The Unbearable Lightness Of Society
Justin Erenkrantz
Social Science Core H1F

A central concern for both Locke and Rousseau is what constitutes just, or legitimate, political authority. How do their respective conceptions of human nature relate to their notions of legitimate political authority? How do these notions inform their views on the proper role of government in society? Finally, critically examine Locke and Rousseau's respective understandings of legitimate political authority in light of contemporary, modern society.

The society in which we live is undoubtedly biased towards the ideas of John Locke. We are surrounded by concepts of a minimalistic, republican, and partisan government. The beliefs of Locke are central to our upbringing in this society. We have been exposed to these ideas for the duration of our lives. Believing in any other course of government is almost impossible for us. It takes some work to step outside our mental boundaries and examine alternatives. Jean-Jacques Rousseau offers another view of human nature. Based on his almost pessimistic view of human nature, he arrives at an almost polar conclusion to John Locke as to what composes an ideal government.

In Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, he paints a picture of a race driven by both ambition and vanity. Rousseau claims that ``the profit of a few ambitious men henceforth subjected the entire human race to labor, servitude, and misery'' (Rousseau, 70). Dependent upon the new fields of metallurgy and agriculture, the human race turned towards cooperation for survival (Rousseau, 65). However, in doing so, certain ambitious men preyed upon the naivete of common men. This state of affairs eventually degenerated to become ingrained in our notion of a civil albeit an unequal society.

One particular reason that Rousseau points out for this degeneration is the innate desire to be liked (Rousseau, 64). According to Rousseau, most value their self-worth in the eyes of others. Their entire value system revolves around the opinions of others. No original thoughts are present in the common man - only those thoughts of an enlightened few which propagates throughout society. Therefore, the unenlightened become molded by the beliefs of these stronger personalities - in order to curry favor of the enlightened. While not all of these enlightened few harbored malicious intentions, enough did to eventually corrupt society.

Rousseau has an inherently pessimistic view of human nature. In the state of nature, he believes that there are vast distinctions between the have and have-nots. Furthermore, these strong personalities tinker with the wide range of human emotions to accomplish their ends - malicious or not. Since there is such a desire to be liked, people are putty in the hands of expert manipulators. In the state of nature, these manipulators eventually attain control of the entire society. By developing an infrastructure which equalizes every person, society can become successful.

In his Second Treatise of Government, John Locke has a much more optimistic view of human nature. Locke does not propose that human vanity is crucial to civil society. Instead, he focuses on the duality of the state of nature and the state of war. According to Locke, the state of nature is where all people live in equality and have the right to dispose of their lives within the natural law (Locke, 8). A series of agreements governed by the law of reason preside. There is no need for formal government in such a state since all inhabitants share the same natural law.

As with all things for Locke, the law of reason revolves around property. Those who attempt to violate the property of another are no longer considered part of the state of nature (Locke, 10). They have made a conscious decision to leave this state of nature. Therefore, each member of society has an equal right to execute judgment upon the offender to restore the state of nature (Locke, 10). Only the person whose property was violated may seek retribution, but it is the duty of the whole to execute judgment. Since the offender has committed the most serious of crimes - violation of property, the sentence is typically the most serious of punishments - death.

Locke continues and introduces another state - the state of war. This state is characterized by parties attempting to take away liberties from each other (Locke, 15). This state differs from the state of nature because it is a preponderance of people violating the state of nature. In the state of nature, the malfeasants are minimal, but in the state of war, almost all members are committing some violation of liberty. Since Locke values liberty above all else, any attack on liberty is tantamount to an attack on the physical being. Therefore, it is justified to reciprocate and protect liberty at all costs. This concept is central to any political authority espousing Locke's views.

The state of nature for Rousseau is unequal, therefore the government's role in society must be to restore this equality to a civil society. The individuals in that society are not able to survive alone. Therefore, the individuals must band together to form a single entity - the community. The multitude of individuals composing the community cease to exist so that a single collective can exist. Each individual becomes one equal part of a larger whole. For in Rousseau's collective, the value of the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The society then places the needs of the whole before the needs of the individuals. The individual is not neglected in such a society, but rather it is protected by being a part of this society. Rousseau believes that ``in giving himself to all, each person gives himself to no one'' (Rousseau, 148). Rather than being preyed upon by the evils of society, it is possible to protect those previously weak individuals by uniting for a common good. Rousseau argues that since the collective is necessarily composed of individuals, the collective would wish no ill will upon itself (Rousseau, 150). The will of the society could never harm the individuals composing it.

