Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, July 30, 2016

ROUSSEAU: The Social Contract (Freud’s Perspective)

Rousseau’s intention in this essay is to consider “men as they are and laws as they can be.”  The problem he tries to solve is this.  “Find a form of association that defends and protects the person and goods of each associate with all the common force, and by means of which each one, uniting with all, nevertheless obeys only himself and remains as free as before.”  How can we live in security under a nation of laws and still retain all of our natural freedoms?  This is a tall order. 

Let’s start with “men as they are.”  What kind of people are we talking about?  What are our neighbors like, the people we have to live with every day?  Freud’s insights may help us here.  In Civilization and Its Discontents (GB1) Freud says “Life, as we find it, is too hard for us.”  In order to make life easier some people turn to intoxicating substances like booze or drugs.  That helps dull the pain of living.  Other turn to “illusions” found in the arts and create a fantasy world of their own.  Freud puts religion in this category.  Still others focus on their careers or get involved in politics or study science.  These folks may differ in their methods but their goal is the same: to escape from their problems.  What do they really want?  Freud asks what we all demand from life and his answer is simple.  Pleasure.  We’re driven by the pleasure principle.  We want to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.  But we face a host of threats from three directions: our own bodies, the external world, and other people.  These are real threats.  Our bodies wear out and we get sick.  There are floods and earthquakes and tornadoes to deal with.  Foreign wars and domestic murders happen regularly.  Science and technology have alleviated some of these threats but they have not, in the final analysis, brought us happiness.  Love Thy Neighbor is a wonderful ideal but is unachievable.  Besides, if the truth is told, most of us are unlovable.  When all is said and done Freud thinks we should admit the truth: man is a wolf to man.

This is a grim view of the human condition.  But Rousseau’s task is to take “men as they are” and devise a system of government where they can live in peace without giving up their freedom.  How can this be done?  Rousseau starts with the premise that “man was/is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”  What we have to do now is preserve the freedom of citizens without constraining them by “chains” of oppressive laws.  Rousseau believes we all have a “common freedom” based on the common interests of the community as a whole.  This is the freedom which should be preserved.  Society can’t solve the whole laundry list of problems presented by Freud.  What it can do is set up a legitimate power to enforce those laws which will benefit all citizens.  In Rousseau’s opinion a government which oppresses its citizens is not legitimate.  He says “might does not make right, and one is only obligated to obey legitimate powers… Since no man has any natural authority over his fellow man, and since force produces no right, there remain only conventions as the basis of all legitimate authority among men.”  In nature our rights may come from God but in human societies our rights come from the establishment of social and political associations.  It works like this.  Each citizen agrees to give up “all his rights to the whole community… and since the condition is equal for everyone, no one has an interest in making it burdensome for others.”  This is a long way from Freud’s assertion that man is a wolf to man.  Freud’s man isn’t interested in making it burdensome for others either; he wants to have total power over them.  Rousseau disagrees with that view because he thinks “men are not naturally enemies.”  Our common interest overrules our private selfishness.  A man wants to live in society with others where “his faculties are exercised and developed, his ideas broadened, his feelings ennobled, and his whole soul elevated.”  This is Rousseau’s vision of society at its best.  Whether that’s the way men really are is debatable.  Freud doesn’t think so.


Post a Comment

<< Home