Review: The Social Contract and The First and Second Discourses by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Part of an Ongoing Book Review Series
[This review is based on the collected works of Rousseau edited by Susan Dunn for Yale University Press, published in 2002.]
Rousseau’s First Discourse is a written response to the question, “Has the revival of the Sciences and Arts contributed to improving reality?” It reveals a substantial aspect of Rousseau’s thinking regarding the eighteenth century Enlightenment. One of the most telling remarks in the early section of the essay is when Rousseau asserts that while “government and law provide for the security and well-being of people in their collective life, the sciences, letters, and arts—less despotic though perhaps more powerful—wrap garlands of flowers around the chains that weigh people down” (p. 48). Rousseau appears to see the advancement of art and science as just as much (or more) of a loss as it is a gain to humankind. He then expresses a romanticized view of indigenous cultures (specifically, Native Americans), when he argues in the footnote on page 49 that the “primitive people of America, who go naked and live off what they hunt, have never been conquered. Indeed, what kind of yoke could be imposed on people who are in need of nothing.” This comment demonstrates a tendency by Rousseau to assume a non-violent and peaceful nature of native peoples. The problem with such assumptions, especially in regard to Native Americans, is that it misses the historical fact that American Indian peoples conquered each other for thousands of years. Though this aspect of history may not have been readily available to Rousseau, it underscores his tendency to assume human violence to be a byproduct of modernity.
Rousseau’s Second Discourse sets out to answer the origin and foundations of human inequality. In many ways, the Second Discourse makes similar points as that of the First, but one of its most interesting features is how it distinguishes itself from the writings of other natural rights theorists in its examination of the state of nature. Rousseau makes a compelling point that other natural rights theorists (Hobbes, Locke, and others) presume an almost instantaneous transition from the state of nature to living in a society. This may be one of Rousseau’s most valuable insights into this area of political theory. He similarly, without necessarily criticizing the notion of natural rights fundamentally, attacks the sophistry of natural rights theorists. He observes that these theorists “set out by examining what rules it would be proper for men to agree to among themselves for their common interest; and then… proceed to give the name of natural law to a collection of these rules, without any other proof than the advantages they find would result from a universal compliance with it… [This is] a very early method… of explaining the nature of things by an almost arbitrary fitness” (p. 84). This critique regarding the sometimes loose language of natural rights theorists is thought-provoking and well made. Rousseau, however, does not appear to disagree with natural rights theory per se, so much as that he seems to desire a much more refined and well-defined summation.
For Rousseau, all natural right derives from just two principles: the interest of self-preservation/self-welfare, and an aversion to seeing other beings—especially those like ourselves—“suffer or perish” (p. 84). He makes a similar argument to this second principle and asserts a level of animal-rights philosophy which must have been radical for its time when he posits that the natural quality of many animals include “pity, empathy, compassion, and loss” (p. 107). In this section of the Second Discourse he makes one of his most powerful claims: that it is in fact human philosophy—including human reason—that “destroys [man’s] connections with other men” (p. 107). Here, he provocatively states that a man may murder, and then “argue a little with himself to hinder nature” to evade feelings of responsibility or guilt toward his victim.
The Second Discourse, in some ways echoed with points in The Social Contract, demonstrates Rousseau’s views regarding wealth, possession, and property. He makes a claim on page 114 that often appears as a sort of red line of difference between Marxist thinkers and natural rights theorists. In different areas of his writings, he condemns notions of private property. I believe his critique of private ownership is one reason Marxists are often drawn to Rousseau. Marxist distinctions between possession and property ownership are themselves very Rousseauian. However, when he states (on p. 114) that “man’s first feeling was that of his existence, his first care that of preserving it,” he appears to be making the same oversight that Marxists do, even as he underscores this point: the notion of private ownership by natural law theorists does not begin with private ownership of land or other commodities. Private ownership begins with the owning of one’s own person. This detail is fundamental to natural rights theory, as it explains how the notion of private ownership then proceeds out from there, and also explains why natural rights theory is fundamentally individualistic. It is astounding that Rousseau doesn’t appear to recognize that care of preserving one’s own existence and welfare is the most fundamental practice of property right that there is.
The Social Contract’s assessment of how to construct a prosperous and free society may be most important for its notion of popular sovereignty. It makes one wonder if American Founder James Wilson had read The Social Contract. Rousseau was not the influence, seemingly, to the American founders that Montesquieu and Locke were, but the idea of sovereignty in The Social Contract rings very familiar to that of Wilson during the Constitutional Convention. Rousseau’s call for there to be no exclusive national religion was also prescient to what would happen in the United States not all that long after Rousseau made such a point. Finally, without saying it in so many words, it appears that Rousseau argues for a right of revolution—or at least a right of legal dissent—if a government fails its duties. He asserts that as soon as “government usurps the sovereignty, the social compact is broken, and all ordinary citizens, rightfully regaining their natural liberty, are forced, but not morally bound, to obey” (p. 216, emphasis mine).
These three works of Rousseau fill a blind spot some would otherwise possess in intellectual history circles. They reveal how and why his influence proved to be so profound in Enlightenment-era France, and particularly the French Revolution. They inform his place in natural rights theory more specifically, as both a member and a critic.
Rousseau was not the intellectual or philosophical influence upon the United States that Montesquieu was regarding separation of powers or Locke was regarding the importance of property rights. Indeed, the wisdom and principles fundamental to the American Founding has often been framed in contradistinction to the flailing emotionalism and barbarism of the French Revolution, which presented Rousseau as its philosophical hero. His assertion concerning the important role of popular sovereignty, however, has possibly been historically undervalued in terms of it's influence upon American thought.