The Confessions of JeanJacques Rousseau
Governance of People, Governance of Regimes
The Age of Enlightenment brought a new era of political consciousness to Europe. No longer would the destiny of the Western world be limited to the clergy and their bewildered notions of Divine Command Theory – instead, rational intellectualism sought to reform political communities. New concepts of statehood and secular governance had arisen throughout the Enlightenment, as the epoch of theocratic empires was beginning to end, and modern political theories based on rational logic took the spotlight. A wide array of educated elites produced hundreds of dogmatic texts, letters, rebuttals, and hypotheses either in search for a more ideal society or in critique of political status quo. These new ideas were published and distributed on wide scales, influencing urban societies, mobilizing new movements and swaying public discourse over issues of rightful authority.
The French Revolution, in particular, represented an epicenter of ideological revolutions in history, as popular effort pursued drastic political change. In a short period, the French managed to overthrow their long-standing monarchy, deviate from their feudal society, and minimize the authority of religious bodies. But the revolution was not a bed of roses, as several republics and administrative orders arose thereafter, lasting only short periods before French society looked to new rulers and political formulas. Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Edmund Burke, two renowned Enlightenment theorists, were both writing in the 18th century – Rousseau’s philosophy became a major influence to the French Revolution, while Burke’s work intellectually rebuked the revolt whilst it was in its infancy stages. Without exploring the legitimacy or lack thereof of this revolution or others, it is important to establish that Rousseau and Burke’s theories were divergent on some fundamental questions of governance. This paper looks into one of James Madison’s key doctrines on the ideal purpose and boundaries of government, and establishes that the works of Rousseau and Burke, while in some ways agreeing with Madison’s expression, would respond fundamentally contrarily from each other.
The quote of interest is the following: “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed, and in the next place oblige it to control itself”. We can further divide this expression into three main ideas: 1) a government “administered by men over men”; which is to acknowledge that in a secular system, neither God nor a divinely appointed sovereign is believed to be leading the political unit, 2) “control the governed”; meaning, to rule over the people in an adequate fashion, and 3)“control itself”; or to put necessary restrictions and divisions on the power of the ruling body in protection of its citizens. Both Rousseau and Burke discuss the above essential points in their respective works, and thus, this paper is organized to reflect their responses to these ideas. Rousseau agrees with the notion that a regime governs by the will of men rather than that of God.
While past societies in Christendom and elsewhere ruled on the basis of scripture or the wits of a divinely-guided figure, Rousseau’s Social Contract recognizes that laws should only come by the consent of the people. He brings up the example of Roman decimvir commissioners, who would not pass their own laws, but instead, would proclaim “Nothing we propose… can become law without your consent. Romans, be yourselves the authors of the laws that should bring about your happiness” (Rousseau, pp. 164). An ideal republic for Rousseau forms its own laws by direct means rather than through a religious intermediate. While some may see Rousseau’s Legislator as a quasi or even pseudo religious figure; “an extraordinary man” coming with “superior intelligence”, the Legislator has dominion over men and the establishment of society, but not its laws, as that would “perpetuate his injustices” (Rousseau, pp. 162-163). In other words, executive and legislative powers cannot be combined into one person without corruption emerging, and hence, the power to create laws “belongs to the people” (Rousseau, pp. 173). Rousseau does not believe in the rule of deific legatees (Rousseau, pp. 76), and instead proposes a new civil religion. This civil religion would be simple enough to inclusively bind the masses of a secular political community together, as the unit would be centred on their own social contract and qualities of a constructive society.
