Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Rousseau and Freedom

[The following is an essay I wrote last year for PHIL 239: History of Political Thought.]

In what respects could a Rousseauian citizen be said to truly be free?

The “fundamental problem” explored by Rousseau’s political theory is to devise social and political institutions such that “each [citizen], uniting with all, nevertheless obeys only himself, and remains as free as before”.[1] It is not immediately clear whether his theory achieves this goal. Indeed, at times Rousseau sounds distinctly totalitarian, demanding the “total alienation” of all an individual’s rights to the community, and asserting that uncooperative citizens “shall be forced to be free”.[2] However, further examination – and sympathetic interpretation – of Rousseau, reveal insights into the necessary political conditions for such social and yet individual creatures as ourselves to realize genuine freedom.

Rousseau distinguished between various types of freedom. The most basic sort is the natural liberty that abounds in the state of nature: a man’s “unlimited right to anything which tempts him and which he is able to attain”.[3] This negative conception of freedom captures our pre-philosophical intuitions of freedom as mere absence of constraint. Any political institutions will necessary encroach upon an individual’s freedom in this sense. Rousseau is quite happy to admit that we give up our natural freedom in joining the social contract. What we gain by doing so is civil liberty – the security of having our (remaining) rights defended by the entire community. ‘Natural’ rights, lacking such security, are practically worthless by comparison. As Hobbes put it, “the effects of this right are the same, almost, as if there had been no right at all. For although any man may say of every thing, this is mine, yet he could not enjoy it, by reason of his neighbour, who having equal right and equal power, would pretend the same thing to be his.”[4]

Rousseau then identifies moral liberty as a form of positive freedom, whereby one’s actions conform to one’s own true will: “for the impulsion of mere appetite is slavery, and obedience to the law one prescribes to oneself is freedom”.[5] Moral freedom would thus be realized if each individual has himself willed the laws of his polity. This might be achieved through the general will – a central concept of Rousseau’s philosophy. Just as a single person plays many different roles in life, and has a different set of interests with respect to each role, he similarly can have a distinct will corresponding to these different roles and interests. Rousseau identifies our general will as that which we will in our role as a citizen, according to the common interests of our society.[6] This is both a part of each individual’s own will, and yet shared by every other member of the society, since the interests in question are common to them all. Any law enacted according to this general will, will thus be a law prescribed by (a part of) the will of each individual. So, the argument goes, to constrain a person to follow the law, can be understood as forcing him to be free.

This sort of justification strikes us as rather implausible, however, for it simply ignores an individual’s particular will and self-interests – which we expect to greatly outweigh his interest in the general will. The above argument requires that citizens have such a strong civic feeling and homogeneity of purpose that their common interests align with, and perhaps even outweigh, their particular (self) interests. Only then could an individual truly embrace the general will.[7] Failing that, he does not truly affirm the laws he is forced to live by, and so does not attain genuine moral freedom.

Rousseau apparently recognised this problem, for he outlined a political programme to effect dramatic cultural change, or ‘denaturing’, so that “each Citizen is nothing, and can be nothing, except in combination with all others”.[8] But most of Rousseau’s thought is not so extreme as that passage would suggest. It would be a mistake to interpret Rousseau as destroying all individuality, for he explicitly recognises that individuals have a sphere of private interests which complement their public role as citizens,[9] and laments the modern loss of individuality in “this herd called society”.[10]

The problem, as Rousseau saw it, was that the required degree of social cohesion could not, in practice, be achieved merely through appeal to rational self-interest. His solution was the cultural programme: promoting patriotism and civic feeling through the power of irrational influences such as symbolism, music, ceremony and religion.[11] Before denouncing this programme as manipulative and inimical to freedom, one must recognise that it was “simply one form of socialization over the others that have prevailed”.[12] The programme sought not to strip citizens of their individuality, but rather to invest them with a civil spirit strong enough to bind a society of individuals together into a genuine community.

