Rousseau is considered to be one of the great political
philosophers. His commitment to liberty and equality made him an
important symbol of the French Revolution and to this day many of his
ideas maintain their relevance. Not only are his major works a part of
the standard canon of political theory, they remain influential in
communitarian and socialist politics.
Rousseau was born on June 28, 1712 in Geneva, Switzerland to a
mother who died shortly after his birth. For the next 10 years he was
raised by his father who taught him to value the joys of literature.
In his work Confessions, he wrote that he stayed up
many a night with his father reading the romance novels that were part
of his mother's collection. This resulted in an early interest in the
passions. Eventually he progressed to Plutarch's Lives and
Ovid's Metamorphoses, which consequently set the stage for his
political and social ideas.
After moving to Paris in 1742, Rousseau published his first work Discourse
on the Sciences and Art, which he wrote as an entry to a
competition (he won it). In it he posed the question of whether
advancement in the sciences and arts improves morals in a society. As
an example, as soon as Egypt, Athens and Rome reached a certain level
of cultural sophistication, decadence invariably set in and not long
afterwards, they fell to foreign powers. His essay created somewhat of
a storm and was perceived as a counter to the Enlightenment direction
of removing the myth and superstition of the past.
In contrast to philosophers like Hobbes,
who saw man's life in a state of nature as brutish and short, Rousseau
saw the idea of the 'noble savage' or 'savage man' as one who lives a
solitary, peaceful existence concerned mainly with the fulfillment of
his immediate needs. This laid the central theme of Rousseau's life's
work, which was the notion that the advent of civilization has in
certain ways corrupted the natural goodness of man.
In The Social Contract, his magnum opus, Rousseau
provides a blueprint for the ideal society. In it he states that:
"Man is born free and everywhere he has chains." Contrary to
what one might expect with such a statement, Rousseau's work
stressed the connection between liberty and law, freedom and justice.
In Rousseau's ideal society, a ruler is the agent of the people not
the master. Might does not create right. It is the citizens, in
association, who constitute the sovereign ruler and who determine
legislation. Individuals together become a collective moral body
forsaking individual rights for the greater good. The 'general will'
is arrived at when each citizen reflects on what is produced for the
good of all and distinct from 'the will of all', which is merely the
aggregate of individual selfish wills.
"Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under
the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate
capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the
whole." Although not his intention, one of the criticisms of
Rousseau's ideal, is that it amounted to a dictatorship of the
Rousseau was not afraid to speak his mind in an age when to do so
could be dangerous. He had argued that injustice was the result of
institutions which suppress the natural will and ability of men. He
repeatedly risked prosecution and some of his books were banned. There
is no question however, to his commitment to freedom and equality.