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  • JEAN JACQUES ROUSSEAU (I 7 I 2-1 778)



  • Rousseau's Sensibility

  • Rousseau, though a philosophe in the eighteenth century French sense, was not what would now be called a 'philosopher'. Never­theless he had a powerful influence on philosophy, as on litera­ture, education, religion, taste and manrers and politics, and it is hardly an exaggeration to say with Lanson that he is to be found at the entrance to all the paths leading to the present. Whatever may be our opinion of his merits as a thinker, we must recognize his immense importance as a social force. This importance came mainly from his appeal to the heart, and to what, in his day, was called 'sensibility'. He is the father of the romantic movement, the initiator of systems of thought which infer non-human facts from human emotions, and the inventor of political philosophy of pseudo-democratic dictatorship as opposed to traditional absolute monarchies. Ever since his time, those who considered themselves reformers have been divided into two groups, those who followed him and those who followed Locke. It will not be inadequate to say that few men have more affected the mind of the modern world than Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His, so Bergson tells us, was the most powerful of the influences which the human mind has experienced since Descartes. Yet there has been no writer about whom it has been more difficult to find agreement than about Rousseau. He has been greatly lauded and, at the same time, more maligned. He has been hailed as the philosopher who has seen most deeply into the nature of the state since Plato. Yet much of what the French, from whom the writing of recent history is an expression of political faith, have said of him had better remain untranslated.

  • His Contradictions

  • Rousseau was so sensitive by nature and his mind was so prone to certain types of impressions that he could not concentrate on and stick to a particular idea for a long time. This worked to his great disadvantage. No eminent writer has ever been so full of contradic­tions as Rousseau is. He tells us both that property is the root of all evil and that it is a sacred institution. If he pleads for individual liberty, he also insists on absolute submission to the state. On the one hand, he wants toleration for all and, on the other, he banishes atheists from his republic. He is considered as the extreme indivi­dualist, the latest and greatest of the individualist political theorists.



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    1. Bonald declared that he wished "to make constant the inconstant, to order disorder," and Lamennais wrote that his work was "a sacrilegi­ous declaration of war against society and against God." He is also regarded, at the same time, as the extreme absolutist, the precursor of nineteenth-century German idealism. Constant said of him that "he is the most terrible ally of despotism in all its forms," and Duguit remarked that "J. J. Rousseau is the father of Jacobian des­potism, of Caesarian dictatorship, and the inspirer of the absolutist doctrines of Kant and of Hegel." As such, he is both extreme indi­vidualist and extreme absolutist. "A stern asserter of the State on the one hand," Vaughan stated, "a fiery champion of the individual on the other, he could never bring himself wholly to sacrifice the one ideal to the other."

    2. It is, however, surprising and rare in the history of political philo­sophy that the source of influential theory can be so precisely traced to individual personality as in the case of Rousseau. Indeed, there is none so fine, brilliant, and lucid a master of the finest prose, as Rousseau was, since Plato in the whole history of political thought. We dare not believe that he could not adequately express what he wanted to say. But he "had the dangerous gifts of epigram and paradox, and the greatest of writers if he indulges them too frequent­ly is open to misunderstanding."58 In fact, he was of a sensitive, emotional, self-conscious temperament, impatient of control, even of self-control. And his ideas reflect his own personality. He resent­ed against all conventions and restraints, disparaged authority and civilization, and urged the universal value of human freedom. He had no sympathy with the ideas of moderate reform, such as, those of Voltaire and physiocrats, who favoured an enlightened monarchy, or of Montesquieu, who desired the adoption of English constitutional checks and balances. He desired to extend equal rights to the pea­sants and labourers, as well as to the middle class. He vehemently attacked the belief of intellectuals that progress would result from enlightenment. His ideals aimed at direct democracy and equality, demanded a radical reconstruction of the social and political order, and led logically to the Revolution.

