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Enlightenment ideals in society and politics

- History 143 Western Civilization, Spring 2005
The age of Enlightenment, though countless accomplishments had been made in the areas of science and humanities during this period, has its significance in revolutionizing ideas of optimal government and social structure form, emphasizing man’s freedom and power of reason. Among the well-known philosophers in this era, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were clearly the two central figures who had made significant contribution to enlightenment theories in the area of political and social philosophy. While John Locke, who brought up the idea of natural right to freedom for every person, built a foundation on new political doctrines based on reasoning, Rousseau extended the same idea in more radical way, supported by his term, general will. As they both proposed an optimistic society where personal freedom and equality are respected, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau supported with a different definition of the enlightenment society with diverse emphasis. 

As they share a common interest in reformation in politics, Locke and Rousseau each take a different cause and criticism. In Locke’s most significant work on political philosophy, Two Treatises of Government, written in response to the patriarchal justification of the absolute monarch made by Robert Filmer, the first treatise mainly denies the absolutism that had been popular until that time. He states that the civil society that Western Europe claim to be is no longer said to be enlightened if the decisions are made only by small portion of the population. Therefore, he demands a nation governed “by the consent of every individual and determination by the majority,” (Locke 246) which grants people a personal freedom. He supports the idea by bringing up the laws of nature, that, by the laws of nature, one does not possess a power to rule over another when each person holds his or her own reasoning, referring to an example of paternal power. Furthermore, he argues that those reasoning of the majority should be taken into account for making laws, which should replace king’s position and rule people.

On the other hand, Rousseau sees his motivation in power and slavery, calling for legitimate authority and equality. One of his key publications on his philosophy, The Social Contract reflects Rousseau’s claim for the freedom of the individual and civil tranquility. It starts off with a sentence “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains,” (Rousseau 351) criticizing how people, specifically slaves, had despoiled their rights by the force of the strongest, suggesting that people are “obliged to obey only legitimate powers,” (Rousseau 352) which does not include the right of the strongest, On the issue of slavery, he argues that renunciation of liberty takes away identity as well as one’s duties and cannot be quantified to a value. Furthermore, he calls for a need to set up an arbitrary government where every generation makes decisions on their life, confirming that as “they are born free, their liberty belongs to them, and no one but they has the right to dispose of it.” (Rousseau 353)

Though freedom and equality could be taken as characteristics shared by the same principle, the differences of the two terms have resulted discrete ideas on social contract by Locke and Rousseau. Rousseau’s Social Contract, as the title conveys, mainly discusses how individual freedom should interact with community. His argument of the social compact is based on general will, integrated collection of individual will that reflects the civil society as one. The civil society, as defined by Rousseau, is where everyone gives up their natural rights in return for civil rights and the proprietorship of their possessions, which he claim to be better than the natural one and enable them to be master of themselves. Thereby, Rousseau believes that his model of social compact will bring citizens the equality and perfect society where decisions are made by majority agreement.

Similarly, Locke’s view of a civil society is a community where individual powers are given up to public and “enter into one body politic under one supreme government.”(Locke 245) Moreover, he stresses that commonwealth can be achieved by “setting up a judge on earth with authority to determine all the controversies and redress the injuries that may happen to any member of the commonwealth, which judge is the legislative or magistrates appointed by it.”(Locke 245) He claims that anyone who turns themselves subject to the civil law will find freedom by voluntary obedience, and lastly, he points that people always have the right to overthrow the government if it disappoints them.

Although Locke and Rousseau’s proposals were made with good intentions and coherent with the ideals of the enlightenment, they both are not suitable to be considered as the nearly perfect democracy there exists today. First, they are just ideal and optimistic form of society where everyone can get satisfaction and tranquility. Rousseau’s theory of general will and majority decision will conflict with personal interests because general will does not reflect every person’s belief and wants. Therefore, the concept of general will is subordination to the nation for the good of all, rather than granting themselves freedom and equality. Also, in Locke’s model, appointed individual would not necessarily be a good leader or judge, in which case it would be not much different from the monarchy he criticizes on. Another problem with the social models is that attaining human freedom and granting equality could appeal to the common people, yet at the same time, contradicts the theories that they proposed. Locke starts his argument by recalling need for the common people’s role in authority, but later he suggests that people should give up their powers, and leave them to the elected legislatives for a complete freedom. Likewise, Rousseau’s idea of forcing a man to be free, further threatens his own theory of civil society by bringing totalitarianism.

While the ideas by Locke and Rousseau on enlightened society present social models with practically same motifs and similar approach, it is awkward to draw a line between the two. However, one should choose Locke’s model over Rousseau’s because as his model is more radical, it is likely that Rousseau’s model could take away its citizens’ freedom even more than before. Although Rousseau’s model is straight-forward and depicts a clear solution, Locke’s theory will result a slow, but continuous improvement as a civil society, like England was able to establish an efficient form of government and society in stability.


Locke, John. "Two Treatises on Government." Perspectives from the Past. New York: W.W.Norton and Company, 2002. 238-248.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. "The Social Contract." Perspectives from the Past. New York: W.W.Norton and Company, 2002. 350-359.

Negative Aspects of the Enlightenment Elicited Consequences

- History 143 Western Civilization, Spring 2005

Essay 2 - Enlightenment as negative development.doc