing more then obey
ourselves. The sovereign,
in other words, is not some distinct third
party that is created by the contract,
but rather the sovereign is simply the people as a whole
acting in its collective capacity,
the people in their collective capacity.
Now, you might suggest that there is something deeply amiss
here. That is to say,
from a highly individualistic set of premises where each
person is concerned only in the state of nature,
or in the pre-contract tradition, only with the
protection of their lives, persons and property,
Rousseau seems to be leading us to a highly regimented and
collectivized conclusion, where the individual has given
over virtually his or her entire being to the will of the
community. In what way does this render us
as free as we were before? In what way do we remain free
and obey only ourselves? That seems to be the problem.
Is Rousseau’s formula for the general will,
a recipe or a formula for freedom,
or is it a recipe for the tyranny of the majority of the
type later analyzed by Tocqueville that we’ll be seeing
after the break? Rousseau wants to say,
paradoxically, only through this total
alienation do we remain free. Why is this?
Why is this? Because he wants to argue no
one is dependent upon the will of another.
The people established through their act a new kind of
sovereign, the general will, which he says is not strictly
speaking the sum total, the additive total of the
individual wills or the individual parts,
but is more like the general interest or the rational will,
if you want to use that kind of Kantian formulation,
the rational will of a community.
Since we all contribute to the shaping of this general will,
when we obey its laws we do, he wants to say,
no more than obey ourselves. Rousseau describes this new
kind of freedom that we achieve under the general will.
He wants to say that this brings about,
in some ways, a radical transformation of
human nature in itself. The freedom of the citizen
under the general will is not the freedom of the state of
nature, it’s not the freedom to do
anything we like, anything that our will and
power allows us to do, but it is a new kind of freedom
that he calls moral freedom, a freedom to do what the law
commands. The passage from the state of
nature, he writes, to the civil state,
the passage from the state of nature to the civil state
produces a remarkable change in man.
For it substitutes justice for instinct in his behavior and
gives his actions a moral quality that they previously
lacked. And Rousseau continues that
statement as follows. “What man loses through the
social contract is his natural liberty and unmitigated right to
everything that tempts him and he can acquire.
What he gains is civil liberty and proprietary ownership of all
he possesses, but–and here I think is the
crucial argument or the crucial clause, but he writes–to the
preceding acquisitions,” that is to say civil liberty,
“could be added the acquisition of moral liberty which alone,”
he says, “makes man truly the master of himself.
For it to be driven by appetite alone is slavery and obedience
to the law one has prescribed for oneself is freedom.”
That is a remarkable statement. “Obedience to the law that one
prescribes for oneself is freedom.”
That is moral liberty, which is only created and
possible through the social contract,
and the implications of this, the moral and political
implications of that statement are massive.
It is here, in many ways, where Rousseau departs most
powerfully, most dramatically from his early modern
predecessors. Consider the following.
For Hobbes and Locke, liberty meant that sphere of
human conduct which is unregulated by the law.
Remember chapter 21 of Leviathan,
where Hobbes says, “where the law is silent”
praetermitted in his term, “where the law is silent,
the citizen is free to do what ever he or she chooses to do.”
Freedom begins, so to speak,
where the law is silent. But for Rousseau,
law is the very beginning of our freedom.
Where the law is silent, we may have a kind of natural
freedom, but our moral freedom, we are free to the extent that
we are participants in the laws that we in turn obey.
Freedom means acting in conformity with self-imposed
law. A radically different
understanding of what freedom consists and it seems underlying
the difference between, one could say Hobbes and Locke
on the one side, and Rousseau on the other;
it’s a difference between two very different conceptions of
liberty. One might call them liberal and
republican respectively, small “r” republican of course
or democratic even, if you like.
For liberals, following in the tradition of
Hobbes and Locke, again, freedom has always meant
a sphere of privacy where the law does not intrude or where
other people do not intrude. This is why the separation of
the public and the private sphere has always been so sacred
to liberals, because only in the private
sphere, only in that area of civil society where the state
does not intrude is the individual really and truly
free. But for the republican theory
of liberty of which Rousseau is a most powerful modern exponent,
this separation of public and private is only an exercise in
what might be thought of as private selfishness.
