Jean Jacques Rosseau


Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (1712-1778) was a Swiss-born French philosopher, social and political theorist, musician, botanist, and one of the most eloquent writers of the Age of Enlightenment. Rousseau was born in Geneva on June 18, 1712, and was raised by an aunt and uncle following the death of his mother a few days after his birth. He was apprenticed at the age of 13 to an engraver, but after three years he ran away and became secretary and companion to Madame Louise de Warens, a wealthy and charitable woman who had a profound influence on Rousseau's life and writings. In 1742 Rousseau moved to Paris, where he earned his living as a music teacher, music copyist, and political secretary. He became a close friend of the French philosopher Denis Diderot, who commissioned him to write articles on music for the French Encyclopedie.

Philosophical Writings:

In 1750 Rousseau won the Academy of Dijon award for his Discours sur les Sciences et les Arts (Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts, 17501, and in 1752 his opera Le Devin du Village  (The Village Sage) was first performed. In the former, and in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Among Mankind (1755; trans. 1761 I, he expounded the view that science, art, and social institutions have corrupted humankind and that the natural, or primitive, state is morally superior to the civilized state. The persuasive rhetoric of these writings provoked derisive comments from the French philosopher Voltaire, who attacked Rousseau's views, and subsequently the two philosophers became bitter enemies.

Rousseau left Paris in 756 and secluded himself at Montmorency, where he wrote the romance Julie, or the New Eloise (1761; trans. 1773). In his famous political treatise The Social Contract (1762; trans. 1797) he developed a case for civil liberty and helped prepare the ideological background of the French Revolution by defending the popular will against divine right.


In the influential novel Emile (1762; trans. 17631 Rousseau expounded a new theory of education, emphasizing the importance of expression rather than repression to produce a well-balanced, freethinking child.

Rousseau's unconventional views antagonized French and Swiss authorities and alienated many of his friends, and in 1762 he fled first to Prussia and then to England, where he was befriended by the Scottish philosopher David Hume. However, the pair soon quarreled and denounced each other in public letters. During his stay in England Rousseau prepared the manuscript for his posthumously published treatise on botany, La Botanique (Botany, 1802). Rousseau returned to France in 1768 under the assumed name of Renou. In 1770 he completed the manuscript of his most remarkable work, the autobiographical Confessions (1782; trans. 1783, 17901. which contained a penetrating self-examination and revealed the intense emotional and moral conflicts in his life. He died on July 2, 1778, in Errnenonville, France.

His Influence:

Rousseau’s influence on the political thought and action of the succeeding generations has been unparalleled. In his own country viz France, his ideas of liberty, equality and popular sovereignty led logically to the revolution of 1789. They were intensely popular in the heated and surcharged atmosphere of pre-1789 days of a thoroughly degraded and oppressive ancient regime, more so. The France of 1793 till the advent of Napoleon was predominantly under the influence of Rousseau’s ideas. The French, having helped the Americans to gain their independence of Great Britain became deeply interested in their institutions and tried to model their institutions after the American fashion. Now both the Americans and Rousseau have borrowed a good deal from Locke, there was a good deal of similarity between Rousseau’s theories and American practices. The America of the 18th century did not borrow much from Rousseau but the Jeffersonian democratic movement of the early 19th century was stimulated by the French, particularly Rousseau’s ideas. In America the theory of social contract played a conspicuous part. It was recognized in the Declaration of Independence and in nearly all the Bills of Rights in the state constitutions. It was the theory of social contract as enunciated by Rousseau that justified the Revolutions of 1776 and 1789. It may be said of Rousseau that “in political thought he represents the passage from a traditional theory rooted in the Middle Ages to the modern philosophy of the state. His influence on Kant’s moral philosophy and on Hegel’s philosophy of Right is two sides of the same fundamental contribution to modern thought. He is, in fact, the great forerunner of German and English idealism”. In England, besides the Benthamite theory of the greatest good of the greatest number had a close family resemblance with Rousseau’s doctrine of the General Will representing common interests of people. The Political Justice of Godwin is based substantially on Rousseau’s The Origin of Inequality. With Rousseau, the Age of Reason might be said, to have been replaced by the Age of Romanticism. Rousseau’s philosophy enshrined sentiment by dethroning rationalism. The tremendous influence exercised by the writings of Rousseau on the subsequent ages is evidenced by the fact that rival schools quote Rousseau in favour of their own view point. Thus the individualists and collectivists the Monists and Pluralists, find solace in Rousseau who is also a source of inspiration to Philosophic Anarchy, Socialism, Hegelianism, Federalism, Syndicalism and many other schools of thought.

