Rousseau Study Guide


1.  What is Rousseau's vision of man in the state of nature?

For Rousseau, natural man, the individual prior to the creation of civilized society, was superior to the civilized man in several ways: he was stronger and healthier, and he had greater compassion for suffering humans. Separated from nature and leading an artificial existence, civilized man became feeble and anxious. Not simply content with satisfying natural needs, he becomes envious of others and greedy for their possessions, he pursues luxury and, if successful, sinks into debauchery. He has lost much of his compassion for his fellow human beings. Rousseau believed the natural man was more willing to listen to the ‘first promptings of humanity’ which were moral.

2. How is this vision of man in nature different from Hobbes, Locke and Voltaire?

He rejected Hobbes’ view of the natural state as brutish and violent. Instead, he saw human beings as inherently good. Humans each possess an inner voice, a conscience, in which a sense of justice and compassion resides. The inner voice does not depend upon intelligence. Indeed, society distorts and perverts our nature.

For Locke, the prize attribute of man in the state of nature is reason, not conscience. We can use reason to recognize that limits on our freedom will benefit each of us and therefore the group as a whole.

Voltaire basically agrees with Locke’s model of human, but his outlook is less rosy. Voltaire believed that human instinct was violent and selfish, but we possess reason and in situations where compromise works in our best interest, we are willing to see the reason in modifying our aggression. 

3. Which of Locke's natural rights is the root of evil according to Rousseau?

In the original state of nature there was little difference between individuals, but this natural equality ended when private property emerged, with disastrous results: insatiable ambition, jealousy, rivalry. Force and guile swept away the natural man’s goodness and pity. Rousseau believed that civil society had been invented to protect property. It enabled the rich and the clever to dominate others; it also led to national wars, which had been far more destructive than the occasional acts of violence between individuals which had jarred the state of nature.

4. Did he believe in destroying society and returning to a natural state?

Rousseau was not railing against civilization in general but against the civilization of his day. Modern civilization had corrupted people morally, and its political agent, the despotic state, had deprived them of their freedom. He believed that society’s institutions had to be reshaped in order to restore to the individual his original freedom, goodness and compassion for others. He believed that once the abuses of society-- inequality, despotism, selfishness-- were understood, a new society could be created in which reason could be used to enhance man’s innate goodness.

5. How does Rousseau's conception of the social contract differ from Locke's and Hobbes'?

Rousseau’s solution is for each person to surrender unconditionally all his rights to the community as a whole and to submit to its authority. To prevent the assertion of private interests over the common good, Rousseau wants the state to be governed in accordance with the general will -- an underlying principle that expresses what is good for the community.

6. What is peculiar about his notion of democracy and the general will?

“By entering into the social compact, man gives up his natural liberty or unlimited right to every thing which he is desirous of and can attain. In return for this, he gains social liberty, and an exclusive property in all those things of which he is possessed.” (Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract)

The general will is not a majority or even a unanimous vote. Rather, it is a plainly visible truth that is easily discerned by common sense, by reason and by listening to our hearts. It is the voice of humanity within us. For Rousseau, true freedom consists of obedience to laws that coincide with the general will, that serve the community’s common interests.

7. What checks and balances are placed on the charismatic leader who believes that he can best 'interpret' the general will?

For Rousseau, there would be no need to place checks and balances on the central government because it directly expresses the will of the people.

Like ancient Athens, Rousseau’s state is a direct democracy, in which the citizens themselves, not their representatives, constitute the lawmaking body; in this way the governed and the government are one and the same. Rousseau believes that people will obey the laws they have a voice in making. They will rise above self-interest and rationally seek the common good when they see themselves as participating citizens rather than as subjects of tyrants. The state imagined by Rousseau enshrines equality: its citizens are equally subject to the laws which they equally participate in making. When people enter the social contract, they exchange natural liberty for ‘civil liberty, which is limited by the general will’. People who refuse to obey can be compelled. Rousseau believes that people should be forced to be free.

