The Concept Of Equality In The Political Thought Of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The idea of equality is advocated and incorporated within Rousseau’s arguments which have made his political thinking differ from other philosophers. The universal definition of equality is the practice of treating everyone fairly and exercising the same rights no matter the race, class, ethnicity, gender and so on; to Rousseau this applied in most cases which has been demonstrated through some of his famous work such as Discourse on Inequality and Emile. Through studying his work, there is a clear understanding that Rousseau was very much against the idea of natural inequality and argued that all men were originally equal; this is demonstrated through his claims on the distribution of property. It is also to be regarded that though he believes in equality, he does also contradict himself which is expressed through his ideas of women and their roles within society. Rousseau also understood that his arguments were arguments for an ideal society and it would be hard to apply these ideas in reality. Most of his arguments counters other political thinkers such as Hobbes and Locke and is seen as a positive view of humanity; Rousseau’s uptake on the role of equality has influenced his political thinking which is evident from the reflection through his work. Rousseau defines property to be obtained legally thereby purporting legitimate claim to one’s holdings. In regards to the distribution of private property, Rousseau argues that there should be a right to equal property and advocates the idea for citizens to be able to have a natural right towards the distribution of property, as he acknowledges there is a natural right, he believes it is the natural right to live. As the world revolves around property and wealth and we must live in it, he therefore concludes that everyone should therefore have access. A story from Emile describes that ‘every man must live and if there is some miserable state in the world where a man cannot live without doing harm and where the citizens are rascals by necessity, it is not the malefactor who should be hanged, but he who forces him to become one’; overall this shows that having equal access to property is simply a right and a necessity in which ‘every man has naturally a right to everything that is necessary to him’ and those who try to strip this away from them should be the ones punished. Rousseau therefore rejects the idea that there should be a natural right to property and believes ‘no-one should have too much: for it is the rich as much as the poor who lie beyond the purview of the laws’ – this clearly promotes a sense of equality which has now been reflected in the distribution of property in society.

In addition, this shows that he believes property is a right that is attached to the moral and legal code so going against it would be going against the state and the rules of society. This further means that due to it being a right, then it must be applied to everyone, despite what class they are in. This is beneficial to the community which links to his idea of general will. The individual rights of property are combined with the whole to create a public community. Therefore each individual property is protected by the govern of the whole which is now created as a state by which each citizens depends on the other with an responsibility to work toward the best interests of each other and the community – to achieve general will. Rousseau views on the distribution of property promote the concept of equality as he firmly expresses that citizens should have as much as they need, but no more than they need. Moreover, ‘to have a right to hold property, citizens must labour upon it themselves. No one should be wealthy enough to hire another, nor poor enough to have to work for another’. His form of equality has been reflected through his work has he opposes wealth, trade, and commerce because they involve powerful forms of interest which can draw the citizens away from the realm of public affairs and locking them into the realm of private ones, which goes against his teachings about general will as it does not take into account the public and common interest; instead it focuses on ‘particular interest’ which is the small minority. Rousseau’s idea of political equality and natural equality helps shape his political thought on how equality should be distributed as he believes that in society there should be political equality and allowing further freedom in the lives of citizens. Political inequality is the idea that only those that are rich property owners, which is the small minority, are the ones who should create the laws; Rousseau rejected this ideal as he believed that those who obey the law are the ones who should create these laws and he believed that it also goes against the natural equalities that he discusses. He discusses this in Discourse on inequality and states that ‘whether those who command which are necessarily worth more than those who obey, and whether strength of body or mind, wisdom a question perhaps good for slaves to discuss in the hearing of’. Rousseau essentially questions that even though some individuals are worth more in terms of property and wealth, it shouldn’t overrule those who obey and abide by the law, which is why he believes that citizens should have greater influence in the making of the law. This leads into the concept of Rousseau’s general will, where ‘individuals have different interests forms the social bond; and if there were not some point in which all interests agree, no society could exist. Now it is only on this common interest that the society should be governed’. Rousseau understands that individuals have different interests however ‘asserts that there is a common (or public) interest on which all humankind can agree in principle’.

