(June 28, 1712 - July 2, 1778)
Theory of Natural Man
“ The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said "This is mine," and found people naive enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody. ”
— Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, 1754
Criticisms of Rousseau
The first to criticize Rousseau were his fellow Philosophes, above all Voltaire. According to Jacques Barzun:
Voltaire, who had felt annoyed by the first essay [On the Arts and Sciences], was outraged the second, [Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Among Men], declaring that Rousseau wanted us to “walk on all fours” like animals and behave like savages, believing them creatures of perfection. From these interpretations, plausible but inexact, spring the clichés Noble Savage and Back to Nature.
Barzun states that, contrary to myth, Rousseau was no primitivist, for him:
The model man is the independent farmer, free of superiors and self-governing. This was cause enough for the philosophes hatred of their former friend. Rousseau’s unforgivable crime was his rejection of the graces and luxuries of civilized existence. Voltaire had sung “The superfluous, that most necessary thing." For the high bourgeois standard of living Rousseau would substitute the middling peasant’s. It was the country versus the city – an exasperating idea for them, as was the amazing fact that every new work of Rousseau’s was a huge success, whether the subject was politics, theater, education, religion, or a novel about love.”
The general will (volonté générale), made famous by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, is a concept in political philosophy referring to the desire or interest of a people as a whole, or, As used by Rousseau, the "general will" is identical to the rule of law, and to Spinoza's mens una.
The notion of the general will is wholly central to Rousseau's theory of political legitimacy . . . . It is, however, an unfortunately obscure and controversial notion. Some commentators see it as no more than the dictatorship of the proletariat or the tyranny of the urban poor (such as may perhaps be seen in the French Revolution). Such was not Rousseau's meaning. This is clear from the Discourse on Political Economy, where Rousseau emphasizes that the general will exists to protect individuals against the mass, not to require them to be sacrificed to it. He is, of course, sharply aware that men have selfish and sectional interests which will lead them to try to oppress others. It is for this reason that loyalty to the good of all alike must be a supreme (although not exclusive) commitment by everyone, not only if a truly general will is to be heeded but also if it is to be formulated successfully in the first place".
The phrase, "general will" as Rousseau intended it, occurs in Article Six of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (French: Déclaration des droits de l'Homme et du citoyen), composed in 1789 during the French Revolution:
The law is the expression of the general will. All citizens have the right to contribute personally, or through their representatives, to its formation. It must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal in its eyes, are equally admissible to all public dignities, positions, and employments, according to their capacities, an without any other distinction than that of their virtues and their talents.
Rousseau's idea of the volonté générale ("general will") was not original with him but rather belonged to a well-established technical vocabulary of juridical and theological writings in use at the time. The phrase was used by Diderot and also by Montesquieu (and by his teacher, the Oratorian friar Malebranche). It served to designate the common interest embodied in legal tradition, as distinct from and transcending people's private and particular interests at any particular time. The concept was also an important aspect of the more radical seventeenth century republican tradition of Spinoza, from whom Rousseau differed in important respects, but not in his insistence on the importance of equality. This emphasis on equality is Rousseau's most important and consequential legacy, causing him to be both reviled and applauded:
While Rousseau's notion of the progressive moral degeneration of mankind from the moment civil society established itself diverges markedly from Spinoza's claim that human nature is always and everywhere the same . . . for both philosophers the pristine equality of the state of nature is our ultimate goal and criterion . . . in shaping the "common good", volonté générale, or Spinoza's mens una, which alone can ensure stability and political salvation. Without the supreme criterion of equality, the general will would indeed be meaningless. .. . When in the depths of the French Revolution the Jacobin clubs all over France regularly deployed Rousseau when demanding radical reforms. and especially anything -- such as land redistribution -- designed to enhance equality, they were at the same time, albeit unconsciously, invoking a radical tradition which reached back to the late seventeenth century.
The cult that grew up around Rousseau after his death, and particularly the radicalized versions of Rousseau's ideas that were adopted by Robespierre and Saint Just during the Reign of Terror, caused him to become identified with the most extreme aspects of the French Revolution. The revolutionaries were also inspired by Rousseau to introduce Deism as the new official civil religion of France, scandalizing traditionalists:
Ceremonial and symbolic occurrences of the more radical phases of the Revolution invoked Rousseau and his core ideas. Thus the ceremony held at the site of the demolished Bastille, organized by the foremost artistic director of the Revolution, Jacques-Louis David, in August 1793 to mark the inauguration of the new republican constitution, an event coming shortly after the final abolition of all forms of feudal privilege, featured a cantata based on Rousseau's democratic pantheistic deism as expounded in the celebrated "Profession de foi d'un vicaire savoyard" in Book four of Émile.