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Rousseau and individualism

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Forced to be Free

Ever since the fall of feudal societies, all men have shared an obsession with individualism. Even in the days of fierce nationalism during WWI, the idea was still seen as the individual’s endorsement of the state rather than the state’s imposition of an idea. This obsession with individualism reaches not only politics, but art, culture, and even religion (the protestant reform); these ideas shape our modern world and are a driving force in the way each of us think in our daily lives.

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During the time of Rousseau these ideas we just taking off, with thinkers like Hobbes and Locke were carrying the idea forward. However, what Rousseau provided in his works, in particular piece The Social Contract challenged those notions of individualism, highlighting holes in reasoning as well as exposing the inherent flaws that lie in a hyper-individualist society. Rousseau sought to counter previous notions of not only primitive man, but of the way man should be ruled in a society.

Of his theories, which are many, there exists one idea above them all and serves as the cornerstone upon which Rousseau frames most of this later works: The General Will. These ideas of common good and “general will” stand alone, but also serve as a foundation for thinkers like Marx and it is in many ways to communism what Locke is to capitalism.

It is important to note that Rousseau does not reject the notion of the individual, in fact, Rousseau endorses the notion that individuals control the real power in a society; the difference arises in the way these thinkers deal with the individual vis-à-vis The State. This fissure on ideas finds its roots in how Locke and Rousseau differ in their imaginations of primitive man and the state of nature. For Locke, a man’s primary value is freedom. A freedom then cannot be infringed upon, lest the individual return to the state of nature to seek his full level of freedom – man in the state of nature is essentially the same man under a state, “the contrast is never complete”1. However, for Rousseau, once man is subjected to society he becomes not only a slave to his wickedness, but is in fact “in chains” wherever he goes. Man in society is not free until he gives himself up to the general will. While these two distinct ideals stand far apart from one another, they both place great strength in social contracts, the only primary difference being the functionality of that contract. It is then natural to ponder the question of which system – which contract is superior.

Although Rousseau presents a substantial argument in favor of collectivism, as well as notions of “general will”, the inherent pitfalls of a collectivist society give way to my assertion that Locke’s notions reign supreme.

Oppression is inevitable in any society over a long enough expanse of time. This oppression is commonly imagined in the shape of the rich oppressing the poor, or the strong muting the weak, however oppression can take many forms. The French Revolution for instance, saw the tyranny of the poor over the elite classes of France. It is this constant undertone of oppression that drives political thinkers to devise methods for mitigating its effects. For Rousseau, the answer comes in the form of the “general will.” With roots in Roman Catholic ideals, the notion of a general will is central to Rousseau’s philosophy. It is, for Rousseau, what grants government legitimacy and what drives the enforcement of the law2. Moreover, since legitimate laws are founded on the general will of the citizens, by obeying the law, the individual citizen is also obeying himself as a member of the political community. This is Rousseau’s answer to the ideal of individualism.

Using the assumption that the “general will” is endorsed by all, it is then natural for an individual act in a manner that not only is just for him but just for society because the two are indistinguishable3. In many ways Rousseau presents an ideal system wherein oppression is negated by the overall good will of a community, with individual citizens acting toward the good of society in almost every decision they make. However, it is a common misconception that the general will is the will of the majority. Rather, it is the power of a political organism that he sees as an entity with a life of its own somehow distinct from any individual will or group of individual wills. It is endowed with a goodness and wisdom that far surpasses the wisdom of any one person or collection of persons and serves to unify a society previously (at least for Rousseau) ruled by infighting and distrust. This notion bonds the nation together to move toward one common goal to the benefit of the people. However, as Rousseau admits under this model, often citizens who oppose any aspects of the general will shall be “forced to be free,”4 either by strength of arms or pressure placed upon him by society. This institutionalized state force is a very difficult notion for the West to swallow; it congers up images of dictators and totalitarian regimes. And it is indeed the biggest flaw in Rousseau’s argument.

While it was Rousseau’s intent for the general will to be determined by the virtuous the interpretation of his work often falls short in reality. Rousseau’s works end up falling in with Marx, in that every time a society attempts to emulate the model, the ruling elite use it as a front for dictatorship. Take, for example, Imperial Japan. Starting with the Meiji Restoration the Japanese government sought to morph the “general will” of their people from warring shogunates to a modern society. And shape the general will they did. Factories were built, the population was educated, and goods were shared5. What resulted was one of the fastest instances in History of a country modernizing. The society boomed, just as Rousseau had suggested. However, instead of the utopia of all for all that Rousseau held so dear, Japan’s society was far from ideal. Both military and political power was held in the hands a few, in Japan the “general will” became polar nationalist ideals held by this few. This general will became so strong that it actually drove Japan to attack the United States.

