Jacques Rousseau-an Enlightenment Thinker R. Bennett



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Jacques Rousseau—an Enlightenment Thinker

R. Bennett


Chapter VI: The Social Compact

I suppose men to have reached the point at which the obstacles in the way of their preservation in the state of nature show their power of resistance to be greater than the resources at the disposal of each individual for his maintenance in that state. That primitive condition can then subsist no longer; and the human race would perish unless it changed its manner of existence.

But, as men cannot engender new forces, but only unite and direct existing ones, they have no other means of preserving themselves than the formation, by aggregation, of a sum of forces great enough to overcome the resistance. These they have to bring into play by means of a single motive power, and cause to act in concert.

This sum of forces can arise only where several persons come together: but, as the force and liberty of each man are the chief instruments of his self-preservation, how can he pledge them without harming his own interests, and neglecting the care he owes to himself? This difficulty, in its bearing on my present subject, may be stated in the following terms --

"The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before." This is the fundamental problem of which the Social Contract provides the solution.

The clauses of this contract are so determined by the nature of the act that the slightest modification would make them vain and ineffective; so that, although they have perhaps never been formally set forth, they are everywhere the same and everywhere tacitly admitted and recognised, until, on the violation of the social compact, each regains his original rights and resumes his natural liberty, while losing the conventional liberty in favour of which he renounced it.

These clauses, properly understood, may be reduced to one -- the total alienation of each associate, together with all his rights, to the whole community; for, in the first place, as each gives himself absolutely, the conditions are the same for all; and, this being so, no one has any interest in making them burdensome to others.

Moreover, the alienation being without reserve, the union is as perfect as it can be, and no associate has anything more to demand: for, if the individuals retained certain rights, as there would be no common superior to decide between them and the public, each, being on one point his own judge, would ask to be so on all; the state of nature would thus continue, and the association would necessarily become inoperative or tyrannical.

Finally, each man, in giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody; and as there is no associate over whom he does not acquire the same right as he yields others over himself, he gains an equivalent for everything he loses, and an increase of force for the preservation of what he has.

If then we discard from the social compact what is not of its essence, we shall find that it reduces itself to the following terms --



"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."

At once, in place of the individual personality of each contracting party, this act of association creates a moral and collective body, composed of as many members as the assemble contains votes, and receiving from this act its unity, its common identity, its life and its will. This public person, so formed by the union of all other persons formerly took the name of city, and now takes that or Republic of body politic; it is called by its members State when passive, Sovereign when active, and Power when compared with others like itself. Those who are associated in it take collectively the name of people, and severally are called citizens, as sharing in the sovereign power, and subjects, as being under the laws of the State. But these terms are often confused and taken one for another: it is enough to know how to distinguish them when they are being used with precision.

Explanation in a nutshell:

In 1762, Rousseau published The Social Contract , which, though it was largely unread when it first came out, became one of the most influential works of abstract political thought in the Western tradition. In the Discourse on Inequality , Rousseau had tried to explain the human invention of government as a kind of contract between the governed and the authorities that governed them. The only reason human beings were willing to give up individual freedom and be ruled by others was that they saw that their rights, happiness, and property would be better protected under a formal government rather than an anarchic, every-person-for-themselves type of society. He argued, though, that this original contract was deeply flawed. The wealthiest and most powerful members of society "tricked" the general population, and so installed inequality as a permanent feature of human society. Rousseau argued, in The Social Contract , that this contract between rulers and the ruled should be rethought. Rather than have a government which largely protects the wealth and the rights of the powerful few, government should be fundamentally based on the rights and equality of everyone . If any form of government does not properly see to the rights, liberty, and equality of everyone, that government has broken the social contract that lies at the heart of political authority. These ideas were essential for both the French and American revolutions; in fact, it is no exaggeration to say that the French and American revolutions are the direct result of Rousseau's abstract theories on the social contract.

It would be incorrect, though, to think of Rousseau as a thorough-going individualist. In fact, Rousseau believed that the social contract, if it were followed on all sides, bound every member of society to obedience to political authority. It was only when political authority broke the basic premises of the social contract and individual liberty was replaced by inequality that Rousseau believed that government should be torn down. Rousseau was trying to figure out a way to maximize individual liberty while preserving order, obedience, and harmony in society. He was really the first Enlightenment thinker to articulate the contractual basis of rights. Rights, or principles of individual autonomy or liberty, are not magical entitlements that come from heaven into this world the moment you pop out of the womb nor are they inscribed in our DNA. Rights and liberties are social contracts. You have rights and individual liberties because the rest of society agrees that you have those rights and liberties . If you don't have a right or liberty, then you must convince everyone to give you that right or liberty. For Rousseau, natural human beings are born completely self-sufficient and self-governing; social human beings are dependent and restricted. The rights and liberties that social human beings get are derived ultimately from a general social agreement. This is one reason, by the way, that the American and French revolutions resulted in "contracts" outlining the rights and liberties of the governed. http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/ENLIGHT/ROUSSEAU.HTM

Rousseau on Education

Rousseau's concern with the individual is balanced in some of his other writing with the need for public or national education. In A Discourse on Political Economy and Considerations for the Government of Poland we get a picture of public education undertaken in the interests of the community as a whole.