Therefore, by the general public creating the laws, this will allow general will to take place as it considers the public interest which would be in-cooperated within these laws, rather than the minority. By Rousseau introducing the idea of citizens creating laws in society to promote political equality, it has influenced his political thought as he incorporates characteristics of a democracy into how the government should run. Rousseau argued that the general will of the people could not be decided by elected representatives and the small minorities as it will fail to deliberate the public needs. He believed in a direct democracy in which everyone voted to express the general will and to make the laws of the land. This can be referred to the modern-day electoral process as most parties in countries are elected through the majority and in the public interest which again links to the ides of general will. Furthermore, Rousseau’s rejection of natural inequality is can be seen implemented within modern day society as all the same laws and rights are given to all citizens even though there are some individuals wealthier than others. In addition, his political thought then goes on to influence the relationship between the government and the citizens and believes the government is there to protect the citizens and the general will – ‘The goal of the state is the common welfare. The General Will is alone capable of directing the State toward that goal which is the common welfare. The sovereignty is at the same time the exercise of the General Will and the collective 'moi. ' It is both inalienable and indivisible. Sovereignty, which is the expression of the spirit of a people, expresses itself by law, and law is what gives movement and will to the political body’.

The overall objective is to look after the he preservation of each citizen. When looking at modern day equality between men and women, Rousseau’s idea of women goes against the idea of equality and is seen as someone who is against feminism. Rousseau firmly believes that women should continue to stay submissive and dependent to men while men remain dominant. Studying the book of Emile, Rousseau untouched by any such progressive thinking, believes women should be taught to achieve the traditional roles of wife and mother. Already, this defies the concept of equality, however, Rousseau believes it to be the correct way to mould a woman. He then continues to sexualise the existence of women and argues that women are ‘specially made for man's delight. If man in his turn ought to be pleasing in her eyes, the necessity is less urgent, his virtue is in his strength, he pleases because he is strong, he therefore suggests that an important role a woman must acquire is pleasing and completing the satisfaction of a man. This goes against the concept of equality and Rousseau recognises this as he believes that there is a natural inequality between man and woman and rejects the idea that the inequality between the sexes are a human construction. Once again, he contradicts himself as in his previous work, he is not in favour with the idea of natural inequality among citizens and within society; this therefore makes Rousseau political thought confusing and inconsistent which is one of the main criticisms Rousseau faces. Rousseau then goes on to describe what women should be taught within the education system and men and women should not be subjected to the same form of education; ‘when I consider the special purposes of woman, when I observe her inclinations or reckon up her duties, everything combines to indicate the mode of education she requires’. The overall goal to the point of a woman's learning is to enable her to make conversation and to gesture which will entertain both her husband and his company to therefore satisfy and amuse them and in short, the woman is to be a social asset to the man and is there to give support and affection towards him. Rousseau wanted women to be ‘subservient, non-threatening, competent in useful homely arts, and ornamental in her ability to provide pleasing and attractive company. Ideally, she should cultivate the talents which will delight her husband as zealously as the Circassian cultivates the accomplishments of an Eastern harem’. Rousseau’s political ideas regarding equality are interesting ideas to try and dissect as he gives clear points however then contradicts himself from time to time therefore making it hard to comprehend his overall argument. This is evident through his thought on the education system regarding women and their entire role towards man as it rejects the idea of equality among sexes. But it is clear that the concept of equality plays a major role within Rousseau’s political ideas and it is still used today, such as the idea of political equality and the way laws and legislations are implemented and created in society, to the way wealth and property are distributed in order to avoid class differences and the idea of slaves; it has also created a blueprint to how the government and citizens should interact with one another and how the relationship between the two entities should be.

Furthermore, the determination to embody the concept of general will in order to accomplish the common interest and equality among citizens has shaped the foundation of Rousseau’s thinking and moulded his work. Overall, I have argued that equality and his different interpretations of it has built Rousseau’s political thinking and has been adopted throughout his works and arguments.


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10 December 2020
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