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Rousseau - Lesson Summary

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Rousseau was a strong votary for liberty, equality and direct democracy. His philosophy inspired the French revolution in 1789. However, many of his ideas were regarded as contrary to the enlightenment and progressive traditions in Europe. There was a growing belief that science and human reason or rationality would make societies or communities better off. Contrary to this, Rousseau argued about the corrupting influence of society or culture on individuals.

The central concern or primary objective of Rousseau in the social contract was to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before.

Being a theorist of popular sovereignty and republican form of direct democracy, Rousseau envisaged a kind of small political community like Geneva where each citizen would participate in the governance and legislation. Thus, helping in constituting what he calls the general will of the community, which would be binding on each member of the community.

Rousseau’s argument about popular sovereignty is based on his idea of the general will. The general will should be binding to all. Those who refuse to obey the general will shall be forced to obey it. And this general will need not to be the aggregate will of the majority or even few.

Rousseau, as republican thinker, wanted to create a political community in which human beings could live a free and equal life. According to him men could genuinely realize this freedom in civil society by following the laws which they themselves legislate.

Thus citizens in such a political community would be both author and subject of laws. However, the kind of freedom that exist vary from society to society depending upon their natural conditions of the people and physical circumstances.

Rousseau in the social contract envisages a body politic that would create the conditions of freedom and equality for the individuals. The formation of the body politic is based upon a covenant that transform the multitude into “a people”. The constitution of that body politic, according to Rousseau, is the basis of all social, economic, political rights for individuals;

General will in Rousseau’s thought is an ambiguous concept. The people themselves must legislate it. It cannot be delegated to or represented by any other body than people themselves. It could be the will of the majority, few, or even one enlightened citizen guided by the real will of everyone in the community, who are free from their personal or selfish interest. The general will is the will of the whole community and is binding on all. However, it is not the aggregate will of all its members.