Only by sharing the responsibility can the benefits of the collective be shared. To satisfy this responsibility, Rousseau believes that each member must be completely informed about the decisions. No secret agreements can be made between members of the society (Rousseau, 156). No facts can be withheld from the constituents. Rousseau introduces the role of the legislator to ensure the integrity of the system. The main role of the legislator is to help the population understand what the general will should be (Rousseau, 163). The legislator does not set the rules, but rather helps facilitate the decision-making process. Otherwise, the society might get sidetracked and not make the best possible decision.

Rousseau also believes that they must only consider those facts which are in evidence at the time of the decision (Rousseau, 154). Rousseau claims that if they do not make the best judgment for the present, but rather make a decision which will eventually lead to better times, that they will only deceive themselves. Man can not know what it is that they want.

Disagreements within the society can not be sustained. When the entire society has made a decision, all members must see the wisdom of that decision. Since the entire society has approved the decision by a majority vote, it is a binding decision that all members must follow (Rousseau, 206). If an individual did not originally approve of a decision, as soon as the vote is finalized, they must accept that vote without question. Rousseau also allows for censorship to convince members of the validity of the general will (Rousseau, 219). Since Rousseau's ideal government revolves around a single community, they must always be of a common mind. No other state can exist.

In Rousseau's ideal society, the worst form of punishment is that of banishment. Since self-worth is entirely based on the perception of others, removal from the society is tantamount to death. After giving oneself to the whole, it is tortuous to extract the individual from the whole. By losing oneself in the whole, the individual has been irrevocably changed. The most important thing was the society - banishment separates the individual from what it valued most. Remarkably, Rousseau understood how horrific this punishment was since he was banished from his homestate of Geneva. Only someone who had experienced this sense of loss could truly understand how drastic it was.

On the other hand, Locke reasons that civil society was instituted to protect the liberty of its members. In contrast to Rousseau, the government is not central to the life of its members. The role of government should be constrained to protecting liberties. More explicitly, the government is subservient to each individual within the society. Locke believes that any activities that are not directly associated to protecting liberty should not be associated with government (Locke, 65). Those obligations are not the concerns of government.

Locke reasons that the right to property is an intrinsic right (Locke, 18). The crucial point in his reasoning is that he equates labor with property. His rationale is that unoccupied land has little value. The value of the land is only as much as the labor and, more importantly, the value others place upon that same labor. Ultimately, government was instituted to protect the labors of the people from others. Locke believe that government should provide three things: ``an established, settled, known law''; ``a known and indifferent judge''; and ``power to back and support the sentence when right, and to give it due execution'' (Locke, 66). These three items provide the foundation for the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of a society based upon Locke's ideals.

In sharp contrast to Rousseau, Locke believes that not every person needs to be actively involved with government. Only those who wish to be involved in the running of the society need to be involved. The people choose their leaders and trust them with maintaining the government. These leaders are responsible for the everyday decisions. Locke realizes that people have better things to do than be burdened by the inner workings of government. If people are generally satisfied with their government, people will not be inclined to voice their dissent.

Yet, this authority vested in these leaders is not absolute. The community always retains supreme power (Locke, 76). Within each society, there exists a certain point at which the populace will no longer be satisfied with their leadership. Locke does maintain that there is a certain degree of prerogative by which leaders may go against the perceived general will, if they believe it to be best for the society (Locke, 86). However, when a ``long train of abuses'' is present, it is the right of the people to dissolve the current government and restore it with a government that properly yields to the people (Locke, 113). This was the foundation for the creation of our country. Our founding fathers took the ideas of Locke to heart, and founded a country based upon his ideal society.

Locke takes the perspective that men are able to run their lives without help from others, while Rousseau believes that men exert the most influence when bonded together. As stated earlier, our current society is biased towards Locke, but the ideas of Rousseau's collective will has slowly crept into our consciousness. One striking example of these political views is the most recent Presidential election.

