SOCY 151: Foundations of Modern Social Theory

Lecture 5

 - Rousseau: Popular Sovereignty and General Will


Jean-Jacques Rousseau had a colorful early life. Orphaned at ten, he moved in with a woman ten years his senior at sixteen. Their probable love affair is the subject of Stendhal’s book Le Rouge et la Noir. Rousseau was friends and sometimes enemies with many major figures in the French Enlightenment. Although he did not live to see the French Revolution, many of Rousseau’s path-breaking and controversial ideas about universal suffrage, the general will, consent of the governed, and the need for a popularly elected legislature unquestionably shaped the Revolution. The general will, the idea that the interest of the collective must sometimes have precedence over individual will, is a complex idea in social and political thought; it has proven both fruitful and dangerous. Rousseau’s ideas have been respected and used by both liberals and repressive Communist and totalitarian leaders.

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Foundations of Modern Social Theory

SOCY 151 - Lecture 5 - Rousseau: Popular Sovereignty and General Will

Chapter 1. Rousseau in a Historical Context [00:00:00]

Professor Iván Szelényi: So today is Jean Jacques Rousseau–I mean, one of the most fascinating people in terms of his life and his ideas and the way how he reasons. He is a provocative, a provocateur, and an extraordinary genius, in more than one ways. There are few people whom I disagree so strongly than in many propositions of Jean Jacques Rousseau. But there are few people who turn my mind on so much than Jean Jacques.

So who was this character? Let me just give you a very brief overview. He was born in Geneva, which was a city-state at that time–ruled by Calvin for awhile, a Calvinist stronghold. We will talk about this when it comes to Max Weber and The Protestant Ethic. Calvin ruled Geneva with an iron hand. That’s where he was born. His father was Isaac Rousseau. He was a watchmaker and a Calvinist. Well he did run into some trouble. I don’t know exactly what the trouble was. I think he was in debt, so he jumped the boat and went to Istanbul, disappeared; we don’t know much about him beyond that. So at a very early age of ten he was a kind of orphan.

Then in 1728 he moved to France. And there was a wonderful lady, about ten years his senior, Mrs. Warens, who was running a home. Anyway, so he met Mrs. Warens, who was a Roman Catholic, and her mission was to convert these Calvinists to their proper faith, Roman Catholicism– and took young boys into her home. But who knows, it looks like she had more interests in people, rather than religion. So he arrived ‘28 to Annency. Right? Age of 16, a good-looking, nice guy. Madame Warens is still a younger lady. Here you can see, you know, Madame Warens and Jean Jacques, meeting in 1728. Very romantic stuff, right? Well and here well another picture. You know?

Well I don’t blame Jean Jacques, at the age of 16, to convert to Roman Catholicism from the cold Calvinist religion, and meanwhile being a bit romantic. Right? Well Jean Jacques is one of those few people who wrote a Confession–a very funny book. He has a sense of self-irony and self-criticism. Whether this is genuine, or he thought this will be the way how to sell the book–hard to tell. But it’s worth reading. It actually was published posthumously. And he said Madame de Warens shaped his character; undoubtedly she did. And this affair–affair, who knows, but it looks like it was an affair–fascinated people later on.

I think I already cracked this joke in the introductory lecture. A wonderful French writer, Stendhal, in his superb novel, Le Rouge et la Noir, was inspired by this interesting affair–a sixteen -year -old boy and a twenty-eight-year-old woman. And, in fact, the story of Julien Sorel–it means Jean Jacques Rousseau–and Madame de Renal–de Warens–is really the core of the story. So if you have not read Le Rouge et la Noir, this is a must for an Ivy League graduate. You don’t want to get a degree from Yale not having read Stendhal, Le Rouge et la Noir. It’s, of course, in English.

