Victor Nuovo: Rouseau and The Social Contract
Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of essays about political liberalism and conservatism.
Rousseau wrote “The Social Contract” to answer this question: Taking human beings as they are, that is, born free and self-interested, is it possible to discover a “legitimate and reliable rule of government” for them?
It is the same question that was asked by James Madison and the Federalists, so the question should be of great interest to us all.
But Rousseau also considers another question that takes priority over this one. He supposed that the legitimacy of a rule of government derives from the authority of whoever establishes it. He asks, what entity has the requisite authority for this? Or, who has sovereignty?
His answer is not some person, or a select or elite group, but “the People.” The People is the total aggregate of persons in a community, who, by enacting this fundamental law, become one People. This is an original act of self-creation, which he calls the social contract.
What sort of thing is “the People”? And how does it create itself? I capitalize the word to distinguish it from the ordinary common noun, as in the expression: “people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”
“The People” is not a natural thing, like a forest, or herd of buffalo, or a human family, or a crowd, or a random collection of human beings with a common interest, although this comes close. Nor is it a supernatural thing, like the select inhabitants of a heavenly city. It is a political body, fashioned by mortal human beings.
Scholars say it is a sort of convention, but this is hardly clarifying. Still, it is a start.
Conventional things are artifacts, products of art; they are invented and designed for convenience. That’s what it means to call it conventional. A teapot is an artifact. It has a handle and spout designed so that it is easy to grasp, pours easily, and doesn’t drip; these are conventions for teapot design. Before people drank tea, there were no teapots. But once introduced, over time, through many instances of production and use, there arose, as if by consensus, the common idea of what makes a good teapot. Unlike teapots, which don’t invent or produce themselves, the People is entirely self-made, a political artifact. It is real thing. Proof of its existence occurs in popular elections and at town meetings, when the People elect government officials or their representatives, and decide on certain issues legally presented to them. In such instances, the Power of the People is manifest.
To return to the original question, Rousseau restates it in a manner that shows just what he is up against: Is it possible, he asks, for an individual to surrender his freedom to a common will, and yet still retain it? Can we discover or devise “some form of association that defends and protects the person and property of each associate with all the common force, and by means of which each, uniting with all, nevertheless obeys only himself and remains as free as before?”
The purpose of government is to “protect and defend” the person and property of each and every member of the civil society it serves, and it requires the collective force of society to accomplish this. That’s clear. In forming an association to achieve this end, the individual is incorporated into an association, and yet, in fulfilling the duties of a citizen, every individual is supposed remain as free as before so that by obeying the rules and regulations of civil society, he “obeys only himself.”
If all works well, by merging oneself with the common society one does not lose one’s self, but rather regains it. Is this possible?
Rousseau’s answer is “yes,” but only if certain conditions are satisfied.
First, every member of a civil society must surrender himself completely, including all his rights, to the whole community—note that Rousseau was thinking only of men as citizens—an obvious shortcoming, but correctable. He supposed that this condition was the same for every citizen, so that there would a mutual interest in keeping it fair and equitable. Moreover, because every individual had renounced all his rights, he had nothing to claim against the community or any member of it. The individual has no other social place to exist, but in community, to be part of the People, a Citizen, which is a social being.
It may be summed up in the saying, “All for one, and one for all,” which seems to have worked well for the three Musketeers. The question is whether it can work well for the state.
What are we to make of this? Some of Rousseau’s interpreters suggest that “The Social Contract” was not intended to be a practical guide to politics. It was like Plato’s “Republic,” more utopian than realist, prescribing a model of civil society that would be impossible to implement, but yet edifying to contemplate.
This is partly true. It is also important to recall that both Plato and Rousseau were profound moral pessimists, who were under no illusions about the possibility of achieving perfection. They were pessimists in opposite ways. Plato worried that most human beings were too gross, too entangled in material existence to achieve or even envisage the ideal of justice. Rousseau believed that we are all born free, and that our native freedom, unadulterated by civilization, is perfect; civil society and its many creations make us corrupt and un-free. Yet both believed political existence is a necessity, and therefore unavoidable.
There is no likelihood of a return to nature on a grand scale, and if forced into it, few of us would survive. Civil society is our heritage; our past has imposed it on us. The problem becomes how to fashion a constitution for the state that is respectful of our common birthright.
Rousseau proposed transforming the private individual into a public citizen. And thus, like Plato, he imagined an ideal city, which is not a place, but a corporate body, the body politic, whose members put public good above private interest, and who by doing so, discover a new and higher freedom, the freedom of the Citizen.
The very idea of transforming a mere man into a citizen may have been Rousseau’s greatest achievement, comparable to Plato’s idea of justice, and, like Plato’s idea it remains an ideal never to be realized, yet never to be abandoned, for without such ideals our lives would have no real purpose.
This seems paradoxical, yet I believe it is true. For life without ideals would be dull and unhappy and cruel. Besides, Plato’s ideal of justice and Rousseau’s ideal of the citizen are perfect complements. Individuals become citizens by subjecting their particular wills to the will of the whole, and the object of that will is justice; in this combination, Plato’s ideal ruler, the philosopher king, becomes redundant.
Postscript: As a reminder, Plato’s idea of justice was that of a corporate body endowed with a virtuous soul, in which each part (citizens individually and in groups representing useful trades and social skills) did its proper work in a wise, brave, and temperate manner, so that the welfare of the whole was perfectly served. “All for one, and one for all.”
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