Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, March 24, 2012

ROUSSEAU: The Social Contract 2

The Social Contract was written in 1762. Three hundred and fifty years later (just this week in fact) a United States Congressman says: It is rare in American politics to arrive at a moment in which the debate revolves around the fundamental nature of American democracy and the social contract. But that is where we are. Three hundred and fifty years later that is where we are; still discussing the social contract. This is a real tribute to the power of Rousseau’s ideas concerning the source of legitimate political power. And what is that source? The people. Political power comes from the people. The idea of political power coming from “the people” or “the many” goes all the way back at least to ancient Greece. So what makes Rousseau’s idea fresh and unique? His great idea lies in the concept of a “social contract” guided by the “General Will”: The first and most important deduction from the principles we have so far laid down is that the general will alone can direct the State according to the object for which it was instituted (the common good)… Democracy gets its power from the majority. But Rousseau doesn’t think that fact, in itself, is the true source of political power. The majority can still go wrong. Just think of the trial of Socrates. So Rousseau believes that truly legitimate political power can only be used by the State for the common good of all its citizens. This is the General Will; any law or policy that helps one person or one class of people more than another he calls Private Will. Private Will is not, in Rousseau’s eyes, a legitimate use of political power. Private Will in politics is merely harnessing the power of the State to acquire personal benefits. Our private lives can reflect personal interests but our public lives should be devoted to the common good. This sounds noble. What well-meaning citizen could possibly be against the common good? But here’s where Rousseau bogs down in an old philosophical quagmire: what is good? Suppose a well-meaning citizen has to choose between two opposing goods? Then what happens to the General Will? Here’s an example. Rousseau says that the end of every system of legislation comes down to these two principle objects: freedom and equality. Freedom is good. So is equality. Which good does the General Will tell us to pursue? The answer is: both. But what if it turns out that the more we have of one, the less we’ll have of the other? Then what? As Rousseau points out: The private will tends by its nature toward preferences, while the general will tends toward equality. Let’s examine more closely what individual “preferences” can lead to. Our previous readings show a wide diversity of preferences. Socrates prefers the wisdom of philosophy over the wisdom of “the people.” Aristotle prefers excellence over mediocrity. The list goes on. So how can there be a General Will among so many diverse opinions (or Private Wills) regarding the way we should live? If Socrates pursues philosophy he will not be equal with ordinary citizens. Mediocre people won’t be Aristotle’s equal if Aristotle constantly strives for excellence and they don’t. Rousseau seems to sense this. So he makes provisions to protect equality: It is precisely because the force of things tends to destroy equality that the force of legislation should always tend to maintain it. But here’s a question: why does Rousseau choose to protect equality instead of freedom? One possible answer: this is Rousseau’s preference. Equality is Rousseau’s principle object and this is what he wants to establish and preserve. He makes it a little clearer when he points to the principle objects of some of the great civilizations: The Hebrews long ago and the Arabs recently have had religion as their principle object; the Athenians, letters; Carthage and Tyre, commerce; Rhodes, navigation; Sparta, war; and Rome, virtue. Here’s another question: what is America’s principle object? We come back to the opening statement: It is rare in American politics to arrive at a moment in which the debate revolves around the fundamental nature of American democracy and the social contract. But that is where we are. Here we are. This is what the Great Conversation is all about.


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