Rousseau‘s Spiritual Ancestry:

Rousseau‘s spiritual ancestry was a long and varied one. He read, among others. Plato, Pufendorf, Locke, Montesquieu, Hobbes and Grotius. he studies history too. He expressed his disagreement with the cotrines of Hobbes and Grotius. Of the remaining, Plato held his mind in the beginning while Montesquieu exercised some influence over him towards the end of his career.

Rousseau on Human Nature and the State of Nature:

According to Rousseau, two original instincts make human nature: self-regarding and other regarding. The former is self-love or self-preservation and the latter is sympathy or gregarious instinct. Since both the instincts are more beneficial than harmful, hence man is by nature essentially good. Self-love and sympathy will frequently clash and man will satisfy both. In case of conflict between the two, man tries to adjust the same by developing a sentiment known as conscience. Conscience needs a guide which comes to man in the shape of reason. Reason determines what is right and what is wrong. Conscience teaches him to do the right and refrain him from doing the wrong. Reason and Conscience enable a man to establish harmony between self” regarding and other regarding instincts. So long as man follows his natural instincts, he is a natural man and a good one. Nature teaches a man all he needs to know and nature provides him all he needs to possess or use. Men enjoy substantial equality.

Rousseau's conception of man's life in the state of nature is not quite so gloomy as that of Hobbes nor as optimistic as that of Locke. Rousseau's natural man is neither happy nor un-happy. He leads a solitary happy and care-free life in the state of nature. He knew neither speech nor dress. He feels free, equal, independent, contented and self-sufficient. He was non-social being unknown to good or evil or fear. Men in the state of nature had no moral relations or determinate obligations one with another. He had neither family nor, property. He followed self-interest or sympathy. Rousseau's state of nature was not a state of war as Hobbies said. It was a state of peace. His noble savage was in a state of Paradise.

With the entrance of Serpent in the shape of property, the situation in the state of nature altogether changed. Property arose out of a desire to have and a settled abode in place of a wandering life. The institution of private property created a sense of jealously and struggle. It also gave rise to inequality. It converted usurpation into an acknowledged right and led to the formation of society enactment of laws and the setting up of government.

Rousseau says that the first man enclosing a piece of land and saying "this is mine" and finding people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of a civil society. The rise of the concept of private property resulted in the loss of the natural equality and freedom that men enjoyed before its rise. The noble savage of -the state of nature lost his previous self-sufficiency and became subject to violence, crime and all evils of society. It was mainly because of this that Rousseau said, "Give us back ignorance, innocence and poverty which alone can make us happy".

Inequality in property holding was the underlying cause of all the evils. The rich were aware that what they possessed was due to force and usurpation.

The Social Contract:

In order to get rid of this state of affairs, Rousseau had two alternatives: either to return to the original state of nature or to institute a civil society. Return to the state of nature was out of question. If there was any salvation for people it must be found in principles of political obligation which would reconcile authority and liberty, remove inequality and furnish a basis for pure justice, establish natural rights and so far as practicable restore to men in society the benefits of the benefits of the pre-political state of nature. The needed formula was easy to be found. The social contract theory lay at hand ready for use. He employed the method of abstract speculation and he used facts in order to fortify his theoretical postulates. In the words of J.J. Rousseau, "the problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force, the person and good of each associate, and in which each while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone and remain as free as before". The individuals, who wanted to group themselves into a society, met together and surrendered their natural rights by saying:

“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.”

This merging of the individuals in the society is complete and creates a moral and collective body. In Rousseau's social contract man does not surrender completely to a sovereign ruler but each man gives himself to nobody in particular but all. Man loses through the social contract his natural liberty and unlimited rights to every thing he can lay his hands on, but he gains civil liberty and property rights in all he possesses. In other words, 'Rousseau’s men enter into two relations, i.e. as a member of the sovereign body he is bound to other individual who are co-sovereign and as a member of the state he is bound to the sovereign. Rousseau says that whosoever refuses to obey himself will be compelled to obedience and he will be as free as before.