    3. Rousseau's Personal Experiences in Life

    4. Rousseau's ideas regarding social and economic equality, his criticism of the modern civilization and his bid for simple life and radical reconstruction of society—all were the direct result of his bi:ter experiences from his own social and economic relationships in life. He was greatly humiliated in the company of all types of people and he was always put to an awkward position both by his friends and foes. Whatever might be the reasons for his incapability of



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    1. having good and harmonious relations with the people—either the degeneration of human virtues in man, as he himself hinted at, or his own uncontrolled and sensitive temperament, or his squalid and irregular domestic life—destitute of all the ordinary virtues, his dirty habits and extravagant nature, it was but a fact that he was wholly incapable of agreeable social relations with rational and cultivated men. Efforts of many such men, admirers of his genius and his theories, to establish and maintain cordial relations with Rousseau ended uniformly in failure, with a great access of bitterness and ran­cour on his part toward things in general. Only one human being seems to have possessed the power to induce more than a feeble flicker of the rudimentary social instinct in Rousseau, and this was the ugly and ignorant woman, Therese le Vasseur, with whom for nearly thirty-three years he lived in illegal and irregular domestic relations.59 He had five children by her, all of whom he took to the Foundling Hospital. No one has ever understood what attracted him to her. Rousseau himself once asserted (truly or falsely) that he newr had a spark of love for Therese ; in later years she drank, and r;;n after stable-boys. Probably he liked the feeiing that he was indubit­ably superior to her, both financially and intellectually, and that si" was completely dependent rpon him. Although he never married her, he treated her almost as a wife, and the grand ladies who befriended him had to put up with her. He was always uucomfort-abie in the company of the great, and genuinely preferred simple people ; in this respect his democratic feeling was wholly sincere.

    2. Such a temperament as Rousseau's formed a stimulaf ..g environ­ment to develop his political theory in the middle eighteenth century France. The smouldering fire of protest that determined his restless and unhappy private life became a devouring flame, when he attained publicity by winning a prize of Academy of Dijon in essay competi­tion in 1750, and he turned his attention to the religion, moials, manners and politics of his day. Society on the continent abounded iu conditions that were in highest degree odious to thoughtful men. Feudal class distinctions, medieval theology and divine right monarchy were salient facts of the situation. Louis XV, as an embodiment of God-given absolute power, was contributing all that his sodden and lustful nature could to destroy the sense of duty and respect on which the whole fabric of the monarchic system rested.

    3. The reaction to such a philosophy of absolutism and obscurantism was in vogue when Rousseau was preparing to build up his political theory. He read, although in a superficial way, history and the famous writings of earlier political philosophers. He admired and idealized the Greek and Roman Republics. His admiration for small states and for direct democracy can also be traced partly to the



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    1. influence of Geneva, where he spent his boyhood, under a system markedly different from that of France. He was not happy with the social and economic life of France, which appeared to him (as to other rationalists also like Voltaire and Montesquieu, although they differed in their approach and methods from Rousseau) quite burden­some as it protected social and economic distinction in society and maintained the privileges of the nobility. Nor was he satisfied at all with the political system of France. Many of his political ideas were drawn from Pufendorf, Locke and Montesquieu. His doctrine of popular sovereignty resembles in many particulars that of Althusius.

    2. The State of Nature

    3. Rousseau built up his political theory on the conception of pre-political 'State of Nature'. The reason is that he grew up in the rigorously Calvinist atmosphere of the small city state of Geneva. Throughout his life, in spite of his conversion to Catholicism and a great humiliation which he suffered in Geneva, his love for his home remained undimmed and strongly shaped bis political thought. As he was a restless man by nature, he was never completely at home in any profession, in any science, in any religion. He was more truly, as he said of himself, "the lonely wanderer". He could never tolerate external restraint. He was a man of great sincerity, hating sham, loathing the life of the salons and of Parisian society. He was a man of the deepest feeling, of great tenderness, of extreme susceptibility. Reverie he found easier than reflection. And what touched his heart straightway unloosed his tongue. Background and temperament made him protest against the artificiality around him. The philosophers, he said, "know very well what a citizen of London or Paris is, but not what a man is." And because their rationalism contented itself with what he could not, he became increasingly aware that their rational agnosticism was not for him. Against the reason which great intellec­tuals useu as their weapon to hide the weaknesses and evils of society, Rousseau appealed to conscience, to the moral sentiment of man. Hence in the Discourse on Inequality (1754) he started with the analysis of human nature. He considered the natural man, living in natural surroundings or in the 'state of nature', as a 'noble savage'. Man, as a natural animal, lived the happy and care-free life of the brute, without fixed abode, without articulate speech, with no needs or desires that cannot be satisfied through the merest instinct. According to him, men in the 'state of nature' were equal, self-sufficient and self-controlled. Their conduct was based, not on reason, but on emo­tions of self-interest and pity. Man's first feeling was that of his own existence, and his first care that of self-preservation. The produce of the earth furnished him with all he needed, and instinct told him how to use it. Hunger and other appetites made him at various times ex­perience various modes of existence ; and among these was one which urged him to propagate his species—a blind propensity that, having