An aspect of this community which modern readers may find particularly disturbing is Rousseau’s compulsory ‘civil religion’, and particularly his prescription of the death penalty for religious hypocrisy.[13] But discarding this unacceptably bloodthirsty oddity,[14] much of Rousseau’s remaining thought here is remarkably liberal and tolerant. The so-called ‘civil religion’ which all must espouse is not so much a religion itself, as list of pragmatically inspired requirements that any socially-acceptable belief system must meet. The liberality at the core of Rousseau’s thought is evidenced by his insistence that “one should tolerate all those [religions] which tolerate the others, so far as their dogmas have nothing contrary to the duties of the Citizen”.[15]

Rousseau did suggest some additional positive requirements, such as belief in a benevolent deity, but all such suggestions were made for purely practical reasons. Rousseau explicitly states that the articles of the civil religion are “not…dogmas of religion, but…sentiments of sociability, without which it is impossible to be a good Citizen”, going on to say that those who refuse to accept the tenets should be banished, “not as impious, but as unsociable”.[16] So although Rousseau (like his contemporaries) believed those tenets necessary for social cohesion, his wider argument would allow for their exception, should his empirical belief about their social utility prove misguided.[17] Thus, despite initial appearances, Rousseau’s theory should actually entail significant religious freedom.

Even supposing that we accept the cultural programme for the sake of strengthening the general will, moral freedom is not yet assured. It might be objected that the aristocratic government Rousseau advocates is antithetical to moral freedom, which requires that people are the rulers of themselves. As a purely theoretical point, such an objection would be mistaken. Rousseau distinguishes between government and sovereign, insisting on the supremacy of the latter.[18] The people are the legislators, and their sovereignty is inalienable.[19] Their role is to draw up those general laws by which the society is to function. The government magistrates, by contrast, are simply there to apply these general laws to “particular acts”.[20] In practice, a corrupt magistrate might use his powers for his own – rather than society’s – ends.[21] But at least in theory, it truly is the Rousseauian citizens who decide the laws of their own society.

Focussing on the individual as an active citizen rather than passive subject leads to an alternative understanding of freedom in the Rousseauian society. Rousseau’s conception of moral freedom could perhaps be seen as similar to Benjamin Constant’s description of “the liberty of the ancients, which consisted in an active and constant participation in collective power”.[22] Such freedom would be a necessary consequence of the general will existing only in the present – an analysis which is strongly supported by a passage from Rousseau’s Geneva Manuscript (the first version of The Social Contract):

[I]t is contrary to the nature of will, which has no dominion over itself, to engage itself for the future. One can obligate oneself to do, but not to will; and there is a great difference between executing what one has promised, because one has promised it, and continuing to will it, even when one has not previously promised to do so. Today’s law should not be an act of yesterday’s general will, but of today’s, and we have engaged ourselves not to do what everyone has willed, but what everyone now wills… (Geneva Manuscript, II,ii,10, emphasis added).[23]

This is the basis of Affeldt’s interpretation of Rousseau’s moral freedom as continuous political participation. He argues that blind obedience to established law, far from being an obligation of the social contract, is actually an evasion of one’s duties as a citizen.[24] Rousseau stated that law “is only the declaration of the general will”,[25] so genuine law can be no more established than the will within which it consists. To treat the laws of the past as set in stone, is to dissolve the general will of the present. Thus the central duty of a citizen is not to obey established laws, but rather, to “participate in the continuous constitution of a general will”.[26] As Pericles put it millennia ago, “we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.”[27]

These considerations lead to a much more liberal interpretation of Rousseau’s phrase ‘forced to be free’ – for coercive power is “perfectly powerless” to replace submissive or compliant attitudes with genuine political participation.[28] Instead, Affeldt envisages a sort of philosophical force[29] which compels us through eliciting “attraction or desire… for the currently unrealized state of ourselves”[30] – that is, our desire to attain genuine moral freedom. We are reluctant to acknowledge our current servitude, so it is up to our fellow citizens to persist in their efforts to teach us the truth. Once we see it, our own desire for freedom will compel us to act in such a way as to achieve it. Hence, according to Affeldt’s evangelical-democratic reading of Rousseau, “what forces us to be free is just… the power of freedom itself”.[31]

Thus far, we have examined conceptions of liberty whereby freedom is embodied by the general will. However, Rousseau is also concerned with types of freedom which result from the general will. Immediately subsequent to his ‘forced to be free’ phrase is the following appeal to external justification: “for such is the condition which, giving each Citizen to his Fatherland, guarantees him against all personal dependence”.[32] Psychological and economic dependencies are particularly relevant here.