The contract terminates the state of nature and ushers in the civil society. It transforms the character of the individual. It turns the individual into a citizen. It gives a moral character to the actions of the individual. The contract makes man rational and moral steadily through constant participation. In the General Will the contract gives sovereignty to the people constituted as a political community. The contract of Rousseau is not confined to a single blunt but involves a continuous and growing participation in the General Will and through it in the welfare of the community as whole.

Social Contract - An Appraisal:

With Rousseau the Social Contract Theory reached its culmination. His theory clearly makes a distinction between the state and government. He has tried to reconcile the absolute authority of the state with the absolute freedom of the individual. He also demonstrated a great political truth by saying that the authority of government is finally based on the consent of the governed. His conception leads to the healthy notion that "will, not force is the basis of the state".

However, in spite of its merits, the theory suffers from several defects and shortcomings. They are outlined below:

  • Although Rousseau's foundation of the theory is philosophical rather than historical but he frequently relies on historical evidence which is wrong. It is historically impossible to believe that men in the state of nature knowing nothing about political institutions and organizations should suddenly agree to set up a state. Consent did playa role in the formation of the state along with other factors but it cannot be accepted as the sole factor. State is a growth rather than a manufacture.
  • The emphasis of the theory is that men in the state of nature lived an isolated an independent life. Receipt researches have however, proved that clan or tribe and not the individual was the social unit in primitive times. Individual apart from his tribe or clan was nothing.
  • The nature of man as depicted by Rousseau is wrong. Man was neither noble savage nor too brutish or selfish. Men have both the qualities. It is the environment that makes a man good or bad. If Hobbes goes to one extreme about the nature of man, Rousseau has gone to the opposite extreme.
  • Rousseau’s theory presupposes equality among men in the state of nature but this assumption is wrong. Inequality is the law of nature rather than equality. Again, it presumes that men enjoyed natural rights in the state of nature but such things cannot exist in the state of nature because every right imposes a corresponding duty which was absent in the state of nature. Rights are conditions of social life and they can be maintained only under organized communities.
  • There is legal flaw too in the theory. A contract presupposes a third party or a system of laws to enforce it but Rousseau says that there was no law before the contract. Hence it may be said that the contract has no foundations.
  • Social contract stresses will. No doubt will has performed a major role in the evolution of the state but to ascribe the origin of the state to will and nothing else is to weaken the basis of the state. Its logical outcome would be the supervision of all authority which may lead to the dissolution of the state.

Theory of General Will:

By the free act of those who enter into the pact all their powers and rights are resigned to the community and their respective wills are superseded by the General Will. To understand the theory of General Will we must distinguish between the terms ‘actual will’ and ‘real will’ used in their technical sense. The actual will of the individual is his impulsive and irrational will. This actual will is transient and conceives of the present only. It is based on self-interest and is not related to the well-being of the society. Such a will is narrow and self-conflicting. On the other hand, the real will of the individual is a rational will which wills his real interest in relation to the general welfare of the society. Real will thinks more of common god or interest than the god of the individual. The ral will of the individual, therefore, promotes harmony between the individual and the society. Such a will is not transitory. It is the real will of the individual which represents his true freedom because it is purged of selfishness. This will take into consideration not the momentary interest of the individual but his whole life. It also thinks of the society. It is based on reason. The habit of self-criticism of the average individual points to the reality of the real will. An average man has both an actual and a real will.

The General Will is the sum total or rather the organization and synthesis of the real wills of the individuals in the society. On any particular issue the General Will is generated as follows:

The actual wills of the individuals based on individual points of view appear. But the selfish elements i.e. pluses and minuses cancel each other and the actual wills of the individuals by interaction get transformed into real wills. The General Will represents a synthesis of these real wills. The General Will is not a mere compromise after cancellation of pluses and minuses but represents a higher type of the will of society. It represents the common consciousness of the common good after proper discussion and deliberation. What is important about General Will is that it wills general i.e. common interest and not that it is willed by the generality i.e. majority of the members of the society. Rousseau admits that the General Will is difficult to realize and is more a moral than an empirical fact.

