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Rousseau: the Politics of Revolution

September 18, 2022

The influence of Jean‑Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) upon the great political events of the eighteenth century, especially the American and French Revolutions, should not be underestimated. His concepts inspired such democratic activists as James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Robespierre, and Saint‑Just. Nevertheless, there is cause to consider carefully what Rousseau has to say, independent of his direct historical influence, because Rousseau presents problems of interpretation which political theorists have yet to resolve. He should be appreciated for his originality, and especially for his ability to persuade his listener. What is this new element?

The purpose of the Social Contract (1762) is stated in the first paragraph of Chapter One.

Man was born free but is everywhere in bondage. This or that man believes himself the master of his fellow men but is nevertheless more of a slave than they. How did this change from freedom into bondage come about? I do not know. Under what conditions can it be rendered legitimate? This problem I believe I can solve.

In this passage, Rousseau is speaking about political order, having in mind certain criteria by which that order may be considered legitimate or illegitimate. He judges that present political order of all nations is illegitimate because man, though originally born free, is everywhere enslaved.

This is a tremendous indictment of political order. It conveys a spirit which characterizes the modern world, the spirit of resentment, of injury, and rebellion. For that reason, perhaps, much of what Rousseau says is readily accepted by the modern ear.

But recall that the circumstances in which he observed that man is in bondage were not the circumstances of the contemporary world. His world was the world of benevolent despotism, of aristocratic society, where monarchy was the dominant political institution. Against this set and ordered world, Rousseau flung the charge that society so constituted had robbed man of his original, native freedom. Rousseau says, “Man was born free, but is everywhere in bondage.”

What, then, is Rousseau really trying to say?

If we reflect upon the human condition, we see that Rousseau was exaggerating. Man is not born free; he is born helpless and requires the constant attention of his parents and the constant order of society in general if he is to survive beyond those first struggling moments of life.

Rousseau’s observation is obviously metaphorical and suggestive of that pre-political condition of man which political theorists for at least one hundred years had come to recognize as the state of nature. There man was free.

Rousseau seems to be saying that the freedom which characterized man in the state of nature is something which can and must be recovered even in political society. That, of course, is the important point. Rousseau wishes to recover what was lost and restore it anew, not in the conditions in which it originally was found, but in fully developed civil society. Only if this restoration is accomplished, he thought, will political order be legitimate.

If we reflect on this statement, we perceive that the chief difference between Rousseau and the other Social Contract theorists is that Rousseau is no less than a great revolutionary thinker. Underlying his democratic ideas is the will to reconstitute society anew, a revolutionary will, which he indicates is motivated by a desire for freedom which will not hesitate to force men to be free.

To this extent Rousseau is unlike his predecessors Hobbes and Locke. To be sure, the formulations of Hobbes and Locke were uniquely modern and revolutionary in the sense of their radical reformulation of the problems of political order in the new terms of modern science. But apart from that, one would be hard put to find passages in their works which connote a will to radical revolution.

That excepted; however, we must note a few things that all three thinkers, Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, have in common.

They all talk about political order as if it were unnatural. They all speak of the state of nature.

Each finds the problems of political order and their resolution in the procedures of government.

Confronted with the substantive problems of political order, in the case of Hobbes and Locke, the English civil wars of the seventeenth century, and in Rousseau’s case his resentment that so few should have so much political power,

They all proposed the procedural remedy of the social contract.

But is the substance of order really a procedural problem, one’ which only a rearrangement, however radical, of exterior political relations will solve?

None of these great modern political thinkers addressed himself to the origin of political disorder and corruption in the human spirit and the inaccessibility of that spirit to therapy by purely political means. Ignoring the lessons of ancient Greek and Christian political theory, Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau propose a solution which emphasizes procedural means to alleviating political problems.

What is Rousseau’s prescription? An examination of four of his concepts will give us some insight.


Rousseau writes in the preface to his Second Discourse, (1756), the “Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of Inequality among Men,” that it is difficult “to know correctly a state which no longer exists, which perhaps never existed, which probably never will exist, and about which it is nevertheless necessary to have precise notions in order to judge our present state correctly.”

