“Kant” Revisited: Jean Jacques Rousseau’s “The Social Contract”

I’m really scraping the barrel of My Life With Kant. 

It pains me to say it, but this could be the last Kant Revisited. 

It’s not that I’ve ran out of episodes. Quite the contrary, I’ve got plenty left. But some things are best left never being seen from again.

Was this a bad episode? I don’t know. But it’s certainly the last presentable one I’ve got.

This is both a good and bad problem. But mostly bad because now I’ve got to write MORE original posts instead of leaning on some old crap that I wrote months before. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I want to do LESS this year. Not more.

But here it is, my discussion on Jean Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract. I’ve got two warnings: read the work yourself. AND, as I’ve said many times before but this time for the last time…I don’t edit or spellcheck these things.

You’ve been warned.



When you wake up every morning, perform your morning routines, go to work, pay your taxes, obey traffic laws, and do all the things that make you a part of this society, who or what dictates those rules? How did it ever get to be this way? When we watch the news or read the Huffington Post, Fox News, or whatever your source of information might be, and you hear someone describe the fundamental rights that all people have, who are what gives those rights?

Jean Jacques Rousseau opens his work The Social Contract by saying, quote “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains”. End quote, and that is a very startling thing to say at the very beginning. But consider this: there is no physical force that is preventing you from doing whatever you want, as long as it’s within your physical capabilities. Nothing. Now of course, it’s one thing to commit whatever you will, but it’s another thing to accept the consequences. And I imagine that it’s the fear of consequences that prevent most people from committing heinous and/or criminal acts.

Think about it. What if walk past a car that want and you see the keys dangling in the ignition. You have an open opportunity to take the vehicle. But you don’t. Because you fear the consequences that can range from jail time, to you own guilt about stealing from your fellow man. You are therefore bound by the chains that society imposes on you, despite the fact that those chains are a non-existent physical force.

Rousseau would say that the only natural authority that exists is that of parents and a child. But that authority is a one way street. It exists only for the betterment of the child, and not necessarily for the parent. Many could think of governments acting in the same capacity, but the difference is that a population governed by a political body is not a naturally occurring event. The only thing keeping that relationship in tact is force.

However, superior force alone doesn’t necessarily mean that the people themselves have an obligation to their government. The best way for a government to find acceptance with the people would be through a social contract. This contract would allow governments to convene and would ensure the people’s freedom, or right, of choice which is something that, as I understand it, Rousseau didn’t think those under monarchies possessed. Because they had to give up their freedoms to live under their king, everything became a one-way street, and therefore there is no proper contract between the king and the governed.

That being said, in order to form a social contract, people must still forgo whatever self-interest they may possess and submit themselves to the will of the people. However, because everyone is bound by the contract equally, there wouldn’t be much suppression of one another’s rights. But the governing body that is formed by the people would have a will that’s independent of the governed. Despite this, because this so-called sovereignty was created by the contract, which in turn was created by the people, they would have to work in the best interest of the governed and vice-versa.

But people themselves have to be bound by law in order to prevent themselves from engaging in self-serving behavior. By doing so, man is able to transcend his own primal character and become a moral being. Additionally, people must be willing to give up their personal property, goods, services, etc, for the good of their fellow man. And all in all, people should engage is public debate and act in accordance to the will of the their fellow man, and do what’s best for all. The law is an extension of the social contract, and violating the law should have dire consequences, according to Rousseau, to include the death penalty.

The sovereign holds the right to judge death upon individuals that violate the law, additionally it has the authority to pardon their crimes. However, pertaining to the law, who should dictate it? Rousseau would suggest that a, quote:

“a superior intelligence beholding all the passions of men without experiencing any of them would be needed. This intelligence would have to be wholly unrelated to our nature, while knowing it through and through; it’s happiness would have to be independent of us, and yet ready to occupy itself with ours; and lastly, it would have, in the march of time, to look forward to a distant glory, and, working in one century, to be able to enjoy in the next. It would take gods to give men laws.” End quote.

