GOVT2112 Lecture Notes - Lecture 7: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Maximilien Robespierre, French RevolutionExam
SchoolUniversity of Sydney
DepartmentGovernment and International Relations
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(6) Rousseau, Robespierre, and the French Revolution
In a further irony, the French, who had supported the American revolution in order to try and
weaken the power of the British, with whom they were competing for global imperial, colonial,
and commercial dominance, found that the revolutionary ideas of freedom and equality that had
been unleashed across the Atlantic were coming back to haunt them. Like Britain, France now
had a wealthy middle class (‘the third estate’) but was unable to formally accommodate them
within the institutions of absolute monarchy: the French crown had successfully eliminated
anything like parliamentary government.
At home, the French had already fallen increasingly under the spell of the Swiss-born Jean-
Jacques Rousseau, a hugely popular novelist and highly controversial philosopher who taught,
against Hobbes, that people were naturally good, and that it was society which had made them
wicked. If, however, the terms of the social contract could be adjusted to allow for equality and
freedom under the law to flourish, with kings being reduced to administrative officers and the
people making the law according to what he called ‘the General Will’, society could be
redeemed (Rousseau tended to think in covertly religious terms).
The idea that ‘the will of the people’ should be in charge remains a commonplace of modern
democratic politics, but it is full of ambiguities, and so it was in Rousseau. At one extreme, he
has been read as a champion of individual liberty; at the other, he becomes a champion of a
collectivist and authoritarian approach to government. In doing the reading you might want to
ask if ambiguity is real, in the sense that both tendencies are at work in his text, and it depends
on which side of his thought one wishes to emphasize.
For Robespierre, the collectivist and authoritarian Rousseau predominated. The French
revolution had started out as a largely peaceful and constitutional process which aimed to
emulate the English revolution of 1688, a more or less bloodless successful aristocratic coup
which had subjected the British crown to strict legal limitations. But the recalcitrance of the
French King Louis XVI in embracing reform gradually radicalised the opposition and lead to his
execution. At this point France was plunged into European war, as monarchs all across the
continent afraid of suffering the same fate decided that the new French republican regime was a
mortal enemy. France itself erupted in a civil war over the fate of the monarchy.
In response, Robespierre, a lawyer who had made his name in the revolutionary French
assembly, created the so-called ‘Committee of Public Safety’ which set about executing
thousands of Frenchmen in the name of the will of the people and national security. In the
twentieth century, his arguments were repeatedly appropriated by authoritarian and totalitarian
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governments, including the notorious regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia. You should be able to pick
up examples of this from the reading.
The debates on the role of the new middle class and of the relation that they should have to their
representatives was a wide-ranging one at the time. See Edmund Burke, who has been very
influential on modern conservative thought in particular, for the argument that the role of a
member of parliament is to represent the interests of the country, not the constituents, and the
Abbé Sieyes for an indication of the importance of the middle class or bourgeoise in the French
What is the problem that Rousseau wants to solve?
“The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole
common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself
with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before.” This is the fundamental
problem of which the Social Contract
provides the solution
-similar idea to locke: associates the leaning towards monarchy from paternal authority (they did
not need checks or balances. Ruler to the father
What is the relationship between fact and right?
-force does not create right, and that we are obliged to obey only legitimate powers.
-THE strongest is never strong enough to be always the master, unless he transforms strength into
right, and obedience into duty.
How does Rousseau differ from Hobbes on the right of conquest?
Human nature: Quotes Hobbes. On this showing, the human species is divided into so many
herds of cattle, each with its ruler, who keeps guard over them for the purpose of devouring
them.their rulers, are of a nature superior to that of the peoples under them. men are by no means
equal naturally, but that some are born for slavery, and others for dominion.
How does Rousseau’s contract differ from Hobbes’ and Lockes’ versions? How is it
-give up individual rights to the community
-conditions same for everyone
-“Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the
general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of
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