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Rousseau’s Contradictory Treatment of Property

Anna Hills (3rd year LLB) explores the detailed theories of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's property right by analysing 'The Social Contract' and 'The Second Discourse'. Contradictions between his two writings are discussed throughout this article...

Rousseau’s Contradictory Treatment of Property

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a man of contradictory character, both in his life and in his writing. This is evident in his differing opinions on property, featuring a condemnation of it in his work Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men[1] published in 1755, but latterly affirming it as an important right in The Social Contract in 1762. By examining evidence from Rousseau’s texts I shall discuss whether this contradiction is real or only apparent.


Evidence of denunciation of private property in the Second Discourse


One of the most powerful denunciations of private property can be found in the opening of the Second Discourse: “The first man who, having enclosed a piece of land, thought of saying ‘this is mine’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society.”[2]


Rousseau details examples of all the atrocities that could have been avoided had someone prevented this action and withdrew the fences claiming “You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to everyone and that the earth itself belongs to no one!”[3] Rousseau is a strong believer that common interest must prevail over self-interest and yet expresses that man’s first concern is of his own preservation.[4] In a state of nature man cares only for himself and only possesses such objects and land so as to make use of them – furthermore, any connection with others of his species is only to satisfy a need, so much so that “even a child meant nothing to the mother as soon as he could do without her”.[5] He declares that there can be little use of property in a state of nature as there is nothing to verify such a right over others when “love of one’s own wellbeing is the sole motive for human action”.[6]


Everything then begins to change as man becomes more enlightened. With the realisation of his superiority over other animals, man begins to develop his blatant distrust of other men into the rare use of their shared common interest for his own aid.[7] Families spring from this and over time settlements come together gradually in mutual unity - “united by customs and character - not by rules and laws”[8].


It is here that we find another condemnation of property as Rousseau quotes Locke’s statement that “where there is no property there is no injury/injustice”[9], explaining that any subsequent progress towards the improvement of the individual is in fact a further step towards the “decrepitude of the species”[10]. Since the development of savages in the state of nature towards civilised man in a sovereign state entirely balances on the introduction of property as an established right, Rousseau clearly denounces property as the downfall of humans, reliant on Locke’s view that with property will come injustice and injury to man.


Notably, Rousseau places a lot of emphasis on the effect of inequality that property rights have on developing man. This inequality is seen as having a damning effect on the whole species and allows slavery and misery to develop “from the instant one man needed the help of another, and it was found to be useful for one man to have provisions enough for two, equality disappeared, property was introduced, work became necessary…”[11] Here we see clearly Rousseau’s negative view of individual self-interest, in favour of a common interest whereby man would satisfy any need he had from a shared pool of resources. With the introduction of property, parts of resources are sectioned off and claimed, much like the fence analogy at the opening of his Discourse, and inequality sets in causing the reliance on others for fundamental needs and the greed of others with strength enough to claim what were once shared resources.


Reliance especially, Rousseau notes, is one of the many evils to evolve from the establishment of property. A difference in circumstances between men allows for inequality of ranks and this greatly influences their roles in the future. Men who were previously free become slaves to masters because they require aid from them to fulfil their needs, but likewise the rich become masters who must however rely on slaves for services. Indeed, the rich and those with wealth of resources strive to further their estates and increase competition: “all these evils are the main effects of property and the inseparable consequences of nascent inequality.”[12]


Furthermore, it is clear that Rousseau greatly objects to this inequality in his Second Discourse and that he somewhat feels that whilst civil order is an evident and necessary progression of man, it is not necessarily one supported by him as it is society built on the basis of great inequality.  “All ran towards their chains believing that they were securing their liberty; for although they had reason enough to discern the advantages of a civil order, they did not have experience enough to foresee the dangers.”[13]  The establishment of property and of law was only the first stage of the progress of inequality, and by submitting to a sovereign the people have sacrificed one part of their freedom to save another - namely their complete freedom and natural liberty for protective rights over their property.  Rousseau finds this to be a degradation of man’s existence.


