One of the key aspects of Rousseau’s social contract theory is that, unlike with Hobbes and Locke, he really doesn’t explain why men embrace the social contract. This is, again, because Rousseau takes the idealistic picture of humanity in the state of nature. Man is born naturally good. He is pure. He is a moral animal. He lives in harmony with his neighbors. This is not to say he has a social animus, but this is to say that he is amiable and when he comes across other humans, he does see them as an enemy or threat to his life. As Rousseau states, “I assume that men reach a point where the obstacles to their preservation in a state of nature prove greater than the strength that each man has to preserve himself in that state. Beyond this point, the primitive condition cannot endure, for then humanity will perish if it does not change its mode of existence.” And that’s the end of that.
Rousseau opened his influential work by stating that man is born free but is now found in chains all over the world. While one of Rousseau’s critics, Joseph De Maistre, retorted that Rousseau’s observation is like pondering the absurd question “how strange it is that sheep, who were born carnivorous, should nevertheless everywhere be nibbling grass,” implying that Rousseau is an absurd and illogical thinker who is overly idealistic, Rousseau’s opening statements serve as the bedrock to understanding his revision of the social contract. As he noted, he really doesn’t know why men are found enslaved all over the place, but he does believe he has the solution to this apparent problem.
The social contract is not established to secure the order that is necessary for self-preservation, peace, and justice to take root for without we would live in a warring world of all against all as Hobbes thought. And neither is the social contract established to secure individual rights associated with self-preservation and healthy hedonistic living as Locke thought. Instead, Rousseau just assumes that the social contract – if there ever was one to begin with – would have been agreed upon by mutually free and equal individuals for overcoming whatever obstacles were in their way to preserve themselves.
Therefore, the social contract is established, according to Rousseau, to guarantee our individual freedom and equality, which, when taken in totality – because the social contract is a covenant with other individuals – also means the social contract is established to guarantee all of freedom and equality. It is not freedom and equality for some and not others. Rather, it is freedom and equality for all. And Rousseau does really men for all. The issue of securing vs. guaranteeing is the result of different anthropological starting points.
Whenever the social contract is being nullified and destroyed, which is the result of private wills dominating other private wills, the general will manifests itself to ensure our freedom and equality. Therefore, Rousseau also ties the social contract to the general will. The general will is what gives the social contract its mandate to restore freedom and equality.
This is why it’s revolutionary. Revolution means to revolve back to. Revolution means to return. For Rousseau, this is the return to freedom and equality which constitutes the composition of natural man in the state of nature. For, as Rousseau says, to reject one’s freedom – that is, to surrender one’s freedom for something other than freedom – is to reject one’s own humanity. No one would ever do this Rousseau claims. The social contract, and the general will, is not about achieving freedom and equality. It is about restoring freedom and equality that has been taken away from us either by: Illegitimate government (government no longer upholding the original social compact or heeding the call of the general will), restrictions placed on the individual by community, religion, or custom and tradition, or from other individuals who use violent and physical force against us thereby bringing harm to our bodies or, heaven forbid, enslaving us.
According to Rousseau, men pledge their freedom and equality to other men through a covenant, which gives the social contract its power. For without power the social contract would be worthless. Once in this covenant we have an obligation to uphold it. Which means upholding my freedom and equality, while also upholding your freedom and equality. This is why Rousseau writes what he does in Chapter 7 of the first book of his infamous treatise:
Hence, in order that the social pact shall not be an empty formula, it is tacitly implied in that commitment – which alone can give force to all others – that whoever refuse to obey the general will shall be constrained to do so by the whole body, which means nothing other than that he shall be forced to be free; for this is the necessary condition which, by giving each citizen to the nation, secures him against all personal dependence, it is the condition which shapes both the design and the working of the political machine, and which alone bestows justice on civil contracts – without it, such contracts would be absurd, tyrannical and liable to the grossest abuse.
What Rousseau means that without forcing each other to be free would lead to tyranny and abuse is this: If I do not take responsibility for ensuring your freedom and equality, which is what the social pact was constructed for and we agreed upon, the social pact is without power. Once it is known that we do not have the “general will” to safeguard others’ freedom and equality, forces within society will rise up and seize the levers of political power to their own benefit at the exclusion of others. Rousseau vehemently rejects this idea that if it is not harming me why should I care? You should care because you are rejecting the covenant duty to upholding freedom and equality for all persons. In a society your freedom and equality is dependent upon others’ freedom and equality.
This is crucial to understand. Rousseau does not think you should fight for another’s freedom and equality simply because it is the right thing to do or anything like that. He argues that you should fight for another’s freedom and equality because your freedom and equality is what is at risk when someone else’s freedom and equality is stripped away from. It is in your interest to uphold the covenant bond.
The social contract, then, is not about securing life, property, justice, or peaceable living. It is about guaranteeing and maintaining freedom and equality itself. For the social contract to have its power, it must enact what the general will has manifested itself for. The general will does not have force in of itself. Only political institutions have the power to use force. Legitimate politics, in Rousseau’s eyes, the politics that actually follows the social contract that men supposedly agreed to when life in the state of nature became untenable for whatever reasons those may be, is about enforcing freedom and equality. The use of force is only legitimate, in Rousseau’s estimation, when it is used for the cause of freedom and equality. Any other use of force is illegitimate.
And that is what equality is, as Rousseau defined in his work. He is aware that there are physical differences between persons. Equality means that no one will use force against one another. When we are equal in this regard, we can enjoy our natural freedom as we so please. And according to Rousseau, since no one used force against one another in the state of nature, and we all have physical power to act and do as we will, all of us are free and equal in the state of nature which the social contract was originally ratified to preserve.
Lastly, we must also recognize the paradox of freedom. As Rousseau says, to become dependent on anyone is to lose freedom. Because you are now dependent on others. This is because Rousseau fundamentally agrees with the already established liberal definition of freedom: The power to do as one wills free from any impediments or constraints. Freedom is not about controlling passion, or directing desire to Truth or the Ultimate Good, whereby one lives a fulfilled ontological life in accord with their nature as the classical philosophers thought. Freedom is about the power to do as one pleases without restraints. This requires us to remain separated from one another. Yet, since the social compact is a collective construction, and since my freedom and equality is at stake when someone else’s freedom and equality is taken away, I must also be willing to preserve my own freedom and equality by working to restore, or preserve, the freedom and equality of others. Rousseau’s ethic of compassion and sentimentality is entirely self-focused. This is why Rousseau is also considered one of the fathers of psychological egoism. All human action, for Rousseau, is motivated to benefit ourselves and ourselves alone. But the paradox in political society is that to be the benificiary of the social contract guaranteeing my freedom and equality, I must see my freedom and equality as tied to the freedom and equality of another, because the other is myself. This is the philosophy of moi commun, “common self.”
At end, we can also say that Rousseau is an ideologist. His political philosophy is ideological: it is based on the “true principles of political right, and trying to establish the state on the basis of those principles.” In this way, he also doesn’t fall far from Hobbes and Locke whose political philosophy is equally ideological. But Rousseau’s vision is perniciously poisonous in that the dream of making the social contract legitimate again is often a license for abuse—as seen by the Jacobins and the Terror during the French Revolution, and often by all who attain power on promises of legitimizing the political order for the masses.
This is an altered essay originally published on Hesiod’s Corner, April 18, 2018, under the title, “Rousseau: On the Social Contract.”