Montreal, July 15, 2005 No 156




Dr. Edward W. Younkins is a Professor of Accountancy and Business Administration at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia. He is the author of Capitalism and Commerce.




by Edward W. Younkins


          The belief that man, by nature, is good was espoused by the French philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). He believed that people in the state of nature were innocent and at their best and that they were corrupted by the unnaturalness of civilization. In the state of nature, people lived entirely for themselves, possessed an absolute independence, and were content.


          According to Rousseau, in the state of nature, people tended to be isolated, war was absent, and their desires were minimal and circumscribed (i.e., commensurate with their basic survival needs). People did not have the drive to acquire more possessions. There was plenty to go around, an absence of reliance on others, and no real need for extensive social interaction. However, there did exist an unreflective sympathy and general compassion toward others that was indiscriminate and not based on merits.

          In the state of nature egoism was absent and compassion was present. Rousseau saw compassion for the undeserving in particular and for mankind in general to be the greatest of the virtues. He regarded contempt of another, which could lead to hurt feelings, as a vice and as always bad. Rousseau wanted no one's feelings to be hurt. He felt that a proper society had no place for blame, criticism, judgment, comparison with others, and the distinction of worth among men. He said it was wrong to recognize distinctions because this makes people unequal. It was worse to be affronted than to be injured. What mattered to Rousseau was a person's good intentions rather than his achievements or outer appearances.

          Rousseau proclaimed the natural goodness of man and believed that one man by nature is just as good as any other. For Rousseau, a man could be just without virtue and good without effort. According to Rousseau, man in the state of nature was free, wise, and good and the laws of nature were benevolent. It follows that it was civilization that enslaved and corrupted man and made him unnatural. Because in the order of nature all men were equal, it also follows that distinction and differentiation among men are the products of culture and civilization. Because man is by nature a saint, it must be the corrupting influence of society that is responsible for the misconduct of the individual.

Corruption by Civilization: The Origin of Inequality

          The fundamental problem for Rousseau is not nature or man but instead is social institutions. Rousseau's view is that society corrupts the pure individual. Arguing that men are not inherently constrained by human nature, Rousseau claims that men are limited and corrupted by social arrangements. Conceiving of freedom as an absolute, independent of any natural limitations, Rousseau disavows the world of nature and its inherent laws, constraints, and regulations.

          Rousseau held that reason had its opportunity but had failed, claiming that the act of reflection is contrary to nature. Rousseau asserts that man's natural goodness has been depraved by the progress he has made and the knowledge he has acquired. He proceeded to attack the Age of Reason by emphasizing feeling, the opposite of reason, as the key to reality and the future. His thought thereby foreshadowed and gave impetus to the Romantic Movement.

          Rousseau assigned primacy to instinct, emotion, intuition, feelings, and passion. He believed that these could provide better insights into what is good and real than could reason. Rousseau thus minimized reason and differences in the moral worth of individuals. He failed to realize that freedom is meaningless in the absence of reason. He did not grasp that reason connects the moral subject to the world of values.

          Rousseau observed that although life was peaceful in the state of nature, people were unfulfilled. They needed to interact in order to find actualization. Evil, greed, and selfishness emerged as human society began to develop. As people formed social institutions, they developed vices. One such institution was private property that encouraged avarice and self-interest. Rousseau viewed private property as a destructive, impulsive, and egotistical institution that rewarded greed and luck. Civil society thus was born when people began fencing off their property, claiming that it was theirs, and finding that other people agreed with them.

          Depravity is due to the corruption of man's essence by civilization. For Rousseau, civil society resulted from the degeneration of a basically good state of nature. Man's problems arose because of civil society. He believed that the state of nature changed because it was internally unstable. For example, because talents were not distributed equally among persons, the balance that existed in the state of nature was disturbed and with inequality came conflicting interests. The more talented, able, and intelligent people brought about advances in science, technology, commerce, and so on. Because people simply are born with certain natural endowments, a person cannot be praised for having talent or blamed for not having it. Rousseau saw talent as naturally leading to achievement. Inequality developed as some people produced more and earned more. He failed to acknowledge the importance of motivation, industry, and volitional use of one's reason and other potentialities.

