Wednesday, December 3, 2014
Final Report Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was one of the foremost philosophers of his time in the eighteenth century. Many of his revolutionary concepts still linger in modern society, which is a true testament to Rousseau’s brilliance and wisdom. Rousseau lived in a time where monarchies were prevalent in Europe, many of his ideas contradicted these political concepts, and for this reason, Rousseau got in trouble on multiple occasions for his innovative political ideas. Perhaps some of the most impactful and significant ideas that Rousseau caused to become more pervasive throughout Europe were concepts concerning mankind’s inherent natural goodness, freedom, equality, and brotherhood in light of the time’s overpowering upper class people and monarchies. These ideas were also extremely pivotal in providing inspiration for future events such as the French revolution and the enlightenment. Rousseau’s ideas of freedom and inherent goodness were very appealing to the majority of Europeans who were in poverty in often unfairly structured political and social landscapes in Europe during Rousseau’s time. In addition to these concepts, Rousseau also developed something known as the general will. The general will is simply whatever is best for the whole community or state, thereby maximizing happiness, satisfaction, and overall quality of life for the highest number of people possible. Since many of Rousseau’s philosophical ideas appealed to the unheard masses in a time of uneven power and hegemony, he quickly became an extremely well known and revered philosopher that would make a lasting impact on political and societal structures.
Rousseau began his life in Geneva in 1712 where he was born to clockmaker Isaac Rousseau and Suzanne Bernard. After holding multiple occupations such as apprentice engraver, teacher, and secretary, Rousseau decided to move to Paris in 1742. Rousseau’s intentions upon moving to Paris were not concerning philosophy, instead what Rousseau wanted to do was to become a composer. After achieving inadequate success in composing, Rousseau began to turn his attention to philosophy. In 1750, Rousseau completed his first philosophical piece of literature entitled A Discourse on the Moral of the Arts and Sciences, which earned him an esteemed prize from the Academy of Dijon. Perhaps one of the most substantial ideas that Rousseau exhorted in this first work of his was that civilization must be visualized as a history of moral and societal atrophy as opposed to progress. This idea coincides with Rousseau’s idea’s concerning man’s inherent goodness and how society and civilization is what corrupts this goodness. Rousseau’s next notable philosophical works appeared in 1754 with his book Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Among Men and The Social Contract in 1762. The Social Contract is seen in modern times as Rousseau’s most groundbreaking, and momentous philosophical work. It is within The Social Contract that Rousseau truly enforces his belief that man is innately good in a state of nature and it is society and politics that corrupts mankind. Rousseau also argues in the text that all people should be free, including women; an idea that was extremely revolutionary and radical at the time. In addition, another idea that Rousseau really reinforces in The Social Contract is the concept of the general will. It is extremely important to recognize that in Rousseau’s time, the majority of people in Europe were under severe oppression from a wealthier, more powerful, and incredibly small group of people. For this reason, Rousseau’s idea of the general will in which all societal decisions that are made are to be made at the interests of the most people possible was enormously appealing to these great masses of oppressed people. Moving past the significance of The Social Contract and the ideas it conveyed, Rousseau published yet another work called Emile or On Education. In this work, Rousseau stated “ Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the author of things, everything degenerates in the hands of man.”1 Here, Rousseau is once again enforcing his key idea the belief that civilization is the reason for the corrupt nature of man. Both The Social Contract and Emile or On Education although they mustered high support from the oppressed and impoverished masses, were highly disliked by people in positions of power, and for this reason, book-burnings of these texts transpired on multiple occasions. People that held positions of power in Rousseau’s time were afraid that Rousseau’s philosophies would empower the lower class to rise up and potentially threaten the existing power structure in Europe. Sadly, Rousseau died in 1778 and for this reason he was never able to see his ideas put into action during the French revolution that was just starting to gain momentum at this time. Rousseau’s philosophical ideas undoubtedly had a profound and empowering impact on the oppressed masses of a European continent that had an exceedingly unfair power structure.
