The Implementation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Philosophy by Maximilien Robespierre and His Purposed Reaction Had He Lived to Witness It

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Perhaps one of the most influential figures during the French Revolution was a man by the name of Maximilien Robespierre. Instrumental especially at the onset of the Revolution, a period referred to as the Reign of Terror, Robespierre drew on the insights of many Enlightenment philosophers and was a strong advocate for the left wing bourgeoisie. However, despite his efficacious leadership and sentiment, much of what he encouraged to the masses is based off the writings and teachings of one Enlightenment thinker in particular: Jean Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau would be the first “modern critic of the bourgeois society.”[1]More specifically, in his text, The Social Contract[2], in which he outlines what he believes to be the necessary ingredients in creating stability in a commercial society that finds itself staring its problems right in the face. These ideas include, “Man is by nature good, but becomes corrupt through unjust institutions and laws; he is born free, but becomes a slave to injustice. Government is literally a contract entered into by people; each individual brings into the larger group a share of its power and authority. Moreover, the contract can be changed at any time the "general will" desires. Sovereignty rests in the general community and any executive power is merely subservient to the sovereign -- the people. The nation's will is expressed in law. But the individual is not to be placed above the state. In such cases where an opponent consistently resists or rejects the general will as expressed in law, Rousseau recommends death: ‘When the entire nation is in danger . . . a thing which is a crime at other times becomes a praiseworthy action. Lenience toward conspirators is treason against the people.’ The state can, at times, exercise tremendous power over the individual members: ‘The state, in regard to its members, is master of all their goods. The sovereign -- that is to say the people -- may legitimately take away the goods of everyone, as was done at Sparta in the time of Lycurgus’” (McLetchie).[3] These major points, from which Robespierre would draw his ideas for governmental improvement during this time of disarray, are what, in essence, would shape the development of modern politics, as well as sociological and educational thought. But, would Robespierre’s use of what Rousseau described in his writings be deserving of approval? This paper will set out to explore the ways in which Robespierre implemented the ideas of Rousseau in his attempts at reformation during the French Revolution. While it is inevitable that he as well threw his own twist on some aspects, this paper will as well explore the successes and failures of what he did for French society, whether he was able to truly succeed in what Rousseau discusses in his writings, and finally to predict Rousseau’s reaction to said efforts.

Rousseau begins the first chapter of The Social Contract with, “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they” (Rousseau 3-4)[4]. This profound opening statement somewhat sets the tone for what is to come in the rest of his writings. In his essay, “Rousseau’s Social Contract,” Lester G. Crocker briefly dissects this sentence, first setting forth that many have distorted the true meaning behind it. “His first chapter begins with a ringing phrase…This statement has often been misinterpreted as a cry of revolt, but it is nothing of the sort. Rousseau means only that in the state of nature men were independent, while now their wills are subjected to social and governmental restrictions” (Crocker 55)[5]. Throughout much of his writings, including The Social Contract itself, Rousseau argues that the main problem that we are faced with is procuring a way in which we can govern the individuals within a society. As Crocker says of Rousseau’s philosophy, “Its function in the whole, as he conceived it, is to treat one aspect of a...
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