Here Rousseau is candidly indicating that what he will say about the state of nature is a necessary, hypothetical, but historically inaccurate means by which he will proceed. In short, Rousseau is saying that it is impossible to speak of political order without reference to nature, but that the state of nature is essentially an illusion. Rousseau writes further in the Second Discourse, for example, “Let us therefore begin by setting all the facts aside, for they do not affect the question. The research which can be undertaken concerning this subject must not be taken for historical truths, but only for hypothetical and conditional reasonings better suited to clarify the nature of things than to show their true origin, like those our physicists make everyday concerning the formation of the world.”

The state of nature, therefore, is merely a device by means of which he can engage in a critique of civil society.What is this device? What is its content?

In the First Discourse (1750), Rousseau’s “Discourse on Science and Arts,” he says that the primordial condition of man is a “lovely shore, adorned by the hands of nature alone ….”

We could let this image pass without comment, but it is too representative of its time. Nature, for Rousseau and the entire eighteenth century, was an object to which was attributed original initiative. It had ceased to be an ontological symbol transparent to the divine, as it was for Aristotle, and had become an object possessing attributes, much like our concept of “Mother Nature.”

When Rousseau speculated upon man in the state of nature, he saw him stripped bare of all social conventions. Man is taught industry by the animals which he observes and is quick to learn that he is superior to the animals and must not fear them. By becoming sociable, however, man, like the animals which are domesticated, became weak, fearful, and servile. There was no communication among men. Their only language was the cry of nature. Man was not a miserable creature in the state of nature, so what could have brought about his departure from it?

In the Social Contract, Rousseau is quite clear. In the state of nature a point is reached at which the primitive condition cannot continue, there being obstacles to the preservation of the life of each individual. If men did not change their way of life, mankind would perish. To survive, they must work together.

In his earlier discourses, however, Rousseau had painted a different picture of the transition from the state of nature to civil society.

The origin of civil society, he says, is in the invention of property. The first founder of civil society is the land owner. To be sure, there were lesser associations in the state of nature; man united with man, but he did so only for self‑interest. With the invention of property, however, the larger association of civil society was firmly established. When goods were stored up in abundance and property was introduced, when through agriculture fields were to be tended and through metallurgy iron was utilized, slavery and misery grew. Through the recognition of private property, justice was established by law. By labor, man acquired a right to what he produced. The rich, therefore, devised means by which to preserve what was uniquely their property. From this formulation of one civil society, all others followed, and thus also grew up that inequality which characterizes man’s existence in civil society.

Rousseau speculated that inequality progressed through stages: the first stage was the establishment of law and the right to property; the second stage was the establishment of the magistracy, and the third was the changing of legitimate power into arbitrary power. In each of these stages of the development of inequality there were corresponding social relations. The relationships consecutively established were those of the rich and poor, powerful and weak, and lastly, master and slave. This last stage, we must assume, was the stage in which Rousseau believed he himself existed, and the stage of inequality in which his audience lived was a new state of nature where all are equals for all are nothing.

How then do we overcome the condition of slavery, of bondage into which we have fallen quite accidentally?

Rousseau answered by turning to the social contract.


Man in the state of nature was neither good nor evil. There existed neither moral relationships, nor any known duties. In place of laws, morals, or virtue, there was only commiseration or pity. But, by coming together in a collective association and compacting to create a greater community, a collective moral body is created which “will defend and protect with all the collective might, the person and property of each associate, and in virtue of which each associate, though he becomes a member of the group, nevertheless obeys only himself, and remains as free as before.,,

But man does not really remain as free as before because he is now obliged to other men who are his fellow citizens, and to the sovereign, the General Will. Moreover, man’s freedom has changed qualitatively. Man’s actions now have a moral significance.

This is a particularly important concept. All of us are moral agents, not by virtue of our having created or given consent to the laws by which we are organized in civil society, but because our acts are intrinsically rational, that is moral acts. In this sense, a morally rational act is one which is limited not merely by our own consent, but by justice. What limits our acts and thus gives them rationality is this unchangeable ontological relationship of our acts to justice.