Central to Rousseau’s psychological theory is his distinction between two forms of self-regard – amour de soi, and amour propre:

Love of self [amour de soi] is a natural feeling which leads every animal to look to its own preservation, and which, guided in man by reason and modified by compassion, creates humanity and virtue. Amour-propre is a purely relative and factitious feeling, which arises in the state of society, leads each individual to make more of himself than of any other, causes all the mutual damage men inflict one on another, and is the real source of the ‘sense of honour’.[33]

Hiley’s interpretation of freedom-as-independence focuses on this distinction. He characterises amour de soi as authentic self-regard, in contrast to the artificial social-regard of amour propre. The latter causes us to become dependent on others for our self-esteem, leading Hiley to conclude that “the person motivated by amour propre is enslaved by the opinions of others”.[34] He argues that this result implies the necessity of a positive conception of freedom, because mere non-interference is insufficient to guarantee citizens will attain the authentic self-regard of amour de soi.[35]

It is less than clear how Rousseau’s society is supposed to achieve any better, however. Hiley notes that our capacity for pity and sympathy can help moderate amour propre.[36] Perhaps we could argue from this, and the psychological fact that we tend to be more sympathetic towards those who are similar to us, that the social equality and homogeneity of purpose in Rousseau’s society would help inhibit amour propre. At the very least, the social contract provides individuals with a formal equality of respect, allowing them to develop a sense of themselves as citizens equal to any another in the eyes of the society at large.[37] They can thus partially satisfy their drive for amour propre, without becoming psychologically dependent on particular others for this sense of worth. So although amour propre may be ultimately ineliminable, Rousseau’s theory at least offers to moderate it somewhat, and so allow us a greater degree of “moral freedom”.[38]

What Hiley here identifies as positive moral freedom, could perhaps be better characterized in a negative sense. In his Letters from the Mountain, Rousseau wrote: “Liberty consists less in doing one’s will than in not being subject to that of another”.[39] Neuhouser takes this approach, viewing the previously discussed psychological freedom to be a part of civil freedom, broadly understood as relief from personal dependence. It would be a mistake to conflate freedom with total independence, for dependence is a fundamental feature of human existence. As Rousseau recognised, the perfectly independent beings of his original state of nature were not human beings.[40]

The crucial task of Rousseau’s social contract is thus not to secure us pure independence, but rather, to find a form of association wherein our mutual interdependence is compatible with freedom. For Rousseau, the only way to achieve this was to transform our social dependency from resting on individuals, to instead rest on the community as a whole, “so that each Citizen should be in a perfect independence of all the others, and in an excessive dependence on the City… because only the force of the State secures the liberty of its members”.[41] Neuhouser argues that this is best understood in terms of social institutions and laws which mediate our irreplaceably personal relations of dependence, in order to make them “less injurious to freedom”.[42]

Perhaps the most obvious form of dependence in need of relief is the economic dependency which can arise out of severe wealth inequalities. To overcome this, Rousseau recommends that “no citizen should be so opulent as to be able to buy another, and none so poor as to be constrained to sell himself”.[43] Of course, there remains a broad economic interdependency within society, due to the material division of labour. But the crucial change is the alleviation of personal dependency. General equality of wealth will help to prevent situations whereby those less well-off must submit to the will of (richer) others in order to satisfy their material needs.[44]

This focus on personal dependency requires justification. Prima facie, there may appear no relevant difference between being constrained by individuals and being constrained by collective law. Either way, we might complain, we are being equally constrained and so must be equally unfree. Rousseau anticipates this complaint in an unpublished fragment, which refers back to the previously discussed matter of moral freedom, but also engages the present issue of equality:

One is free, although subject to laws, and not when one obeys a man, because in the latter case I obey the will of another but in obeying the Law I only obey the public will which is as much mine as it is anyone else’s. Besides, a master can permit to one person something that he prohibits to another, whereas the law, in making no exceptions renders equal the condition of all and in consequence there is neither master nor servant.[45]

In the latter part, Rousseau argues that law guarantees us a level of freedom equal to that of all other citizens. But we may wonder just how high a level that is; for even if servant to no man, we are surely servant to the law. What we must discern, then, is whether there is some threat to freedom present in personal dependency, which law may overcome.

