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Rousseau and Social Contract

Long before Arendt, we have Jean-Jacques Rousseau attempting freedom without authority in society. Once Rousseau experienced the conversion of his soul from academies and culture to the freedom and warm sentiment of nature, in 1750, he wrote his Discourse (First Discourse), in which he tried to show that the arts and sciences were the result of human vice, not virtue, and the cause of the slippery slope in Europe toward moral decline. He developed this thought further in his second Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, where he set over and against the genuine misery of the social conditions of his day the ideal of the “nature state.”  Here the potential for people living together with the charm of nature as the central defining emblem of life compelled them to live as a free, sane, and good; in peace and solidarity, not in warlike aggression. 


 In his Social Contract, he envisions the state emerging from a hypothetical contract in which the citizens do not surrender their rights, but instead combine forces into one voluntary sovereign entity. In this romanticized fiction the people, rather than limit freedoms, allow freedom to flourish at its optimum level, they curb crime, and live for neighbor with unfeigned love.

The religious inclination of Rousseau was to see redemption, then, as a turning from culture to nature; from complex society to its original state of innocence and feeling. He posited the existence of God, but the problem is that according to him very little can be known of God. Rejecting the authority of Scripture, Rousseau argues that the Creator can only be known by observing nature and looking within one’s self. He also argues that humanity does not need the Bible, but will naturally worship the Creator, stating, “I do not need to be taught this worship; it is dictated to me by nature itself” (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile: or, On Education, ed. Alan Bloom [Basic Book, 1979], 278). 

In Rousseau’s opinion, to seek any other source than nature for how to worship God would be to seek the opinion and authority of men, which he rejected as harmful. As such, Rousseau contends that that humans are autonomous creatures, and that humanity is free to do evil, but that doing evil detracts from satisfaction with oneself. Rousseau thanks God for making him in His image so that he can be free, but it is hard to determine from Rousseau if this God” if his is not nature. Frame remarks, “. . . Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78), the father of Romanticism, thought that everything good in the world is the outworking of good feelings” [John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life (P&R Publishing), 77].

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