But, you know, enough is enough. In ‘42, several years later, Rousseau has now bigger aims and he moves to Paris. And he becomes the secretary of Comte de Montaigue who is a French ambassador to Venice. And there are a lot of nice things–interesting things–about Rousseau, but he was not an easy guy, and somehow he always ran into trouble. So he ran into trouble in Venice, and in order to avoid arrest and trouble–I don’t know exactly what he did, probably something financially not quite correct–he had to jump and leave Venice and Comte de Montaigue.

He moves to Paris, and he knows how to find good friends. He also will know how to make great enemies from his good friends. So he meets Diderot. And we already know Diderot, and we know already Encyclopédie and the French Enlightenment. And he was asked to write an article on music for the Encyclopédie. And this is Diderot.

Okay, and then he meets Thérèse Lavasseur. He was staying in a hotel, and Thérèse Lavasseur was a maid in this hotel, and a long-lasting relationship develops between the two which–well I already told you, don’t worry if you don’t marry instantly. He was not married instantly either. It took him some time to decide that this date should actually culminate in a legal marriage. She became a companion for all of his life. Well I would not bet my life that she was, for the rest of life, the only woman in his life, but certainly she was his companion. I don’t know about her. They married in ‘68. So you can see it took some time for Rousseau to say, “Well this is something which should end up in a marriage.” And here is–okay, here you can see that, right?–Thérèse and Jean Jacques. Well I hope you don’t mind I show you these pictures; they don’t tell all that much.

Well Jean Jacques, as I said, was an extraordinary genius. He is not only a philosopher, not only a social scientist, not only a scientist–he was writing on science as well–he was an artist. And well, you know, anybody can write a novel, right? I am sure half of this class considered at one point in your life that you will write poetry or you will write a novel. Right? It’s easy; you sit down and you write a novel. My life is a novel, right? Most people say that. But Jean Jacques wrote an opera. Probably few of you considered to write an opera. Right? That needs skills. Right? And he did one, Le Devin du Village. I own a CD. It’s a wonderful opera. He’s a great composer. Right? Well that’s quite unusual. And, to make it even more interesting, he was in an intense debate–he was always in an intense debate with everybody–but he was in an intense debate with Rameau. And those of you who are a little familiar with music, you know Rameau. Rameau was the greatest French composer of the eighteenth century, and they had a big debate because Rousseau believed in the Italian opera. Right? He believed that the melody should have precedence over harmony, and Rameau wanted to create a French opera in which, you know, melody is not so important, and in fact the harmony is more important. It was a revolutionary break. Rameau paves, you know–creates a new space for the new music. In some ways he’s beginning to pave the way, what we eventually will know as modern music–an extraordinary composer. Well and Rousseau believed in bel canto, Pavarotti. I know, of course there was no Pavarotti at that time. But you know what bel canto is–Ave Maria. Right? You create a cry, you can sing it. Right? That’s what he really believed in, unlike Rameau who was much more analytical and emphasized harmony.

Interestingly, the person whom I think is the greatest composer of all history, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, loved Rousseau, and he wrote an opera what can be very rarely seen–occasionally you can catch it in the Metropolitan Opera of Arts, once in a decade–Bastien und Bastienne, which was actually inspired by Le Devin du Village. Go on, you can buy Rameau, you can buy Bastien und Bastienne, and you can buy Le Devin du Village, and you can see the differences. And he, of course, publishes a novel, Julie, or La Nouvelle Héloise, which at that time was an influential novel. I don’t think too many people read it today.

Well this is Rameau, and Rameau shadowed [correction: foreshadowed] modern music. Gluck, in particular, follows from Rameau. In fact, you know, Mozart will be changing in his lifetime. We will talk–well I thought–if there is a musician you can read a little Rameau here. Interestingly, you know, Mozart did not stick quite to the Italian opera over his life. You’ve probably heard Zauberflöte; The Magic Flute, is the first German opera. The earlier Mozart is very much Italian opera. Later in life, Mozart tried to create German opera, which has some similarities with the French music–not quite, because it’s more romantic.

