Jean Jacques Rousseau’s ‘‘Social Contract” was a theoretical blueprint for a society of equals.It was at once a return to original sin within a society of unequals.It was an apex for the planet of the apes of civilization.It was a call to arms and a call to peace. It was the best of times in the worst of situations…. How such a society should come into existence, the mechanics of realization, he did not elaborate. However, it appears quite plain that he did not advocate the violent overthrow of existing institutions. It may perhaps be said that no man since Jesus has had more follies committed in his name. But it cannot be said that his real thought, the thought that was original with him, was of less consequence than were the ideas falsely imputed to him. When Rousseau’s ”Discourse” appeared, the narrative went against the accepted wisdom that material progress, the pursuit and accumulation of goods, and a general commodification of life would produce a benficient influence on humankind’s moral life; that human conscience would be elevated at the same time as living standards.Keeping up the with the Jones’s would provide the moral fiber and will. It was an early draft of what later would be termed ”the war on poverty” and its subsequent creation of state dependencies and poverty industries. Art would serve as the logos for the zeitgeist.
To Rousseau, things looked different. Paris, that apex of civilzation, appeared to him like a vast and nightmarish agglomeration of some five hundred thousand people who had come there to sell or prostitute their minds or bodies, to exploit others if they could, to impress each other with their wealth, their rank, their power, or their wits. In effect, half a million people busily scurrying about either to produce superfluous goods and services for their exploiters or doing nothing with an air of busy importance; polite to each other when expedient, but ready for treachery and caring only for themselves. A society wretched in their hunt for success, stripped of the proud dignity of active service and thinking, acting and striving not according to their own conscience and nature but according to the artificial standards of society. Not much has changed in the intervening period, despite may having ran with the mantle in a futile search for the holy grail:
”In fact, property is really a nuisance…property has duties. It is perfectly true. Property not merely has duties, but has so many duties that its possession to any extent is a bore. It involves endless claims upon one, endless attention to business, endless bother. If property had simply pleasures, we could stand it; but its duties make it unbearable. In the interest of the rich we must get rid of it. The virtues of the poor may be readily admitted, and are much to be regretted. We are often told that the poor are grateful for charity. Some of them are, no doubt, but the best amongst the poor are never grateful. They are ungrateful, discontented, disobedient and rebellious. They are quite right to be so. Charity they feel to be a ridiculously inadequate mode of partial restitution, or a sentimental dole, usually accompanied by some impertinent attempt on the part of the sentimentalist to tyrannise over their private lives. Why should they be grateful for the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table?” ( Oscar Wilde )
Rousseau, to be succinct, said that if the arts and sciences had failed to make men happier or more virtuous, the fault was not theirs but must be sought in the social institutions which perverted their ends; instiutions designed to increase dependency of the poor. Under existing social institutions men had renounced the freedom of the state of nature without gaining the advantages of associating as equals for the common good. The law of the jungle still prevailed, but the innocence of the animals was lost :” Thinking man is a depraved animal”. The law of the jungle in an organized wildlife park. A paradox like original sin in a society of unequals.
Philosophy and theology, Rousseau contended, in all the their history since antiquity, have led us nowhere. Thus, humankind cannot be certain of anything except what they feel. He derided as empty metaphysics any attempt to explain the purposes of god. The hypothesis that the universe was the purposeful creation of a supreme being seemed to him incontovertible simply because he felt it to be true, and who could convince him that he did not feel what he felt? And yet, the second great paradox in Rousseau’s thought, the rub, was that Rousseau thought it was plain that everything was wrong as defined in the opening sentence of ”The Social Contract”,” Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”
Rousseau did not share the conviction of Voltaire’s Dr.Pangloss that all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Nor did his feeling allow him to accept the fashionable despair of later romantics and existentialists. Nor did he find it acceptable to ascribe the sad state of our affairs to the Fall of Adam and Eve. By endowing man with reason and with conscience, God had equipped him, in Rousseau’s view, with everything he needed to pull himself up by his own bootstraps.Then, why did everything degenerate in the hands of man? In responding to this, Rousseau substitutes for the Devil and Original Sin a new hypothesis: man is born good, but society corrupts him. The concept is loaded with inconsistencies by negating personal responsibility and off loading guilt into the abstract. The idea of a just, almost utopian, and benficient society and stirrred passions and imaginations.
It is nevertheless true that, in Rousseau’s opinion, society tends to corrupt people because it generally rests on power and exploitation rather than on law and cooperation; individual moral is stunted, social conventions take the place of inner conscience, people scramble after false values, self-love and vanity drown all benevolent instincts, and the gifts of life and nature pass unnoticed. The flaw is that all these evile man made and result from society, yet they are inherent neither in man nor in society.
For man, it was Rousseau’s conviction, is born not only with a conscience and with reason but also with free will. He is the author of his fate, collectively speaking. Social redemption can be found in a collective exertion of the will by which men surrender all their individual rights to the body of society. This ”social contract” of the common good was premised on the key assumption that no individuals or interest groups would gain ascendancy over the rest.
That a theory of this sort should have been proposed by one of the most notorious social misfits in history does seem ironical, but it is not particularly surprising, nor does it invalidate its importance. However, Rousseau was not content with abstract theory. A perfect society, he realized, would have to be a society of gods, and all human institutions carried the germs of their own decay within them. A good society could neither come into existence nor maintain itself for long unless its members had the necessary moral will.
” The Social Contract” deals with the good society, that is a collective body, and ”Emile” deals with the good citizen, that is, the individual. While the two books complement rather than contradict each other, they nevertheless reveal the tension between two poles in Rousseau’s temperament. In part, Rousseau was a solitary dreamer, a forerunner and inspiration to Marxist collective thought. He was also an ancestor of romantic individualism and of Henry David Thoreau’s civil disobedience. One thing was consistent and that was his reaction against his social environment.His morbidly suspicious nature accentuated his radical alienation from society resulting in a growing isolation and a perception of him as a misanthrope. Diderot wrote of their final meeting, ” He makes me uneasy, and I feel as if a damned soul stood beside me….I never want to see that man again. He could make me believe in devils and in Hell. The knives were out, and his merciless attacks on revealed religion and the authority of the Church resulted in a reactionary backlash, a combination Christian version of a ”fatwa”, a la Salmon Rushdie and label of ”degenerate art” as defined by National Socialism in Germany. He drew the simultaneous anathema of French Catholics and Swiss Calvinist churches. Warrants for his arrests were issued. ”Emile” was burned by order of parliament in Paris. Rousseau became a fugitive, a hunted man of fifty much to the pleasure of the grudge holding Voltaire…