And where do we find this superior intelligence? It should be found in the legislator: a power that that can only enact laws, but not enforce them. Is this beginning to sound familiar? Rousseau goes on to explain:

“This office, which sets up the Republic, nowhere enters into its constitution; it is an individual and superior function, which had nothing in common with human empire; for if he who holds command over men ought not to have command over the laws, he who has command over the laws ought not any more to have it over men; or else his laws would be the ministers of his passions and would often merely serve to perpetuate his injustices” End quote.

Later, Rousseau would explain the nature of free actions committed by individuals, by dividing them into two parts: the first is the moral, or the will, to do an action, and the second is the physical, or power, to make the action happen. He would go on to state that body politics work the same way. In that the will becomes the legislative power, and the force becomes the executive powers. Here is where Rousseau tries to differentiate between the sovereign and the government, which he presumes is where people get confused. He states that the Sovereign’s acts must always be laws, and that the government is just the body that acts as an intermediary between the people and the Sovereign.

Now we already talked about the legislative powers, but the powers of the executive are, the, and I quote “government, or supreme administration, the legitimate exercise of the executive power, and prince or magistrate the man or the body entrusted with that administration” End quote.

So to keep this all in mind, the Sovereign in the general will of the people, the legislator is the one to enact laws, and the executive is the one that administers the government. Okay, so…

Rousseau would later try to explain the perils that a government might face. For example, the more magistrates, the weaker the government would be. However, as populations increase, the government must exert some greater authority over the people. Whatever way the sovereignty tries to do this, the government must remain an extension of the greater will, and not become an object of its own ambitions. Remember Machiavelli?

But another concern of Rousseau’s was keeping the people engaged in government affairs. It’s interesting in Chapter 15 of Book 3, where Rousseau seems to rail against human’s natural drive towards monetary gain. He states that, quote:

“As soon as public service ceases to be the chief business of the citizens and they would rather serve with their money than with their persons, the State is not far from its fall. When it is necessary to meet in council, they name deputies and stay at home. By reason of idleness and money, they end by having soldiers to enslave their country and representatives to sell it.” End quote.

And he goes on with his rant to say that the word “finance” is a slavish word, and that citizens should be able to perform all their duties through their own labor and not through money. And perhaps most alarmingly he ends up saying that, quote “I hold enforced labor to be less opposed to liberty than taxes”. So it’s sort of strange to read this pre-Marxist view, with a tinge of libertarianism. So in our modern eyes, Rousseau is all over the place, but I should probably also point out if you haven’t read the Social Contract, but Rousseau isn’t all that friendly towards private property and money, so it wasn’t like that rant came out of nowhere. But it become pretty clear around this part how this work became influential in the French Revolution.

So anyways, Rousseau also says something here that can very much apply to our times. He says “As soon as any man says of the affairs of the State ‘What does it matter to me?’ the State may be given up for lost”. That sounds like our state of affairs in the US, with our 2016 presidential elections. This is brought about because public interests have been put on the back burner if favor of the government’s own self-interest. So Rousseau suggests that the representatives of the people are not just representatives for themselves, but they are as he calls ‘stewards’ of the people, and any law that was enacted by them that was not enacted by the people, is null and void. Therefore citizens must, by law, assemble and dictate terms of the government, so therefore government is not a ‘contract’, but is something lawfully deemed by the public.

Clearly there are many parts of this that I find problematic. Especially with the whole, everyone must vote according to what they think is the general will of the people. And if everyone was thinking about what would be in the best interest of everyone else, then theoretically speaking all votes would be unanimous or close to it. And if someone voted incorrectly, then they’ll just come to realize that they were mistaken. What question I want to ask is “What if the general will is wrong?”, and there’s one smart person is out there and they’re telling everyone to not vote the way that everyone else wants to, because he or she knows that it will be the demise of everyone!?

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