Rousseau’s Description of the Social Contract, Essay Example

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Essay

Analyze Rousseau’s description of the social contract in terms of freedom. To what problem exactly provides the social contract the solution? What is the procedure and what is the outcome of the social contract? Explain the difference between natural.

Rousseau’s account of the social contract is entirely dependent upon a notion of freedom that is itself derivative of the a-political void of the state of nature. In this regard, the social contract, as occupying a moment of posteriority in regards to the state of nature, remains entirely defined by the problems that the state of nature presents. Rousseau’s political convictions of the necessity of the social contract thus only become understandable in light of the legitimacy of his account of the state of nature.

For Rousseau, the state of nature designates a type of freedom, however one that itself harbors potentially negative consequences, thus suggesting the emergence of a social contract and the initiation of political order. Hence, as Miller writes, “man, in his natural state, conjectures Rousseau, was a creature of self-sufficient solitude. Wandering the earth alone, he was sovereign in his isolation and ignorance.”[1] However, insofar as man in the state of nature is defined by this almost nomadic form of freedom, man nevertheless is subject to the threat at all times that this autonomy may be transgressed, since there is nothing outside of the individual man that may guarantee this autonomy. Sovereignty within the state of nature thus comes at the cost of the omnipresent potential negation of this sovereignty: sovereignty exists on the borders with its own annihilation. The inevitable contact between human beings dissipates this threat, as they become embroiled in notions of social communities. At the same time, however, such social communities themselves are by definition limitations of individual freedom: the idealized state of nature of Rousseau as radical individual freedom itself becomes subject to a limitation that is merely the corollary of the natural coming together of humans into communities. Accordingly, Rousseau’s social contract can be understood as a further defense of freedom, not in terms of the possible annihilation of freedom that exists in the state of nature, but rather the possible annihilation of freedom that exists in the communal and proto-political existence of the individual. In essence, Rousseau’s social contract seeks to integrate the autonomous freedom of man that is found within the state of nature with a form of political and communal life: Rousseau’s project may thus be described as an attempt to politicize the state of nature. The politicization of the state of nature thus attempts to preserve the freedom of the autonomous type that subsists in the state of nature, whilst also transforming it by introducing the collective possibilities of freedom afforded by the existence of a social contract and a political organization. The procedure of the social contract is therefore precisely the attempt to reconcile these apparently contradictory elements of a politicization of the state of nature. The result of this amalgamation is the notion of a general will and its correlates of a new form of sovereignty that does not merely refer to autonomous individuals, but to the general will itself: the radical promise of freedom of the state of nature only becomes possible within the paradigm of a politicized state of nature, insofar as only the latter may guarantee the former. Accordingly, Rousseau’s basic account of the emergence of the political is an attempt to elaborate what true freedom constitutes: the human can only fully realize his or her autonomous freedom by existing in a communal and ultimately political form.

[1] James Miller, Rousseau: Dreamer of Democracy, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984), 173.

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