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    1. nothing to do with the heart, produced a merely animal act. The want once gratified, the two sexes knew each other no more ; and even the offspring was nothing to its mother, as soon as it could do without her.60

    2. Formation of Political Society

    3. The natural state, as thus conceived by Rousseau, is a state of substantial equality. "No baneful distinction is to be found among the individuals who pursue in isolation the placid routine of satisfying their physical needs. But the deadly seeds of a different order are ready to germinate. With no necessary ground for it in his descrip­tion of the savage state, Rousseau assumed that the human race became increasingly numerous ; divergencies of soil, climate and season then caused differences in manner of life among men. Men began now to take the difference between objects into account, and to make comparisions; they acquired imperceptibly the ideas of beauty and merit, which soon gave rise to feelings of preference. In conse­quence of seeing each other often, they could not do without seeing each other constantly. A tender and pleasant feeling insinuated itself into their souls, and the least opposition turned it into an impetuous fury : with love arose jealousy ; discord triumphed, and human blood was sacrificed to the greatest of all passions.

    4. As ideas and feelings succeeded one another, and heart and head were brought into play, men continued to lay aside their original wildness ; their private connections became every day more intimate as their limits extended. Their life became gradually complicated and they could no more enjoy peaceful living. Intercourse of indi­viduals and families became common and through it the ideas of competition and preference were developed. "From the moment one man began to stand in need of the help of another ; from the moment it appeared advantageous to any one man to have enough provisions for two, equality and peace disappeared, property was introduced, work became indispensable, and vast forests became smiling fields, which man had to water with the sweat of his brow, and where slavery and misery were soon seen to germinate and grow up with the crops."61 Although evils follow in their train, this primitive stage is not, according to Rousseau, intolerable state. Looked upon as a mean between the indolence of the savage state and the too intense activity of the later phase, it appears to him the happiest period in the life of humanity—"the least subject to revolutions, the best for man."62 It is quite important to note that while Rousseau described the savage state, he was disposed to consider it as the happiest and best, and



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    1. when he moved on to the tribal and early social state, this in turn appealed to him as preferable. But, according to him, evil arose with the progress of civilization. The division of labour that followed the development of the arts, metallurgy and agriculture and the rise of private property created distinctions between the rich and the poor and ultimately broke down the happy natural condition of mankind and necessitated the establishment of civil society.

    2. Rousseau regarded 'state of nature' as an actual historical condition. He minimized the importance of reason. But it does not mean that he was always a deadliest enemy of reason. He was con­scious of the role which reason plays in harmonizing various senti­ments in man.

    3. Tiiere are, he thought, two original instincts that make up man's nature. There is self-love or the instinct of self-preservation, and there is sympathy or the gregarious instinct. As these instincts are always beneficial, man is by nature good. But self-love and sympathy often come into clash with each other and hence, according to Rousseau, man takes the help of a sentiment to resolve the clash, which men c.ili conscience. Bui since conscience is only a blind sentiment, it will m>t tea^h man what is in fact right. Conscience, therefore, requires a guide and that guide is reason, which develops in man as alternate courses of action present themselves before him Reason teaches him what to do and conscience makes him do it. Thus it follows from Rousseau's arguments that conscience and reason are in close atten­dance on man and together restrain the desire that is in him. Hence the natural' man will be one in whom strong conscience and stead­fast reason ha\e successfully harmonizi d self-love and sympathy, the 'unnatural' man one in whom these elemental instincts have been suppressed while conscience sleeps and reason errs. As such, Rousseau was against the perverted reason which is the characteristic of a civi­lized man. Grotius, Hobbes, Pufendorf and Locke held that the rational powers of a natura' man had enabled him to create social and political organization. Rousseau, on the contrary, taught that reason w as the outgrowth of the artificial life of man in organized society, a.id that the results of its development were calamitous. The 'noble savage' was Rousseau's ideal. The state was an evil, made necessary by the rise of inequalities a;r.cng men.