Conclusions from Rousseau’s theory of General Will:

Rousseau’s “conception of the General Will as the single and simple volition of the body politic regarded as a living entity” represents his greatest contribution to political thought. It gives us an organic theory of state leading to collectivism in place of the ‘mechanistic concept of the state as an instrument’ as held by Hobbes and Locke. This theory of the General Will which Rousseau identifies with sovereignty leads us to believe that:-

  • “The body politic taken as a whole may be regarded as an organized living body resembling that of a man.”
  • “The body politic is also a moral being possessed of a will”.
  • This General Will which tends always to the preservation and welfare of the whole and of every part is the source of laws”.
  • The General Will “contributes for all the members of the state, in their relation to one another and to it, the rule of what is just and unjust”.
  • “The most General Will is always the most just”.
  • “The General Will is always for the common good i.e. the General Will is always on the side which is most favourable to the public interest”, so that “it is needful only to act justly to be certain of following the General Will”. This conception of General Will of course preclude any other standard of justice than the General Will itself but this represents a move in a circle.

Rousseau clearly distinguishes the General Will from the will of all. The General Will may coincide with the will of all or the majority will or the minority will or even the will of an individual. “there is often a great deal of difference between the will of all and the General Will; the latter considers only the common interests, while the former takes private interest into account, and is no more than a sum of particular wills; but take away from these same wills the pluses and minuses that cancel one another and the General Will remains as the sum of the differences. Thus the will of all is the aggregate of all the wills of the individuals of the community about their private interest, wills which partly clash and partly coincide mutually. But the General Will represents the aggregate of such of these wills as are common to all the individuals i.e. those wills which concern interests common to all and therefore, coincide with one another. The General Will was the organized social will of the community whereas the will of all was a mass of unorganized particular wills which may be selfish, or even perverse. Though unanimity was essential for the original contract, Rousseau allows the General Will, which is the seat of sovereignty, to be represented by the majority will he being too intelligent not to realize that the realization of the General Will on every point was impossibility. The minorities being mistaken in thinking that their wills represented the General Will, were really more free in being outvoted than if they had their own way. The General Will of a community is a General Will with respect to its members only; for the outside world it is a particular will.

Characteristics of General Will:

The General Will have the following characteristics:-

  • Unity: It is, therefore, unitary. It gives a touch of unity to national character and institutions. It is indivisible, because if it were divided it would not remain General Will but would become sectional.
  • It is permanent, because it is rational and not impulsive. It springs from the genius of the people. It is not eternal but permanent and imparts stability to national institutions.
  • It is a right will, willing the welfare of the society. It is based on ethical considerations. It is right morally and also sound though not infallible.
  • It is inalienable. Rousseau locates sovereignty n the General Will. General Will and sovereignty are inalienable just as life of an individual is inalienable. The sovereign General Will qua sovereign cannot relinquish sovereignty just as a human being as such cannot alienate life.
  • It is unrepresentable. This leads to the notion that democracy cannot commit suicide. Rousseau’s concept of General Will tends to the notion of direct democracy.
  • Rousseau’s theory of the General Will points to the notion that it is rational will and not force which is the basis of the state and which sustains the state.

Criticism of Rousseau’s theory of General Will:

Rousseau’s theory of General Will may be subjected to the following criticism:

His enunciation of the theory of General Will is incomplete and not very clear. He seems “to regard the General Will as a kind of arithmetical balance to be arrived at by striking out the opposite judgments of this and that citizen representing their particular interest”. This is unsound because the “collective opinion, whether of all or of a majority which emerges is not in the nature of a balance or average, it is more like the resultant of several forces,” differing in magnitude and direction. The process is not arithmetical but dynamical.

It is, in actual practice, difficult to distinguish the General Will from the will of all. What is the criterion for this distinction? The General Will is not the unanimous will of the whole people because that will merely be the will of all. Nor is the General Will a majority will, though it may coincide with it. Nor again, is the General Will the will of the minority though it may coincide with it. In fact the General Will is its own criterion. In general, though this is not necessarily true, if person is unanimous on a point a rare happening you may take its will to be the General Will.

That part of your will which will always lead you to do the right thing is, to Rousseau the will that matters i.e. are the essential will. The remaining part of your will is non-essential. The same applies to all. All these essential wills combine to make the General Will. Now you cannot divide up an individual will into an essential will and a non-essential will because an individual will is a corporate thing one complete whole. In actual practice there can be no such thing as Rousseau’s General Will.

