In his work, Rousseau addresses freedom more than any other problem of political philosophy and aims to explain how man in the state of nature is blessed with an enviable total freedom. This freedom is total for two reasons. First, natural man is physically free because he is not constrained by a repressive state apparatus or dominated by his fellow men. Second, he is psychologically and spiritually free because he is not enslaved to any of the artificial needs that characterize modern society. This second sense of freedom, the freedom from need, makes up a particularly insightful and revolutionary component of Rousseau’s philosophy. Rousseau believed modern man’s enslavement to his own needs was responsible for all sorts of societal ills, from exploitation and domination of others to poor self-esteem and depression.
Rousseau believed that good government must have the freedom of all its citizens as its most fundamental objective. The Social Contract in particular is Rousseau’s attempt to imagine the form of government that best affirms the individual freedom of all its citizens, with certain constraints inherent to a complex, modern, civil society. Rousseau acknowledged that as long as property and laws exist, people can never be as entirely free in modern society as they are in the state of nature, a point later echoed by Marx and many other Communist and anarchist social philosophers. Nonetheless, Rousseau strongly believed in the existence of certain principles of government that, if enacted, can afford the members of society a level of freedom that at least approximates the freedom enjoyed in the state of nature. In The Social Contract and his other works of political philosophy, Rousseau is devoted to outlining these principles and how they may be given expression in a functional modern state.
For Rousseau to succeed in determining which societal institutions and structures contradict man’s natural goodness and freedom, he must first define the ”natural”. Rousseau strips away all the ideas that centuries of development have imposed on the true nature of man and concludes that many of the ideas we take for granted, such as property, law, and moral inequality, actually have no basis in nature. For Rousseau, modern society generally compares unfavorably to the ”state of nature.”
As Rousseau discusses in the Discourse on Inequality and The Social Contract, the state of nature is the hypothetical, prehistoric place and time where human beings live uncorrupted by society. The most important characteristic of the state of nature is that people have complete physical freedom and are at liberty to do essentially as they wish. That said, the state of nature also carries the drawback that human beings have not yet discovered rationality or morality. In different works, Rousseau alternately emphasizes the benefits and shortfalls of the state of nature, but by and large he reveres it for the physical freedom it grants people, allowing them to be unencumbered by the coercive influence of the state and society. In this regard, Rousseau’s conception of the state of nature is entirely more positive than Hobbes’s conception of the same idea, as Hobbes, who originated the term, viewed the state of nature as essentially a state of war and savagery. This difference in definition indicates the two philosophers’ differing views of human nature, which Rousseau viewed as essentially good and Hobbes as essentially base and brutal. Finally, Rousseau acknowledged that although we can never return to the state of nature, understanding it is essential for society’s members to more fully realize their natural goodness.
Rousseau includes an analysis of human need as one element in his comparison of modern society and the state of nature. According to Rousseau, “needs” result from the passions, which make people desire an object or activity. In the state of nature, human needs are strictly limited to those things that ensure survival and reproduction, including food, sleep, and sex. By contrast, as cooperation and division of labor develop in modern society, the needs of men multiply to include many nonessential things, such as friends, entertainment, and luxury goods. As time goes by and these sorts of needs increasingly become a part of everyday life, they become necessities. Although many of these needs are initially pleasurable and even good for human beings, men in modern society eventually become slaves to these superfluous needs, and the whole of society is bound together and shaped by their pursuit. As such, unnecessary needs are the foundation of modern “moral inequality,” in that the pursuit of needs inevitably means that some will be forced to work to fulfill the needs of others and some will dominate their fellows when in a position to do so.
Rousseau’s conception of need, and especially the more artificial types that dominate modern society, are a particularly applicable element of his philosophy for the present time. Given the immense wealth that exists in a country such as the United States and the extent to which consumerism is the driving force behind its economy, Rousseau’s insights should provoke reflection for anyone concerned about the ways the American culture nurtures a population of people increasingly enslaved by artificial needs.
