Thursday, March 23, 2000

Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau

In the United States today we have a lot of different views as to how the country should be run. The two major political parties are at ends with each other and every month we can see that there are wars waging inside the Senate and House of Representatives. How do you decide who is correct? How do we know what the correct political order is? To get to any conclusion you have to ask yourself, what is the state of nature? How can mankind continue to make strides in human development and the arts of science and nature? Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes both attempted to tackle these questions and develop an irrefutable conclusion as to what the state of nature is and how a nation should be run to achieve the greatest success possible.
Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were born almost 125 years apart, but missed each other by only 33 years and were both a large part in the enlightenment period of history. Both started with the same core idea that every man is born free, but from that standpoint, they go into completely different directions. Hobbes, for example, believed that man was evil by nature and that we needed on sovereign to govern the masses and if you didn’t abide by the laws of the sovereign you could leave. Rousseau, on the other hand, believed that man was free to do as he wishes with only a morale code to abide by and a representative government set up to work for the greater good of the people as a whole unit (OSU, 2002). So how did these two great minds end up in completely different end places? Rousseau adored and considered Hobbes as one of this greatest influences and spent many years studying up on his teachings. While Hobbes writes about “the mutual transferring of rights” (i.e. implied contracts) (Hobbes, 1651) and extensively writes about what contracts we hold as humans to one another, Rousseau writes about how man must be “forced to be free” (Rousseau, 1762) by a form of democracy in which the duties of the representatives are to enforce where the people are to enact (Bertram, 2013).
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in 1712 in the city-state of Geneva. His father was a watchmaker and he did not know his mother since she did nine days after he was born. During his formative years he received most of his education from his father who, after Rousseau had learned to read on his own, had him read many books about the Roman Empire and those written by Plutarch, Plato, and others on the republic of Rome.  When he was ten years old, his father had to flee the city in order to escape arrest, and he was sent to live with a Calvinist pastor and apprenticed as an engraver for six years until he left the city to see the world and learn more of the world around him (Bertram, 2013).
It was during this time wandering that Rousseau converted to Catholicism and first saw the corruption within himself when he falsely accused another servant in a household he was working of stealing a ribbon (OSU, 2002). He continued to travel and learn for many more years coming under the influence of those he met – at one point writing operas, becoming a teacher, and becoming the secretary to the French Ambassador (Bertram, 2013).
One day while he went to visit Diderot in prison, Rousseau saw a newspaper that was holding an essay competition in which the Academy of Dijon asked whether man’s progression in art and science has improved or corrupted the minds and morals of the people.  It is then that the gears in his head went into overdrive and he formed his belief that man is inherently good by nature, but that it is society which turns man evil. Throughout his life, Rousseau debated many other philosophers on what makes man good or evil and why, which pulled primarily from his own life experiences including his putting all five of his children at a foundling hospital shortly after birth, his visits to the Italian countryside where he wrote many operas,  and most importantly his exile from Paris and Geneva. He lived the rest of his life in England living with many friends he had made along his travels, but was sent through periods of mental instability which got more frequent as he aged (Bertram, 2013).
During the high point of his life, Rousseau published The Social Contract which centered on how we have progressed from being a free man in nature to a corrupt society. Rousseau’s most popular quote, which helps to get a better understanding of his world views is that “man is born free, and he is everywhere in chains” (Rousseau, 1762). This brought the ideas of his first and second discourses full circle to be proven correct in The Social Contract, he argues that we began our lives as humans as complete equals no matter who you were because we were originally solitary beings. Everything and anything that we needed we were able to get from nature such as food or shelter, but as we grew, we soon got concepts of ownership because we were living in closer and closer proximity to each other. Where one man could own the land, another had to work hard for it. However, in his book Rousseau discusses the central problem with living in close proximity to one another; by living together and forming a collective group of people you have to submit your own personal wills to the wills of the people, otherwise known as the general will of the people.