The task is rather to create a community where the individual
and the public interest are not in conflict with one another,
where the individual does not think of him or herself as a
being apart from the social body.
This is the freedom of the citizen, for Rousseau,
who takes an active role in the determination of the laws of
one’s own community. Rousseau’s purpose in saying
this and in writing this seems to be to bring back to life a
concept that he believes has been dormant,
had laid dormant for centuries and that concept is the citizen.
The last people who really knew what a citizen meant,
he says, were the Romans. In a footnote,
again to Book I, chapter 6, he indicates to what
degree the true meaning of citizen has been lost on modern
subjects. “Most modern men,” he writes,
“mistake a town for a city, and a bourgeois for a citizen.”
Think of that. Most mistake a bourgeois for a
citizen. The modern world furnishes
almost no examples of what a citizen is, and this is why it
is necessary for Rousseau to return to the histories of
antiquity, especially Rome and Sparta to
find models of citizenship. Only in these societies can one
find the spirit of self-sacrifice and devotion to
the common good, a kind of patriotic devotion
upon which citizenship is founded.
If I could take perhaps Rousseau’s most memorable
example of the true citizen it comes from an example he lifts
from the Roman writer, Plutarch that he uses in the
opening pages of his book, The Émile,
which I hope you will have a chance to read at some other
time. Here, he tells an unforgettable
story for anybody who ever reads Émile.
“A Spartan woman,” he writes, “had five sons in the army and
was awaiting news of the battle,”
had five sons in the army and was awaiting news of the battle.
“A helot, slave arrives trembling she asks him for news.
‘Your five sons were killed,’ the helot replies.
‘Base slave, did I ask you this?’
‘We won the victory,’ he says. The mother runs to the temple
and gives thanks to the gods.” Here, for Rousseau,
was the ancient citizen. An example that is both
terrible and sublime, which of course he wants it to
be, he intends it to be. There is the example of what
the true citizen is. The question,
when you consider this possibility, is whether
Rousseau’s idea of the freedom of the citizen,
freedom to live under self-imposed law,
leads to a higher form of nobility,
higher than the kind of low minded pursuit of one’s
self-interest as Rousseau wants. He wants to dignify politics
again by leading to a higher form of nobility or does it
result in a new kind of despotism,
the despotism of law, the despotism of obedience to
the general will and of course underlying that sinister reading
of Rousseau is the famous or maybe infamous statement that
not only that the general will is the source of freedom,
but that anyone who obeys, who refuses to obey,
the general will may be in his famous formulation,
may be forced to be free. That anyone who disobeys it and
being chastised or can be, as it were, forced to be free.
Recall that this is a conception of freedom which,
again, is almost the opposite of that of what we might again
call the liberal tradition. A view, which,
and again in a slightly paradoxical way,
was given, a very powerful formulation by Hobbes.
I want to read a passage that I read a couple of weeks ago from
Hobbes which I think stands as a striking contrast to that of
Rousseau’s. Again, in chapter 21 of
Leviathan Hobbes writes, “The Athenians and the Romans
were free, that is, they were free commonwealths.
Not that any particular men had liberty to resist their own
representatives, but their representatives had
the liberty to resist or invade other people.”
Hobbes clearly says that the ancient freedom was the freedom
of the collective; it wasn’t the freedom of the
individual. “The freedom of the
authorities,” as he says, “to resist or invade other
people.” There is written,
on the turrets of the city of Lucca, remember that,
in the great characters at this day the word libertas and
yet, he goes on to say,
“no man can thence infer that a particular man has more liberty
or immunity from service to the commonwealth there than in
Constantinople.” That is to say,
freedom for Hobbes consists of, as he puts it,
immunity from service, immunity from service and for
this reason there is no reason to believe that anyone is freer
in the republican city of Lucca, which has libertas on
the wall than in Constantinople. That seems to,
already a 100 or so years before Rousseau,
suggest a powerful alternative to his view of freedom.
