Social Contract Essay Questions

Rousseau idealizes pre-societal human life, while ##Thomas Hobbes## suggests that it was harsh and unpleasant. Why do these two thinkers have such contrasting views? Who do you agree with, and why?

The main difference between Hobbes and Rousseau on the question of the state of nature is that Hobbes and Rousseau have very different conceptions of human nature. Hobbes sees the human nature evident in his society as indicative of human nature as it must have been in the state of nature. Therefore, in Hobbes view, if we were all taken out of civil society and thrown into the wild, our life would most likely be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short," since there would be no civilization to curb our base and selfish desires. In contrast, Rousseau suggests that we are only selfish and evil because of the bad influence of society. Before we were corrupted by civilization, he imagines that human life was probably marked by peace and compassion. While Rousseau certainly seems to be more imaginative than Hobbes, there is no real way of adjudicating between the two. Neither have any scientific or archaeological evidence to support their claims. Rather, they are making assertions based on conjectures that are heavily influenced by personal bias.

What does Rousseau mean when he says people should be "forced to be free"?

By entering into civil society people gain civil freedom, which is unavailable to them in the state of nature. This freedom is characterized by an ability to be rational and moral. According to Rousseau, this freedom is only possible by agreeing to the social contract, becoming a part of the sovereign, and obeying the general will as expressed in the laws. People who break the law or violate the social contract are violating the very institution that has made their freedom possible. By forcing people to obey the social contract and the laws, the state would only be forcing people to be hold on to the civil freedom that makes them fully human. In other words, the state would be "forcing" criminals to be "free."

What is the difference between the general will and the will of all? In practice, how can the two be distinguished?

The general will is the will of the sovereign: it aims at the common good and it is expressed in the laws. The will of all is simply the aggregate of the particular wills of each individual. Thus, we might distinguish the general will from the will of all by saying that the general will is the will of the people in their capacity as sovereign and the will of all is the will of the people in their capacity as citizens. In practice, however, it is not clear how the two should be distinguished. Both, Rousseau claims, are determined by popular vote. However, he gives no criterion for how one might determine whether the results of a certain popular vote represent the general will or the will of all.

What role do laws play in determining the character of the people in a given state?

What is the relationship between liberty and equality? What does Rousseau mean when he talks about equality?

Trace the themes of force and right throughout the book. What is the relationship between the two? Is Rousseau consistent in his use of them? Does he ever contradict himself?

Rousseau suggests that climate, soil, and the type of population determine the kind of government a state will have. Based on what you know of governments in the modern world, how accurate do you think Rousseau's theory is? What factors might you list?

What is the problem with "finance" and "representation," according to Rousseau?

Rousseau frequently discusses the tension that exists between government and sovereign and between government and people. Why does this tension exist? Why is it necessary?

In what significant ways do Rousseau's ideas differ from those at work in modern democracies? What could we gain from following his precepts? What is dangerous about them?

  • 1

    Opponents of Rousseau have criticized his chapter on civil religion as being unnecessary to The Social Contract as a whole, and as specifically threatening to individual freedom. Why does Rousseau include a passage on civil religion? Is it a threat to personal liberty, or a necessary requirement for the survival of the state?

  • 2

    Rousseau writes, "whoever refuses to obey the general will be forced to do so by the entire body...he will be forced to be free" (150). Explain the logic behind this statement. Does it conflict with his ideas about personal liberty?

  • 3

    Rousseau begins The Social Contract with the claim that "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains." What are these restrictions on man's liberty? How are they affected by the social contract?

  • 4

    Rousseau criticizes a hereditary aristocracy as being "the worst of any form of government," yet his complaints against monarchies are far more numerous than his ones against hereditary aristocracy. Which form of government does Rousseau believe is worse, and why?

  • 5

    Although Rousseau gives legislative power to the people, he insists that they need a legislator to help them make the laws. What are the qualities that the legislator must possess? Does Rousseau's emphasis on the legislator reflect a lack of confidence in the people?

  • 6

    Rousseau argues that laws transform man by substituting an amoral, independent existence in a state of nature for a cooperative one in a civil society. However, he also claims that only certain people are ready for laws. Discuss this tension in the context of The Social Contract.

  • 7

    What is Rousseau's idea of a "right"? How does it differ from Grotius'? How does it affect his political theory?

  • 8

    Discuss Rousseau's theory of how climate affects a country's form of government. Do his claims hold true for modern nations?

  • 9

    Why does Rousseau believe that all states will eventually fall? Given that he supports this view, why has he written The Social Contract?

  • 10

    Discuss Rousseau's opinions on finance and representation. What would Rousseau think of modern democracies such as France, the United Kingdom, and the United States? Can his political recommendations be followed in a large, modern democracy?

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