Alright, we usually don’t delve into the philosophical… but here’s something from Jean Jacques Rousseau that is worthy of exploring.

I’ll try to keep it simple – think of it as a Cliffs Notes on Rousseau’s take on “the origins of inequality” and how we can all be supportive of one another through a “social contract.” It’s loooooong, but really is worth the read if you’re into strategizing on how to change the world (like we are!).

This summary comes from my listening to an audio lecture series by Professor Dennis Dalton (Dalton, Dennis. 1998. Power Over People: Classical and Modern Political Theory: Rousseau. Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company Limited Partnership).

Power Over People: Rousseau is a lecture series examination of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s works The Discourse on the Origins of Inequality and his subsequent Social Contract. Professor Dalton categorizes Rousseau as an Idealist (sharing company with Plato, Marx, and Thoreau) who would ask, “What kind of society is best? How do we get there?” contrasting him to the Realists (like Machiavelli and Hobbes) who instead ask, “How do people act? What will become of society because of the ways people act?” The Idealist has an optimistic view of human nature and the future of humanity. Rousseau challenged Machiavelli’s dour view of human nature and his claim that there was no relationship between morality and politics – in fact, Rousseau would argue that morality and politics are inextricably linked.

Rousseau strongly criticized modern society as corrupt, but thought we had vast potential for improvement, albeit trapped in a contemporary system. Dalton emphasizes that Rousseau was not simply a utopian thinker hoping for a brave new world; he had a plan (as do the other Idealists) to reach that better world – that plan was through EDUCATION. He believed strongly in the effectiveness of education (unlike the “realists”). He wrote of a “right” kind of education that teaches values and sees itself intimately connected to creating moral citizens who in turn see themselves as part of a community rather than a system building competition and control (reminds us of our project “A Life Connected”).

Rousseau saw three stages in our evolution toward the ideal society (what he called the “civil society” or the “civil state.” These three stages are: the past, the present, and the future:

The first stage is the “Past”: Dalton points out that many dismiss Rousseau as a “back to nature theorist.” But Rousseau didn’t want to go “back to nature;” he wanted to move forward to a civil society based upon what he imagined the ideal human to be before being corrupted by modern society. He identified two primary instincts or motivations. The first was that of self-preservation. The second was the “natural repugnance of seeing any sentient being… perish or suffer… as long natural man did not resist the inner impulse of compassion he would never harm another man or sentient being except in the legitimate instance of self defense.” This second instinct or motivation is key to Rousseau’s philosophy – it highlights his belief that humans have an instinct of compassion; that people are by nature generous, merciful, and humane.

The second stage in our evolution toward the ideal society is “Modernity”. Rousseau believes that modernity has corrupted us. This he attributes to our “vast cities, rampant commercialism, and the institution of private property” – all causing us to become alienated and isolated from one another. When we are disconnected from one another, it becomes easy to deny one another. But following Rousseau’s thought this insensitivity defies our deepest humanity. “For modern man, his fellow man can be killed with impunity underneath his very window; he needs only to place his hands over his ears and argue with himself (a little) in order to prevent nature, that innate nature to help another that cries out from within him that identifies with the man being tortured and killed.”

He sees private property as one of the first causes of the separation that now exists: “The first person who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him was the true founder of civil society. What crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors would the human race have been spared, had someone pulled up the stakes or filled in the ditch and cried out to his fellow men: ‘Do not listen to this imposter. You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all and the earth to no one.’”

The third stage in our societal evolution is the “Civil State.” Rousseau envisioned a future of social justice, freedom, and equality by establishing a civil state through a new “social contract.” This social contract is something that would be taught (via the education system) and accepted by the larger community. This would happen through something he called “the general will” – a consensus of community spirit in which we all work for the good of others and of all.

Professor Dalton summarizes Rousseau’s philosophy of the general will when he says, “We need to define ourselves not in terms of things but in terms of relationships with others.” Rousseau saw the future with a new kind of freedom – a freedom that isn’t about acting however we want for our own selfish wants, but a freedom to help one another. Freedom isn’t about acting as we wish, he says, but instead adhering to a shared morality that includes a sense of responsibility. Dalton poetically calls this “the freedom to act as we *should* act,” liberating ourselves from the illusion of separateness. Dalton also points out that Rousseau echoed something Plato had hoped for – the creation of a society so unified that “just as a single person loses a limb the whole body suffers, so in this state we want to create a society that if one soul is lost, so too the entire society would suffer.”

Rousseau’s vision was that of undeniable interconnection.

🙂 m