Hobbes’ point, like Rousseau’s,
is extreme and that in many ways is the power of these two
views. Hobbes’ view of freedom is
immunity from service, Rousseau’s view is that freedom
consists, you might say, only in service.
Our freedom starts where the law begins.
Again, at the basis of this are two radically different views of
the role of political participation in lawmaking.
For Rousseau, again, laws are legitimate only
if everyone has a direct share in making them.
It doesn’t mean we all agree with the outcome but only if we
have some kind of share or voice in making them.
For Hobbes, for Locke, for the authors of the
federalist papers, on the other hand,
the direct involvement of the citizen in lawmaking is clearly
a subordinate or a secondary good.
Legislation is better handled by persons chosen from the
electorate who are, so to speak,
the agents or representatives of the people.
This was what the federalist authors argued was the great
advance of modern political science, the doctrine of
representation. What is far more important for
the federalist authors, as well as for Locke,
Hobbes and that tradition is that laws be generally known,
that they be applied by impartial judges,
rather than they be the direct expression of the general will.
In many ways underlying the, again, liberal conception of
law is a certain distrust of the collective wisdom or the
collective sovereignty of the people.
It is too cumbersome, in many ways,
and also too dangerous a mechanism to call people
together to decide on matters over public concern.
This is better left according to this tradition to
representatives. Rousseau obviously could not
disagree more. One could say that Rousseau
makes heroic and unreasonable assumptions about human nature.
Why do we want to gather together constantly or often to
decide, to deliberate, and to debate over questions of
public concern? Most people,
it’s hard enough just to get most people, as we know,
to go out to vote, why do we want to engage in
endless debate of something like a college council meeting trying
to discuss what to do, whether to buy or not a new set
of dumbbells for the weight room.
This is a debate that will go on for hours and hours and maybe
even weeks. Don’t people simply want to be
left alone? Rousseau, again,
he seems in some way, to make unreasonable
assumptions about human nature and our capacity to engage in
debate. But Rousseau will tell you he
is not being idealistic at all. He is starting from the
assumption of men as they are, he says.
Unless everyone he wants to say is engaged in the process of
legislation, there is no way for you know that the laws will be
an expression of your will rather than simply the private
will or corporate will of some individual or intermediary body.
You will find yourself in a condition of dependence and
slavery on the will of others. And what is really at issue for
Rousseau is freedom from dependence on some faction,
some interest, or some association that we
have come to call today interest groups,
in some way. Rousseau’s appeal is not to our
altruism, but rather, to our selfishness,
in some way. Our desire, our private or
selfish desire to preserve our freedom and resist the willful
domination of others upon it. So far, this all,
in many ways, is very abstract and Rousseau
deliberately sets out his plan for the general will in a highly
abstract and semi-technical language.
But he turns to questions particularly in Book III about
how is the general will actually applied.
How is it applied? Here Rousseau is far more
specific sociologically and so on about the conditions under
which the general will, or a general will,
can come about. In the first place,
the general will can only operate in small states,
much like the size of an ancient republic.
In one place, one particularly notable place
in the social contract, he says,
only the island country of Corsica is today a place where
the general will might be established.
The modern nation-state, as we have come to think of it,
is far too large and diffuse to determine the general will.
Such a state, such large states will
necessarily entail considerable degrees of social inequality of
wealth, of status and with such
inequalities, there can be no general will.
Finally, or in addition, such a state where the general
will is operative would be one that would have to,
in some sense, eschew the temptations of
commerce and luxury for these bring with them,
again, large scale inequalities. His ideal city seems to be a
kind of agrarian democracy, a small-scale agrarian society.
Yet, at the same time, we might get the impression
that only a direct democracy would satisfy Rousseau’s
requirements for the general will and yet we find out this is
not quite the case. In Book III,
which I hope you will look at with some care,
he shows surprising flexibility about the forms of government
that may be appropriate to different physical and different
climates and different topographies and so on.
In the chapter on democracy, he remarks even,
“were there a people of God’s that would govern itself
democratically,” and then he adds,
“so perfect a government is not suited to men.”