    4. Political society, according to Rousseau, is created with a view to safeguarding the individual against the corrupting influences of society. Now it is not to be denied that the first impression left on our minds by his latter group of writings is strangely different from that loft by the former. If in the political writings, Contmt Social (i 762) and also Constitution for Corsica (1765), the "state is all in a!i", in the social and moral writings it seems at first sight to be either disparaged or wholly disregarded. On closer inspection, how­ever, wc shall see that this first impression needs to be corrected. We shall realize that the stale which Rousseau disparaged in the Discourse



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    1. on Inequality (1754) and in Entile (1762) is not the ideal state of the Control Social, but the actual state, as known to us from experience and history. Above all. we shall be forced to the conclusion that what excited Rousseau's mislike and suspicion in these writings is not the state, but society of any sort or kind, quite apart from the civic ties by which, in fact, it is held together. His ideal, alike in the Discourse and in Emile, is, no doubt, individual freedom : freedom, however, not in the sense of immunity from the control of the state, but in that of withdrawal from all the oppressions and all corrup­tions of society. In both treatises alike, it is therefore not the state, but society, which is the enemy. Rousseau's conclusion is : "ft is our business to make every individual member absolutely independent of his fellow-members and absolutely dependent on the state. It is only by the force of the state that the liberty of its members can be secured."63 And if Rousseau had really been the individualist that some critics suppose, it is certain that he might easily have woven them into a theory more or less closely resembling that of Locke. But it was equally open to him to turn them in exactly the opposite direction ; to argue that the reason without which the primitive instincts of 'conscience' are no more than blank forms, so far from being inherent in the natural growth of the individual, does in fact come to him only in and through the state. C. E. Vaughan rightly remarks : "Regarding Discourse and Emile it can be said that the state of nature is glorified in the one ; the ideal of the other was, or was taken to be, an isolation of the individual almost as complete as that attributed to the state of nature. And hasty readers jumped to the conclusion that the man who thus mistrusted society must look with still deeper suspicion upon the very existence of the state ; that, at the very least, he must desire to restrict its action within the narrowest limits possible ; that he must be a sworn foe to entrusting it with any powers beyond the protection of individual life and indi­vidual property,"64 The Social Contract

    2. Rousseau in his Contrat Social presented a theory of the state. In the development from the state of nature, there comes a time when individuals can no longer maintain themselves in primitive inde­pendence ; it then becomes necessary to self-preservation that they should unite to form a society—a political society. Rousseau admit­ted that "the problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before. This is the fundamental problem of which the social contract provides the



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    1. solution." In the first chapter of his book, Contrat Social he also remarked : "Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains. One who believes himself the master of the rest is only more of a slave than they. How does that change come about ? I do not know. What can render it legitimate (legitime) ? That question I think I can answer."65 This means that the liberty and equality that characterize the state of nature, in whatever sense the term is used, are in the civil state gone. Rousseau justified their disappearance, in his usual way, by proving that they were not gone at all, subsisted as fully after, as before, the institution of government. And the device that he hit upon for solving the problem of his work was the social poet. Authority of man over man can have no rational basis, he held, save agreement and consent. And there is but one species of agreement conceivable in which liberty is retained while authority is instituted. This single species is the pact through which a multitude of indivi­duals become a collective unity—a society.

    2. Rousseau's thought here seems to reject the prevalent notions regarding the origin of the state. He rejected the view that family is the basis of the state. The state, Rousseau argued, is not an out­growth of the family ; for it lacks the natural basis, the tie of natural affection upon which the family rests. Also, he rejected the force theory. According to him, it is not founded upon the 'right of the stronger', nor, more specifically, upon the 'right of slavery', the right of the conqueror to enslave those he has subdued in battle ; for such claims are the negation of all Right. And even if this were not so, they could give rise to nothing more than an 'aggression' ; they could never produce that organic union which is essential even to the most rudimentary forms of what we recognize as the state.66 Hence the only alternative left, he emphatically stated, is to base political society upon 'convention' or 'contract' ; and that, in fact, is the solution adopted by "the soundest of those who have written of such matters : above all, by two thinkers so different as Hobbes and Locke." Rousseau's thought, in fact, shows the very strong influence of both Hobbes and Locke. It is the latter, however, whom he followed to the end—and beyond. From the ingenious reasoning by which Hobbes made absolute monarchy a logical corollary of the social con­tract, Rousseau turned with strong denunciation, But the Hobbesian precision in defining the terms of the contract obviously appealed to him, and his own treatment of the subject is but the substance of Locke developed by the method of Hobbes.

    3. Political society was created through social pact, since only by agreement and consent could authority be justified and liberty retain­ed. Rousseau held that each individual gave up his natural rights to the community as a whole. Or the contract consists in "the total


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