Commentary

To a large extent, the agreement to live under certain established laws is what defines the social contract. In the ##Commentary section for Book I, Chapters 6-9##, we distinguished between civil and physical freedom, suggesting that we give up the latter and gain the former by entering into civil society. Physical freedom is characterized by the unbounded freedom to do whatever we like, following our instincts and impulses. Civil freedom places a check on our instincts and impulses, teaching us to think and behave rationally, and opening us up to the freedom of thinking for ourselves.

Rousseau is by no means the only philosopher to define "real" freedom not as an unbounded do-as-you- please, but as the ability to deliberate rationally. If our behavior is not restrained by laws of some sort, we are not free, but are rather slaves to our instincts and impulses. If our behavior is restrained by the laws of some outside force, then we are not free, but are slaves to that outside force. The only solution, then, is to define freedom as behavior that is restrained only by the laws of our own making. When we extend this solution to society as a whole, the only laws that can maintain the freedom of citizens are those laws that the citizens as a whole agree upon.

Rousseau is careful to distinguish between laws and decrees. Decrees are matters of day-to-day business: a leader appointing an attorney general, or the decision to condemn a traitor to death, or anything that deals with individuals or particular groups is a decree. Laws are made for the people as a whole by the people as a whole. They are the general guidelines under which a people chooses to live. As the restraints a people places upon itself, laws are what define their civil freedom.

Because laws represent the restraints of civil freedom, they represent the leap made from humans in the state of nature into civil society. In this sense, law is a civilizing force upon us, so it is no surprise that Rousseau believes that the laws that govern a people define their character to a great extent. In the Discourse on Inequality, he asserts that it is bad government, and not human nature, that is the source of our evil. Here, he suggests that good government, or rather good laws, can make good people. People who agree voluntarily and as a group to abide by certain restrictions that will benefit all of them will likely become better people as a result.

Rousseau gives no practical solution as to how a code of laws is to be formed. On the contrary, he remarks at length as to how difficult it is to find someone who is up to the task. Because a set of laws largely defines the people who live under these laws, the lawgiver is responsible for determining what kind of people a certain state will produce. Thus, a lawgiver is neither what we might understand as a judge or legislator, nor even a political leader or dictator. The lawgiver should be understood as someone who invents a moral code. If we recall, morality is defined by rationality, rationality (according to Rousseau) comes into being with civil society, and civil society comes into being thanks to a lawgiver. We might even think of the lawgiver as a saint or prophet of sorts: it is no wonder that Rousseau associates the creation of laws with the supernatural.

Despite all his talk about the difficulties of lawmaking, Rousseau himself undertook to write two constitutions: one for Poland and one for Corsica, at the invitation of those states. Poland was partitioned and Corsica was annexed before either constitution could be implemented. In both of these cases, Rousseau was playing the role of the impartial lawgiver who stands outside the law: he was neither Corsican nor Polish, and was giving these people laws without any personal interest or hope for gain.

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