Chapter 2. Major Works and Lasting Legacy [00:15:10]

Okay, he is also a philosopher, scientist, political theorist–I also would say sociologist and political scientist. The first piece of work is actually science, art, and study of society. Then in 1755, he writes a very interesting book–if you have spare time, read it–Discourse on the Origins of Inequality–Again, a very provocative book. In some ways there is some sort of Hobbesian idea behind that. He said, well it starts with love, but if you are really in love, well you tend to be jealous. Right? If you are deeply in love, passionately in love, then you don’t like that the person who is the object of your love may have a love in somebody else; then you are jealous. And the idea is–this is the origins of inequality; we are jealous, right? There is one precious good–to put it with Hobbes–we all desire, and if somebody else desires it as well, and has a shot at it, to get it, then we become jealous, right? We want to grab it, we want to monopolize it. So this is a source of inequality, right? Well an interesting idea, right? Have you ever experienced that? Did you have occasionally a little sense of jealousy in you, and thinking no, this other one should not have the one I do have? I think you probably did. I did. Okay.

And then comes the big year: ‘62. He publishes two major books in one year, two big scandals: Social Contract and Émile. And I will talk to Social Contract today, and Émile. Social Contract is really a culmination of the contractarian argument. Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau did some extraordinary important new innovations. Right? As we have seen, in the first contractarian, Hobbes had a somewhat limited idea of social contract; probably realistic but not what you necessarily like. He said a social contract is not something what you concluded with the authority, right? Social contract, what you entered by fear, and social contract which was done previously because you wanted to have a new contract is binding on you. Right? Locke tended to see a social contract as sort of between the individual and the commonwealth. This is a nice idea, that you are bound by a contract you signed. But, you know, those of you at least who were born in these United States, never signed a contract to accept the Constitution. I am a naturalized citizen. You can say I signed a contract. Right? I had to swear allegiance to the United States. At that time I was supposed to read the Constitution. I have not read it from cover to cover. But anyway, I signed a contract somewhat unseen–you know?–suspecting what the contract is I’m signing. But most of you, born in the States, never signed a contract. Right? It’s still binding on you. Right? Unless you decide to abandon the U.S. citizenship and become a citizen of North Korea. Right? Then you are bound by this social contract. So that is, you know, the difference between Hobbes and Locke, as we discussed.

Now Rousseau, as we will see, adds a new, interesting element. He said, well, it’s not quite the individuals, and he introduces the notion of general will. There is a general will which is well above the individuals–extremely important idea, has a degree of insights and realism. It’s also a very dangerous idea. Totalitarian regimes very often advocate it. General will that you–and I will quote Jean Jacques for you when he said, “the individuals will have to be forced to be free”; that follows from the idea of general will. Well he’s a complex thinker– liberal on one hand, a contractarian on the other hand, and paves the road to totalitarianism. He was loved by many liberals, and he was loved by many totalitarians–like Karl Marx loved him, like Vladimir Ilyich Lenin loved him, because of the general will. But Durkheim loved him too, and he was a liberal.

So there he is. Émile–I will talk about this. I already mentioned, any one of you, and there are probably a few people who will end up in education, you have to read this book cover to cover. This is no modern major education theory without the book Émile. This is the foundation of modern educational theory.

Okay, he had a big impact: a big impact on the American Constitution, and the French Revolution. He’s one of the path-breakers on the French Revolution. He was also the first who advocated popular sovereignty, the abolishment of the Third Estate, and creating one popularly elected body. Right? Strong conflict with Montesquieu who wanted to have two chambers, one for the aristocracy and one for the people; Rousseau wanted to have one. Universal suffrage, except for women; well he was a male chauvinist pig in one way.

Well, and as we will see, the idea of general will were picked up by the radicals of the French Revolution, the Jacobins, and was picked up by later Communists of various types, be it Leninists or Maoists. Well the general will and French radicalism led to bloodshed. Robespierre, the major disciple and believer of general will, his head was also chopped off. Well, so much about it. Now Rousseau did not live the French Revolution; his ideas did, and informed it.

