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For Rousseau, a man could be just without virtue and good without effort. According to Rousseau, man in the state of nature was free, wise, and good and the laws of nature were benevolent. It follows that it was civilization that enslaved and corrupted man and made him unnatural. Because in the order of nature all men were equal, it also follows that distinction and differentiation among men are the products of culture and civilization. Because man is by nature a saint, it must be the corrupting influence of society that is responsible for the misconduct of the individual.

Rousseau's view is that society corrupts the pure individual. Arguing that men are not inherently constrained by human nature, Rousseau claims that men are limited and corrupted by social arrangements. Conceiving of freedom as an absolute, independent of any natural limitations, Rousseau disavows the world of nature and its inherent laws, constraints, and regulations. Rousseau held that reason had its opportunity but had failed, claiming that the act of reflection is contrary to nature.


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Rousseau asserts that man's natural goodness has been depraved by the progress he has made and the knowledge he has acquired. He proceeded to attack the Age of Reason by emphasizing feeling, the opposite of reason, as the key to reality and the future. His thought thereby foreshadowed and gave impetus to the Romantic Movement.

Rousseau assigned primacy to instinct, emotion, intuition, feelings, and passion. He believed that these could provide better insights into what is good and real than could reason.

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Rousseau thus minimized reason and differences in the moral worth of individuals. He failed to realize that freedom is meaningless in the absence of reason. He did not grasp that reason connects the moral subject to the world of values. Rousseau observed that although life was peaceful in the state of nature, people were unfulfilled. They needed to interact in order to find actualization. Evil, greed, and selfishness emerged as human society began to develop. As people formed social institutions, they developed vices. One such institution was private property that encouraged avarice and self-interest.

Rousseau viewed private property as a destructive, impulsive, and egotistical institution that rewarded greed and luck.

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Civil society thus was born when people began fencing off their property, claiming that it was theirs, and finding that other people agreed with them. Depravity is due to the corruption of man's essence by civilization. For Rousseau, civil society resulted from the degeneration of a basically good state of nature. Man's problems arose because of civil society. He believed that the state of nature changed because it was internally unstable. For example, because talents were not distributed equally among persons, the balance that existed in the state of nature was disturbed and with inequality came conflicting interests.

The more talented, able, and intelligent people brought about advances in science, technology, commerce, and so on. Because people simply are born with certain natural endowments, a person cannot be praised for having talent or blamed for not having it. Rousseau saw talent as naturally leading to achievement. Inequality developed as some people produced more and earned more.

He failed to acknowledge the importance of motivation, industry, and volitional use of one's reason and other potentialities. The perspective of many of today's environmentalists can be traced back to Rousseau who believed that the more men deviated from the state of nature, the worse off they would be. Espousing the belief that all degenerates in men's hands, Rousseau taught that men would be free, wise, and good in the state of nature and that instinct and emotion, when not distorted by the unnatural limitations of civilization, are nature's voices and instructions to the good life.

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Rousseau's "noble savage" stands in direction opposition to the man of culture. People were no longer isolated and began to depend on each other. Those who just happen to have talents create new products and the desire for them. Buyers and sellers depend on each other but these dependencies are unequal because of the existence of a pyramid of ability.

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Rousseau contends that, as a result, the talented acquire property and become ambitious. All, including those without talent, become competitive, rivalrous, jealous, power-hungry, prestige seeking, and desirous for superiority over others. Civil society transforms men from isolated beings with limited wants into the warlike creatures found in a Hobbesian state of nature. For Rousseau, civil society is a state of war. Rousseau maintains that people did not have the right to rise above subsistence without everyone's consent. Everything changed as civil society developed, but permission was not given for things to change.

He contends that it is wrong to change the condition of all without asking. Rousseau is distressed that some people become relatively poorer without having lost anything. Not only are their feelings hurt, their right to stagnate has been violated. The poor, weak, and indolent did not want to change, but things around them changed, forcing them to steal or receive subsistence from the rich. Rousseau thought private property to be the source of social ills. He considered that private ownership of property tended to corrupt men and destroy their character and regarded the man without property i.

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Although he did not actually support the abolition of private property, he believed that private property should be minimal and should be distributed equally among the members of the society. Rousseau anticipated the need for the state to minimize private property. He wanted the property of the state to be as great and powerful as possible, and that of the citizens to be as small and weak as possible. With private property being so limited, the state would need to apply very little force in order to lead the people.

The general will is not the will of the majority. Rather, it is the will of the political organism that he sees as an entity with a life of its own. Rousseau says that it is impossible to go back to the state of primitive natural man. He says that men need to be governed as they now are and that any future change in human nature will come later as a result of re-education to indoctrinate individuals to believe that the public interest is their personal interest.

He says that we should seek unanimous agreement with respect to a new social contract that eliminates the problem of dependence on one another while permitting each person to obey only himself and to remain as free as before. This can be accomplished through total alienation of each associate to the whole community. He calls for a total merger in which each individual gives up his right to control his life in exchange for an equal voice in setting the ground rules of society.

Rousseau appeals to people to surrender their individual rights to a new moral and collective body with one will. The public person formed by social contract, the republic, has a will he calls the "general will. When you are forced to obey it, you really are obeying yourself, the true and free you. According to Rousseau's theory of social contract, people leave an anarchic state of nature by voluntarily transferring their personal rights to the community in return for security of life and property. He argues that people should form a society to which they would completely surrender themselves.

By giving up their rights, they actually create a new entity in the form of a public person that would be directed by a general will.

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When people join the community, they are voluntarily agreeing to comply with the general will of the community. The general will is an additional will, somehow distinct from and other than any individual will or group of individual wills. The general will is, by some means, endowed with goodness and wisdom surpassing the beneficence and wisdom of any person or collection of persons.

Society is coordinated and unified by the general will. Rousseau believed that this general will actually exist and that it demands the unqualified obedience of every individual. He held that there is only one general will and, consequently, only one supreme good and a single overriding goal toward which a community must aim. The general will is always a force of the good and the just. It is independent, totally sovereign, infallible, and inviolable.

The result is that all powers, persons, and their rights are under the control and direction of the entire community. Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus. Remember always that the nonviolent movement seeks justice and reconciliation—not victory. Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love. Pray daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free. Sacrifice personal wishes in order that all men might be free. Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.


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Seek to perform regular service for others and for the world. Refrain from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart. Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health. Follow the directions of the movement and of the captain on a demonstration. When practicing soul force, activists were urged to work for change in the world and in themselves simultaneously. He reminds nonviolent activists that brotherhood is our goal, love our method, generosity and forgiveness our rule. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle!

As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus films, video dharma talks, e-books, and more. Tricycle is a nonprofit that depends on reader support. Help us share Buddhist teachings and practices by donating now. Therefore I will keep the following commandments: Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.