Rousseau and individualism

Topics: Political philosophy, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Social contract Pages: 5 (1947 words) Published: November 6, 2013
Forced to be Free
Ever since the fall of feudal societies, all men have shared an obsession with individualism. Even in the days of fierce nationalism during WWI, the idea was still seen as the individual’s endorsement of the state rather than the state’s imposition of an idea. This obsession with individualism reaches not only politics, but art, culture, and even religion (the protestant reform); these ideas shape our modern world and are a driving force in the way each of us think in our daily lives. During the time of Rousseau these ideas we just taking off, with thinkers like Hobbes and Locke were carrying the idea forward. However, what Rousseau provided in his works, in particular piece The Social Contract challenged those notions of individualism, highlighting holes in reasoning as well as exposing the inherent flaws that lie in a hyper-individualist society. Rousseau sought to counter previous notions of not only primitive man, but of the way man should be ruled in a society. Of his theories, which are many, there exists one idea above them all and serves as the cornerstone upon which Rousseau frames most of this later works: The General Will. These ideas of common good and “general will” stand alone, but also serve as a foundation for thinkers like Marx and it is in many ways to communism what Locke is to capitalism. It is important to note that Rousseau does not reject the notion of the individual, in fact, Rousseau endorses the notion that individuals control the real power in a society; the difference arises in the way these thinkers deal with the individual vis-à-vis The State. This fissure on ideas finds its roots in how Locke and Rousseau differ in their imaginations of primitive man and the state of nature. For Locke, a man’s primary value is freedom. A freedom then cannot be infringed upon, lest the individual return to the state of nature to seek his full level of freedom – man in the state of nature is essentially the same man under a state, “the contrast is never complete”1. However, for Rousseau, once man is subjected to society he becomes not only a slave to his wickedness, but is in fact “in chains” wherever he goes. Man in society is not free until he gives himself up to the general will. While these two distinct ideals stand far apart from one another, they both place great strength in social contracts, the only primary difference being the functionality of that contract. It is then natural to ponder the question of which system – which contract is superior. Although Rousseau presents a substantial argument in favor of collectivism, as well as notions of “general will”, the inherent pitfalls of a collectivist society give way to my assertion that Locke’s notions reign supreme.

Oppression is inevitable in any society over a long enough expanse of time. This oppression is commonly imagined in the shape of the rich oppressing the poor, or the strong muting the weak, however oppression can take many forms. The French Revolution for instance, saw the tyranny of the poor over the elite classes of France. It is this constant undertone of oppression that drives political thinkers to devise methods for mitigating its effects. For Rousseau, the answer comes in the form of the “general will.” With roots in Roman Catholic ideals, the notion of a general will is central to Rousseau’s philosophy. It is, for Rousseau, what grants government legitimacy and what drives the enforcement of the law2. Moreover, since legitimate laws are founded on the general will of the citizens, by obeying the law, the individual citizen is also obeying himself as a member of the political community. This is Rousseau’s answer to the ideal of individualism. Using the assumption that the “general will” is endorsed by all, it is then natural for an individual act in a manner that not only is just for him but just for society because the two are indistinguishable3. In many ways Rousseau presents an ideal system wherein...


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Huffmen, James. About Japan: A Teacher 's Resource. Japan Society, 21 Apr. 2008. Web. 30 Oct. 2013.
Johnson, Merwyn S. Locke on Freedom: An Incisive Study of the Thought of John Locke. Austin, TX: Best Print., 1978. Print
Locke, John. Two Treaties of Government. New York: Legal Classics Library, 1994. Print.
Noone, John B. Rousseau 's Social Contract: A Conceptual Analysis. Athens: University of Georgia, 1980. Print.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Lester G. Crocker, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The Social Contract ; And, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. New York: Washington Square, 1967. Print.
Works Consulted
Viroli, Maurizio. Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the "well-ordered Society" Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988. Print.
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