The people in an absolute monarchy are slaves, and slaves have no freedom and no rights. A people only become a people if they have the freedom to deliberate amongst themselves and agree about what is best for all.

Commentary

The concept of nature is very important throughout Rousseau's philosophy. He is famous for countering the common Enlightenment position that reason and progress were steadily improving humankind with the suggestion that we are better off in our state of nature, as "noble savages." This opinion is expressed more forcefully in his earlier work, the Discourse on Inequality; in The Social Contract Rousseau is more ready to accept the possibility that modern society can potentially benefit us.

It is not entirely clear what Rousseau means when he talks about "nature" or our "natural state." In his Discourse on Inequality, he seems to be alluding to a prehistoric state of affairs where people had no government, law, or private property. However, he makes no effort to support the historicity of this claim, and later denied that he intended the Discourse to refer to an actual former state of affairs.

Rousseau is not interested in history or archaeology so much as he is interested in understanding human nature as it exists in the present. His political philosophy is driven by the conviction that the political associations we participate in shape our thoughts and behavior to a great extent. His interest in a "natural state," then, is an effort to determine what we would be like if political institutions had never existed. Whatever is not a part of this "natural state" has come about as a result of human society, and is thus "unnatural."

In the Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau paints a very rosy picture of this natural state: without property to quarrel over and governments to enforce inequality, our fundamental human nature is compassionate and free of strife. This view contrasts sharply with most of Rousseau's predecessors. In the ##Leviathan##, Thomas Hobbes famously asserts that human life without political institutions is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Hobbes and Grotius both claim that human society comes about in order to improve this unpleasant natural state. Rousseau suspects that Hobbes gives such a negative portrayal of our natural state out of an assumption that human nature remains unchanged with or without political institutions. If human beings today were suddenly to find themselves without political institutions, they would indeed lead unpleasant lives because they would have all the selfishness and greed that society has bred in them without any of the safeguards and protections of that society. Rousseau's hypothetical natural state is pre-societal: before we were corrupted by politics, we had none of the unpleasant characteristics that Hobbes identifies. It is important to understand that Rousseau believes it is impossible to return to this natural state.

It should be clear that Rousseau intends a sharp contrast between nature and civil society. Human society is not a part of our natural state; rather, it is formed artificially. Rousseau's suggestion is that it is formed by a "social contract": people living in a state of nature come together and agree to certain constraints in order that they might all benefit. The idea of a social contract is not original to Rousseau, and could even be traced as far back as Plato's ##Crito##. More significantly, Rousseau is drawing on the ideas of Hobbes, Grotius, and Pufendorf, among others, who used the idea of a social contract to justify absolute monarchy. These thinkers suggested that people consent to be governed by an absolute monarch in exchange for the protection and elevation from the state of nature that this affords them.

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