From the first moment of life, men ought to begin learning to deserve to live; and, as at the instant of birth we partake of the rights of citizenship, that instant ought to be the beginning of the exercise of our duty. If there are laws for the age of maturity, there ought to be laws for infancy, teaching obedience to others: and as the reason of each man is not left to be the sole arbiter of his duties, government ought the less indiscriminately to abandon to the intelligence and prejudices of fathers the education of their children, as that education is of still greater importance to the State than to the fathers: for, according to the course of nature, the death of the father often deprives him of the final fruits of education; but his country sooner or later perceives its effects. Families dissolve but the State remains. (Rousseau 1755: 148-9)

'Make the citizen good by training', Jean-Jacques Rousseau writes, 'and everything else will follow'.

In Émile Rousseau drew on thinkers that had preceded him - for example, John Locke on teaching - but he was able to pull together strands into a coherent and comprehensive system - and by using the medium of the novel he was able to dramatize his ideas and reach a very wide audience.  He made, it can be argued, the first comprehensive attempt to describe a system of education according to what he saw as ‘nature’ (Stewart and McCann 1967:28). It certainly stresses wholeness and harmony, and a concern for the person of the learner. Central to this was the idea that it was possible to preserve the 'original perfect nature' of the child, 'by means of the careful control of his education and environment, based on an analysis of the different physical and psychological stages through which he passed from birth to maturity' (ibid.). This was a fundamental point. Rousseau argued that the momentum for learning was provided by the growth of the person (nature) - and that what the educator needed to do was to facilitate opportunities for learning.

Exhibit 1: Jean-Jacques Rousseau on education

Now each of these factors in education is wholly beyond our control, things are only partly in our power; the education of men is the only one controlled by us; and even here our power is largely illusory, for who can hope to direct every word and deed of all with whom the child has to do.

Viewed as an art, the success of education is almost impossible since the essential conditions of success are beyond our control. Our efforts may bring us within sight of the goal, but fortune must favour us if we are to reach it.

What is this goal? As we have just shown, it is the goal of nature. Since all three modes of education must work together, the two that we can control must follow the lead of that which is beyond our control.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762) Émile (1911 edn.), London: Dent, pp.6. 

 


The focus on the environment, on the need to develop opportunities for new experiences and reflection, and on the dynamic provided by each person's development remain very powerful ideas.

We'll quickly list some of the key elements that we still see in his writing:



  • a view of children as very different to adults - as innocent, vulnerable, slow to mature - and entitled to freedom and happiness (Darling 1994: 6). In other words, children are naturally good.

  • the idea that people develop through various stages - and that different forms of education may be appropriate to each.

  • a guiding principle that what is to be learned should be determined by an understanding of the person's nature at each stage of their development.

  • an appreciation that individuals vary within stages - and that education must as a result be individualized. 'Every mind has its own form'

  • each and every child has some fundamental impulse to activity. Restlessness in time being replaced by curiosity; mental activity being a direct development of bodily activity.

  • the power of the environment in determining the success of educational encounters. It was crucial - as Dewey also recognized - that educators attend to the environment. The more they were able to control it - the more effective would be the education.

  • the controlling function of the educator - The child, Rousseau argues, should remain in complete ignorance of those ideas which are beyond his/her grasp. (This he sees as a fundamental principle).

  • the importance of developing ideas for ourselves, to make sense of the world in our own way. People must be encouraged to reason their way through to their own conclusions - they should not rely on the authority of the teacher. Thus, instead of being taught other people's ideas, Émile is encouraged to draw his own conclusions from his own experience. What we know today as 'discovery learning' One example, Rousseau gives is of Émile breaking a window - only to find he gets cold because it is left unrepaired.

  • a concern for both public and individual education.

We could go on - all we want to do is to establish what a far reaching gift Rousseau gave. We may well disagree with various aspects of his scheme - but there can be no denying his impact then - and now. It may well be, as Darling (1994: 17) has argued, that the history of child-centred educational theory is a series of footnotes to Rousseau.


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