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Rousseau a lawgiver?

November 4, 2010

Rousseau in his piece “On The Social Contract” discusses the idea of how the people should successfully move out of the state of nature.  Contrary to Locke and Hobbes’ theories, Rousseau asserts that in the state of nature people have a natural liberty and it is a state of serenity.  He later progresses and says that ownership and property is a major reason why there is a shift from the state of nature to civil society.  Rousseau then discusses his sense of sovereignty, which includes that the power is in the people, and laws are made through the general will of the people.  The  next big thing that Rousseau mentions is the process of making laws for society.  Rousseau’s major point about law making is that it is done by the people and set for everyone as a whole.  In Book II, Chapter VI, Rousseau writes, “When I say that the object of the laws is always general, I have in mind that the law considers subjects as a body and actions in the abstract, never a man as an individual or a particular action.”  Therefore, the law never deals with individuals, and the people need to collectively agree for a law to be enacted.

However, how easy can it be for everyone as a whole to agree and create laws?  Not that easy..  That is why Rousseau proposed the idea of the legislator or lawgiver.  Rousseau describes this “legislator” in such high admiration as he describes “the legislator is in every respect an extraordinary man in the state.  If he ought to be so by his genius, he is no less so by his office, which is neither magistracy nor sovereignty” (Book II, Chapter VII).  The lawgiver is an unbiased man from a different society who is a man of great ingenuity that selflessly writes the laws for the civil society.

Is it possible that Rousseau was writing this with his intention to be the lawgiver for a society?  In Book II, Chapter X, Rousseau mentions a “country capable of receiving legislation”, the island of Corsica, and “that one day that little island will astonish Europe”.  Was he writing this because he wanted to be this unbiased legislator for the island of Corsica.  I believe that he wanted to implement his theory, and write a set of laws for Corsica and test his theory on society.  Does anyone else believe that Rousseau had an intention to be a lawgiver the entire time when he was writing his social contract?

  1. neilrab permalink
    November 4, 2010 10:07 PM

    No, I don’t think Rousseau had any intentions of becoming a lawgiver for his society or another one. Rousseau, just like Machiavelli, Locke, Hobbes, and other philosophers had the ability to view how society functioned from a unique perspective. His writings merely explain how society works and how we have gotten there, in addition to explaining the optimal structure in order to succeed.

    You say that people need to collectively agree on a law, but that will never happen. Even in democracies this is not possible. That’s why societies have decided that majority rules. If the majority wants something, even if it will hurt others, usually a minority, that decision is seen as the “will of all.” In countries like the US that has a population of over 370 million people, there will be always be disagreement on how to run the country, especially when everyone has a different general will (self-interest) that they want to fulfill.

    Trusting people from other places/countries to be the lawgivers/legislators would be very risky. Considering there’s many nations out there that are out to get us, it could be dangerous to all of us if someone who isn’t really affected by our laws is creating them. May be back in the day that was an efficient method of creating the laws, but it seems that Rousseau’s ideas are outdated when applied to today’s society.

    • dmalks permalink
      November 9, 2010 11:54 PM

      I agree that Rousseau’s do not apply as well in the present day. As said in the above comment, I also think it would be very risky to allow someone unaffected by the laws to create them. This is the reason that one of the best strategies for a political candidate is to make the voters believe you are just a normal person. This would show that the laws affect the candidate in the same way as the voters.

  2. Nick Weeks permalink
    November 5, 2010 12:26 AM

    I do think that Rousseau thought of himself as a potential lawgiver for Corsica. It is very conspicuous how he tags that onto the end of the chapter that mentions the Island nations. Also, Rousseau was actually asked to draft a constitution for Corsica and Rousseau did start it but it didn’t get finished. So this reveals that he did think of himself as being able to be a lawgiver for one of the last “unspoiled” governments left. Also, he probably thought that it would be easier it implement his true idea of a democracy with a smaller nation since it seems that the bigger a nation gets Rousseau supported a small body politic. So I think the Rousseau did think of himself as a Lawgiver, especially since he did actually try and draft a constitution in the real world and be a lawgiver in real life.

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