Prior to the French Revolution Thomas Jefferson argued that the wealth inequality in France was a violation of the natural right to property (1787). Our reading is a compilation of pieces from two essays concerning the source of this inequality (1754), and what a legitimate form of government that resolved the problem of wealth inequality would look like(1762). The French Revolution broke out in 1789 as the people, unable to feed themselves, became increasingly outraged. This is why we all learned that Marie Antoinette’s insensitive solution to the problem of was to “Let them eat cake.” Rousseau’s Social Contract was used by Robespierre, the defacto dictator during the long revolution, as the model of what the new French Republic would look like. As the executioner of the General Will he executed 16,000 people at the guillotine, and invented the concept of terrorism, in the name of creating a virtuous future.
That being said, Rousseau is still respected by some on the Left, and even some on the Right, including those who oppose violence entirely. In fact, you can use Rousseau to criticize Robespierre.
Rousseau continued the conversation of Hobbes and Locke about man in the state of nature and contract theory. Hobbes argued that man in the state of nature lived constantly in fear of reprisal from his neighbor, and entered into society in order to find safety from the protection of the Sovereign and his government. Since we are all equal in nature, everyone is always fearful that he could be attacked at any moment, and so he must attack his neighbors first. Man decided to form a contract in order to escape nature. In society my neighbor may want to harm me, but if he does he knows that the far more powerful Sovereign will punish him. This certain and equal threat of punishment prevents most people from harming each other in society.
Rousseau describes man in the state of nature much differently. Hobbes fails to recognize, Rousseau argues, that he presupposes all of the faculties of society, when Hobbes describes man in the state of nature. In reality, Rousseau claims, man in the state of nature would never think of forming a contract. In nature he is strong and peaceful. He is more cunning than a lion or a bear, and strong enough to handle himself. And his natural faculty for pity keeps him from attacking his neighbor. Most animals do not attack others of their own species. Rousseau assumes the same of humans since in the state of nature man is not far from the animals.
It is not until humans develop reason that they find the ability to ignore pity. Reason makes it possible to justify killing. Philosophy gives humans the ability to believe he or she is acting for a higher purpose.
Philosophy comes after thousands of years of society. Society comes after thousands of years of small changes in human behavior leading him out of the state of nature. Man in the state of nature never makes a great leap into society. Instead, he addresses a need for food or safety by cooperating with others in small ways. Eventually this leads to the moment when the first person says “this piece of land is mine.” This moment was inevitable due to a long series of choices made prior to it, but it was the moment that led to society.
By cooperating humans created safety, economy of labor, and the possibility of leisure. Leisure created the possibility for improving one’s lot in life by getting the esteem of others, by being someone other than one is naturally. Leisure brought performance, which brought about jealousy and covetousness.
While one finds virtue in society, the reality is that one does not find the need for virtue outside of society. It is not until society that one needs virtue. The concept of justice is created in order to keep people from stealing and harming each other, which didn’t happen enough in the state of nature to worry about it. Physical strength, the power to persuade, innovation, and other faculties developed in society lead to the source of inequality.
Since we can’t go back to the state of nature, and given the fact that inequality exists in the current system, Rousseau imagines a government in which everyone still gets justice, but also takes into account the fact that everyone is self-interested. He argues that any government in which one is alienated without self-interest is illegitimate. If participating in society is not in my interested, society has no justification for requiring me to be obedient to its rules. Rousseau accepts that it is impossible to create a society in which no one is alienated, so he imagines one in which everyone is alienated.
Imagine a society in which your interests are served only when everyone’s interests are served. Everyone would feel a sense of “We’re in this together.” The General Will, the overlap of agreement between everyone, determines the action of the Sovereign. Your private interests may conflict with the General Will, but in Rousseau’s society you will be forced to be free, and you will only be free when the General Will of the Assembly (the citizens) is executed. The General Will always represents every citizen that comprises it.