This extract from Chapter VI of Du contract social (p25-26, paragraph 7-10) published in 1762 by Jean-Jacques Rousseau is his thesis on how to establish an enlightened society in face of conformity, destructive acquiescence and the inability to put sentiment over reason. Rousseau highlights in the extract the difference between the need for a governmental body to control the people and how people could govern their own lives through their own moral existential decisions. This commentary will examine how Rousseau is able through his identity, himself an outsider, raise to question how civilisation has not improved peoples well being and lead to moral degeneracy. Secondly, we shall look at how Rousseau helped to kick-start a new way of thinking in 18th century France and what the implication were with the “Republican ideal”.
Rousseau opens with ‘Il ne faut plus demander a qui appartient de faire les lois, puisqu’elles sont des actes de la volontes generale’ line1. This is a bold claim contextually, amid the government under the absolute monarchy and the sovereignty of Louis XV. Rousseau is essentially understating the need for any laws as everyone has their own ‘volonte generale’ line23.
Rousseau defines law as something that determines ones general will and is universally applicable ‘universalite de la volonte’line 5. He then goes on to say that laws are subconsciously created in our own image of our good will and what is right. However, laws are created to chaperone and guide the general public to a state of general good will, which in turn keeps everyone in line and things in order. Moreover, Rousseau acknowledges how the law -as an abstract concept -cannot deal with individuals nor distinguish between them. The law cannot tell whether ‘le prince est au-dessus de la loi’ line 2 as he is a member of the state and therefore under the same laws as the average Joe or Pierre.
Rousseau underlines how law is a collective agreement of peoples general will, and therefore everyone must agree on the laws which dictate them. This is certainly not possible. However, Rousseau argues as laws are simply ‘registres’ of our own will, laws should be set up in positive, binding manner- this leads to Rousseau main argument that civilisation corrupted people who once started from as peaceful place – a “state of nature”. In civilisation as a whole there is a need to put sentiment over reason.Rousseau was forced to flee to Paris at the age of 16. At this pivotal time in his life he felt isolated, without a home and so he would have been a stranger to this alien metropolis. Having been born in the comparatively the quaint town of Geneva. Rousseau was exposed to the opulence of Paris under the “Ancien Regime”.
As a consequence of this fact, Rousseau, while still speaking French, would not have thought himself French and would’ve been able to see the way things worked around him differently to how one would if they were part of it. A man commands his own motion – ‘Un homme ordonne de son chef’ line 7 clearly shows Rousseau’s way of thinking – as an individual – but this is ‘point une loi’. This notion is universally true ‘appliquee a une collectif’ Article 1, p1 to everybody . Rousseau argues that it is the individual that needs to be ‘l’auteur’ line 15 and not be ‘soumis aux lois’ line 15 which restricts the way of thinking, your self-identity and individuality. The people have an identity. An individual in a civilisation or large group does not. Their identity – national, sexual or otherwise – is determined by those around them, contradicting their individuality.
Identity like the laws that govern us are simply ‘une mise en format’ or a ‘mise en recit de la communaute’article 1. Rousseau links this to a destructive way of thinking an “amour propre”. This artificial mindset is centred around jealousy, pride and vanity. Identities are created through references to others which leads to imitations and a competitive, unhealthy lifestyle. The people do not know what is good for themselves and as a consequence they tend to blindly follow as a ‘multitude aveugle’line 17 who often do not know what is good for them and what isn’t. Rousseau suggests guiding the people through the reinforcement and encouragement of their good will, but how can this be achieved?Before Rousseau, “the general will” is seen as something illuminating, as the passage to a higher way of thinking through a civilised and mannered existence. With Rousseau however, the general will is something ‘unnatural’ Article 3, something tainted by ‘amour propre’ and egotism. Civilised people had stopped thinking about what they wanted and what they felt.
General will in Rousseau’s eyes began as something divine, honest and untarnished by the bad influences of civilisation. At the time, Europeans were fascinated by the Native Americans and they’re uncharacterised existence. They lived in small, closely knit tribes, lived simple lives and were psychologically rich Article 4, p6. Once Europeans came over to colonise and destroy their lands. The Native Americans became plagued with illness, depression and alcoholism. They suddenly began to seek guns, mirrors and their lives were destroyed and fractured by the modern world.
Thereby fracturing their once natural “general will” Article 4. Rousseau simply wants to go back to this simpler, less clouded general will the ‘volontes generales’ and not the ‘volontes particulieres’ .Rousseau assumes a rather idealistic and naive view: ‘La volonte generale est toujours droite’.
Stating that will is only misguided and ‘n’est pas toujours eclaire’. This view, although true on a wider perspective, does not account for when someone in a civilisation does not think like the status quo, does not dress as everyone else, does not fall into the blinding trap of conformity. Assuming this does not happen. This generalises the way people are: a mass of unthinking, mindless, heedless people – which is certainly true. People must be shown ‘les objets tels qui sont’line 22 and show them the ‘bon chemin’line 23. Individuals are aware of the good they reject ‘le bien qui’ils rejettent’ line 25, but through the culmination of people the defaults become more and more prevalent and begins to dominate the status quo. Rousseau’s solution: the need for a legislator line 30. This would solve the problem of how such a large number would gather to write up an agreement together and the fact that people did not always know what they wanted.
Through Rousseau’s challenging of what is ‘gouvernement’ line12 and his critical description of it in the large final paragraph, he knowingly or otherwise brings to questions the government he was under at the time. All pointed to this envisioned Republic as a cornerstone to a new government, new way of thinking and a new hope.Rousseau is able in the writing of this piece from the Du contract social to extract the meaning of freedom and how it may be possible to change a tainted civilisation that is concentrated on the wrong ideals to live in a civil society that is free. At the time Rousseau, not being the only free thinking writer with the like of Zola and the Jacobins, was able to dissect the problems from a point of view that was itself was well established in society but not always feeling part of it. Rousseau was not French.
He didn’t think as they did. Through this he could unpick the problems. ‘To understand the power of Rousseau’s immediate influence, however, one need only consult the response of Louis XVI before the National Assembly, where he promised to “defend and maintain constitutional liberty, whose principles the general will, in accord with my own, has sanctioned.
” Article 5 It is unquestionable the impact Rousseau had on the population and the events leading up to the revolution of 1789. In the Declaration of the Rights of Man it declares “The law is an expression of the general will.” Rousseau’s immediate influence on the French way of thinking comes from a rooted dislike and need for change that everyone felt later on (than the article) under Louis XVI. Throughout this article Rousseau underpins how in the state of nature we have no restraints on our behaviour.
Civilisation, although necessary for living in large groups, burdens us with restraints through limiting our individuality and our behaviour. Rousseau explains that by giving up our “state of nature” freedom, we as a consequence can gain an enlightened freedom dictated by rational thinking through civilisation. This is the true meaning of putting sentiment over reason.
We can learn to think morally only by putting aside our impulses and desires. Although Rousseau’s beliefs and projection of what is morality is somewhat warranted, it also combines the idyllic with the realistic which is often filled with obscurity and impossibilities. Rousseau’s means to create a world where the sovereign and the general will are the same, and indeed the most important, thing. The particular wills do not account as the general will dictates.