Philosophy 101 October 13, 2003
Hobbes and Rousseau: Views of Social Freedom
Both Hobbes and Rousseau claim that entering into society requires us to give up important kinds of freedom. However, Rousseau values the lost freedoms much more than Hobbes, because he holds life in a “state of nature” to be a much more desirable existence than does Hobbes. Both agree that present-day humans must live in some sort of society to achieve the best lives for themselves, but Hobbes envisions an authoritarian society, while Rousseau’s ideal society relies on the will of the people to direct it. Thus, their conceptions of the freedoms thereby gained and lost present a striking comparison.
In Hobbes’ view, a civil society must be ruled by an all-powerful sovereign, who will keep all his subjects in fear.1 He claims that in a state of nature, each person acts only for personal gain, so no one has any reason to obey another. In such a state, there is no conception of justice, nor of keeping the covenants that people make with others (L, 108). Instating a sovereign whom everyone fears and obeys absolutely is the only way to ensure that people keep their covenants and maintain a state of order and propriety. Therefore, Hobbes insists that people must give up their right of governing themselves to the sovereign, and authorize all of the sovereign’s actions unconditionally, if they want to enter into a society. The freedom to govern oneself is important, because it is the right to determine all the actions one will take and make all one’s own decisions. However, Hobbes believes that the freedoms thus gained are worth even more, because one thereby ensures that the sovereign will have supreme power (L, 142).
We give up the freedom to govern ourselves in exchange for the protections that the sovereign can give us. Because the sovereign is all-powerful, he protects his subjects from the attacks of outside forces (L, 179). Therefore, one of the most important freedoms we gain under a sovereign is peace. Sovereigns keep us out of the perpetual state of war that Hobbes believes characterizes the state of nature (L, 139). In the state of nature, men live in constant fear because each person is constantly fighting against every other, so people never have a moment of ease in which to pursue their aims in life (L, 107). The sovereign keeps us out of this state of war, so that we can live in peace and pursue cultural endeavors.
In giving our up our right to self-government, we also gain the freedoms of justice and propriety (L, 120). In a state of nature, people can be wronged both by outside forces and by those with whom they form contracts and those around them (L, 110). If two people form a covenant for exchange of goods and services, the sovereign’s power ensures that both parties will keep their covenants: a condition Hobbes calls justice (L, 122). Similarly, the sovereign provides a state of propriety by protecting his subjects’ property: if someone tries to steal another’s property, the society’s laws allow the sovereign to punish him (L, 120).
Subjects of Hobbes’ society give all their rights of governing to the sovereign, but the sovereign’s only power lies in the laws of the society. The sovereign can only compel a citizen to obey him if the citizen’s action is specifically prohibited in the sovereign’s laws. This checks the sovereign’s power to a reasonable level; he has absolute power to enforce the laws, but the full extent of his power is contained within those laws. Therefore, subjects can perform any action about which a law has not been written, allowing them a certain extent of liberty (L, 178).
Liberty takes a very different form for Rousseau. He believes that people lose many important freedoms when they leave the state of nature to enter into a society, since the “natural man” enjoys the ideal state of being for humans. When we enter into society, we lose the physical freedoms that the natural man enjoys, such as strength, cunning, and very sensitive vision and hearing—but also the satisfaction with life as it is and the strength that comes from being one’s own master.2 Social beings are subjected to physical suffering because their excessive reliance on luxury leads to disease (SC: 56, 59). In society, people also suffer from evils of our their own creation, such as the moral and political inequalities that society ushers in, social philosophies that occlude our natural compassion for our fellow creatures, and the concepts of revenge, jealousy, and slavery (SC: 118, 49, 75, 76, 78, 81).
With this view in mind, it is clear why Rousseay is nostalgic for life in the state of nature. However, because we have lived in society for so long, we have been corrupted and are so reliant on comforts that we must live in society: We cannot return to the state of nature (SC, 125). Thus, Rousseau envisions a society with enough freedoms that people would actually benefit from entering into it.
Similarly to Hobbes, Rousseau values protection of property, social order, and peace, and he believes that justice can only exist in a social context (SC: 196, 182, 195). Yet Rousseau’s conception of social order differs greatly from that of Hobbes: Rather than insisting that people give up their right to govern themselves, he founds his society on the belief that it is best governed by the general will of the people (SC, 192). By relinquishing the freedoms of the natural man in order to enter into society, we gain the freedom to decide what is best both for ourselves and for the whole society.
