Rousseau believed that the primary goal of any good government was the liberty of its people. He recognized that the freedom of people in modern society was limited when compared to their existence in the state of nature due to the presence of laws and property, though he observed that the endorsement of particular doctrines by government would present the people with a certain degree of freedom similar to that enjoyed in the state of nature (Swenson 75).
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Rousseau believed that it was necessary to determine the ideas that contradicted the natural goodness of individuals, imposed on them for tens of decades of development. He argued that there were a few thoughts that people assumed but had no grounds in nature, including moral inequality, law and property (Swenson 80).
According to The Social Contract, the prehistoric time and place when individuals were uncorrupted by society was assumed to be the state of nature, where people had total liberty to do what they wanted to (Peyre 71). The problem with such a society was the lack of morality and rationality since individuals were not held back by the authority of the society and state.
Rousseau’s opinion of human nature differed from that of Hobbes, who believed that the state of nature was in fact a state of savagery and war (Peyre 73). In view of this, Rousseau appreciated the contrary line of thought, but believed that it was necessary for the people to realize their natural goodness, though it was unlikely that people would go back to the state of nature, where there was no competition and greed of civilization (Peyre 81).
His ideas of people living in natural harmony with a common will free of any ills were appealing to a few people among whom some were involved in the French Revolution. His ideas led to the oath at the Tennis Court. The country was split between the indulgent wealth minority and the majority of people who lived in absolute poverty due to inflation (Kates 42). It is for this reason that the people craved any form of equality, whether perpetuated by the government or natural.
They believed that the government was supposed to make adjustments according to the will of majority of the population (Hicks 1). The French monarchy was weak, which led to the first revolution, where the nobles hoped to introduce enlightenment changes and increase their influence at the expense of the monarchy. Their inability to form a unified coalition led to their loss of control and a second phase of revolution that was more liberal, and dominated by Lockean liberals (Kates 34).
They were no match for Jacobin parties, whose immense power led to the third phase of the revolution. The Jacobin leaders were disciples of Rousseau, and their actions were aimed at a simple life, based on Rousseau’s precepts (Hicks 1). Their adoration for Rousseau was seen in their speeches, including one by Maximilien Robespierre, which stated “Rousseau is the one man who, through the loftiness of his soul and the grandeur of his character, showed himself worthy of the role of teacher of mankind” (McNeil 199).
The revolution became more violent and radical under the leadership of the Jacobins, with the ruthless killing of people who were believed to have suspicious politics, including the nobles and priests. It was only after the death of Robespierre in 1794, that the terror in France ended. The power vacuum created was filled by Napoleon Bonaparte (McNeil 203).
Hicks, Stephen. Rousseau and the French Revolution. 2010. <http://www.stephenhicks.org/2010/01/07/rousseau-and-the-french-revolution/>.
Kates, Gary. The French Revolution: Recent Debates and New Controversies (Rewriting Histories). London: Routledge, 2005. Print.
McNeil, Gordon H. “The Cult of Rousseau and the French Revolution.” Journal of the History of Ideas (1945): 6(2), 197-212. Print.
Peyre, Henri. “The Influence of Eighteenth Century Ideas on the French Revolution.” Journal of the History of Ideas (1949): (10)1, 63-87. Print.
Swenson, James. On Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Considered as One of the First Authors of the Revolution (Atopia: Philosophy, Political Theory, Ae). Palo Alto, California: Stanford University Press, 2000. Print.