We have all heard of Jean Jacques Rousseau. Or we should have. His view of the genesis of society influenced all Western (and Eastern) European nation-states in the aftermath of the French Revolution. When the Terror perpetrated by Robespierre and his followers ended, all the social bonds and mechanisms of formation had to be re-thought even if just polemically. Although many considered the Genevese philosopher to be responsible for a great part of the revolutionary bloodbath, he continued to be a major influence in political thinking throughout the 19th century.
Nowadays liberalism (to be clear, I use this term in the European manner, meaning something rather like the North American libertarianism) would be unconceivable without Rousseau’s theory of the “social contract”. In his view, the human being was born naturally good, but spoiled afterwards by society. Wishing to see how great societies where founded and how they could maintain an equilibrium between force and law, between power and legitimacy, Rousseau developed a strange social genesis.
The philosopher’s theory put forth the idea that in the beginning man was free, lonely and satisfied with his life. However, his needs soon brought him next to other people and society had to arise. Thus, people gathered and they adhered to a “contract”, to a “covenant” with his kin in which they all put together their freedom and chose to live under the constraints of general will, the only place where their rights could from now on be protected.
This theory shows an opposition not just toward ancient philosophers like Aristotle (we should bare in mind that the Greek thinker believed man was naturally a “social animal” and that virtue and joy could only be achieved in a community), but also toward Christian Fathers like Augustine. Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox) social thinking can never peacefully coexist with a doctrine – such as Rousseau’s – which denies the ancestral sin and the essential decay of human nature.
His more modern critics, mainly conservative and/or communitarian, reproach Rousseau his naive optimism in the natural goodness of man, an optimism that could hardly be supported after we have all seen the atrocities of the 20th century. After the Gulag, the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge massacres or the African ethnic cleansings, no realist man can still believe in the fact that an abstract concept such as Rousseau’s “general will” is sufficient to build legitimacy for the actions of the masses.