He had to move in ‘62 in exile because both books created an outrage, particularly by the church. First he went back to Geneva, but figured out he doesn’t like Geneva any longer. So David Hume, the conservative philosopher who admired his work, invited him to come to England. And like with everybody else who was his friend, he had a fall-out with David Hume. He was really a difficult guy, right? This is David Hume. And therefore he left England and he returned to France–lived for a long time under an assumed name to make sure he doesn’t get into trouble. Finally, ‘68, he married Thérèse. I will talk about this, Émile. They had several children, and the greatest educational theorist who tells you how to raise children, he put all of his children in an orphanage. He was a real bastard, to put it another way. And then he was writing his Confessions, which was published posthumously, and he died in ‘78, July 2nd. So this is the author we will be discussing today, and we will also be also discussing Tuesday. And I hope I will have enough time between I get home and before the limo comes, so I can put this on the internet, so you can read this on the internet.

This is, if right, the Social Contract. Yes.

Chapter 3. The Social Contract: Major Themes [00:26:06]

Social Contract, 1782 [correction: 1762] . And I don’t know why, but I like to show you the first editions– doesn’t take me too much time to find it on the internet, but occasionally it does. Okay, so what the Social Contract is all about? Book I is a description how you move from natural right–from the state of nature–to political right. The second book is the sovereign and how the sovereign should be constructed, created. This is an issue which Locke did not pay much attention to. Right? We will see, you know, Rousseau himself likes elected, selected aristocracy, but he’s beginning to think about universal suffrage and a proper constitution of the sovereign. Then he has a big section on government, a section on ancient Rome and civil religion. I will talk–well I don’t have much time–I will try to talk about civil religion as well.

So what are the major themes? One question is what is legitimate rule? And he said rule is only legitimate when it is arrived at consent. But, he said, justice has to be diluted because general will has to prevail. I will have to talk a little about justice being diluted. The problem is there is no universal justice–what you can arrive at from the individual will. There is a general will, and a conception of the common good, and the individual– whether the individual is done justice to,–it has to be diluted, it has to be restricted by the demands of the collective will, of the collective good. Now this is a provocative statement. It certainly has a kernel of truth. It’s also a very dangerous argument because it opens up the rule for a totalitarian state, which will tell you, “Oh, you think this is your interest? What you think is your interest is not really your interest. Me, the sovereign, knows what is in your interest, and I will force you to be free. I will force you to understand what is in your interest.” That is a bit of a tricky argument which has been abused in history. That’s what the notion diluted refers to.

Now he advocates for popular sovereignty and the need for convention. Well the argument is the individual express only individual interests, and therefore the general will is not the will of–not simply the sum total of individual wills. He is a methodological collectivist, as I already pointed out. And then it comes to the lawgiver. Well it is the lawgiver who actually can inspire what he calls amour-propre. You need a lawgiver–he sees himself as a lawgiver–who actually will be able to tell you why your selfishness is no good–why the love of your country and the community is the right thing to go. Okay.

And a good government means a popularly elected legislature. And the executive is still by an aristocracy, by the wise man–that’s what he really means by aristocracy, an intellectual aristocracy who is elected. Well we have somewhat this notion, that people in government should be smart, right? And we have a bit of concern with–you know, in the past there were some presidents in the United States, some people in the United States thought they are not all that smart. Right? I don’t want to name names, but you can think probably of some–why some people thought they are a little on the dumb side. And they did not earn very much respect by those who think they are not smart. Anyway, that’s it.

