At Week’s End for July 20, 2012

July 20, 2012

Philosophy, Politics

Rousseau – The Social Contract and the Individual

The Founding Fathers were very much concerned with respecting the rights of the individual, but also with the fostering of civic community which would offer protection and benefits.  They sought to achieve a balance between the inviolable rights of the individual to pursue his spiritual needs and to work freely and without encumbrance; and the importance of community to support these and other goals.  When Jefferson wrote about “the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence he was influenced by the philosophy of John Locke – one did not pursue happiness for personal pleasure or satisfaction, but for the well-being of society – the aggregation of individuals.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau certainly influenced Jefferson as well.  As noted by Anne Deneys-Tunney in the Guardian (7.15.12), writing about Rousseau’s “Social Contract” the philosophy of both theorists coincided on the subject of the precedence of societal values over the more personal interests of the individual:

“As a revolutionary thinker, Rousseau understood that the general will, or the will of the people, should be sovereign – and that is the catch. It is here where we regain our freedom inside social organization. Only the general will – general interest as opposed to private interest – guarantees man his autonomy. No society can be free unless individuals understand that the general will or general interest should prevail over their own individual one.”

The issue was balance.  How could the individual will be expressed and respected within a society made up of conflicting interests?  Would this not lead either to anarchy or despotism?

“Jean-Jacques Rousseau [with Jefferson] reflected on how to achieve this balance. He, like others of the Enlightenment, valued the individual and his enterprise; but knew that the individual could not live in the perfect ‘state of nature’ and would by necessity live in what was obviously a dangerous and corrupt society. Written in 1762, ‘The Social Contract’ picks up where his ‘Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men’ left off, defining natural man as being free and happy and living in the forest. Rousseau explains how man went from this state of autonomy to the modern condition, dominated by inequality, dependency, violence and unhappiness. There were positive aspects to this process too, he admits, including the creation of families, the discovery of tools and technology, and the building of cities and social organizations. Unfortunately, this also gives way to what Rousseau called the “right of the strongest,” where a reign of inequality destroys man’s original state of happiness and freedom. Humanity becomes alienated, and the ‘Discourse on Inequality’ ends unhappily in general war,” states Deneys-Tunney.

Rousseau provides a solution:

“’The Social Contract’ is an attempt to find a solution to this problem. For Rousseau, because of man’s ‘perfectibility’, the passage from a natural state to a social one is both an accident and necessary. Unlike animals, men are programmed to create and progress from one condition to the next. Rousseau discovers a way men can associate themselves with each other while maintaining their own individual freedom inside a social and political organization. He calls that concept the ‘general will.’ Simply put, it is a form of association in which an individual [subjects] himself completely to the general will, and therefore regains his freedom in a political form.”

In order for this society of “general will” to succeed, citizens must act responsibly. Both Jefferson and Rousseau believed in the innate goodness of Man, and that an informed society of individuals could be relied on to make right and correct decisions:

“Jefferson believes that the moral sense natural to man because he was formed for society. This innate moral sense given to humans allows them to adduce right and wrong through their own reason. Man is naturally formed for society, and no law is needed to make man more virtuous.  As Claes Ryn writes, Jefferson describes the moral sense ‘as a spontaneous force, an instinct which puts man on the moral course.’  Ryn adds, “Knowingly or unknowingly echoing Rousseau, he describes it as a pleasurable feeling of benevolence towards others which ‘prompts us irresistibly to feel and succor their distresses.’” (Almost Chosen People)

Although Rousseau, Locke, Jefferson, and other thinkers of the Enlightenment were students of history and understood that misrule, predatory and self-serving behavior, mob violence, and treachery were the rule rather than the exception, they persisted in their belief in the perfectibility of Man. People went through progressively improved stages of development and maturation, as they realized their innate moral goodness. Being absorbed in “the general will” and losing their personal and individual interests for higher ends was the ultimate goal of the individual.

Many later 19th Century philosophers disagreed completely with this view:

“Existentialism holds that the starting point of philosophical thinking must be the individual and the experiences of the individual; that moral thinking and scientific thinking together do not suffice to understand human existence, and, therefore, that a further set of categories, governed by the norm of authenticity, is necessary to understand human existence. (Authenticity, in the context of existentialism, is being true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character.)” Wikipedia

Nietzsche took this theory to the extreme and believed only in individual will and its expression “beyond good and evil.”  His Supermen ruled and reigned, following only the inevitable power of their own human nature and will. Sartre, in the 20th century, reconsidered Existentialism and affirmed that life had no meaning and produced an individual and social anxiety. In other words, the relative importance of the individual or society was a meaningless concept in a meaningless world.

In short, the founding principles of our nation were not the universal, God-given ones professed as a matter of faith by Jefferson and his colleagues.  They were very much principles from a well-defined historical time and place.  We are today a 21st century nation struggling within an 18th century foundation and are more and more questioning the relevance of the Constitution.

“Man is born free and everywhere is in chains,” said Rousseau, referring to the still very imperfect society in which he lived, one in which  “the general will” had not been achieved or expressed, and one in which the conflict between the individual and society had not been resolved. It is no different today, and it is worth giving Rousseau a second look if only to understand the origins of the particularly American dilemma.

Ron Parlato is a writer living in Washington, DC. He has close ties with Columbus, which he visits frequently.  His writings on literature, politics and culture, travel, and cooking can be found on his own blog,


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