An Introduction to the work of Rousseau

Few political philosophers have provoked such varying interpretations as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778). The reader who approaches Rousseau for the first time encounters an author apparently fond of great paradoxes, offering what often seem incompatible principles—praising, for instance, Sparta and austere political virtue in one work, and extolling the goodness of the solitary individual and the private enjoyment of the sentiment of existence in another. Indeed, Rousseau has been claimed as the inaugurator of socialism and nationalism on the one hand, and romanticism and existentialism on the other. He was accused early on of inspiring some of the most extreme aspects of the French Revolution and was held up as an authority by Robespierre. Yet, alongside the portrait of Rousseau the republican revolutionary, there are others who have claimed to find in his writings a political teaching of anti-modern reactionary conservatism, replete with hostility to commerce and industrial development, the condemnation of large nation-states, and an opposition to the spread of scientific knowledge generally.

Rousseau himself was aware of the paradoxical impression his thought made, and discusses the issue in his Letter to d’Alembert on the Theatre and other places. Yet Rousseau tells us that all of his major works, starting from the work that first made him famous, the First Discourse (the Discourse on the Arts and Sciences), form a “system.” Each rests on the same fundamental theoretical foundations, which spring from a single principle. In a late work, Rousseau has a character summarize the lesson he has drawn from a careful reading of Rousseau: “I saw throughout the development of [Rousseau’s] great principle that nature has made man happy and good but that society corrupts him and causes his misery.”

What is the nature of man’s current corruption, and what are its deepest causes, according to Rousseau? Of what, in his view, does man’s “natural goodness” consist? What solution or solutions might there be to cure human beings of their present maladies? The overview of Rousseau’s thought that follows considers in very brief outline how these central questions are developed in Rousseau’s most important political works.

Discourse on the Arts and Science–The Critique of the Enlightenment

“What will become of virtue if riches are to be acquired at any cost? The politicians of the ancient world spoke constantly of morals and virtue; ours speak of nothing but commerce and money.”  – Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (1750)

Rousseau’s political writing begin from his allegation of mankind’s corruption in modern European political life. He appears as a critic of the Enlightenment and its animating view that advancement in the arts and sciences is inextricably linked with moral and political progress. In response to a prize essay competition from the Academy of Dijon, which posed the question, “Has the restoration of the Sciences and the Arts Contributed to the Purification of Morals?”, Rousseau offered the iconoclastic argument that such a restoration had failed to do so.

Rousseau argues that the popularization of philosophy by enlightenment thinkers is in fact its vulgarization–animated not by the pure love of wisdom but by the desire for social honors and prestige. Modern society, so far from lifting Europeans from their former servitude in feudal Europe, in fact fosters new forms of dependence and servitude. The manners of polite society, Rousseau admonishes, are but a counterfeit of virtue with which one masks one’s selfishness for the sake of one’s vanity. Above all, the Enlightenment accords naturally with despotism because it is hostile to religion and even tends to breed atheism, whereas the political virtue of such societies as Sparta and the Roman Republic was animated above all by their citizens’ civic piety.

The First Discourse is highly rhetorical, and its surface impression can mislead about its deeper thesis. It occasioned a number of attacks, to some of which Rousseau took the trouble to reply. (In addition, his short writing Preface to Narcissus offers a useful summary of his argument). Rousseau was accused of attacking learning and science while himself obviously being a man of great learning, of desiring a return to primitive barbarism, and of advocating the burning of the great libraries of Europe. In clarifying his views Rousseau stresses several points. First, his thesis extends beyond the specific question posed by the Dijon Academy, for he holds that there is a fundamental opposition between science and political virtue as such, not merely in his own day. Hence his thesis is not primarily historical, but theoretical. He does not deny that as compared to the medieval period and its scholasticism (which he calls “a state worse than ignorance”), the period immediately following represented a manner of progress. Yet a lesser corruption relative to this earlier extreme must not be mistaken for the “purification of morals.”

Second, Rousseau rejects the accusation that he is an enemy of the arts and sciences. They harm a virtuous political order, but for a society that is already corrupt, it is only the arts and sciences that can ameliorate the effects of corruption for those few who have “not yet become bad.”

Finally, Rousseau emphasizes that science as such is not bad. It is the natural calling of those “few sublime geniuses” of the human race (such as Bacon, Newton, and Descartes). Rather, science or philosophy is not suitable for “man in general.” Rousseau avails himself of the ironic proclamation that he is an “honest man who knows nothing and esteems himself none the less for it.”

Rousseau understands his First Discourse to be the work of a philosopher aimed at the protection of “man in general” from the dangers of philosophy. At the same time, because the Enlightenment popularization of philosophy impoverishes it, he aims also at the protection of true philosophy. This dual intention must be kept in mind when interpreting all of Rousseau’s later works.