Chapter 4. Book I: Legitimate Rule, Diluted Justice, Popular Sovereignty [00:31:22]

So legitimate rule. Well legitimate rule cannot be based on natural title, not aristocracy. It has to be authorized by consent. Well I’ll leave the family issue, that’s–family, he said, is the only natural society. But he said even the family does not come simply from nature. There is a social contract in the family, and in fact when you grow up–when you are not a small child anymore–then you will realize how much of a contract it is. Eventually–I hope there is nobody in this room, but I suspect there are probably a very few who at one point thought enough was enough; you know, my mother and father is really a pain, and therefore I don’t want to do much with them–will break the contract, right? It does happen to some people in their life. As a father, I hope it would never happen, but unfortunately it occasionally does.

When people are teenagers, that’s when you’re beginning to think about the natural right of the family as a contract, and you’re beginning to enter–or some people begin to enter–some kind of a new relationship in the parents and try to convert the natural dependence on parents on a contractual relationship saying, “Well how come? What do you mean I have to be back home by eleven p.m.?” Right? You remember that? Anybody ever questioned that? Right? Tried to negotiate it out. “Oh not eleven.” You want it to be one a.m. Right? “I am already sixteen or seventeen.” You know? That’s when you are converting natural right.

Okay, now there is a transition from state of nature to the nature of civil society. Right? Well there is the transition from the state of nature to civil society is necessary–this is a remarkable change, right?–where you substitute justice for instinct of contact–with morality which was lacking previously in the state of nature. And in civil society, you know, we deprive ourselves from some of the advantages, what we enjoyed in the state of nature. Nevertheless, this is a great progress, what has to be taken on. We will see this also in Émile.

Well, the second theme is about the question of diluted justice. And he said, you know, the order to admit justice among us has to be diluted. And diluted means, you know, our individual sense of justice has to be overruled by the general will. And a sovereign needs no guarantor, and the individuals will have to be constrained; otherwise we are in trouble.

And here is the argument why the individual will have to be constrained. Individuals cannot just follow their self-interests, because the general will have to prevail. The common good has to overrule the selfish individual interests–a very different type of argument from the British liberals. Then he argues for popular sovereignty, and he prefers to do so. And this is his single most important contribution. This has to be based on a convention, and a convention has to be arrived at by the rule of the majority.

There must be an assembly of people and–this is also a very radical, controversial argument–that they must pool the resources. It is almost a Communist idea of having common property of major resources–a very problematic argument. And he also makes this interesting claim that in the state of nature we are not equal–that’s a very different view from Hobbes–but we are being made equal by convention, what we do with each other. And the problem is this is really–does it lead to totalitarianism? He’s also advocating for public possessions as a superior form of possession–state possession over resources. A very problematic argument–again paves the foundation towards Marxism and Communist ideologies. And well many of the–you know, all the citations will be on the internet. So you can read it much more carefully than you can do it now.

Chapter 5. Book II: General Will, Law and the Lawgivers [00:37:43]

Well then we arrive at the idea of the general will. Individual–if this is something, you believe in Adam Smith or you believe in Locke, you will be very disturbed–individuals express only private interest. So there must be a public interest. And the general will is sort of–it’s unclear where it is coming from, but it is certainly coming over and above the individuals. And this is the general will, which is represented in what we call the commonwealth. The federal authority, the federal interest expresses the general will. It is not the will of all. It is the will which serves the interests of everybody, rather than the view of everybody. Well, as I said, you know, there is an element of truth to it. In discussion sections we can talk about this. The class will be divided whether this is acceptable or not. But those of you who believe in methodological collectivism will have to take very seriously the idea of general will.

And now comes the question of the lawgivers, and this is a very important argument. Well we are only free when we obey the law. Right? That freedom is under self-imposed law. Hegel said that freedom is–you are free when you recognize necessity, and therefore you will have to go by the law. And this will inspire amour-propre, the love of the country, rather than amour de soi, which is self-love. He makes this distinction where–I’m afraid I will have to come back to this Tuesday; I will have to leave it now–the distinction between amour-propre and amour de soi is a very important distinction, and I’ll have to elaborate on this Tuesday. So I will come back to Social Contract, before we go on to Émile.

[end of transcript]

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