To Rousseau the General Will is the standard of justice; to act justly is to conform to the General Will. Is there or is there not a standard of justice a moral law extraneous to General Will?

Again whosoever refuses to obey the General Will shall be compelled to do so and be free. In actual practice to be thus free is to be forced to obey. Force is the negation of liberty. Rousseau therefore fails to reconcile individual freedom with the authority of the General Will representing the community. Rousseau advocates compulsion on one who refuses to obey the General Will on the plea that the force used is for his own good. This force may take the form of imprisonment or death. It may not, however, be in the best interests of the individual to have his liberty or life taken away from him. A rational person my welcome restraint and like to be forced to be free. He knows that he is being restrained by a law of his own making. But this does not apply to the criminal or a selfish person who thinks his good lies outside the social good. A criminal may feel justified in breaking a system of laws representing General Will which maintains a social, political or economic structure which permits and perpetuates exploitation of men and classes by others.

Rousseau’s concept of General Will is rather abstract and narrow. In actual practice it is nothing if it does not mean the will of the majority.

Another objection to the theory of the General Will is that by emphasizing the notion of the general good in contra-distinction to that of the good of the individuals, it leads to a conception of the state as a super-entity, distinct from its organic elements, the individuals at whose altar the latter must sacrifice themselves. It is the case of the means becoming an end. Then again, though Rousseau distinguishes between the state and the government, in actual practice the government in power has the unlimited sovereign power of the state and its disposal. This government, instead of attuning itself to the General Will to its own liking through the various effective mens of propaganda and even coercion at its disposal. This may lead to totalitarian tyranny or tyranny of the majority of the worst type.

It posits common interest which is difficult to define or determine. Common interests grow out of organic relations between members of a group or community and are hardly possible in multi-national states of today with their conflicting ideals and interests.

Rousseau’s theory of General Will is objected to on the ground that it is not applicable to large states. It is contended that General Will is based on common good which is to be found in small groups and communities rather than big ones. But it may be said that improved means of communications and transport are bringing the world together and making possible General Will over larger and larger areas.

Rousseau’s contention that General Will is unpresentable and rules out representative government has lost its force because of instructed representation, an efficient party system, the press and platform, growth of professional unions, devices like initiative, referendum, recall etc.

It is rarely and for short intervals that General Will is actually realized. It is only during periods of national crises that people forget their individual and sectional interests in favour of common interest.

Merits of the Theory:

The theory of General Will in which sovereignty is located leads to the healthy notion that ‘will, not force, is the basis of the state’. The true basis of democracy is not force of majority not even passive consent but active and selfless will. The theory exalts the principle of general good being the objective of the state and the spring of state action. It puts social before individual interest. It emphasizes the concept of the state being a moral organism in which alone a man reaches his highest moral stature. The law and justice of the state sublimate a man’s impulses into reason and, therefore, force him to be ‘free’ from his base tendencies. The theory of General Will emphasizes the corporate character of society in which an isolated selfish individual is a misfit. “Rousseau is the first modern writer to attempt… to synthesize good government (of Hobbes) and self-government (of Locke) in the key concept of the General Will: the realization of what is best for the community is not enough; it must also be willed by the community”.

Rousseau on Sovereignty:

As we have seen, Rousseau identifies sovereignty of the state with the General Will or in other words, with the common interest of the community. This popular sovereignty of Rousseau is infallible unpresentable and illimitable. It is unrepresentative because it lies in the General Will which cannot be presented. The sovereignty of the state of Rousseau is absolute like that of Hobbes with the difference that whereas Hobbes assigns the sovereignty to the head of the state, one of many, Rousseau gives it to the whole community. Again, whereas in the case of Rousseau the sovereign people cannot divest themselves of their sovereignty even if they wish, Hobbes makes the people alienate for ever their sovereignty in their first corporate action. In fact, “Rousseau unites the absolute sovereignty of Hobbes and the ‘popular consent’ of Locke into the philosophic doctrine of popular sovereignty”. To Hobbes, the sovereign and the government are identical terms. Rousseau, on the other hand, distinguishes between the sovereign and the government. Rousseau rules out representative form of government, for is not his sovereign unpresentable? Rousseau’s love of popular government is evidenced by the fact that even after he had assigned absolute powers to his sovereign he laid down that the sovereign must rule properly i.e. (1) it must not do anything which is not in the interest of the whole people, (2) it must ensure equality of all before law and maintain a rule of justice and (3) it cannot impose upon its subjects any fetters that are useless to the community. In fact, Rousseau’s conception of sovereignty was a compromise between the constitutionalism of Locke and the absolutism of Hobbes. Rousseau believed that all forms of government were compatible with his notion of popular sovereignty. “If Rousseau assigns unlimited and absolute power to his sovereign, it is because it is the people who are at once the subjects over whom absolutism is exercised and the sovereign who exercises this absolutism”. Sovereignty lies in the General Will of the body politic which can not impose any limitations on itself. Besides it can have no interests apart from those of the people and therefore, there is no need for any limitations on it.