8. How might Rousseau's notion of the general will lead to a dictatorship?

To the end, therefore, that the social compact should not prove an empty form, it tacitly includes this engagement, which only can enforce the rest, viz. that whosoever refuses to pay obedience to the general will, shall be liable to be compelled to it by the force of the whole body. And this is in effect nothing more than that they may be compelled to be free;

He did not place constitutional limits on the state nor did he erect safeguards to protect the individual or minorities. He rejected Locke’s principle that citizens possess rights independent of the state. Since the individual comprised the state, how could he have rights against himself? Rousseau’s state contradicts liberal ideals: it possesses unlimited power, demands submission in the name of the general will, requires the individual to identify his personal life with the totality, deplores diversity, and is intolerant of minorities. His critics maintain that the notion of the general will opened the gates to dictatorship.

9. How would Voltaire have criticized Rousseau's ideas?


1. With what utopian expectations did the French Revolutionaries who overthrew the King come to power?


Tabula Rasa! If there are no innate ideas, then human beings, contrary to Christian doctrine, are not born with original sin, are not depraved by nature. All that individuals are derives from their particular experiences. If people are provided with a proper environment and education, they will behave morally; they will become intelligent and productive citizens. By their proper use of reason, people could bring their beliefs into harmony with natural law.


Diderot: “Nature has not made us evil. It is bad education, bad models, bad legislation that corrupt us.”


Voltaire: “[A person is] born neither good nor wicked; education, example, the government into which he is thrown- in short, occasion of every kind- determines him to virtue or vice.”


On the ruins of the Old Order, founded on privilege and despotism, a new era was forming that promised to realize the ideals of liberty and equality championed by the philosophes. It seemed that the natural rights of the individual, a distant ideal until then, would reign on earth, ending centuries of oppression and misery.


2. What liberties for the common man were assured in The Declarations of the Rights of Man?


  • They sought protection of inalienable rights: liberty of person, conscience and thought: habeas corpus, trial by jury, freedom of religion, speech and press.
  • They sought to abolish slavery, end imprisonment for debt, and made plans for free public education.
  • They asserted that all citizens possessed the right to equal treatment under the law.
  • They asserted that the state belongs to the people as a whole. Constitutions invalidated absolutism and the divine right of the monarchy. They established limits to the power of the government and elected parliaments that represented the governed. 
  • They asserted that the state has no higher duty than to promote the freedom and autonomy of the individual. All citizens have a right to participate in lawmaking and the voting of taxes.
  • All feudal rights and privileges of the nobility were eliminated and careers were opened to talent rather than birth.
  • They deprived the church of its special position, abolished the peasants’ manorial obligations and based taxes on income.
  • Inspired by the ideals of equality voiced in the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, women began to demand equal rights.


3. When did the revolution descend into the terror? Why?


When the newly established republic was threatened by foreign invasion and internal enemies, the Jacobins, led by Robespierre, initiated the Reign of Terror. A disciple of Rousseau, Robespierre conceived the national general will as ultimate and infallible.


4. How did the Jacobins and Robespierre justify the mass executions that he ordered?


Its realization meant the establishment of a Republic of Virtue, founded on reason, virtue and good citizenship; its denial meant the death of an ideal and a return to despotism. Robespierre was convinced that he knew the right way and that those who impeded the implementation of the new society were not just opponents but sinners who should be liquidated for the good of humanity.


5. Describe how the war fought to defend the revolution was a new type of war.


To fight foreign invaders and put down civil war, the Jacobins mobilized the nation’s human and material resources. The levee en masse decreed by the Convention in 1793 heralded the emergence of modern total war. Acting in the name of the general will, the state could mobilize the entire citizen body, and all citizens had a moral and legal obligation to defend the state. The world wars of the 20th century are the terrible fulfillment of this new development in warfare. Whereas 18th century wars were fought by professional soldiers for limited aims, the French Revolution initialized conscription, the nation in arms, and the mobilization of all the peoples of the state for unrelenting conflict.


6. How would the French Revolution give rise to modern nationalism?


In calling for the complete devotion of the nation, the French Revolution also heralded the rise of modern nationalism: the image of the nation as the sole divinity that it is permissible to worship.