Neuhouser argues that personal dependency poses a unique threat to autonomy due to the potentially capricious character of an individual’s will. Unpredictable or arbitrary decisions must eventually conflict with the wills of those subject to the capricious superior – such is the nature of randomness. Citizens may be shielded from the worst of this chaos through the order-imposing mechanism of universal law.[46] Rousseau’s approval of our formal equality before the law is evident in his judgement that “the worst of laws is worth even more than the best master, because every master has preferences and the law never does”.[47]

It is important to note here that the law is universal not only in that it applies equally to all, but also in that it derives from all. This feature of genuine law, that it is an embodiment of the general will which we all possess, further protects us from capriciousness by precluding the possibility of arbitrary or discriminatory laws. Such legislation would not be permissible, because it could not be rationally consented to by large portions of the population. Lacking universality in this sense, it could not possibly be part of the general will, and thus, a genuine law.[48]

These three considerations – psychological dependence, economic dependence, and the necessity of law to shield us from capriciousness – suggest that the Rousseauian State is a necessary precondition to bringing about civil freedom. That is to say that the general will wills those means which are necessary to prevent our subjection to a foreign will. For an individual will to not be self-negating, its most fundamental feature must be that it wills its own freedom. If we accept the principle that to will an end is to will the means to that end, it follows that a fundamental feature of our own true will is that it coincides with the general will – regardless of whether we recognise it as such.[49]

This somewhat counter-intuitive result identifies an objective relation between the general will and ourselves, for it holds true quite independently of our beliefs or conceptions about the matter. This feature of civil freedom may be contrasted with moral freedom, which is inherently subjective in nature, being that form of freedom which arises from our conscious affirmation of the laws we live our lives by. This contrast leads Neuhouser to conclude that there are two independent conditions for the attainment of full political freedom: that the laws must be objectively liberating, in that they bring about civil freedom; and that citizens must consciously embrace the laws as their own, so that the laws embody moral freedom.[50]

This essay has highlighted the many respects in which a Rousseauian citizen may be said to have attained genuine freedom. Like all contractarian theories, a measure of natural freedom is sacrificed for the security of civil freedom. Unique to Rousseau’s theory is the possibility of moral freedom – living by laws we have ourselves prescribed. According to the simplest interpretation, this is achieved by way of the general will, strengthened through a cultural programme which encourages social cohesion and a shared view of the common interest. Rousseau’s characterization of the general will also embodies the continuous political participation required by a classical view of liberty. The egalitarian nature of Rousseau’s society may help to moderate our tendency toward amour propre, instead encouraging the development of genuine self-regard. Lastly, the social contract produces those objective conditions necessary to reconcile our general interdependence with individual autonomy.


Affeldt, S. ‘The Force of Freedom’ Political Theory Vol.27 No.3 (1999) 299-333.

Bertram, C. Rousseau and The Social Contract, London: Routledge, 2004.

Constant, B. ‘The Liberty of the Ancients and the Liberty o the Moderns’ in M. Rosen & J. Wolff (eds.), Political Thought, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Evans, M. ‘Freedom in Modern Society: Rousseau’s Challenge’ Inquiry Vol.38 No.3 (1995) 233-255.

Hiley, D. ‘The Individual and the General Will’ History of Philosophy Quarterly Vol.7 No.2 (1990) 159-178.

Neuhouser, F. ‘Freedom, Dependence, and the General Will’ Philosophical Review Vol.102 No.3 (1993) 363-395.

Pericles, ‘The Democratic Citizen’ in M. Rosen & J. Wolff (eds.), Political Thought, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Rousseau, J. ‘A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality’ in S. Cahn (ed.), Classics of Modern Political Theory, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Rousseau, J. ‘Of the Social Contract’ in S. Cahn (ed.), Classics of Modern Political Theory, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

[1] J. Rousseau, ‘Of the Social Contract’ [henceforth, SC], p.425.

[2] Ibid, pp.425, 427.

[3] Ibid, p.427.

[4] (From Hobbes, De Cive,) Quoted in C. Bertram, Rousseau and The Social Contract, pp.85-86.

[5] Rousseau, SC, p.427.

[6] Ibid, p.426. Note that this focus on common interests ensures that the general will is distinct from the mere “will of all”, and so – in theory – protects minorities against the ‘tyranny of the majority’.

[7] M. Evans, ‘Freedom in Modern Society: Rousseau’s Challenge’, p.235.