Accordingly, Rousseau believes that men must indeed rule over men by their consent, under a collective social tradition of citizenship rather than a customary religion. Although Burke ultimately agrees with the notion that men are to rule over men without divine intermediates, his response to this perception is different from that of Rousseau. Namely, the place of God, societal religious custom, and the progression of history plays an important role in his political theory. Burke discusses the role of “little platoons” (Burke, pp. 41); a social unit linking a citizen’s belonging to his country. In critique of the rebellion of France’s Third Estate, which represented the vast majority of the French population, Burke argues that deputation from the clergy and nobility would only bestow French leadership to the “worst designs of individuals in that class” (Burke, pp. 40). Burke attaches his “little platoons” idea to the clergy, identifying their institution not only as important to the social fabric of a society, but also a venue through which naturally talented people may ascend to the hierarchy of a community. Dismantlement of these traditional institutions would only lead to chaos through the deferment of power to those among the people who are unfit to receive it. While Burke recognizes the imminence of modernity and the ever-evolving natures of a culture and society, he believed that recent anomalies can still be disguised as ordinary religious customs to the masses if framed properly, as he cites an example involving a famed incongruent royal succession (Burke, pp. 16). Burke fully endorses having a God-fearing society, because, in conjunction with venerating the institutions of monarchy, parliament, magistrates, priesthood, and nobility are inseparable to the social makeup of his own country (Burke, pp. 75-76), which has “not yet been completely embowelled of our natural entrails” (Burke, pp. 75). Therefore, while Rousseau gives complete trust to the general populous to create laws for its self, Burke wishes to preserve antique institutions rooted in history in the governing of a political unit.
Next, Rousseau’s notion of controlling the governed is a progressive vision created as he reflects on the problems of modern political life. He notes that, sometime in history, social communities must have been molded by conditions that bequeathed the interdependence of humans. This eventually led to each nation’s submission to elders (seigneurs) and magistrates, as “preference was given to merit” of the state (Rousseau, pp. 76) to insure the longevity of that society. However, this resulted in the marginalization of the people’s happiness and well-being, and the forming of civil factions pugnacious to each other. The “blood of citizens was sacrificed to the alleged happiness of the state” and the people at this point were “incapable of breaking their chains” (Rousseau, pp. 76). Rousseau argues that these were the precepts to the modern inequalities that are to be reversed in an ideal republic. Otherwise, under the current system, the people would further be violently divided against each other, and we would see “the defenders of the homeland sooner or later become its enemies, holding a dagger over their citizens, and there would come a time when we would hear them say to the oppressor of their country: ‘If you order me to plunge my sword into my brother’s breast or my father’s throat, and into my pregnant wife’s entrails, I will do so, even though my right hand is unwilling’ (pp. Rousseau 79). These words represent the willingness of these factions to destroy their past, present, and future for the sake of the despot. Rather, Rousseau proposes a new system whose “rule of administration in the civil order” would take “men as they are and laws as they might be” (Rousseau, pp. 141). This order would hence govern the authentic natural citizens that all humans can become, and insure the upright purpose of laws; which are established for the protection of its people, and not simply for the comfort of a tyrant. Through “perfectibility” (Rousseau, pp. 59) mankind can acquire second-natures via interaction with his environment. In this case, natural men can develop “social virtues” that those outside modern society do not have (Rousseau, pp. 59).
Lastly, although Rousseau did not believe property was a fundamental human right like Locke, he still believed property was a sacred right citizens possess, as long as it corresponds with the general will. Under an ideal state, “men all become equal by convention and by right”, as opposed to failed governments, where the poor are suppressed and the rich are preferred (Rousseau, pp. 153). Burke, however, is more fearful of the masses and what modernity may drive them to do if traditional hierarchies and customs are destroyed. Particularly, Burke is fearful of the fever of unregulated liberty that has been unleashed among the French Revolutionaries. To this end, he points that the complete liberty of a society is harmful – the French had a government under its monarch, but by its dismantlement, the people’s unrestrained freedom may erupt in chaos. Burke conjures the example of an uncontrolled maniac, “Can I now congratulate the same nation upon its freedom? Is it because liberty in the abstract may be classed among the blessings of mankind, that I am seriously to facilitate a madman, who has escaped from the protecting restraint and wholesome darkness of his cell, on his restoration to the enjoyment of light and liberty” (Burke, pp. 7) Just as a mental holding may restrain a madman from his liberties, a just government must indemnify its hold on the people; otherwise, anarchy may arise.
