Jean-Jacques Rousseau was one of the prominent figures who spearheaded the Enlightenment Movement in the 18th century. His influence was not only felt in his native France but across Europe. The leaders of the French Revolution got inspiration from his philosophical ideologies. His first ever major philosophical writing A Discourse on the Science and Arts brought him fame and recognition from both critics and admirers. His second work The Discourse on the Origin of Inequality further solidified his reputation as an important philosophical figure. Even though Rousseau identified as a philosopher, he did not have much love for his colleagues and viewed them in a negative light. He saw philosophers as people who encouraged tyranny. In spite of this contradiction, Rousseau has been acknowledged for his influence on thinkers who came after him. We shall take a look at the beliefs of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in this article:
Man should understand the state of nature
In trying to define man’s state of nature, Rousseau did away with the thoughts that had existed for centuries. These ideas claimed that man was naturally a savage and lived brutally. Rousseau disagreed with this school of thought and gave a more positive view. He described the state of nature as a place where humans lived peacefully with one another. Also, the humans at the time had total freedom to do whatsoever they want without fear or reprimand. However, Rousseau admits that in this situation humans had not discovered the concept of morality or rationality. Even though man can never go back to that state, he believed that it is necessary for everyone to understand it.
Freedom is necessary
Rousseau devoted a huge chunk of space talking about freedom in his works. His purpose was to make man see how he has been blessed with more freedom than other species. He gave reasons for the total freedom enjoyed by humans. Firstly, man is free physically because he is not dominated or restricted by his fellow men. Secondly, man is spiritually and psychologically free because he is not addicted to the artificial needs that are found in the modern world.
Rousseau believed that the most fundamental objective of every good government is to ensure the freedom of its citizens. In his work The Social Contract, he tried to recreate a model of such a government. He, however, acknowledged that people could never be completely free in the modern world as long as there laws and property. Nevertheless, he believed that there are certain principles government could enact that can give the citizenry a level of freedom that is almost equal to that enjoyed in the state of nature. He spent the majority of his writings explaining these principles, and he also gave guides on how they could be implemented in a modern society.
Inequality is not natural
Rousseau actively tried to find out why inequality exists among humans. He also wanted to show that humans are all equal. He began his analysis to prove that many of the types of inequality practiced in society are not natural. And since they are unnatural, they can be eliminated from society. This line of thought formed the basis for his work The Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. To Rousseau, inequality does not exist in nature. As a matter of fact, physical inequality among men was the only type of natural inequality. And it was based on the ability of the men involved to provide for their selves and families. Rousseau attributed the cause of all inequalities in society to the discrimination and exploitation practiced by a select group of people on others. In his work, Rousseau suggested ways a good government can identify and eradicate them from society.
Needs can be dangerous
While comparing the state of nature with the modern world, Rousseau identified human need as an underlying factor for the difference between them. Rousseau believed needs originated from human passions and desires. During the pre-modern era, humans were only concerned with necessities that could aid their survival and help them reproduce. But in the modern world, human needs increased from the simple things required for survival to include things that were of no value such as entertainment, toys and luxury items. Rousseau believed that in the future, these needs would become essential to human life. And due to the increasing pleasures gained from them, humans will eventually become addicted to acquiring these needs. Rousseau saw these non-essential items as the foundation of inequalities in modern society. He warned that in the quest to obtain these needs, humans will subject themselves to domination and oppression by others.
The principle of the general will
This principle was one of the difficult concepts in Rousseau philosophy. Rousseau defined the general will as the will of the entire citizenry in a country that sets out to achieve a common good. He saw the law as the most perfect example of what a general will should be. He believed that the laws of a nation should be the collective desire of the citizens. He also argued that for it to function effectively, the law must be applied to everyone without discrimination. He encouraged the enactment of laws as he believed that their existence would ensure that the rights of citizens are protected.
Modern society is not authentic
While trying to investigate how life in our present society relates to the state of nature, Rousseau declared that today’s society lived an inauthentic life. In the state of nature, man lived without judgments and rarely interacted with other humans. The reverse is the case in modern society as man must appear in a way to attract attention from his fellow men. Also, the pursuit of needs makes it difficult for humans to deal with each other truthfully. In a bid to realize their needs, humans always end up deceiving and outsmarting each other. Furthermore, because modern society constructs itself around these artificial needs, it accounts for the lack of trust among humans today.
We have presented in this article some of Rousseau’s belief which solidified his status as one of the most influential philosophers of all time. He advocated for freedom, warned against inequality, discouraged unnecessary pursuits of needs and condemned the deception in modern society. Finally, his contributions to the development of the modern educational and political philosophy are still evident in our world today.
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