Rousseau argues that if citizens vote on what they believe is best for the common good, the outcome of votes will be the general will of the citizens, which will always reflect what is best for the society. The legislation voted into law will be what is best for the majority of citizens, and those who voted against ultimately successful legislation will realize that they were mistaken as to what was best for the community (SC, 275). Such a system will ensure that every member of the society stands behind its laws, and that members of the community will uphold its laws against those who act against them.
This system provides citizens with a social order that cannot be achieved in nature (SC, 182). It also provides for a system of justice and standards of morality to which each member of the society holds every other. These systems provide a philosophical framework for citizens to develop their psychological faculties: their higher level of interaction with others allows them to develop more sensitive feelings, more complex ideas, and a soul, whereas their natural forbearers were akin to animals in these respects (SC, 195). These new capacities are immensely beneficial for the minds of the citizens in society.
A society founded on a belief in the general will provides its citizens with an amount of liberty that would put Hobbes’ view of that concept to shame. Laws, rather than being unilaterally enforced by one man, are conceived and enforced by the general will of society. New laws are generally conceived by mutual agreement; when one person suggests it, others have already seen the need for such legislation, and it is easily voted into law (SC, 274). Enforcement of the society’s laws depends not on a higher power, but on each individual citizen, because the power of the society lies in the combination of all the individual powers in common under the general will (SC, 192). Therefore, as in Hobbes’ society, the social structure guarantees citizens’ civil and moral liberties, as well as proprietorship of their possessions, since it ensures that people will keep their covenants.
Rousseau’s view is more realistic because it takes an optimistic perspective on the natural state of man, and acknowledges that we give up many precious freedoms when we enter into a social framework. He also provides a more compelling system of government than does Hobbes, by convincing people that it would benefit them to enter into the society, rather than claiming that his is the only way to form a society, as Hobbes asserts. Where Hobbes’ society focuses on preserving property and protection from attackers, Rousseau concentrates more on the benefits that society can confer to its citizens by giving them the power to make decisions (SC, 191).
The most important kind of freedom, in my mind, is the ability to make my own decisions and feel that I am directing the course of my life. Rousseau claims that we give this up when we leave the state of nature, because we lose the ability to be our own master (SC, 72). Therefore, one of the most important aims of society should be to preserve this ability for its citizens to the greatest possible extent. Small societies accomplish this goal to a greater extent than do large societies, simply because of the number of citizens involved. Rousseau accepts this size criterion for an ideal community and accordingly bases his conception on Greek city-states and rural villages, where individuals can be very involved in their society.3
I can be very involved in my own small society: Williams College. College life allows students a great deal of latitude in the exercise of the freedom to make decisions, because students can do whatever they choose at all times and are seldom, if ever, required to attend any given event. Additionally, the College provides many opportunities for students to affect the community, by participating in student government or by becoming involved in campus organizations. In the larger society of the United States, I have a similar amount of freedom: government officials seldom, if ever, come in contact with me since I am just one of millions of citizens in this country. However, I have much less opportunity to direct the course of this larger society, because I must convince an overwhelming number of others of my views before they will elect me to a position of any power. It is important to note that in both the College and the national societies, there are checks on my freedom to injure others, yet my natural compassion for others ensures that I would not choose to make such choices even if the laws did not exist, so these restraints do not significantly affect my level of personal liberty.
Rousseau envisions a community in which citizens could have liberty to direct their individual lives, and could also have a significant impact on the life of the society as a whole. His method of voting on society’s best interest leaves open the possibility that the majority is wrong, without providing any recourse of action for the minority (CS, 203). However, he is optimistic about human nature, and believes in compassion as an essential human virtue (CS, 73). Therefore, the majority has compassion for the condition of the minority, and the result of voting would always tend to reflect the common will: the best course of action for the society as a whole (CS, 204).
Hobbes’ philosophical writings provide a radical view, both of the state of nature and of the nature of society. However, he presents an overly pessimistic view of humans in the state of nature and thus does not adequately value the freedoms people must give up when they enter into a society. He does not believe that people give up freedoms when they enter society, so he does not provide them with freedoms to compensate for their loss, thus envisioning a cold, confrontational society. Rousseau finds that Hobbes’ reasoning about the condition of humans in a state of nature fails to consider human compassion, and accordingly takes a much more optimistic view of that state (CS, 72). He values the freedoms that people lose when entering society, and thus his view of an ideal society is much more appealing: one that a majority of people would be pleased to join.
1 Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, p. 142. Subsequent references are abbreviated as “L” and indicate page number.
2 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract and Discourses. London: J.M. Dent. 2002. pp. 53, 58, 70, 72. Subsequent references are cited parenthetically and use the abbreviation “SC” and the page number.
3 Class discussion, October 6, 2003.