For Burke, it is the social and political emergence of individualism that causes insurrection against government and destruction of traditional ties. Hence, modern ideologically-driven revolutions are a contagion that must be contained. Instead, Burke proposes that the traditional institutions are to be maintained: monarchy is only evil in the eyes of those who expect complete freedom, and the people should furthermore find their refuge in religion, laws and manners (Burke, pp. 12). After all, to go against these traditional institutions is to “wage war with heaven itself” (Burke, pp. 9). While modernity is an unstoppable force, Burke argues that aristocrats should embrace gradual changes, while disguising them in the nostalgic spirit of the past. To further elaborate, he brings up his allegory of the venerable castle, whose foundations although may be repaired every so often, the structure itself remains unchanged, “Your constitution, it is true, whilst you were out of possession, suffered waste and dilapidation; but you possessed in some parts the walls and in all the foundations of a noble and venerable castle. You might have repaired those walls; you might have built on those old foundations…” (Burke, pp. 31). Here, he compares a state’s constitution with a castle – their antiquity is to be preserved, even if their upkeep is on par. A people who destroys this are like “children who hack an aging parent to pieces” (Burke, pp. 84), who will only necessarily fall into pandemonium and, out of necessity, try to “renovate” or rejuvenate the old traditions into a modern, unauthentic form.
Moreover, Burke prefers the controlling and pacifying effect of organized religion, as it establishes a set hierarchy in place, organizes and guides meetings for the masses, and produces a binding heritage for the entirety of the nation. After all, “man is by his constitution a religious animal; that atheism is against” (Burke, pp. 80). Therefore, Burke believes men are to be ruled over by long-standing institutions of leadership and religion, with gradual unsuspected changes, because of their connection to a society’s social fabric. Madison’s third point obliges governments to restrain themselves through checks and balances. Rousseau, like Madison, is critical of factions, because of their tendency to interfere with the public good. In order to prevent the oppression of a minority faction by the consent of the majority, Rousseau establishes the concept of the general will in his Social Contract. The general will is the “constant will of all the members of the state”; meaning, it consists only of what all citizens agree to, such as the fundamental guarantees of liberty and protection (Rousseau, pp. 206). All laws on top of that must be validated through the general will: “When a law is proposed in the people’s assembly, what is asked of them is not precisely whether they approve or reject, but whether or not it conforms to the general will” (Rousseau, pp. 206) The purpose of this system is the insure the people’s basic integrities, as an ideal government should not have the power to pass legislation that restricts the freedoms or security of those in the state. Rousseau emphasizes his theoretical state’s willingness to “unite… in order to protect the weak from oppression, restrain the ambitious, and assure everyone of possessing what belongs to him” (Rousseau, pp. 69). Thus, the general will is the fundamental political association that transcends partisanship rather than the sum of particular wills.
Rousseau’s concept is consequently in full agreement with Madison, because while a government has power over its people and vice versa, there are sufficient checks and balances that restrain a state’s abuse of its people. Burke, however, puts forth the idea of a natural aristocracy. While a landed aristocrat is a noble who inherits his wealth and feudal property, a natural aristocrat is “of the commons”; who through their own talent, must rightfully be admitted to the nobility (Burke, pp. 121). One of France’s fundamental problems in Burke’s view is that these natural aristocrats were “not fully admitted to the rank and estimation … equally with that of other nobility”, meaning, the landed aristocrats (Burke, pp. 121). A system that suppresses talented individuals from ascending to their rightful place will only engender “the destruction of the old nobility” (Burke, pp. 122). Moreover, nobles, who are a part of the protecting force of tradition and custom in a society, are not to be deceived by the emerging market economy, as their antiquities and symbolic hierarchy is worth far more than any quick profit.
