Thursday, November 03, 2005

Next Week's readings, and a reading guide to Rousseau, Book I

We'll begin the next political ideology, which I call "Strong Democracy." Rousseau's Social Contract serves as a founding and basis for this theory in the same way Burke is the 'father' of classical conservatism. Rousseau's is a challenging and contradictory work, however, and the reading for Tuesday will be difficult.

Here is chapter ONE and chapter TWO.

(Thursday's readings--by John Dewey and Ben Barber--on on UWB e-reserve. Remember, the password is 'halfmoon')

As to Rousseau, a bit of background. In previous work (especially, the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality) Rousseau had expressed skepticism about the value and wisdom of human social/economic/technological progress--in other words, he was dissenting from the enthusiastic embrace of the enlightenment. This might make you think his sympathies lie with conservatives like Burke, and you'd be wrong. In This book, The Social Contract, he seeks to explain how a political society might be just. As you read along, you'll see him being skeptical about nations actually being in a position to be "given" a social contract, so some semblence of pessimism remains. But, the upshot here is that society can be legitimate and worthwhile, but only if and when it is radically democratic.

What does this mean? Too soon to say. Instead, let's begin with a look at how Rousseau begins.

Book I

--chapter 1

The first paragraph is worth quoting here:

MAN is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they. How did this change come about? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? That question I think I can answer.

Our freedom is lost in society because we've become dependent on each other. Like liberals, Rousseau assumes that individual autonomy is central to freedom. Unlike liberals, Rousseau thinks this is entirely impossible in a modern society.

So, he's signalling here that even though we'll likely remain "in chains" that this situation can still, potentially, be legitimate.

--chapter 2-4

The discussion that's most relevant here is his critique of those (like several defenders of slavery) "derive right from fact"--that is, they base their theory of what ought to be based on what is, or has been. Several defenders of slavery employed this tactic. The right of the strongest and slaver are two variants of this approach, and Rousseau skewers them nicely. (reading question: What, according to Rousseau, is wrong with these approaches?)

--ch. 5

We must, Rousseau says, return to a 'first convention' if we're to figure out what sort of government is legitimate. In other words, Rousseau is announcing himself to be a social contract theorist, as you probably gathered from the title (like Locke, but unlike Mill and Burke).

--ch. 6

What kind of social contract should we have? What conditions must it meet? Rousseau says here:

"The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before." This is the fundamental problem of which the Social Contract provides the solution.

You should find this puzzling. If it sounds to you like Rousseau wants to have his cake and eat it too, well, I wouldn't blame you. Can he pull it off? Read on to...

"Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole."

Read carefully. Read the following paragraph, the last of the chapter, carefully. I don't necessarily expect this to be clear to you, but try to figure out what's going on here, or your best guess.

ch. 7

"The Sovereign" is the body politic--the thing we just created, and placed all our power in, in the previous chapter. What does it feel like to live as part of/under the power of the sovereign? What role do we have in it?

Also--this chapter contains one of the most infamous and seemingly contradictory statements you'll see this quarter. Identify it and tell me what you think Rousseau means by it. (hint: it's about freedom)

ch. 8-9

Rousseau discusses the changes in the nature of morality (8) and property (9) as we enter into a social contract and a civil society.

At the end of chapter one, you should be a bit baffled by Rousseau's repeated use of the phrase "general will". What, precisely, is this strange thing? Read on, dear readers, to chapter two.


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