It is his organic conception of political society i.e. the state that makes Rousseau assign unlimited powers to it. “If the state or the city is a moral person whose life consists in the union of its members, and if its self-preservation is the greatest of its needs, it requires a universal and compelling force to move and dispose each of its particular elements in the interests of all. Just as nature gives each man an absolute power overall his parts, so the social contract gives each man an absolute power to the Body-Politic over all its parts. It is this power which as I have said, is called sovereignty when it is directed by the General Will”. This absolutism is based not as with Hobbes on fear and compulsion but on consent. It is based on a contract which is just equitable and useful, constant and dynamic which makes consent a living consent and which ensures that “every act of sovereignty that is every authentic act of the General Will, restricts or works to the advantage of all citizens, equally….”. Sovereignty lies in the General Will of the people and there cannot be “any kind of fundamental law which binds the people as a whole not even the social contract…” Rousseau’s sovereignty is not only inalienable; it is also inalienable and unprepresentable. “I say that sovereignty being merely the exercise of the General Will, can never be alienated; and the sovereign, since it is only a collective being can be presented only by itself. Power can be transferred but not will….” various powers legislature, executive and others are only emanations of sovereignty which is one and unified and which collectively belongs to the people. Sovereignty is the source of all laws i.e. fundamental laws to be distinguished from governmental decrees. It is indivisible. Separation of powers is not division of sovereignty but of exercise of it, for the sake of convenience.

Liberty and Individual Rights:
Rousseau adopts the personality theory of rights. The individual is free in the state because he does not surrender his rights to an outside authority but to a corporate body of which he himself is a member. Any restrictions on the liberty of the individual are self-imposed. “Obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves is liberty”. The rights of liberty, equality and property are rights of the citizen and not as with Locke, the innate and inherent rights of the individual. Liberty is civil liberty and not natural liberty. Men are equal by law and not by nature. In actual practice man alienates only such of “his powers, goods and liberty as it is for the community to control but it must also be granted that the sovereign is the sole judge of what is important.”

Rousseau’s theory of the General Will leads to a notion of freedom in an organic life, a freedom consonant with the good of the general body of eh community even though it involves a restraint. It is in this sense that a man is free even though he is in chains. In agreeing to a law regulating traffic, I agree to the imposition of a restraint on me which forces me to be free. An individual is free in following his real will. He is also free in following the General Will and in obeying the laws that proceed from it because his real will is an organic part of the General Will and is in agreement with it. Rousseau’s liberty is not license. It is not the unrestrained conduct of an isolated and independent individual. It is the rational freedom of an individual who lives a common life in organic relationship with other individuals and whose welfare is integrally related to the welfare of others.

On Law:

To Rousseau, law is an expression and the organ of the General Will. “a law is a resolution of the whole people for the whole people, touching a matter that concerns all”. The law must relate to general interests and must emanate from the community as a whole. Law represents the General Will with general interest in view and never has as its object particular persons or actions. The enactments of the governments, as distinguished from the community, are merely a corollary of the General Will. They represent a method of enforcing the General Will. It is clear that Rousseau’s idea of a true law is like the modern conception of a fundamental or constitutional law in accordance with which alone the government can enact their positive laws. To Rousseau, no body in the state is above the law, since everybody is a member of the sovereign body which is the source of law. The laws representing the General Will, which includes the will of all, cannot be unjust because no body is unjust to himself. One is quite free when he is subject to laws because the laws merely reflect his own will. It is law which reestablishes the equality which belongs to a man in the state of nature. A state is legitimate only when it is ruled by law. Law, therefore, with Rousseau is a sovereign as with Plato, but Rousseau puts this sovereign under the control of La volonte generale. The laws are th sole motive power of the community ‘which acts and feels only through them’. The “law considers the subjects collectively and their actions in the abstract; it never has for its object an individual man or a particular action”. In short, “no function which refers in any way to an individual can belong to the legislative power”.  