Therefore, Burke creates his own checks and balances on governance by advising the nobility to not hurdle the progress of natural aristocrats and to protect customary and traditional hierarchy – otherwise, the system is in threat of collapse. While Rousseau and Burke both call for men to rule over men, governments to rule over people, and regimes to restrain themselves, they fundamentally disagree on how this is to be brought about. The above points demonstrate that while Rousseau vouches for civil liberty, equality, and secular citizenship, Burke is largely a proponent of traditional societal structures, a realm of nostalgia, and religious observance. History has shown us that it had taken France decades to attain domestic stability after its revolution, but at the same time, liberal ideals have brought great economic and civil progress to societies around the world. These intellectual rationally-based arguments will continue to be presented and debated, because for now, it is impossible to establish whose theories will stand the test of time.
Isolation and the Sublime in Rousseau and Wordsworth
In their article entitled “Me,” Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royale assert that “Literature, like art more generally, has always been concerned with aspects of what can be called the… ‘not me’ or other,” (Bennett 129-130). Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Confessions and William Wordsworth in his The Two-Part Prelude expound upon this issue of isolation from humanity as it relates to achieving a more natural state of existence. Although both Rousseau and Wordsworth analyze moments of isolation from what can be considered social normalcy, each author approaches this seclusion differently in his attempt to better embody natural man. Wordsworth seems to focus primarily on the internal, socially independent dynamics of his psyche, while Rousseau seeks a more natural state of being through analyzing his interactions with others. Rousseau, through the disarmingly candid tone of this work, conveys an exclusively mental isolation, while Wordsworth employs a more veiled and metaphorical strategy to succeed in achieving a simultaneously mental and physical withdrawal from modern convention. Ultimately, the constant influence of society in Rousseau’s Confessions impedes his ability to achieve an effective return to Nature, while Wordsworth’s ability to fully isolate himself from modern influences leads to a more complete progression toward the natural state of man.Even within the first few lines of Wordsworth’s work, it is evident that the author places a higher value on the clarity of thought found in Nature than the complications of human experience. He asserts that a stream near his birthplace possesses the capabilities of “…tempering/ Our human waywardness,” and that it, “composed [his] thoughts/ To more than infant softness, giving [him]/ Among the fretful dwellings of mankind/ A knowledge, a dim earnest, of the calm/ Which Nature breathes among the fields and groves?” (Wordsworth ln 9-15). The quotation seems to refer to Nature as a balancing force in human existence that causes mortal trivialities to become less significant. He also can be said to heavily reproach his societal surroundings through contrasting his pure, calm communication with Nature to the turbulent complications of interacting with humanity. Through his criticism of and voluntary extraction from humanity, Wordsworth is able to achieve a pre-infantile state of mind that not only allows him to transcend the most simplistic human thought, but actually results in a minimalist thought process previously unachieved by man. This concept is further exemplified through his personification of Nature in following lines. In claiming that Nature breathes knowledge and calm into the setting described, Wordsworth implies that Nature is an entity or being to interact with and that, because he is able to comprehend its message, he has further progressed to becoming natural man. Due to the fact that Wordsworth has been able to grasp this unique form of innate knowledge, he has isolated himself from the worldly distractions of mankind enough to profoundly communicate with Nature. The author further recognizes his early embracing of Nature as he asks, “Was it for this that I, a four years’ child,/ A naked boy, among thy silent pools,/ Made one long bathing of a summer’s day…?” (Wordsworth ln 17-19). Adding to the sentiments of the previous quotation, Wordsworth further acknowledges his innocence through detailing his nakedness, but also focuses upon the solitude he consistently finds in Nature through his describing the pools as silent. Wordsworth seems to seek out this independence from human interaction solely for the purpose of being able to communicate more fully with Nature, even prior to his being able to make a conscious effort to do so. Contrary to Wordsworth’s genuine appreciation for Nature early in The Two-Part Prelude, Rousseau is challenged by defining the significance of the emotions he experiences from a young