President Bush ran on a platform of ``Compassionate Conservatism.'' He claimed that the United States was ready for an administration based on conservative values, but mixed with compassion. One of the major points of his campaign platform was education. In this issue, we hear the resonance of the struggle between Locke and Rousseau in our modern-day society.

In Rousseau's Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts, he claims that the teaching of the sciences are a mere flourish on the shackles of our slavery (Rousseau, 3). Instead, he praises those civilizations that shunned education for virtues (Rousseau, 7). If a society proclaiming the value of the arts were truly superior, it would have continued its existence relative to those societies which did not. One example of Rousseau's society in moral decline due to the arts was Rome. In years of poverty, Rome flourished. Yet, after Rome had succeeded militarily, the society went to waste at the hands of such ``erotic'' poets as Catullus and Martial (Rousseau, 6).

Both Presidential candidates vowed to restore honor to the office of the President. After the most recent administration, some felt that our moral values were in decline. They claimed that we must restore the moral fabric of our country. Rousseau might claim that our moral decline arose from the emphasis we place on education of the arts in our society. He might proceed a step further and suggest that education of the arts is inversely proportional to the virtues of a man. For example, compare the education of our 32nd, 35th, and 42nd Presidents to the 7th, 16th, and 33rd Presidents. After also studying what these men did in office, it is interesting to note how our society views the morality and virtues of the individual and contrast that to how society views their actions as leader of this country. It is quite telling and goes to show how definitive the role of education is to the proper leadership in government.

One of the mantras of Bush's campaign was that ``No child should be left behind.'' Rousseau might not disagree with this comment, but he would take a remarkably different route to achieving this goal. Rousseau's ideal education is not centered around teachings and books, but rather focused on individual real-world experiences. In this aspect of authority, Rousseau yields to the individual rather than the society at large. In Emile, the child has his environment meticulously controlled by his teacher. The influences upon Emile's environment is to produce precisely the expected outcome the teacher desires. Rousseau would be appalled by the notion of standardized tests - the society dictating the requirements for education of the individual.

Standardized tests are the norm everywhere - passing some form of standardized testing is a necessity to receive a high school diploma in most states. Due to the sheer volume of students, it would almost be impossible to adjust the environment to best fit each student in a common environment. However, a movement that is steadily growing support is for school choice and vouchers. Parents would be able to choose the schools that their children attend. This leads us to Locke's views on education and government. By opening up the market for charter schools and other competition to the public schools, parents would be able to choose where their children go to school. Ideally, they would choose the school that is best for their child. This is in almost perfect harmony with Locke's view of proper government authority - let the parents decide.

The role of government in our society's education is extreme. The aforementioned standardized tests are only one example. Books are routinely banned by school boards who feel that the content of a book is inappropriate for teenage students. There are enforced limits to the number of students that can be in a classroom. There are governmental certifications that teachers must receive in order to teach. Everywhere government has interposed itself upon the educational system. A valid question to ask is whether government has over-stepped its bounds in the role of education in society.

I tend to find myself disregarding the views of Locke and Rousseau. I do not believe that an education dismissing the sciences and arts could ever succeed. The enlightenment that I have received due to my education of the sciences and arts have not dulled my thoughts, but rather sharpened them. I do not believe that such a free-market school system could ever succeed. Education of children is something that I would prefer not to leave to chance. There are simply too many variations in teaching abilities and qualities of schools. I am not supposing that our public schools are perfect, but I do believe that a grand public school system is our best shot at educating all of our children. My intrinsic fear is that parents will be preyed upon by schools looking to make money. This is similar to Rousseau's notion of human nature - people are targets for those with less than pure intentions. Therefore, as Rousseau suggested, I suggest that it is best if we band together, we can succeed. However, I feel that it is an appropriate goal for education - not for overall government.

This dialogue highlights an important aspect of Locke and Rousseau - they believed and championed these ideas. We must also understand the context in which these ideas were placed upon paper - they were writing about their ideal society. However, the transition from the ideal world to the real world is fraught with dilemmas. Resolving those dilemmas as best as we can in the present time is the best that we can ask for in any political government. We do the best that we can - right now, right here. Anything less would be a betrayal of our own beliefs and ideas.