          The perspective of many of today's environmentalists can be traced back to Rousseau who believed that the more men deviated from the state of nature, the worse off they would be. Espousing the belief that all degenerates in men's hands, Rousseau taught that men would be free, wise, and good in the state of nature and that instinct and emotion, when not distorted by the unnatural limitations of civilization, are nature's voices and instructions to the good life. Rousseau's "noble savage" stands in direction opposition to the man of culture.

          People were no longer isolated and began to depend on each other. Those who just happen to have talents create new products and the desire for them. Buyers and sellers depend on each other but these dependencies are unequal because of the existence of a pyramid of ability. Rousseau contends that, as a result, the talented acquire property and become ambitious. All, including those without talent, become competitive, rivalrous, jealous, power-hungry, prestige seeking, and desirous for superiority over others. Civil society transforms men from isolated beings with limited wants into the warlike creatures found in a Hobbesian state of nature. For Rousseau, civil society is a state of war.

          Rousseau maintains that people did not have the right to rise above subsistence without everyone's consent. Everything changed as civil society developed, but permission was not given for things to change. He contends that it is wrong to change the condition of all without asking. Rousseau is distressed that some people become relatively poorer without having lost anything. Not only are their feelings hurt, their right to stagnate has been violated. The poor, weak, and indolent did not want to change, but things around them changed, forcing them to steal or receive subsistence from the rich.

          Rousseau thought private property to be the source of social ills. He considered that private ownership of property tended to corrupt men and destroy their character and regarded the man without property (i.e., the noble savage) to be the freest. Although he did not actually support the abolition of private property, he believed that private property should be minimal and should be distributed equally among the members of the society.

          Rousseau anticipated the need for the state to minimize private property. He wanted the property of the state to be as great and powerful as possible, and that of the citizens to be as small and weak as possible. With private property being so limited, the state would need to apply very little force in order to lead the people.  

"The idea of the general will is at the heart of Rousseau's philosophy. The general will is not the will of the majority. Rather, it is the will of the political organism that he sees as an entity with a life of its own."

          Rousseau says that it is impossible to go back to the state of primitive natural man. He says that men need to be governed as they now are and that any future change in human nature will come later as a result of re-education to indoctrinate individuals to believe that the public interest is their personal interest.

A New Social Contract

          Rousseau advocates a new corrective social contract as a blueprint through which a proper society can be built. He says that we should seek unanimous agreement with respect to a new social contract that eliminates the problem of dependence on one another while permitting each person to obey only himself and to remain as free as before. This can be accomplished through total alienation of each associate to the whole community. He calls for a total merger in which each individual gives up his right to control his life in exchange for an equal voice in setting the ground rules of society. Rousseau appeals to people to surrender their individual rights to a new moral and collective body with one will.

          The public person formed by social contract, the republic, has a will he calls the "general will." What it wills is the true interest of what everyone wants whether they realize it or not. When you are forced to obey it, you really are obeying yourself, the true and free you.

          According to Rousseau's theory of social contract, people leave an anarchic state of nature by voluntarily transferring their personal rights to the community in return for security of life and property. He argues that people should form a society to which they would completely surrender themselves. By giving up their rights, they actually create a new entity in the form of a public person that would be directed by a general will. When people join the community, they are voluntarily agreeing to comply with the general will of the community.

The General Will

          The idea of the general will is at the heart of Rousseau's philosophy. The general will is not the will of the majority. Rather, it is the will of the political organism that he sees as an entity with a life of its own. The general will is an additional will, somehow distinct from and other than any individual will or group of individual wills. The general will is, by some means, endowed with goodness and wisdom surpassing the beneficence and wisdom of any person or collection of persons. Society is coordinated and unified by the general will.

          Rousseau believed that this general will actually exist and that it demands the unqualified obedience of every individual. He held that there is only one general will and, consequently, only one supreme good and a single overriding goal toward which a community must aim. The general will is always a force of the good and the just. It is independent, totally sovereign, infallible, and inviolable.

          The result is that all powers, persons, and their rights are under the control and direction of the entire community. This means that no one can do anything without the consent of all. Everyone is totally dependent on everybody for all aspects of their lives. Such universal dependency eliminates the possibility of independent individual achievement. In addition, when the individual joins society in order to escape death or starvation, he can be a sacrificial victim ready to give up his life for others. Life is a gift made conditional by the state.