age. Within the first few pages of Confessions, Rousseau recalls: “I had feelings before I had thoughts: that is the common lot of humanity…I have no idea what I did before the age of five or six…I had as yet no ideas about things, but already I knew every feeling. I had conceived nothing; I had felt everything,” (Rousseau 8). It is evident at this point in Rousseau’s work that, unlike Wordsworth, the author considers himself like the remainder of humanity in terms of his mental capacity. Whereas Wordsworth describes himself as being in touch with nature at the age of four, Rousseau claims that he has no recollection of any such experience at such a young age. Although Rousseau’s ability to maintain an emotional connection with his surroundings is vaguely perceived at this point, he concentrates more heavily upon furthering his personal relationships rather than exploring this intuitive bond with Nature in greater depth. Rousseau goes on to describe himself as “…by birth a citizen of the republic and the son of a father whose love for his country was his greatest passion,” and that he was “…fired by his example,” (Rousseau 8). At this point in the work, the author feels himself to be a part of a purely societal entity. He defines himself from his birth in terms of nationality and familial ties which, consequently, results in his devoting his young life to the emulation of his father. The social focus of Rousseau’s early memories firmly juxtaposes that of Wordsworth in that the latter is already realizing the more profound benefit which results from this otherworldly connection with the natural. Rousseau, then, seems to begin his Confessions as less mentally transcendent than Wordsworth in that the social manner in which he defines himself clouds his ability to achieve the seclusion from humanity that proves necessary to return to a state of Nature. As Wordsworth continues to progress through the first part of his work, he furthers his description of isolation from humankind in terms of both a unique connection to nature as well as a voluntary rejection of social pleasures. In detailing this profound attachment Nature, he states Not seldom from the uproar I retired/ Into a silent bay, or sportively/ Glanced sideway, leaving the tumultuous throng,/ To cut across the shadow of a star/ That gleamed upon the ice/…and I stood and watched/ Till all was tranquil as a summer sea. (Wordsworthln 170-184)This passage, apart from displaying Wordsworth’s desertion of what he considers to be the intrusive, crazed atmosphere of social life, also exemplifies the lack of resentment or loneliness he experiences as a result of this seclusion. Through the use of the word “sportively,” Wordsworth conveys that, although he does cast a fleeting glance upon the social interaction he is leaving behind, he does so more for the purpose of jest than true interest. He seems to give only slight acknowledgment to the actions of the remainder of humanity and rather prefers to concern himself with the sublime experience of observing how elements of nature interact with one another. Instead of lingering in a situation he considers purely chaotic, Wordsworth retreats to a safe distance within the company of the surroundings that he seems better able to interpret, observing the interactions of humanity until they resemble a condition of Nature: the tranquility of a summer sea. At this point in the poem, it seems that Wordsworth has achieved so complete a mental and physical separation from humanity that he must define the actions of others in terms of natural phenomena. Unlike Wordsworth’s successful retreat from humanity depicted in his poem, Rousseau’s work seems to progress no further than a contemplation of the potential consequences of completely abandoning social constraints. Despite the fact that Rousseau views a return to Nature to be crucial to his existence, he cannot separate his personal aspirations from the judgments of others. In a crucial moment of mental isolation and realization of his difference from those with whom he interacts, Rousseau claims: I could envisage nothing grander and finer than to be free and virtuous, above the reach of fortune and the good or bad opinion of men…Although a sense of false shame and a fear of ridicule at first prevented me from living in accordance with these principles…I was from that moment on resolved on my course of action, and I only delayed putting it into practice for as long as was needed for various contraries to oppose it and thus to ensure its triumph. (Rousseau 346-347)Although it is evident in this passage that Rousseau seeks a connection to nature that is exclusive from the pressures of public opinion, his mental state is still somewhat linked to social obligation. In fact, he explicitly states that his reason for delaying this conversion to his newfound natural perspective is that he deems it important for it first to be opposed by others. Due to the fact that Rousseau continues to consider attention from others to be of greater importance than his seeking a return to Nature, it