[8] Rousseau, SC, p.436. Here Rousseau is actually describing the idealized aims of the ‘Law-giver’ – a somewhat mysterious figure whose role in Rousseau’s political philosophy is beyond the scope of this essay. The important point to note is that it may be inappropriate to take him literally here.

[9] Ibid, p.431, “But beyond the public person, we have to consider the private persons who compose it, and whose life and liberty are naturally independent of it”. See also Bertram, p.143.

[10] (From Rousseau’s “First Discourse”,) Quoted in Affeldt, ‘The Force of Freedom’, p.309.

[11] Bertram, pp.139-140,178, 188-189.

[12] Evans, p.246.

[13] Rousseau, SC, p.480, “If anyone, after publicly acknowledging these dogmas, behaves as though he does not believe them, he should be punished by death […] he has lied before the laws.”

[14] Bertram, p.187, notes that in his other writings, Rousseau expresses severe reservations about imposing the death penalty for religious nonconformity. In any case, the deadly prescription serves no purpose within Rousseau’s wider philosophy, and can safely be discarded.

[15] Rousseau, SC, p.481.

[16] Ibid, p.480.

[17] Bertram, p.186.

[18] Ibid, p.198.

[19] Rousseau, p.429. This is in stark contrast to earlier contractarian thinkers. The government does not represent the people; it does the people’s bidding.

[20] Ibid, p.443.

[21] See Bertram, p.198-199, for a discussion of the potential for corruption in Rousseau’s government.

[22] B. Constant, ‘The Liberty of the Ancients and the Liberty of the Moderns’, p.122.

[23] Quoted in Affeldt, p.307.

[24] Ibid, pp.307-8.

[25] Rousseau, SC, p.461.

[26] Affeldt, p.311. This is what Affeldt suggests it means to ‘obey the general will’.

[27] Pericles, ‘The Democratic Citizen’, p.155. It is surprising that Affeldt never mentions this historical link, given how closely his conception of moral freedom mirrors that which Constant identified as “the liberty of the ancients” (see note 22).

[28] Affeldt, p.312. As Affeldt mentions in his note 28 (p.330), coerced participation, though possible, would obviously fail to provide the genuine contribution to the general will which Rousseau requires.

[29] Specifically, “philosophy understood as transformative education or instruction” – Ibid, p.318.

[30] Ibid, p.323.

[31] Ibid, p.324.

[32] Rousseau, SC, p.427.

[33] Rousseau, ‘A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality’, p.418 (note 3).

[34] D. Hiley, ‘The Individual and the General Will’, p.174. See also Bertram, p.25.

[35] Hiley, p.176.

[36] Ibid, p.172.

[37] F. Neuhouser, ‘Freedom, Dependence, and the General Will’, p.391.

[38] At least, what Hiley calls moral freedom: “Moral freedom is the achievement within society of amour de soi and its opposite is… amour propre” (Hiley, p.173). It is clearly quite different from the moral freedom discussed previously (which I consider more faithful to Rousseau’s intended meaning).

[39] Quoted in Bertram, p.83.

[40] Neuhouser, pp.374, 384.

[41] Rousseau, SC, p.442.

[42] Neuhouser, p.386.

[43] Rousseau, SC, p.441.

[44] Neuhouser, p.387.

[45] (From Rousseau’s Fragments Politiques,) Quoted in Bertram, p.89.

[46] Neuhouser, p.389.

[47] (From Rousseau’s Oeuvres Completes,) Quoted in Ibid, p.389.

[48] Ibid, p.390

[49] Ibid, pp.391-2.

[50] Ibid, pp.392-5.


  1. outstanding essay :-D

    really helped give me some much needed pointers for revision for my first year exam regarding Rousseau. thanks!

  2. HI, I'm a student in a similar course on the history of political thought. I'm writing a paper about Rousseau's conception of freedom. I found this essay to be generally well structured and thought out. However, you mention autonomy as being reconciled with people's general interdependence in civic society. I think Rousseau would argue that autonomy need not be reconciled at all. For, as you have said, if one is truly living according to the general will, then they will have no conception of autonomy. Any private will that existed before the construction of the social contract will have vanished- and people's understaning of autonomy will no longer revolve around themselves, but around the civic state as a whole. It is very Periclean in this way.

  3. You have been cited, well done.


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.