Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

ROUSSEAU: The Social Contract 1

In our last reading Freud examined why modern people are often unhappy. We live with a level of comforts and freedoms that few people in the past ever experienced. So why are we still unhappy? Freud believed it was because civilization forces us to suppress many of our natural inclinations. This tension of living in society with other people causes psychological turmoil between civilization and its discontents. But long before Freud the French writer Rousseau could sense something of this same phenomenon when he observed: Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. Is this true? How are we “born free” and if we are born free then how does it come about that now we’re all “in chains”? Rousseau starts at the very beginning of our lives, the moment when we’re born. We’re born to be free, but not yet. For several years we’re merely children and still dependent on our parents. But we finally do grow up and leave the nest to become adults living out on our own. Then we’re free. Or so we think. Rousseau puts it this way: The most ancient of all societies, and the only one that is natural, is the family: …children remain attached to the father only so long as they need him for their preservation. As soon as this need ceases, the natural bond is dissolved. So far so good. That answers our first question about how we’re born free. But as Freud points out, it’s a rough world out there: Men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggression. Once we’ve left home and the protection of our parents we face a new problem: how to live in safety and security as adults. The trick here is how we can live safely and securely but still retain the freedom we gained the day we left the security of our parent’s home. Now we have to tackle our second question: if man is born free, then how does it come about that he is everywhere in chains? Man is everywhere in chains in this sense: we all live under some form of government. The chains are laws we have to obey as citizens living under that government. A question naturally comes to mind: why should men live under a government, in chains so to speak? Another Great Books author, Hobbes (GB Series 2), tells us why: because it’s better than living in a state of nature. Without government to protect us life would soon become short, nasty and brutish. Living under a government (almost any government) is far superior to living out in the wild and being left to our own resources. It’s much better for us to associate with other people so we won’t face the world alone. Rousseau summarizes our problem like this: Find a form of association that defends and protects the person and goods of each associate with all the common force; so that he unites with all and yet obeys only himself and still remains as free as he was before joining the association. What Rousseau is looking for is a way for us to have our safety and security and yet still retain our freedom too. How can we accomplish both at the same time? Rousseau’s answer comes in the form of a “social contract.” Since we’re all born with the right to political liberty we should make a mutual compact with one another that we will honor each citizen’s individual freedom. Under this arrangement the government will protect every citizen’s freedom and property. In return, each citizen will give up his right to make decisions on his own. He will need to conform his freedoms to the wishes of the whole community. Only under this sort of arrangement will the state be able to flourish and not disintegrate into anarchy and violence, the true state of nature. Some readers may ask: but how am I still free if I can’t make decisions on my own? Rousseau has the answer: …whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be constrained to do so by the entire body; which means only that he will be forced to be free. “Constrained” doesn’t sound like freedom to some people. If you’re with the majority then you’re in luck. If not? Then you may well become one of the unhappy ones. These are the discontents Freud talks about.


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