is evident that the lack of isolation from humanity impedes his progression toward the natural state he seeks to achieve. Rousseau’s perspective differs from Wordsworth in that the latter is able to accept and embrace the fact that humanity is progressing without him, while Rousseau is only able to vaguely glimpse the benefit of a natural state without succeeding in leaving his former existence behind. Not only does Wordsworth have no fear of the ridicule that could follow his intentional estrangement from social interaction, but he goes so far as to playfully acknowledge his isolation. Rousseau, however, views this same prospect as terrifying and debilitating. Though Confessions continues to focus on Rousseau’s difficulty with disregarding the opinions of others, the author later attempts simultaneous physical and mental isolation by settling on Île de Saint-Pierre. Upon his arrival, Rousseau declares that he “…should like to have been so confined on [his] island that [he] need have no further commerce with mortals, and [he] certainly took every measure imaginable to relieve myself of the necessity of maintaining any,” (Rousseau 625). A few pages later, however, he divulges that he successfully convinced Thèrése to live with him in the intendant’s home. Despite the fact that he first claims that he has no use for any human interaction and that he has accepted his complete seclusion from the modern world, his later transport of his long-time lover belies the fact that he is still impeded by his desire to belong. At the end of Wordsworth’s poem, however, the author fully embraces his isolation, stating: If in my youth I have been pure in heart/ If, mingling with the world, I am content/ with my own modest pleasures, and have lived/ with God and Nature/ from little enmities and low desires,/ The gift is yours! (Wordsworth ln 473-478)It is conveyed through this quotation that Wordsworth, though he has attempted to understand the reasoning behind social formalities as they have been traditionally defined by humanity, prefers the simple pleasures of Nature. Ultimately, after experiencing both worlds as they naturally occur, he is actually able to achieve and enjoy the isolation that Rousseau is only able to attempt. As compared to Rousseau’s lack of commitment to returning to a natural state, Wordsworth asserts that, as a result of his loyalty to both God and Nature in all aspects of his existence, he has been better disposed to fully employing his innate creativity. From the perspective of Wordsworth, then, humanity may benefit not from his personality as they do from Rousseau, but rather from an artistic productivity that occurs as a result of his isolation. Through an analysis of Rousseau and Wordsworth’s opposite approaches to attempting to achieve the natural state of man, it can be concluded that these different styles function to track the development of a character’s ability to appreciate the sublime. Although Rousseau is able to admire the phenomena of Nature, he is only able to do so at a surface level due to the inference of humanity. Wordsworth, however, is able to fully acknowledge both the physical and artistic value of the naturally sublime due to his successful isolation from modern influences of society. It seems, after exploring these works, that a complete understanding of the sublime may only be achieved in its entirety; any sort of devotion to humanity, such as that which is found in Confessions, disrupts a return to nature. These two works, when juxtaposed, can be considered a larger commentary on Romanticism and its connection to the sublime in that, without a complete natural understanding like that which is found in The Two-Part Prelude, the sublime cannot be fully converted into artistic expression.
Content Supersedes Origin of Law
While both political philosophers John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau contend that every individual should be free and no one should be forced to give his or her rights to a king, they propose radically different conceptions on how laws promulgated should be adhered to under the social contract. On Locke’s account of the external legitimization of laws, he argues that legitimacy is contingent on respecting natural rights. Natural rights are rights to life, liberty, and property and these must be the foundation of law. In this sense, there are extra-legal norms that set boundaries for legitimate law, specifically, the content of the law itself. On the other hand, Rousseau contends that internal aspects of the law, explicitly its origin and nature, make it legitimate and believes laws must be adhered to without exception. Rousseau claims the origin of law is created by the “General Will”, and since people have seeded their individual wills into this “General Will”, there can be no reason to deflect from the laws that have been created. Ultimately, the legitimization of law should be primarily based on protecting human rights and such strict adherence to law is not necessary when these rights are violated, no matter their origin.
