Political theories of Jean Jacques Rousseau

Jean Jacques Rousseau

For almost 300 years, the political theories of the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau have been making philosophers, thinkers, and politicians of all ages discuss. His conception of the people as a sovereign body inspired people of all ages. However, his ideas have often, in the past, been considered the foundation of a totalitarian state. Here we will discuss some of his famous political theories.

Theories of the social contract

The sociological inspiration of Rousseau's thought is revealed in the radicalism with which the Genevan thinker poses the question of equality and in the sensitivity shown towards all the conditions of suffering that social evolution produces. In a sense, it can be argued that Rousseau - by elaborating the theory of the "state of nature" and placing it as the foundation of a new social contract - anticipates the concerns of modern sociology for the condition of anomia and the disintegration of the value system that would be proper to advance industrial society.

Rousseau entrusts the social contract with the task of restoring free and direct social relations in which, for example, the "general will" is accepted and lived as a sort of law of nature. According to some critics, Rousseau would thus represent a precursor of political anarchism, rather than socialist theories of progressive liberalism: suffering originates in the loss of independence of the "primitive" man; it is the social bond as such that condemns our alienation. Not the existence of repressive institutions, but that of a social condition tout court, it is at the origin of unhappiness. Civilization takes the form of an emancipated society that tightens individuals, condemning them to dependence and insecurity, in a web of rules, prohibitions, and controls. A condition so far removed from human nature that in La nouvelle Héloïse Rousseau can argue that a moment of inner happiness is a greater good than all the knowledge and power that men can accumulate. The problem of social order also has a marked individualistic curve for him.

His own critique of the private property reflects the centrality attributed to man's overall condition of dependence and unhappiness, rather than prefiguring a contestation of the socio-economic system, as socialist and communist doctrines. In this sense, not only inequality of possession is evil in itself, but also competition based on the ostentation of knowledge, taste, and intelligence. He recognized as inferior to us to the point that the same feeling of compassion denounces our interest in the other only in so far. The critic of alienation and of civilization itself, ideologue without ideologies, Rousseau is an extraordinary and genuine thinker whose work regressive utopia, anticipatory intuitions, and sociological sensitivity seek an unstable coexistence.


In Rousseau's thought, the state becomes the political way out to remedy the two great social ills, that of meeting other men in society and that of inequality created by private property. The problem is, therefore, political and not anthropological. Evil is never within man but in political structures, which must, therefore, be reformed and changed. There is no need for a moral conversion and a new self-understanding of the human, but the transformation of political structures is necessary. All the weakness of Rousseau's political proposal is concentrated in this vision. For Rousseau, the religious dimension that could change the heart of man, teaching him to distinguish good from evil and to know God, must instead be linked to politics that becomes true religion for man. It is, therefore, the political structures that should be "converted" to expel evil from history, not the men who govern them. Building the state, therefore, becomes for the thought of the Genevan, a religious act that does not touch the citizen's heart. This is why some scholars are inclined to believe that Rousseau secularizes theological thought by introducing the idea of ​​modern democracy.

Democracy, which is based on the social contract, becomes in Rousseau the instrument of redemption and liberation from evil; citizens do not surrender their freedom and their rights to a sovereign as Hobbes believed, but to the community that will make them find them together with all the other citizens. Thus democracy is for Rousseau that forms of state in which the people are both sovereign and subject. Sovereignty must be exercised directly by the people through procedures that guarantee the principle of self-determination for individuals who must implement the program defined by the general interest to achieve this intuition. The scope shifts from theological to teleological. Originally there is a good situation (the state of nature), a fall follows (the birth of property), and it follows that in order to redeem himself, man must give birth to the democratic state. Man does not need redemption, because he is good, but politics, because the evil of history, which is rooted in property, belongs to the juridical sphere.

Rousseau’s theory of Sovereignty

The eighteenth-century revolutions and the consequent change in the structure, organization, and juridical-constitutional foundation of the national states arouse new interest in the concept of democracy, neglected for long centuries. The categories of "people" and "sovereignty" and the terms in which they are interpreted, connected and identified are a fundamental key to understanding the different ways in which this concept is declined to the present day.

Between the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), although starting from many distant perspectives, developed theories of democracy which, analyzed in the light of the report between people and sovereignty, they show moments of non-secondary contact, together with profound differences; these similarities and differences are useful for reflecting on the meaning and the difficulties that the forms of democracy assume in the following debate.

It is known that in Contract Social (1762), democracy is analyzed as a form of government, or the form of state theorized in the first two books is called "Republic." However, it is equally well known that the way in which Rousseau elaborates the concepts of state, sovereignty, and people refers to what would shortly be defined, without hesitation, "democracy."

In this identification of the people (as a group of individuals who have made a sort of political regeneration through the pact) with the sovereign is the sense of Rousseau's democracy.

The people of chapters 8-10 of book II are nothing but these same people in a more "simple" version. They are the people of the origins, uncorrupted, who can participate as protagonists in political life and are therefore sovereignty. Democracy is possible in Rousseau's perspective only if this identification process takes place. We could not speak of democracy not only if there was no coincidence between the people and the sovereign, but not even if the people were not the unification of individuals who enter politics, becoming citizens and subjects together, taking into account reciprocal relations, democracy implies the identity of people and sovereigntyJean Jacques Rousseau, the only condition for safeguarding the principles of freedom and equality that Rousseau places at the basis of his "political right."


1148 Words


Feb 18, 2020


3 Pages

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