So he is skeptical about the possibility of a direct
democracy and by that he means a democracy not only where the
people legislate, bring, create law but where
they are in charge also with the administration of law as well,
the execution or enforcement of the law.
He is very skeptical about that kind of democracy.
Again, democracies are only possible under very,
very special unique circumstances;
otherwise, aristocracy, monarchy, some kind of even
mixed government is possible or even desirable.
He insists on the separation of powers for much the same reasons
that one finds in Locke. The people who make the law
should not be charged with, responsible for executing and
enforcing them, and throughout this part of the
book Rousseau seems to be in dialogue with an unnamed rival
whom he sometimes simply refers to as a famous author.
That author is of course, Montesquieu,
the author of The Spirit of the Laws.
That came out in 1755 and Montesquieu was,
of course, famous for arguing that different forms of
government must be tailored to different climates,
different geographies, different circumstances.
In many ways, in Book III,
Rousseau seems to indicate or to introduce a very,
very almost un-Rousseauian emphasis on prudence,
moderation, flexibility that seems at odds with the dogmatic
claims of the first two books with its emphasis upon the
absolute inviolability of sovereignty.
But most important for Rousseau, it is important that
legislative authority, in whatever kind of
constitution and under whatever kind of government,
that legislative authority is only,
is always held by the people in their collective capacity.
This is why, in a very powerful chapter,
Book III, chapter 15, Rousseau rejects altogether the
legitimacy of representative government.
That passage or that chapter could be taken already as a kind
of repudiation, not just of Locke,
Locke’s theory of the representative but also twenty
years or so before the fact of the federalist argument for
representation. “Sovereignty,” he says,
“can never be delegated.” Sovereignty can never be
represented, it can only be expressed.
The general will can never be delegated to someone else.
If you do that, if you delegate the authority
for making law you are, he wants to say,
on the first step down the road to tyranny because you give
someone else, some partial body or
association the power to make law over you.
The lawmaking function can only legitimately be held by the
people themselves. I’m going to skip over a bunch
of stuff that has to do, very interestingly,
I hope you can discuss it in your sections perhaps,
with Rousseau’s account of the legislator, the extraordinary
individual who was responsible at the beginnings of regimes,
for shaping the general, for molding a people and for,
as it were, giving the general will a kind of shape and
distinctive direction, and I’m also going to skip,
for our purposes, the very interesting discussion
of civil theology, which occupies the theme,
the very last chapter of the book, Book IV,
chapter 8, where Rousseau talks about the
way in which a civil religion must be tailored to bring about
love and obedience to the general will.
It was that chapter, I should say,
that more than anything else led to the books being burned
and banned in Geneva and other places and for its powerful
attack on Christianity in that chapter.
I’m going to pass over that for the time being to look at the
legacies of Rousseau and to talk about what–and I just
deliberately use that word in the plural–the legacies of
Rousseau, because there is virtually no
part of modern life, political, cultural,
intellectual, moral that does not in some
sense bear the stamp or fingerprints of Jean-Jacque
Rousseau. Rousseau’s description of the
legislator, the kind of political founder creating a
people, was for many,
in many ways, the closely connected with the
French Revolution and particularly the claim of the
revolutionaries to create a new nation,
a new people, a new sovereign,
a new popular sovereign in France.
Consider the following words of the famous revolutionary
Robespierre in his homage to Rousseau written in 1791.
Divine man, this is Robespierre, “Divine man you
taught me to know myself. While I was still young,
you made me appreciate the dignity of my nature and reflect
upon the great principles of the social order.
The old edifice is crumbling, the portico of the new edifice
is rising up on its ruins and thanks to you I have brought my
stone to it. Receive my homage,
as weak as it is, it must be please you.
I wish to follow your venerable footsteps, happy if in the
perilous career that an unprecedented revolution just
opened up before us. I remain constantly faithful to
the inspirations that I found in your text.”
People might tell you that the writings of Rousseau had no
influence on the French Revolution,
that the French Revolution was brought about by bread crises
and economic problems and so on; absolute baloney.
The writings of Rousseau had this powerful influence on the
idea of creating a new people and a new nation.