Linked to Rousseau’s general attempt to understand how modern life differs from life in the state of nature is his particular focus on the question of how authentic the life of man is in modern society. By authentic, Rousseau essentially means how closely the life of modern man reflects the positive attributes of his natural self. Not surprisingly, Rousseau feels that people in modern society generally live quite inauthentic lives.
In the state of nature, man is free to simply attend to his own natural needs and has few occasions to interact with other people. He can simply “be,” while modern man must often “appear” as much as “be” so as to deviously realize his ridiculous needs.
The entire system of artificial needs that governs the life of civil society makes authenticity or truth in the dealings of people with one another almost impossible. Since individuals are always trying to deceive and/or dominate their fellow citizens to realize their own individual needs, they rarely act in an authentic way toward their fellow human beings. Even more damningly, the fact that modern people organize their lives around artificial needs means that they are inauthentic and untrue to themselves as well. To Rousseau’s mind, the origin of civil society itself can be traced to an act of deception, when one man invented the notion of private property by enclosing a piece of land and convincing his simple neighbors “this is mine,” while having no truthful basis whatsoever to do so. Given this fact, the modern society that has sprung forth from this act can be nothing but inauthentic to the core.
For Rousseau, the questions of why and how human beings are naturally equal and unequal, if they are unequal at all, are fundamental to his larger philosophical enquiry. To form his critique of modern society’s problems, he must show that many of the forms of inequality endemic to society are in fact not natural and can therefore be remedied. His conclusions and larger line of reasoning in this argument are laid out in the Discourse on Inequality, but the basic thrust of his argument is that human inequality as we know it does not exist in the state of nature. In fact, the only kind of natural inequality, according to Rousseau, is the physical inequality that exists among men in the state of nature who may be more or less able to provide for themselves according to their physical attributes.
Accordingly, all the inequalities we recognize in modern society are characterized by the existence of different classes or the domination and exploitation of some people by others. Rousseau terms these kinds of inequalities moral inequalities, and he devotes much of his political philosophy to identifying the ways in which a just government can seek to overturn them. In general, Rousseau’s meditations on inequality, as well as his radical assertion of the notion that all men are by-and-large equal in their natural state, were important inspirations for both the American and French Revolutions.
Perhaps the most difficult and quasi-metaphysical concept in Rousseau’s political philosophy is the principle of the general will. As Rousseau explains, the general will is the will of the sovereign, or all the people together, that aims at the common good—what is best for the state as a whole. Although each individual may have his or her own particular will that expresses what is good for him or her, in a healthy state, where people correctly value the collective good of all over their own personal good, the amalgamation of all particular wills, the “will of all,” is equivalent to the general will. In a state where the vulgarities of private interest prevail over the common interests of the collective, the will of all can be something quite different from the general will. The most concrete manifestation of the general will in a healthy state comes in the form of law. To Rousseau, laws should always record what the people collectively desire (the general will) and should always be universally applicable to all members of the state. Further, they should exist to ensure that people’s individual freedom is upheld, thereby guaranteeing that people remain loyal to the sovereign at all times.
Rousseau’s abstract conception of the general will raises some difficult questions. The first is, how can we know that the will of all is really equivalent with the common good? The second is, assuming that the general will is existent and can be expressed in laws, what are the institutions that can accurately gauge and codify the general will at any given time? Tackling these complex dilemmas occupied a large portion of Rousseau’s political thought, and he attempts to answer them in The Social Contract, among other places.
Until Rousseau’s time, the sovereign in any given state was regarded as the central authority in that society, responsible for enacting and enforcing all laws. Most often, the sovereign took the form of an authoritative monarch who possessed absolute dominion over his or her subjects. In Rousseau’s work, however, sovereignty takes on a different meaning, as sovereignty is said to reside in all the people of the society as a collective. The people, as a sovereign entity, express their sovereignty through their general will and must never have their sovereignty abrogated by anyone or anything outside their collective self. In this regard, sovereignty is not identified with the government but is instead opposed against it. The government’s function is thus only to enforce and respect the sovereign will of the people and in no way seek to repress or dominate the general will.