The Japanese military had become fragmented in its decision-making process. Again, as a result of adopting a Rousseau-esque style of society, power was in the hands of the general will of the people, which was very nationalistic. The nationalist feelings on the island became so great that nationalist branches of the military began to form independent units that threatened and placed pressure on the Japanese high command. It was not a top down command model and important policy and movement decisions could be enacted from fairly low down on totem pole. These sentiments became so great that the Japanese top brass began to worry about what these semi- autonomous nationalists were capable of and began to bend to more and more of their wishes.

Ultimately it was not the high command that made the decision to bomb Pearl Harbor; it was instead the people, each voting with their voices risen up in one against the United States. These people found themselves unwitting agents of a greater general will hijacked by the few, which in the end, proved to be Japan’s downfall. It is this that disqualifies Rousseau’s ideas. The general will is too easily stolen and overridden by those that rise to power, seize it, or simply have some left over after entering into the social contract. It is a model that too frequently results in the destruction, disenfranchisement, and decay of the individual and the state. It is a system that concerns itself too much with ideas rather than the day to day protection of rights. The mind can never be policed or ruled, it simply is. Therefore, Rousseau’s assertion that one can be “forced to be free” is, in reality, impossible. The individual will always have the freedom to think, so the most ideal society is one that guards the freedoms of the individual from the majority, not vice-versa.

In this regard Locke stands alone. In Locke’s society, the primary concern of the government is the protection of the property of the individual. While Locke indeed argues for collectivist notions, owning only as much as one can use so as not to be wasteful toward your fellow man, he does not find himself imminently concerned with the individual’s specific actions or ideologies, insofar as they do not infringe upon another’s liberty. This society places great credence in the stock of an individual’s heart and moral code, understanding man in the state of nature as a creature of “rational actions, equal to and free of one another.”6 This rationality survives man’s leap into society, leaving the government a population of rational people, who although act selfishly, still possess the facility necessary to act in the common good when it is necessary. However, what is most important about Locke’s society is the fact that it does not attempt to restrict the individual, the individual restricts the government. Under this system where the power is stratified into the hands of many, the abuses that plague Rousseau become much less common. Moreover, it removes the notion of “general will” leaving elites no clear driving societal force to advance their personal wills. Under this system while some may be left out, no one is forced to do anything. Whereas when a government operates under the tenants of “general will” it commonly finds itself forcing its citizens in almost all aspects of their daily lives. This freedom is by far the most productive and progressive means with which to rule a society. It allows for
ideas to reign supreme; and has inherent to it avenues of advancement. The state tends to grow if left unchecked, and often legislation is a one-way street; so under Rousseau when laws and statutes need to be put in place to shape the general will, there is no theoretical end. Whereas in a society where the citizens have freedom from the state; law and government, society remain relatively demure.

Rousseau does make good points, indeed some of our most progressive instructions such as social security borrow much from Rousseau. However we tend to shy away from fully adopting his ideas. Today we conduct ourselves more along the lines of Adam Smith and John Locke because we simply understand it as the best method of preserving the freedoms that we wish to see intact. We as a society have chosen that freedom of outcome is a worthy price to pay for freedom of opportunity. While your life might not be guaranteed, what is ensured is your pursuit of happiness. And in the end that’s what we all desire regardless.

Works Cited
Gildin, Hilail. Rousseau’s Social Contract: The Design of the Argument. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1983. Print. Huffmen, James. About Japan: A Teacher’s Resource. Japan Society, 21 Apr. 2008. Web. 30 Oct. 2013. Johnson, Merwyn S. Locke on Freedom: An Incisive Study of the Thought of John Locke. Austin, TX: Best Print., 1978. Print Locke, John. Two Treaties of Government. New York: Legal Classics Library, 1994. Print. Noone, John B. Rousseau’s Social Contract: A Conceptual Analysis. Athens: University of Georgia, 1980. Print. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Lester G. Crocker, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The Social Contract ; And, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. New York: Washington Square, 1967. Print.

Works Consulted
Viroli, Maurizio. Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the “well-ordered Society” Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988. Print.

Cite this Rousseau and individualism

Rousseau and individualism. (2016, Nov 04). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/rousseau-and-individualism/

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