The Second Discourse – Nature, Human Nature, and the History of Humanity

“The Philosophers who have examined the foundations of society have all felt the necessity of going back as far as the state of Nature, but none of them has reached it.” – Second Discourse

Rousseau states in the Confessions that his Discourse on the Origin and the Foundations of Inequality Among Men (or Second Discourse) is the work in which his principles “are made manifest with the greatest boldness, not to say audacity.” He takes up the theme of the state of nature, and offers a critical reply to Hobbes and Locke, each of whom had made the concept central to their political teachings. While Rousseau accepts Hobbes’s anti-Aristotelian contention that human beings are not by nature political animals, he rejects Hobbes’s description of the state of nature, accusing Hobbes and others of projecting back onto natural man the vices and psychological characteristics of man already living in society.

Part one of the work depicts human beings who are not yet corrupted by entrance into civilization. This state is not a war of all against all, as Hobbes had claimed. The human being in this pure state of nature is “naturally good,” by which Rousseau means that he is self-sufficient—nature supplies him with what he desires, his wants never outstripping his needs. Man in the pure state of nature is for Rousseau not a “noble savage,” as is sometimes claimed, but an amoral, even quite stupid animal. He is solitary, apart from chance meetings occasioning the opportunity for sex and reproduction; care of children by females is minimal.

The single characteristic that sets humans apart from other animals is what Rousseau calls “perfectibility.” Man is more malleable than the other animals, possessing the ability to learn and devise better means to satisfy his needs. Rousseau denies that man’s movement out of the pure state of nature is teleological or providential. Rather, what lifts man is a series of “accidents” that eventually bring about the development of greater intellectual and psychological capacities, the capacity for language being the most significant. This process eventually lifts natural man from his pre-social state into the most primitive social groupings. Rousseau calls this age of primitive society the “happiest and most durable epoch” and the “best state of man.” But, his view is complicated, for he later describes this putative best state of man as one in which “vengeances had become terrible and men bloodthirsty and cruel”; and, this putative best epoch occurs before “all our faculties” as human beings have developed. Rousseau’s presentation of human history here points toward a tension between the “good” of man in general or of the human species, and the “good” of man when he is considered as an individual being with the capacity for reason, science, and philosophy.

In unfolding his conjectural history Rousseau goes on to describe the genesis of agriculture, family life, and the idea of private property. The fundamental basis of conventional inequality arises from the unequal distribution of property. The political community that protects private ownership originates in an act of fraud by the few rich, who wish to dominate the many poor, an act Rousseau memorably describes as “the most well-conceived project ever to enter the human mind” by which a “few ambitious men henceforth subjugated the whole of Mankind to labor, servitude and misery.”

In the pure state of nature, man (and other animals) possesses two traits: amour-de-soi, or a natural love-of-self consisting of the desire to preserve oneself; and pitié, or a spontaneous form of compassion occasioned by witnessing the suffering of others of the same species. Although both traits remain in some form in civil society, each is transformed by the emergence in man of a third trait or power of the soul–amour-propre, or self-concern that originates in men’s ability to compare themselves with one another and the corresponding desire for social esteem. Rousseau’s theory of amour-propre is complex. His presentation often seems wholly negative; it is depicted as the source of man’s base vanity and his desire to dominate others, and of his servitude to the opinions of others and hence his loss of true inner freedom. Yet Rousseau also sees amour-propre as the origin of all the moral and social virtues.

On the Social Contract — The Foundations of Political Freedom

“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One who believes himself the master of others is nonetheless a greater slave than they. How did this change occur? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? I believe I can answer this question.” – On the Social Contract

The problem of man’s corruption provides the starting point for Rousseau’s political treatise, On the Social Contract, which presents itself as offering a political solution in the form of a blueprint for a republican form of government.

Rousseau introduces the work by stating that he takes “men as they are and laws as they can be.” In this way, he seeks to “reconcile…what right permits with what interest prescribes, so that justice and utility are not at variance.” At the same time, in beginning with the proclamation that “man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,” Rousseau seems to call into question the legitimacy of all existing regimes.

The work is animated by the attempt to reconcile the natural freedom of the individual with the authority of state. As its title indicates, Rousseau follows in the modern social contract tradition of Grotius, Hobbes, and Locke. But he argues that these earlier political doctrines are incapable of securing a morally legitimate political order: Hobbes’s Leviathan state gives legal sanction to despotic rule, while Locke’s commercial republic cannot provide true political freedom, because its formal legal rights merely cloak the domination of the poor by the rich.

The key concept of the Social Contract is what Rousseau calls the General Will, understood as the collective will of the entire citizen body. In obeying the General Will and the laws formed in accordance with it, the individual citizen, Rousseau argues, retains his original, natural freedom, because he is not obeying any outside authority but in fact only his own will.