Rousseau, however, is saying that only we ourselves determine the morality and rationality, the limitations of our own acts, by consenting to the laws which bind us in civil society. If we do not have that opportunity, then we are not men, really, because for Rousseau, to be human means to be participants in the social contract. To be morally meaningful, our actions must be preceded by a conscious act of assent to the laws which bind us in civil society.

We must really in a sense be participants in civil society. Our contemporary notion of participatory democracy connotes some of the sense of Rousseau’s argument in the Social Contract. However, we must argue in contrast to Rousseau that we are always men, regardless of the degree to which we participate in political acts, or regardless of the perversions inflicted upon us by a political system.

Rousseau, on the contrary, is interested in making a case for the belief that unless we give our consent to the institutions by which we are governed, we are subhuman.

Rousseau’s political system places no limitations upon the sovereign, so long as the sovereign can be understood to have been created by the willful act of the citizens and serves as the representative of the General Will. The obedience to self‑imposed law, without which Rousseau is persuaded there is no morality is a step, he thinks, away from our condition of natural liberty.

But has he not in fact removed the great limitations imposed upon government by the Western philosophical tradition? Has not Rousseau indirectly, by attempting to elevate man, created what Hobbes directly sought, a political Leviathan?


At this point we must interject that Rousseau would never personally argue that the enslavement of a people was in accord with the General, the sovereign. Yet why is it that he addresses himself to those recalcitrant few who may not wish to be free in the sense in which he has defined freedom?

Whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be constrained to do so by the entire body politic, which is only another way of saying that his fellows shall force him to be free.6

Because of such passages, and the general structure of his political system, Rousseau has been called a “totalitarian democrat. “7 The name is paradoxical because a democrat is supposed to honor freedom, while a totalitarian honors it not at all. Is it fair to interpret Rousseau in this way? A tentative answer is, perhaps, visible in the outline of his concept of the General Will.

Rousseau does not tell us directly what constitutes the General Will. He indicates that the social bond is created by the overlap among different interests. But he warns us not to conclude that the General Will is the harmony of the disparate individual interests.

Rousseau specifically tells us that no particular interest, however many may share it, can be a general interest. The will of the individual “tends by its very nature toward partiality‑8 whereas the General Will tends toward equality. “A given will is either general or it is not. “

Is the General Will the will of the whole people? Yes, Rousseau would answer, but only so long as the will of the whole people is general. His argument is this: A) The General Will is always well‑intentioned; B) the people’s deliberations, however, are not always what they ought to be; C) “the will of everybody” is different from the General Will;10 D) “The people is never corrupted but is frequently misinformed.” E) A will need not be unanimous in order for it to be general; what is necessary is that every voice be taken into account.

This interesting substance which Rousseau calls the General Will is sometimes unenlightened. When it takes a particular object, for example, it ceases to be the General Will. It is but a product of the people, and the people are often misinformed. The General Will must be brought to see things as they are, for though it wills the right road, it must be shown the way. There emerges, then, the need for a legislator.

As the above summary suggests, problems confront anyone attempting to understand what Rousseau means by the General Will. The first of these is whether or not there is such a General Will. The second, how it can be actualized, is addressed by Rousseau himself in his discussion of the Legislator.

Whether or not there is such a substance as the General Will is not a simple question.

To ask whether the General Will is connotes that it possibly is not, that it is only the figment of Rousseau’s ever‑bountiful imagination.

Here the problem becomes complex because some Rousseau scholars associate the General will with the discussion of the Good or of divine nous in Classical Greek philosophy. 

But there is no ground for such confusion.

Reality for the Greek political philosophers was a hierarchy of goods which proceeded from the ultimate divine good which is beyond being. Noetic experience of this divine nous ordered man’s understanding of what is good action and became socially effective through the influence of men recognized for their noetic faculties. A constitution was better or worse to the degree that its laws manifested nous.