In John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, he contends that every man, by consenting with others to make one body politic under one government are granted a secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against outsiders (Locke 52). In terms of his conception of social contract, he says that consent to be governed can either be given explicitly or tacitly. Tacit consent is defined as consent given indirectly by living within the boundaries of a country. As long as their natural rights defined as life, liberty and property are secured by said country, people are consenting to be governed. Locke accompanies this belief by stating that the authority is “bound to dispense justice” (Locke 71) and there are natural limits on the legal exercise of political power. Locke presents a rational version of government that is unable to interfere with the property of its citizens, and forced to rule by a set of strict procedural laws that protect rights. To Locke, when a government violates one’s natural rights, the government has “no right to obedience” (Locke 79) and the people have the freedom to create a new government.
Unlike Locke, Rousseau proposes a view that government is legitimized by the “General Will” of the people. For Rousseau, laws concerning property, religion, and civic duty must be strictly adhered to if they are promulgated via direct democracy. Conversely, Locke states that sometimes strict adherence to the law can do harm. He provides the hypothetical example of a house burning down. He holds that if a house is burning and the only way to stop it is to tear down the house next door, it must be done even though it is against the law (Locke 84). Some suggest that this idea is in reference to the Great Fire of London in 1666 where fire could not be stopped because citizens did not have the consent of owners to tear houses down in order to cease the fire. Consequently, the fire continued to spread, destroying large amounts of infrastructure. This appeal to common sense that Locke uses is essential as there are circumstances (such as this fire) where it is appropriate to break the social contract to protect the rights of people. When life is at stake, the origin of the law becomes trivial and insignificant. He even coins the term ‘prerogative’ which he defines as “the name for this power to act according to discretion, for the public good, without the support of the law and sometimes even against it” (Locke 84). This natural reason that we are all endowed with, should allow us to rightfully disregard the law when necessary because our life, liberty, and property are the main priorities.
To Rousseau, the “General Will” is to be tolerated, even if we are in disagreement with the laws because “the citizen gives his consent to all the laws, including ones that are passed against his opposition, and even laws that punish him when he dares to break any law.” (Rousseau 82). This general will is the source of the laws and Rousseau believes laws based on the general will are legitimate and therefore it is not possible to challenge laws. Rousseau assumes everyone is inherently good and everyone wants to obey the general will, which is a main flaw to his argument. The general will only reflects the opinions of the majority. For Rousseau, whatever the majority says, is to be followed as you have submitted yourself to the general will. This can lead to the tyranny of the majority and the undermining of the voice of the minority. For example, in the United States, for decades the majority was opposed to gay marriage. However, choosing who to marry is a natural right that is not to be violated by the government. In other words, it is necessary to use our own human reason with concern to the laws. Locke acknowledges the minority by stating that if natural rights are infringed upon by the majority, the minority does not have to oblige. It is necessary to state that sometimes the majority acts wrongly, meaning that they inflict upon these natural rights. Additionally, the majority of citizen’s did not believe that women or visible minorities should recognize that the minority can sometimes account for 49% of the population which can consist of millions of people.
Rousseau mistakenly assumes that people are inherently good and will not do harm to others. Therefore, he thinks the “General Will” will always be in the best interest of the people, so there is no need to remove oneself from a political society. However, people have proven to not be inherently good and so it is necessary to use one’s own reason and natural faculty to decide whether a law is right or wrong. For example, sometimes there are international human rights laws that we are obligated to respect that national laws do not. Locke’s argument is substantially more attractive because it appeals to natural reason and an objective standard of law. To reiterate this point, I give the example of a country who does not provide education to a minority. Locke believes that in this circumstance, the people have every right to revolt against the government. If Rousseau’s argument were used in this situation, the affected people would have no right to do anything, which is immoral. The sovereign does not have a right to take away people’s natural rights, even if it is in favor of the majority.
To conclude, both Rousseau and Locke have ideas that are fundamental to the conception of good governance. We can see Locke’s idea that the government can be replaced if they do not respect natural rights in the American Declaration of Independence. That being said, Rousseau’s appeal to the “General Will” can be seen in the U.S. Constitution with the commencement of “We the People”. However, I believe that laws need to protect basic human rights in order to protect the minority and having a strict scrutiny approach to abiding laws is not conducive to that.