He argued that this is how we started the real foundation of society and that by conforming as one we work towards the betterment of mankind and the common good. The common good of the people meant, at the same time, more progress in the arts which in turn meant giving up more of your own inherent freedoms to the general will which is brought forward by representatives of a specific collective to work through any and all issues a person may have and make it the law of the entire land (Rousseau, 1762). This many seem like a familiar process to many of us because in Rousseau’s The Social Contract he actually lays out the foundation of republicanism and the democratic process which we still use today.
On a different end of the spectrum we have Thomas Hobbes who was born in 1588 to a clergyman in Malmesbury, England. He was a highly educated man in that he studied at Oxford University and later worked for a wealthy family that allowed him the opportunity to continue to educate himself and his student by using the family’s money to get access to books freely and allowed him to connect easily with other philosophers and scientists, most notably with René Descartes and Francis Bacon (Stewart, 2013).
            It is during a decade in exile from England in France that Hobbes wrote his popular book to date, Leviathan.  Leviathan is a dark story that focuses on Hobbes’ beliefs that man is selfish, materialistic, and without the help of a single sovereign the world would be in a constant state of war. Hobbes, similarly to Rousseau, believed that man was originally entirely free and all of humankind was equal, but that is where the similarities between Rousseau and Hobbes end. Hobbes was in the belief that without some sort of government that was more closely aligned to a monarchy rather than a democracy (though it was more of a middle ground between the two during his time) (Stewart, 2013), man was unable to function properly because in nature there were no rules, no contracts outright, and that because there was no definite distinction between good and evil (it is up to the individual to decide what he decides is good or evil) that greed can always take over and that “the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest” (Hobbes, 1651). This meant that while you may be the weakest man physically you still have enough strength to instill fear into your fellow man’s heart and that you can muster up enough strength to put a dagger into your enemy’s heart while he slept (Friend, 2012).
            It is from this that Hobbes argues we must have a contract with each other that we mutually transfer our natural rights such. This means that I will give up my natural right to steal your chickens because you also give up your right to steal mine. This brings forth the idea that if another man will not “lay down their right, as well as he, then there is no reason for anyone to divest himself of his… that is the law of the gospel: Whatsoever you require that others should do to you, that do ye to them” (Hobbes, 1651). This is what we know today as the Golden Rule, and he took it rather seriously.
During his time, he believed that it was the work of a single sovereign to dictate an equal punishment for those who did wrong to another, similar to an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  He stated that it is the sovereign’s responsibility to dictate and rule over the “leviathan” that is the state or commonwealth in order to keep it safe from itself and from others who have gotten out of hand and broken the contracts we hold (Stewart, 2013).
So how did two philosophers who both believe that all men are created equal in nature end up with two completely different ideas of what the social contract theory is and how we need to operate in order to continue to achieve greatness? A lot of this has to do with how each was brought up, Hobbes believed that man was evil from the beginning and is good because of the works of parliaments and others and this is likely because he had access to other philosophers, books, scientists, and an Oxford education during his formative years. Rousseau, on the other hand, had a rough childhood in that he was moved around, had to take jobs in which he worked for little pay and made sacrifices in order to just survive. He saw first-hand how one man will voluntarily throw another man’s well-being to ruins without any thought or even any reason.
Their lives are reflected in their works and show what we already know today in that a lot of what you view is politically correct or how the government should act or react is based on how you were brought up. The life of Rousseau was challenging not only from the beginning with his mother’s death to his father’s abandonment but his own exile and at the end of his life where he struggled with self-identity, and he wrote about how advancements in the arts and wealth are what brought the world to lose its own freedom and corrupt society. On the other hand, you have Hobbes’ life which was a lot better off than Rousseau’s because of his almost unlimited access to knowledge and had a more stable livelihood where he argued that it is from the privileges that come with having advanced as a society we are able to learn to be good beings and can work toward the good of society without losing our own freedoms.

Bertram, C. (2013). Jean Jacques Rousseau. Retrieved from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy website:
Friend, C. (2012). Social Contract Theory. Retrieved from Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) website:
Hobbes, T. (1651). The Leviathan.
Jean-Jacques, R. (1762). The Social Contract.
Oregon State University Social Sciences Department (OSU). (2002). Great Philosophers: Thomas Hobbes. Retrieved from Oregon State University website:
Stewart, D. (2013). Thomas Hobbes. Retrieved from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy website:

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