The many experiences that Rousseau had through his life clearly played a huge role in determining the meaning of his philosophical works and in the conception of his philosophical beliefs. However, none of these works was more important and none of his beliefs were more clearly and explicitly expressed than those in
The Social Contract specifically pertaining to the idea of the general will. The Social Contract directly challenged the existing power structure of Europe during Rousseau’s time, making it a highly revolutionary piece of literature. The pervasive monarchies across Europe put power in the hands of the few, the wealthy, and elite as opposed to the people public whom Rousseau was trying to give power to. Ideas that directly support and correlate with Rousseau’s concept of the general will can be easily derived from the text of The Social Contract. Rousseau essentially attempted to construct a civilization in which equality amongst all people was the general force behind society. He proposed a contract stating that everybody should forfeit the same rights and give the same duties to all people and by doing so he believed that a just and equal society could be forged. The Social Contract was truly a landmark work in the development of Rousseau’s philosophical ideas. One main reason this work caused such uproar and gained such public appreciation was that it promoted the utilitarian notion of maximizing happiness for the greatest amount of people. This kind of utilitarian thought was not currently being implemented in European society due to the rampant monarchical governments and unfair distribution of wealth during Rousseau’s time. Ultimately however according to Nigel Warburton in his work A Little History of Philosophy, Rousseau wanted to “find a way for people to live together that would allow everyone to be as free as they were outside society while still obeying the laws of the state” (Warburton 107). This is significant because Rousseau is also revealing to the public his ideas about the inherent goodness of man in a state of nature. Rousseau believed that in a state of nature without society, mankind was naturally good-hearted and it was society that corrupted human beings. Rousseau’s main goal in writing the social contract is to find the perfect mixture between a state of nature and a civilized society to mitigate moral and societal corruption and maximize moral and societal happiness and morality.
The utilitarian ideas that Rousseau published in The Social Contract were extremely significant during his time, but it is very important to analyze the impact that these ideas had on society. Rousseau’s progressive ideas like the General Will and the inherent goodness of mankind in a state of nature played integral roles in overthrowing unjust governments not just in Europe as was exhibited in the French revolution but also in a America during the revolutionary war. The founding fathers, although rarely observed citing Rousseau, admired his beliefs like the general Will and some scholars say Rousseau was just as important in providing beliefs for the United states Constitution as English philosopher John Locke was. Rousseau left an incredible legacy as his ideas caused worldwide change even after his death, and his thoughts still provide impact on society today especially in terms of politics. According to scholar Melissa Lane, Rousseau’s critique on the then current societal structures of the western world was based on a contrast he made “Between amour de soi, and amour-propre” (PB 118). Amour de soi means self preservation and amour-propre is how one believes others see them. One of the largest critiques on society that Rousseau brought attention to was that people put way too much emphasis on this concept of amour-propre. People focus too much on their image and social standing and for this reason, they do not put valuable input as citizens of modern society. Also according to Lane, Rousseau pointed out “we’re in a society of plenty and yet we are less happy than when we wandered naked in the glades of some barbaric past” (PB 118). This is further evidence of Rousseau’s claims that mankind is naturally good-hearted and moral in a state of nature. As one of his most central concepts, it is clear that Rousseau put much emphasis on this idea throughout his life’s work. This was most likely because in Rousseau’s time, the great imbalance of power in society caused much hardship to a large number of people. By observing how society and its current structure was causing this pervasive hardship, Rousseau was able to develop his concept that if the society he was observing were not there, the lack of rules and structure would result in a global population that was less belligerent, greedy, and unsatisfied with life. One last quote in which Rousseau conveyed his two main philosophical concepts that appealed to the majority of society can be read in The Social Contract, Rousseau wrote, “ Man was born free, and everywhere he is in chains” (LH 106) Perhaps one of the most famous lines from his most famous work, here Rousseau is claiming that the corruption of society was interfering with man’s ability to feel freedom and happiness in a state of nature. Society in Rousseau’s time was ran primarily by wealthy and powerful individuals who promoted greed and brought unhappiness to a huge group of less-fortunate people. However, by Proposing new and thought-provoking ideas like the general will, and mankind’s innate goodness when society is not present Rousseau was able to incite new societal and political ideas that would influence later events like the American Revolutionary war and the French Revolution.
In conclusion, Rousseau was one of the most significant philosophers of the eighteenth century. His political and social ideas were like nothing else any philosopher or thinker before him could conjure. These ideas included the general will which stated that anything that anybody does should be for the greatest good of society as a whole, and the idea that mankind is inherently good in a state of nature, an idea that philosopher Thomas Hobbes would strongly disagree with. Beyond this, not only were Rousseau’s ideas brilliant in themselves, but they also appealed to a huge portion of society that was then being oppressed by the current unfair political and societal structures of Europe and the western world. This caused Rousseau to be loved by the common man and disliked by the powerful and wealthy individuals that ran society at that time. Rousseau’s ideas that supported a more just society were so prominent and significant that even after Rousseau’s death, they played important roles in inspiring future events such as the French Revolution and the American Revolutionary war. Lastly, it is important to recognize that Rousseau played a large role in inspiring the foundations of democracy, by suggesting that power become more equally distributed and not given only to specific individuals as the monarchies of his time did. Jean-Jacques Rousseau critiqued society in a way that brought great beneficial change to society by suggesting that the society at his time was corrupting people’s ability to be inherently happy and moral. By seeking to correct this problem through his philosophical teachings, Rousseau made himself one of the most important philosophers of the enlightenment.