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Rousseau, Jean-Jacques

Page history last edited by Rachel Schiff 15 years, 4 months ago

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1798) was a Swiss philosoper during the Enlightenment period. Rousseau was born on June 28, 1712 in Geneva.  He was aggravated by Hobbes and Locke so created a 'hypothetical' notion of what the state of nature might be like.  In order to do so, he peels back all the layers of what he considers 'being human.'  Rousseau concluded that in nature man was free; he was entitled to appropriate whatever he wished to sustain his person.  However Rousseau asserted that man is deprived of his natural liberty in society, for it is formed by “asymmetrical mutual need” which results in the subjugation of some men to others and the formation of a social contract without a moral foundation (Zeitlin, 23).  This social contract was conceived to protect property, which created a government that protected the rich and solidified class division. As a consequence of this unequal society, man is prisoner to a government that does is contrary to man's true nature.  Rousseau described the current situation, writing “man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.” 


Nevertheless, Rousseau believed that man is capable of regaining his freedom by studying the laws of nature and creating a social order in harmony with them.  Rousseau imagined this order as popular sovereignty, or “the active submission to the general will, not to another individual or group” (Zeitlin, 24).  By submitting to all, the bonds of subjugation to institutions and individuals are removed, leaving all men equal and free. By joining together with other individuals in a social contract, people are abandoning their natural rights, but are ensuring their preservation and freedom.  Since everyone submits to the greater authority of the general will of the people, individuals are guaranteed against subordination by others and are actually obeying only themselves because they are, as a collective, the writers of the law.  In other words, submission to the social contract ensures the protection of society against the wills of individuals, resulting in a higher level of equality.  “Freedom and equality are now not only preserved but are more perfect than in the state of nature."  It is through uniting with others that the individual is able to remain free and equal and obey only him/herself. 



Rousseau fundamentally disagrees with Hobbes’s state of nature. Instead of it being a constant war of all against each other, Rousseau states that there were no moral standards nor social bonds between men and that they were indifferent to one another. Not only were there no linking bonds, humans did not yet have advanced modes of language, nor any kind of shared knowledge. They only lived to satisfy their personal bare necessities of existence.

Men moved out of their state of nature and into society because of the growing number of humans as well as climactic changes. The family became the most basic social unit, and families congregated to create small communities where language and culture were created. Social classes emerged with the development of agriculture as well as social inequalities that led to aggression and war. These inequalities exist in society because men have ignored their natural tendencies; Rousseau sees status and wealth inheritance, for example, as unnatural.

Another important theory of Rousseau was the social contract.Society starts with inequality but the creation of a social contract can facilitate equality and freedom. In the ideal society, all individuals submit to a popular sovereign in the form of an agreement with a social contract. This is a voluntary act based on the idea that cooperation will benefit everyone including the individual, and each only obeys as much as they see fit. In this way humans can be liberated from the inequality and war of the natural state. Inequalities of certain things, such as property, would still be acceptable, but the state could set up limitations to such wealth for the defense and protection of moral standards.

Comments (1)

Alex said

at 1:22 pm on Dec 17, 2008

I merged the introduction from Jessica's Rousseau page and the body from Katelyn's Rousseau page.

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