Rousseau, however, sees “will” as the factor which legitimizes public order. Whereas what is good is a matter of rational public debate by men who have nous, Rousseau’s concept of the General Will thrusts public debate along the lines of a search for the generality of will, which because it lacks specificity would likewise preclude the search for the good. The more removed from the specific, the historical, the concrete, the more general or abstract it becomes, the less claim to rightness does any y moral judgment have. And yet it is the moral legitimacy of a community which actualizes the General Will that gives it importance for Rousseau.

Clearly we are dealing in Rousseau with a new type of political theory, not a mere adjustment of Classical concepts to the problems of the modern era.

In his Social Contract Rousseau sets forth a totally new view of political order which rejects Classical political theory.

We have already seen indications of a revolutionary political potential in his thought, what could be called the experience of revolt, of a new view of human nature which sees man as making his own moral nature by collective action, and a new emphasis on procedures and participation in government as the means by which to resolve substantive problems of political order.

But in the concept of General Will we see a displacement of an ontologically oriented view of order which judges public policy on the basis of whether or not it serves a knowable common good or interest. Public policy analysis in the Classical tradition, which is nothing more than an ethical analysis of public action, assumes the need for governors who seek the good in community life.

Political community is something natural. That is, it is right by nature and exists not by the will of human beings but because human beings experience it as existing in tension or openness to a good beyond itself.

Rousseau, however, has argued that a community is defined only by its own self‑willing. The limits upon political community are immanent in the community.

Like Augustine’s concept of the city of man, guided only by immanent, this‑worldly ends, Rousseau’s civil society is a wholly self‑contained polity guided by immanent ends which are discoverable in the General Will, not in the structureof being, of nature, and community.

We have then a dynamic, aggressive, constantly self‑aggrandizing sense of political community, the proto‑type of the “Great Society,” but there is very little in his concept which would yield a view of the “Good Society” or the “best” political community by nature. For that reason, life in such a community is to be lived, not according to deliberation concerning what is right by nature, but by the will of a legislator.


Rousseau argued that a mind of the highest order (much like his own, we could observe) was required to discover the best laws for each nation. This mind, he said, must have an insight into every human passion, but not be affected by any. He is obviously thinking of a superhuman mind and he says as much. The Legislator must feel within himself the capacity to change human nature. “He must, in a word, initially strip each man of the resources that are his and his alone, in order to give him new resources that are foreign to his nature, and that he can utilize only with the help of others.”

The making of man into a social creature by legislation implies that man is not a political creature by nature. This assumption, of course, is the hallmark of Social Contract speculation.

The entrance into political community by the device of a social contract is meaningful only if man is not by nature a political animal. For Rousseau, nature, which had ceased to convey any political and ethical overtones, was something wholly material.

As a result, the Classical emphasis upon actualizing one’s nature or potential as a man by right action gave place to a need for a legislator who would impose that “nature,” now conceived as arbitrarily chosen patterns of behavior, on unwilling men.

In intellectual history, Rousseau’s view of the legislator is a step in a general development which begins in Renaissance Hermeticism, leads through Kant and Hegel, and culminates in Nietzsche’s concept of the superman.

Rousseau’s legislator is not really a man. Rousseau is not speaking here of the common practice of attributing fanciful dimensions to founders or great political leaders. Rousseau is actually arguing that at those great moments when political communities are formed and dynasties are created, it is not men who are necessary for the task, but god‑men. Who else can strip man of his resources and give him new ones? The problem with this view is that man, even the Legislator, is not God. And when men aspire to be gods, they destroy their humanity.

In politics, the general political consequence of the aspiration to be God is totalitarianism, because this aspiration implies the total removal of all limits to politics and the unlimited, total use of political power for the accomplishment of ends which cannot be achieved on this earth. Yet this logical inference from Rousseau’s system is in keeping with his thought. If man has no abiding nature, then man’s nature can be made in conformance with governmental standards.

For those reasons, we include Rousseau in the development of those political‑religious movements in intellectual culture, each historically receiving added inspiration from the thought of Jean‑Jacques Rousseau. Together they did more to undermine political order in the West and create the conditions for the growth of totalitarian regimes than any other.