          All power is transferred to a central authority or sovereign that is the total community. Major decisions are made by a vote by all in what Rousseau calls a plebiscite that is something like a town meeting without the benefit of debate. A legislator proposes laws but does not decide on them. The legislator is a person or an intellectual elite body that works out carefully worded alternatives, brings people together, and has people vote with the results binding on all. The authority of the legislator derives from his superior insight, charisma, virtue, and mysticism. The legislator words the propositions of the plebiscite so that the "right" decision will result. The right decisions are those that change human nature. The unlimited power of the state is made to appear legitimate by the apparent consent of the majority.

          Between plebiscites, the government (i.e., the bureaucracy) governs by decree. The government interprets the laws and settles each case based on the perceived merits. Both executive and judicial, the government is a bureaucracy with huge discretionary powers. The legislator is over and above this bureaucracy. In a total democracy, the real government is the bureaucracy that applies the law to day-to-day situations.

          Rousseau was an advocate of the ancient idea of the omnipotence of the lawgiver. Rulers are in some way attuned to the dictates of the general will and able to incorporate these dictates into specific laws. No one can challenge these laws because their source is the wise and beneficent general will. Rousseau permits no disobedience of the general will once its decisions have been made. Man's will must be subordinated and he must abide by the general will even though he thinks he disagrees with it. The person who "disagrees" with the general will must be mistaken.

          According to Rousseau, each person wants to be good and therefore would want to obey the general will. It follows that when a person disagrees with the general will, he would actually be acting contrary to his own basic desires and that it would be proper to use force to attain his agreement with the general will. The general will reflects the real will of each member of society. By definition, the general will is always right. The general will is the overriding good to which each person is willing to sacrifice all other goods, including all particular private wills.

          The "good citizen" assigns to society's laws a goodness and wisdom exceeding his own goodness and wisdom. It is therefore quite possible to have a conflict between what a person thinks that he wills and that which he truly wills. The good citizen is able to identify his own will with the general will.

          If the general will is supreme, then citizens are free only to obey in equal servitude. People who refuse to comply with the general will can be forced to comply. If people want to be good, the rulers can make them be good. Rousseau thus viewed the political community as the proper means for liberating men from their mistaken perceptions and from the conflicts and corruptions of society.

          Rousseau's idea of the general will is related to the organic concept of the state as not merely real but more real than the individuals who live within its bounds. What matters is the whole of which the individual is a part. The individual person and his own ideas, values, and goals mean nothing. By regarding human beings as means to higher ends, rather than an end in themselves, Rousseau greatly contributed to the intellectual collectivization of man. It was a small step to Hegel's contention that the general will is the will of the state and that the state is the earthly manifestation of the Absolute. Furthermore, there was an easy transition from Hegel's political philosophy to the totalitarian systems of Marx and Hitler.

          Rulers who followed Rousseau's philosophy were able to demonstrate a vibrant but deceptive humanitarianism. They expressed love for humanity while at the same time crushing those who disagreed with the general will. For example, during the French Revolution, individuals like Robespierre were given enormous power to express the general will. Of course, dictators like Robespierre turned the general will into an expression of their own wills. Likewise, today when politicians refer to the good or aim of society, they are almost always referring to the good or aim of an individual or collection of individuals who want to impose their own vision upon others.

On Education from Nature

          Rousseau maintained that the state must control all schooling because the objective of schooling is to develop citizens who want only what the community (i.e., the general will) wants. Because mankind was infinitely perfectible, human failings could be eradicated by education.

          Rousseau wants to mold and socialize the individual through universal public education. He wants to make men more docile and to believe that when they are obeying the law they are only obeying themselves. According to Rousseau, obeying the law is always in one's own interest the interest of one's higher self, not the self who wants to be made an exception.

          In Rousseau's educational system, a child would explore nature and its requirements in order to learn what he needs to know. The child would have a tutor who would secretly devise situations in which nature would teach what the tutor wants it to teach. Believing he was free, the student would equate his will, with his mentor's will. This would serve to condition him to equate his own true will with the general will.

          Rousseau, like Plato before him and Mann and Dewey after him, believed in the perfectibility of man provided that he was educated so that he could not want to do evil. In Emile, Rousseau portrays the ideal education in the story of a child, who, free from the restrictions of an adult's will, is able to study nature and thus learn what he needs to know. However, Emile has an enlightened tutor, whose purpose is to secretly manufacture the conditions under which nature will teach the student what the tutor wants the student to learn. Through the tutor's disguised intentions, the student, by equating his own will with the will of his tutor, is conditioned to identify his own will with the general will.