Rousseau’s account of the General Will has long perplexed interpreters. On the one hand, it seems to present a democratic conception of political authority in which the collective will of a people serves as the basis for all public morality and law. On the other hand, one can view it as a conception of the common good that transcends the desires of the public in any specific circumstance and hence that serves, not as a vehicle for their desires, but as a standard with which to judge them.

Of particular difficulty is understanding what Rousseau means by the statement that the General Will can “never err.” Abstractly, this claim is coherent though tautological—the General Will, because it wills itself, cannot be at variance with itself. Some scholars have pointed to an alternative interpretation: by the General Will’s inability to “err” Rousseau means that the highest authority in a properly functioning society can only be society itself, and never a different authority, namely, the pre-political rights of the individual, or any theological claims of religious authorities.

Two additional features of The Social Contract deserve particular mention. The first is Rousseau’s discussion of the role of the Legislator, whom he describes as the human being of “superior intelligence,” able to see “all of men’s passions yet experienced in none of them.” Political societies require for their founding a lawgiver capable of “changing human nature…of transforming each individual, who by himself is a perfect and solitary whole, into a part of a larger whole.” Such a founder, Rousseau argues, will need to use some kind of religious teaching in order to lend sufficient authority to the laws and customs he introduces (Rousseau gives as examples Lycurgus, founder of Sparta, and Calvin, whom he presents as a founder or re-founder of Geneva). Rousseau’s concept of the Legislator restores to modern political philosophy a theme central to the classical political thought of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, and preserved in Machiavelli in the form of the new founder-prince, but which is largely absent from the social contract theories of Hobbes and Locke.

The problem of religious authority, raised in the discussion of the Legislator, is the one with which Rousseau ends the work. The penultimate chapter, on “Civil Religion,” elaborates what Rousseau considers the gravest challenge facing any political project of republican liberty in modern European life. The classical republics that Rousseau offers elsewhere in the work as models all had as their basis civil religions; patriotism and piety were in essence identical, as each city or nation had its particular gods. The ancient Israelites had, according to Rousseau, a civil religion comparable to the pagan peoples under the laws given them by Moses. All this changes with the rise of Christianity, which in its universality and in its distinction between political and spiritual authority creates a situation of divided loyalty or sovereignty for the citizens of any Christian polity. Rousseau offers an extraordinarily bold critique of Christianity in these passages, and it was this part of the work that was most responsible for it being banned in France and Rousseau’s native Geneva in his lifetime. In the closing section of the work, he concludes that Christianity, which he says has “triumphed completely,” makes the re-establishment of healthy political orders impossible.

Other Works

Rousseau authored a number of other works of significance to the development of modern political philosophy. Most important is his treatise on education (written in the form of a novel), Emile, which Rousseau considered his greatest work, and which he intended to be read alongside On the Social Contract. Emile investigates the problem of corruption on the level of the modern individual, via a description of the education of a boy by a philosophical tutor in an ideal environment. Included in the work is a long section, “The Profession of Faith of the Savoy Vicar,” in which Rousseau has a character from his youth present a religious doctrine that appeals to the authority of the conscience and sentiment of each individual, and that seems to deny the conception of divine revelation found in traditional Christianity. (As was the case in On the Social Contract, it was this section of the work devoted to religion that was most responsible for its being banned in France and Geneva.)

Rousseau’s Letter to d’Alembert on the Theatre offers an important discussion of the relation of the arts to the health of a political community. His Government of Poland and Constitutional Project for Corsica offer practical proposals for political reform in his time. His Letter to Voltaire offers an extended consideration of the nature of religion and of the possibility of public enlightenment. In his novel Julie, or The New Heloise, which became an unprecedented bestseller in Rousseau’s lifetime, he offers a model of moral and romantic life to contemporary readers. He also authored three autobiographical works: the Confessions, intended to equal or supplant St. Augustine’s; Rousseau: Judge of Jean-Jacques, consisting of three dialogues, in which Rousseau claims to judge his own career; and the Reveries of the Solitary Walker, his final work.

Although Rousseau claimed that his major works all formed part of a system, his writing is not “systematic” in the standard sense. He elected to present his thought dramatically and hence enigmatically. As he makes clear in Rousseau: Judge of Jean-Jacques and elsewhere, he believed it possible to grasp the wholeness of his thought only by understanding each of his major works in their relation to one another.

For further introductory readings, see also:

Allan Bloom, “Rousseau,” in History of Political Philosophy, Eds. Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, Chicago: 1987.

Bertrand de Jouvenel, “Rousseau the Pessimistic Evolutionist,” Yale French Studies, New Haven: 1961.