From Rousseau’s spirit of rebellion there radiated not only the impetus to destroy God in order to emphasize the real power of man, the movement sometimes called political atheism or atheist humanism, but also the impetus to reject man’s humanity in ecstasy over an alleged divinity of man. We call this movement “Idealist Humanism.” Th


Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau advocated the necessity of a civil religion.

Their reasons were not exactly similar, but together they constitute a formidable assessment of the fragility of modern communal existence and the need for the state as the single most powerful means by which the political body coheres.

How can a community of wholly appetitive, economic men hold together, if no common bond except the social contract or passion connects them in political community? If men can no longer depend upon sacred traditions to ameliorate the contradictions of communal existence, then these sacred traditions must be fabricated anew. The civil religion of Numa, Machiavelli said, was a principal cause for the early success of the Roman republic. Hobbes, writing when the chiliasm of the Puritans was destroying England, saw hope for peace only in an omnipotent sovereign who himself stated the terms by which all citizens are to worship and beyond whose sovereignty no appeal to a higher power is allowed. Locke created a civil religion for back‑sliding Puritans composed of a primordial state of nature (Eden), disrupted by the invention of money (Satan), which compelled men to leave the state of nature (the Fall) and to find a living by the acquisition of private property (Salvation), protected by a government (Church) based on consent (Grace), and Scripture (Locke’s Second Treatise).

Rousseau, more original than Machiavelli, who saw the Church as the cause for the absence of a unified Italian state, blamed Jesus for creating those internal religious divisions which undermine the unity of the state.

Christ’s assertion of a kingdom of heaven was actually a clever device, he said, by which to assemble a spiritual kingdom here and now, thus forcing a wedge between religious and political authority. Against this disunity, Rousseau asserted the primacy of civil religion.

Civil religion is efficacious, he argued, because it sees no disjunction between positive and divine law:”” . . .  makes the fatherland the object of the citizens’ adoration, and so teaches them that service to the state and service to the state’s tutelary deity are one and the same thing.”

For Rousseau, the sovereign establishes the dogmas of civil religion.

These would not be, strictly speaking, dogmas of a religious character, but rather sentiments. . .for participation in society‑i.e., sentiments without which no man can be either a good citizen or a loyal subject.

Those who do not believe in this dogma can be banished on the grounds of a basic lack of sociability.

The primacy of unity in Rousseau’s assessment displaces the primacy of truth. The truth of the laws, their justice, is not a consideration. What is of value is its ability to contribute to social unity.

Rousseau’s civil religion, therefore, brings to the fore a central disagreement between modern and Classical political theory. The latter values political order, but only that order attuned to existence‑in‑truth. To that degree, we can say that the central focus of Classical political theory is on the identification of those goods which hold men together in political community, among which are the commonly shared experiences of justice, right, and the common good, experiences which shape community in relationship to a higher order.

Modern political theory, however, unable to accept the reality of the relationship of community to transcendent order, is nevertheless compelled to assert the primacy of autonomous unity made possible by civil religion transparent only to the immediate needs of maintaining the communal bond.

We call such a conception of political community the assertion of political existence in‑untruth. Modern political theory, seeking the immediate benefits of autonomous community, whether a unified Italian state, the secularized and thus peaceful England of Hobbes and Locke, or the participatory democracy of Rousseau, has consciously rejected the search for political order attuned to the order of being. For that reason, Modern political theory itself has been a principal contributor to the decline of political philosophy.

Political theory, in the strict sense as symbolization of existence‑in‑truth, is inclusive of all aspects of existence. Society is not autonomous, self‑willed, nor composed of wholly autonomous men. It exists in relation to higher order and is better or worse to the degree that citizens and laws are attuned to transcendent reality. The creators of modern civil religion, however, unable or unwilling to give credence to the experience of order as the mode of openness to divine reality, substitute the symbols of philosophic openness with instruments wholly immanent in orientation.

Natural law becomes law of nature; right by nature becomes natural right; history becomes historicism; action, behavior; sacred tradition becomes civil religion; and the common good becomes the General Will. The decline of political order in civil society today is an aspect of this transposition of philosophic symbols and secular ones.

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