Distinction between State and Government:

Rousseau like Locke creates a sharp distinction between the sate i.e. sovereignty and the government. “thus a state denotes the community as a whole, created by the social compact and manifesting itself in the supreme General Will”, whereas “a government denotes merely the individual or group of individuals that is designated by the community to carry into effect the sovereign will”. The government is an intermediary between the sovereign state and the subjects. It is a subordinate agency through which the sovereign people expresses its will and realizes it. The sovereign people delegate the exercise of its sovereign power to the government in the manner and to the extent it suits it at any time. The excellence of a government lies in properly realizing the General Will of the people and since different peoples have different varieties of General Will, no form of government is ideal. An individual can resist a bad government but not the state. The social contract creates not the government, but the state or sovereign. The government is created by a decree of the sovereign to serve as a means of applying the General Will. Being a mere agent of the sovereign, a government is changeable at the sovereign’s pleasure. Having placed the government in complete subordination to the sovereign i.e. the people who could withdraw or modify the powers assigned to the government, Rousseau could view with indifference the actual form of government. The government does not make laws which emanate from the sovereign but only administers them. Rousseau’s conception of government is that of the executive side of a modern democracy, whose power may be withdrawn or modified by the sovereign legislature. In his attitude towards the government, Rousseau seems to have been affected by the unbearable and irresponsible autocracy of the ancient centuries. The laws represent the General Will and therefore, every state ruled by law, whatever its form of government is, to Rousseau, a republic.

Origin of Government:

Rousseau found himself in deep waters in explaining the origin i.e. the institution, of government, as distinguished from the sovereign community. This is because he held that the sovereign regarded the subjects as a whole and that the actions of the sovereign were in the nature of an abstract act. In other words, the actions of the sovereign must be general and not particular. Now the sovereign is perfectly entitled to name the form of government i.e. monarchy, aristocracy or democracy but it cannot name the officers of the government which will make it a particular act. The government but not the sovereign can do particular acts. The naming of particular officers being a particular act will constitute an act of government even before the government has been instituted. Rousseau meets this anomaly by saying that the sovereign people assembled to institute the government firstly vote that a certain form of government shall be instituted and then vote that certain individuals shall be appointed to the offices thus created. Rousseau distinguishes the two acts by saying that the first vote expresses the General Will and is law, while the second vote represents a mere governmental decree. Between the two votes, the popular assembly changes its character. In its first form, the assembly is the sovereign, in its second one it assumes the character of a democratic government. To Rousseau, therefore, every form of government originates in a democracy.

Classification of Government:

Rousseau adopted the usual method of classification of government into monarchy, aristocracy, democracy and mixed forms of government. He believed with Montesquieu, that the social economic and physical conditions of a country had much to do with its form of government. To him, a democracy was one in which the sovereign assembly was the legislator as well as the administrator. He added, however, that such a government was possible only in small areas and among small communities. His love of the democratic city-states of ancient Greece and Rome, of his own native democracy of Geneva and his theory of the sovereignty being identical with the General Will made democracy the best form of government with Rousseau. But democracy would not do for large areas because the interpretation of General Will was difficult in large communities. Rousseau did not believe that nay particular form of government was absolutely the best one because he held that each form of government might be particularly suited for a particular set of conditions. A government which is good for an industrial people may be bad for an agricultural community. The same applies to whether a community is more or less politically mature and educated. He was, however, so afar influenced by the current economic theories as to believe that a growing population was a good index to a good government. Census was, therefore, the measure of governmental excellence. Rousseau did not conceal his dislike of a representative government. He held as observed above, that law-making was the function of the sovereign i.e. of the whole assembly of the people and not of the government. As sovereignty was inalienable, a sovereign body could only be represented by its whole body. To Rousseau a representative government signified a sign of political decay in a community because the General Will of the sovereign community could neither be represented nor alienated.