Yet, despite what appears to be a utopian and impractical in his
politics, again, Rousseau had a profound
influence on the politics of his era.
He was approached during his lifetime to write constitutions
for Poland and for Corsica, and of course that was the
island where a generation later a man named Napoleon Bonaparte
was born who attempted to, you might say in some way,
extend Rousseau’s teaching, not just to France but to all
of Europe at the point of a gun to bring democracy to all of
Europe at the point of a gun. Does that sound familiar at all
in any way related to events going on now?
Where we have a new kind of Bonapartism, perhaps. In many ways,
although Rousseau’s attack on representative government would
seem to put him strongly at odds with the American
Constitution, his glorification of the rural
republic based on equality, moral simplicity,
skepticism of commerce and luxury, this was to be re-echoed
in the writings of Jefferson, with his ideal of a nation of
small Yeoman farmers and certainly any reader of
Tocqueville’s depiction in celebration of the independent
townships of New England. Tocqueville’s account of this
was directly dependent on his reading of Rousseau,
the small-scale experiment in direct democracy that
Tocqueville saw was a real world example of a kind of politics
governed by the general will. And when you read those early
chapters from Tocqueville’s democracy in America about the
New England township you will very much see Tocqueville
looking at America through the lenses that were in some ways
crafted or shaped by Rousseau. That influence was palpable on
a whole host of later nineteenth-century writers.
Like Tolstoy, for instance,
whose celebration of Russian peasant life was inspired by
Rousseau and through Tolstoy, Rousseau influenced the
establishment of the Israeli kibbutz movement that was also
founded by Russian Jews who had been influenced by Tolstoy,
so you have a sort of self-reinforcing cycle of
influence. These, you might say,
small rural socialistic experiments in communal living
exhibit the same kind of equality,
self-government devotion to the common good that Rousseau helped
people imagine might be possible.
Yet, Rousseau’s influence was not limited to politics.
If he was a divine man, as Robespierre called him,
he was no less so to Immanuel Kant,
who claimed that it was his reading of Rousseau that led him
to learn respect for the dignity and the rights of man;
that’s what Kant said. He called Rousseau “the Newton
of the moral universal.” Kant’s entire philosophy and I
hope you also have a chance to read Kant’s critique of
practical reason in some later philosophy course,
Kant’s entire moral philosophy is a kind of deepened and
radicalized Rousseauianism where what Rousseau called the general
will is transmuted into what Kant calls the rational will and
the categorical imperative. It was not the least of
Rousseau’s legacies that after his death he became a hero both
to the revolution and to the counter-revolution,
both to a revival of Roman-style republicanism as
well as to Romanticism, or if I can use the words of
great Rousseauian, Jane Austin,
he became both an advocate of sense and sensibility.
Emerson, Thoreau, American transcendentalism with
its worship of nature and its protests against the kind of
deadening and corrupting influence of society,
all of these people were the direct heirs of Rousseau.
Rousseau’s last work, a book called The Reveries
of a Solitary Walker, set the stage for later
American classics like Walden Pond and generations of nature
writers that have come after it and imitated it.
Only by turning away from the noise and business of society
can one return to what precedes society,
to the feeling of existence, to the feeling of or sweetness
of mere existence, to the sentiment of existence,
the le sentiment de soi, as Rousseau calls it,
the sentiment of the self. There is a kind of union that
he celebrates with nature that puts the solitary,
the solitary walker either above humanity or below it.
That type of man foreshadowed by Rousseau, the solitary is no
longer a philosopher in any sense that we would understand.
It might be better understood as an artist or a visionary.
He can claim a privileged place in society because such a person
regards him or herself as the conscience of that society.
His claim to privilege is based on a heightened moral
sensitivity rather than his wisdom or his rationality,
and it is this kind of radical individualism,
the radical detachment of the solitary from the interests of
society that is perhaps Rousseau’s deepest and most
enduring legacy for us today. So, on that note I wish you a
good break. I hope you have a lot of turkey
to eat and you come back well rested and most,
most, most importantly we come back with a win over that evil
empire to our north. Thank you very much.

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