Rousseau, Liberté, and Legality of Property
by M. Ulric Killion
In his The Social Contract (Du Contrat Social ou Principes du Droit Politique, 1762), Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a citizen of Geneva, as he often fancied himself, did address, though indirectly, the right to property, when he was explicating his famous theory of the social compact. While Rousseau’s Émile (Émile, ou de l’éducation; Emile: or, on Education, 1762) serves as an exemplar or precursor to nineteenth century Romanticism and its rejection of reason as the sole criteria for truth and the exaltation of feelings, it is his Social Contract, more importantly, though man was happy in the state of nature, which addressed the critical seventeenth century and late-eighteenth century issues of improving the human condition.
Rousseau always believed that things should not have turned out as bad as they did. This is because if with the establishment of government (i.e., a political organization), as Rousseau explained, men “ran headlong into chains,” it is due to man possessing the intuitive sense to recognize the advantages of political organizations, but lacking the good sense to foresee the dangers. In the opening sentence of Du Contrat, at Social. Chapitre Premier, Rousseau announced to the world, “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains” (L’Homme est né libre, et partout il est dans les fers).
The citizen of Geneva recognized that humankind’s acceptance of the shackles of a governing political organization served as a defense against the dangers of a destructive anarchy. This recognition, however, presented the problematic of who shall decide what constraints shall apply to a governing political organization. Rousseau approached this problem by addressing the issue of what constitutes the false justifications of the concept of a state, such as the natural origin of the state in the physical sense. Rousseau’s approach to this problem challenged a philosophical tradition that associates with scientists, scholars, and philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, Hugo Grotius, and Aristotle, including those proponents remaining faithful to religious fundamentalism (Broome, 1963).
Rousseau opined that might is not right, thereby challenging a thesis that would later associate with the German metaphysician Immanuel Kant. By advocating that might is not right, Rousseau was able to return to his earlier thesis in his Second Discourse (Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, or Discours sur l’origine de l’inegalité or Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les homes, 1775), and thereby present his earlier distinction between power and authority. A distinction that is in grave contrast to later thoughts of Kant (i.e., I will what I please). Such as in Kant’s Groundwork (Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten, 1785), and his depiction of a moral world where all good agents share a kingdom of ends (Reich der Zwecke).
However, after avoiding the notion of the divine right of Kings and proclaiming that no man has natural authority over other men (i.e., might is not right), Rousseau was then able to advance his thesis that legitimate political authority (i.e., a legitimate governing political organization) has a conventional basis, which is contingent on his finding that one variant of the alleged contract is invalid, such as the classic argument against slavery, which is also an earlier classical defense (i.e., argument) made by Aristotle.
Rousseau emphasized the freewill as an elemental characteristic of humankind, while also exalting the concept of liberty. However, the invocation of freewill and liberty required a social contract, which is the true social contract, thereby providing legitimacy for a governing political organization. The true contract allows individuals to accomplish what they could not do by acting in the singular rather than in cooperation with others. For the true contract they must organize, but do so in disregard of their self-interest and freedom. This is the price that must be paid when transitioning to the social state, because, and borrowing from the words of Denis Diderot, or his play, which is his Le Fils naturel (The natural son, 1757), “Only the bad man lives alone.”
In contrast to the social contracts of John Locke and Hobbes, Rousseau distinguishably proclaimed, “l’ aliénation totale de chaque associé avec tous ses droits à toute la communauté.” This is Rousseau’s famous total and equal surrender of All to All, or the will of all (volonté de tous), which represents the sum of individuals. The surrender manifested the guarantee of justice, thereby, in theory, manifesting the same happiness as that of the state of nature (i.e., absence of evil), while also preserving liberty. This is due to the will of all not requiring any individual to surrender to another. A true society and a public person rather than public “thing” evolve from the resulting reciprocity of the requisite surrender, as there is now a new entity with a moral personality of its own.
This new entity is what Rousseau characterizes as the General Will (volonté générale), which is the in realty sui generis (i.e., a unified whole), and all are required to submit to the General Will as members of the society. The General Will is distinguishable from other social contract theories. This is because all political authority and the entirety of the community possessing it or the Sovereign, reside within this General Will. It is the General Will that properly guides the decisions of a society, rather than the volonté de tous or the sum of their individual self-interests.
For these reasons, Rousseau’s social compact addressed, though implicitly, both the right to property and the social status of individuals. This is because Rousseau, actually, addressed the social compact from both a moral and materialist perspective. Rousseau’s Second Discourse, admittedly, condemned property as a symbol of unrestrained selfishness. In The Social Contract, however, Rousseau allowed for the legal recognition of property. However, the legal recognition of property is subject to the General Will and the restrictions that the General Will may authorize.
As for the legal recognition of property or the right to property, according to Broome (1963), “[T]he moral implications of the Contract are presented as so important as virtually to transform an animal into a man: that is, an intelligent being, who exchanges natural independence for moral liberty, and the restrictions of nature for the rule of reason.” As Rousseau wrote: “On pourrait, sur ce qui précède, ajouter à l’acquis de l’état civil la liberté morale, qui seule rend l’homme vraiment maître de lui; car l’impulsion du seul appétit est esclavage, et l’obéissance à la loi qu’on s’est prescrite est liberté. Mais je n’en ai déjà que trop dit sur cet article, et le sens philosophique du mot liberté n’est pas ici de mon sujet.”
The costumes on Goya’s cartoons for tapestries are the colorful documents of Rococo fashion. In 1775, Goya works for the royal tapestry manufactory in Spain. Goya captured idyllic scenes for the tapestries – but they show much more than sketchy Rococo playfulness. The painter sympathised with the Enlightenment. Is the scene on this cartoon influenced by such a prominent Enlightenment philosopher as Jean-Jacques Rousseau? The lady is dressed in the typical peasant-style of the Enlightment. Rousseau’s "back to nature" philosophy influenced the French Revolution, the development of communist and socialist theory.
M. Ulric Killion, February 1, 2009.
J.-J. Rousseau, Du Contrat Social ou Principes du Droit Politique, 1762).
J.-J. Rousseau, Émile, ou de l’éducation, 1762).
J.-J. Rousseau, Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les homes (1755), (Gérard Mairet, ed.) (LGF-Livre de Poche, 1996).
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