Rousseau holds that though in a democracy the will of the majority represents the General Will the minority follows its own will and is free. This is explained by Rousseau by saying that at the time of legislation what is asked is not whether a particular law is or is not approved by the minority but whether the law conforms to the General Will or not. Voting, therefore, amounts to not the expression of will but guessing. The minority guesses badly but is really   free – an unexampled piece of casuistry! Rousseau knew that with the growth of nations and the change of conditions there is a tendency for the General Will to be replaced by the will of a particular individual or individuals viz there is a tendency for democracy to become aristocracy and for aristocracy to become monarchy. This to him was a sign of political decay and could be checked by means of periodical assemblies of people convened to decide firstly whether the sovereign people do or do not want to change the form of government and secondly whether new officers are to be elected or not. When sovereign people are thus assembled, the government is, for the time being, superseded automatically. The referendum and the initiative of the modern democracies like Switzerland and the United States of America represent practically an adoption of this suggestion of Rousseau.

Rousseau on Religion:

Rousseau is of the opinion that religion should be made subservient to the ends of the state. In his opinion, the different forms of Christianity prevalent are days and particularly the Roman Catholicism was quite unsuited for achieving the ends of the state. They were unsuited because they said the greatest stress on salvation of the individual which light go counter to the salvation of the state.

It is to be noted that Rousseau was not against religion. He wanted a religion that could advance his philosophy. That is why he devised a new religion embodying the doctrines of existence of a God of power, reason, goodness and loving evidence, the life to come, the happiness of the just and punishment of wicked the sanctity of the social contract and law.

Anyone who did not adhere to the new code of religion, ethics and political morality was to be exiled or even put ot death. How strange it looks that a philosopher who is the highest of the age of reason is proposing religious persecution?

Romanticism of Rousseau:

Rousseau replaced the age of reason with the age of romanticism by enshrining sentiment at the cost of reason. The back to nature cult of the origin of inequality and the emile of Rousseau is based on his hatred of Arts and science and of intelligence. In his earlier writings, he shows preference for a noble-savage to a ‘polished’ gentleman. His reactions are emotional and instinctive rather than rational. There is plenty of sentimental fancy in Rousseau’s writings. He passionately believed in the essential goodness of man. He sets good moral will above reason. ‘A thinking man is a depraved animal’. Intelligence destroys reverence, science destroys faith and reason destroys moral intuition. Rousseau’s romanticism passed into the current of European thought through Kant who acknowledged that Rousseau taught him the value of moral will as against scientific inquiry.

Estimate of Rousseau:

Rousseau’s political thought, particularly his theory of the General Will, provides nourishment at once for absolutism, democracy and socialism. Rousseau’s sovereign is as absolute as that of Hobbes. Rousseau’s individual at the time of the contract has surrendered his person and all his rights to the community. If after the formation of the civil society, he enjoys any rights, it is as a citizen and not as an individual. The sovereign state can regulate these rights and even abrogate them at its will and convenience. The sovereignty of the state is absolute and unlimited. Rousseau assigns this absolute and unlimited power to the state because he takes an organic view of it. The state is a moral organism with self-preservation as its greatest need. It therefore requires a compelling and universal force to make every individual act in the general interests of the community. As an organism, the state has every power over its limbs i.e. associations and individuals. Its absolutism is based not on fear or compulsion but on consent. There cannot be any fundamental law which binds the sovereign community i.e. the state. The sovereign community works for the good of all and therefore there is no need for it to limit its powers. It is the sovereign community which has absolute and unlimited sovereignty not the government.

There is a good deal in Rousseau which supports democracy. The basic idea of social contract used by Rousseau is consent. Rousseau’s theory of the General Will provides for continual consent of the individual and removes the danger of majority-tyranny. The basic idea of democracy is government of the people, for the people and by the people. Rousseau’s sovereign is the people and works in the interests of the people. His sovereign community is a direct democracy which works through its agent, the government. The individuals are sovereign collectively, co-sovereign individually. Rousseau’s contract enables the individual to retain his liberty and equality which are the essential ingredients of democracy. If the individual is forced to be free, he is free because this force is used for his good. Any legal limitations on him are self-imposed because his real will goes to the making of the General Will from which laws emanate. The individual retains his equality also, because as a co-sovereign he has equal rights and duties. Rousseau makes for true democracy by providing against the evils of majority rule. The General Will is sovereign and wills not in the interests of the majority only but of all. The true basis of democracy is active consent and participation, through the General Will in the affairs of the community.

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