Modern social life
The priority accorded to freedom has far reaching effects on Rousseau’s political principles and it is his belief that any form of agreement should not include the renunciation or exchange of freedom in return for protection as ‘to renounce freedom is to renounce one’s humanity’ (p. 55). Instead any contract or agreement entered in to should involve the enhancement of freedom. It is this feature of Rousseau’s contract that beseeches the question, how can submitting to government enhance freedom?
Rousseau endeavours to ‘find a form of association which will defend the person and goods of each member with the collective force of all, and under which each individual, while uniting himself with others, obeys no-one but himself, and remains as free as before’ (p. 60). The solution to this conundrum is Rousseau’s social contract where ‘each one of us puts into the community his person and all his powers under the supreme direction of the general will; and as a body we incorporate every member as an indivisible part of the whole’ (p. 61).
The people become a single unity with a will of it’s own and a common purpose. In effect man gives up completely his natural liberty and in return receives civil liberty. By renouncing natural liberty we are giving up the ability to indulge our animal desires but in return we gain a civil liberty, something we aspire to as ‘an intelligent being and a man’ (p. 65). When man has civil liberty he is truly free because this requires obedience to a law that is his own. Civil liberty is not giving in to impulsive desires but instead the being faithful to second order desires.
Real freedom does not lie in the satisfaction of animal impulses but in the satisfying of desires that men as rational beings desire. Mans interaction with others will require the use of reason and the use of will in order for him to subordinate immediate personal desire to a higher social good. When Rousseau talks of ‘taking men as they are’ (p. 41), he doesn’t insinuate the corrupt beings of contemporary society but instead natural man, men who are capable of rational thought and who are subject to morality.
It is important to understand mans desire for self-preservation and his own self interest, it is the consideration of these factors that men will enter into a political society. The positive advantages gained from such an agreement will guarantee self-preservation and secure proprietorship but more importantly man acquires moral freedom. Rousseau maintains that ‘to be governed by appetite alone is slavery, [but] obedience to a law one prescribes to oneself is freedom’ (p. 65).
As soon as man follows order instead of impulse his existence is given elevation and importance that are unknown to man in his state of nature. Rousseau is clear in his belief that it is only the participation in political society that can transform man from a ‘stupid and limited animal’ (p. 65). Man having surrendered his natural liberty now submits himself to the ‘general will’ (p. 61). Consent is no longer sufficient to establish the legitimacy of the acts of sovereign, ‘a man has no right to call another his slave, but only through consent of the slave which is indeed absurd’1.
Mans intrinsic freedom is realised by a submission to the general will because it can neither ‘alienate any part of itself’ (p. 60) nor ‘offend against any one of its members without offending the body’ (p. 60). If this social contract is adhered to then there cannot be a manifestation of any particular will or interest in conflict with the common interest. The social contract makes men ‘equal by covenant and by right’ (p. 68) and it is Rousseau’s intention to bring together individuals in a way that gives them a collective expression and a collective force.
It is with this knowledge that the individual will surrender his own limited power for the protection given by the combined power of the whole community. The concept of the collective force and sovereignty is irrelevant unless everyone without exception accepts it, for if any individual were to be considered exempt genuine political freedom is impossible. With the conditions being equal for all, ‘namely the total alienation by each associate of himself and all his rights to the whole community’ (p. 60) and because all freely accept them; in obeying the ‘supreme direction of the general will’ (p.61), the citizens are obeying themselves and this is truly freedom.
The citizens commit themselves on the same conditions and must enjoy the same rights; sovereignty becomes the guarantor of freedom but Rousseau’s account of freedom is paradoxical. Man has to understand that his view point is false and his real will is to be identified with the community as a whole, ‘whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole of society, which means nothing less than he will be forced to be free’ (p. 64).
How can it be legitimate to force someone to be free? Such a statement seems to advocate a form of totalitarianism but despite any dark undertones conjured from such a statement there is an inclination to be sympathetic. Rousseau presents us with a situation where we all participate in governing ourselves as one body, what else are we to do when, in society someone wishes to undermine a system so legitimately formed? Natural freedom cannot be granted to individuals who would use it in a manner as to undermine the civil freedom we encompass as a body politic.
We cannot allow democratic freedom to destabilise democracy itself.
BIBLIOGRAPHY Penguin Classics, Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract Ronald Grimsley, The Philosophy of Rousseau, Oxford University Press, 1973 Anthony Harrison-Barbet, Mastering Philosophy, Macmillan Press, 1990 Asher Horowitz, Rousseau, Nature, and History, University of Toronto Press, 1987 1 Mastering Philosophy, Anthony Harrison-Barnet, Macmillan Master Series, 1990.