“Inequality, being almost non-existent in the state of nature, derives its force and its growth from the development of our faculties and the progress of the human mind, and finally becomes fixed and legitimate through the institution of property and laws.”[14] This is a strong denunciation of property as the cause of inequality to complete the Second Discourse on, and as we shall see, one that is contradicted by Rousseau’s later work in The Social Contract. To summarise his view on property in the Second Discourse Rousseau puts forward a hugely condemning statement: “Such was or must have been, the origin of society and of laws which put new fetters on the weak and gave new powers to the rich, which irretrievably destroyed natural liberty, established for all time the law of property and inequality, transformed adroit usurpation into irrevocable right, and for the benefit of a few ambitious men subjected the human race thenceforth to labour, servitude and misery.”[15]


Evidence in The Social Contract of the affirmation of private property as an important right


Next, an evaluation of the contradiction in The Social Contract of Rousseau’s aforementioned denunciation of property where Rousseau claims that property is in fact an important right. Rousseau distinguishes the idea of a savage man in a state of nature being like a wolf: savage, murderous and greedy; in favour of that of a more peaceful man, quite capable of surviving in the state of nature without great conflict. Unlike the theories of Locke and Hobbes whereby man leaves a state of nature in order to protect his life by utilising the collective power of an almighty sovereign, Rousseau believes that man’s intention behind leaving a state of nature is to protect his possessions so that he has right to them over everyone else.[16] The sovereign in Rousseau’s theory is that of collective interest or ‘general will’: “Each one of us puts into the community his person and all his powers under the supreme direction of the general will; and as a body, we incorporate every member as an indivisible part of the whole.”[17] It is the collective will of all men in the state of nature to have their possessions protected and by forfeiting their natural liberty they collectively gain the power to protect this shared interest and it is this general will that forms the sovereign. For example, with the development of families and dwellings, there became a shared interest in the division of land where each group of dwellers were interested in preserving it for their own sole use. This general will resulted in the division of cultivated land, leading to property rights, which caused justice rules to arise.[18] Rousseau places a key importance in the development of these justice rules. In a state of nature there can be no morals or law. It is with this in mind that men choose to leave the state of nature in pursuit of property rights which with it brings the ideas of right and wrong and of genuine ownership over mere individual rights, protected by a sovereign.


One could argue that by signing the social contract to enter into a civilised world from the state of nature, a man loses “his natural liberty and the absolute right of property in what he possesses.”[19] This very much aligns with his discussion in the Second Discourse; however, Rousseau then contradicts his previous text by explaining the social contract in more detail: “Each man recovers the equivalent of everything he loses, and in the bargain he acquires more power to preserve what he has.”[20] This repudiates his previous argument of inequality arising as soon as property is introduced. Previously in a state of nature the most successful man was the strongest, most capable fighter and defender who was able to protect his possessions.  Rousseau suggests that by joining a social order, all men, no matter what their circumstance in the state of nature, become equal by the newly gained rights that they sacrificed their freedom for. It is submitted then that property is a key right gained by sacrificing natural liberty for the protection of one’s possessions, and furthermore in doing so creating a sovereign which has the combined power of all those who have submitted to it, and is the protector and enforcer of this fundamental right.


There is evident contradiction here, as in the Second Discourse the attainment of property is seen as the demise of the species, yet in The Social Contract it is viewed as the beginnings of civilised man. Man gives up all of his possessions (including the possession of himself) and his liberty when entering a civil state, however “what he now has is a true right of ownership protected by the community instead of usurpation or mere physical possession.”[21] Here men who have submitted to a state now has protection from aggressors, and by giving themselves to the state it claims collective power to enforce and protect.


In addition, Rousseau combats the previous issue of inequality set out in the Second Discourse as this new found collectivity can prevent it from arising.[22] There is further conflict with the matter of inequality, Rousseau originally detailed that the introduction of property would allow for great inequality between men and yet he later contradicts himself when suggesting that obtaining property rights allows for the development of the social contract which creates equality between men as they are viewed equally in the eyes of the sovereign, which in Rousseau’s mind represents the general will.


Evidence against contradiction


To further this discussion, I shall now assess the evidence that each text, on occasion, agrees with its contradictory counterpart. Namely that the Second Discourse affirms property rights and The Social Contract condemns them.


Most importantly, the acclaimed and denunciatory line that opens The Social Contract: “Man was born free and everywhere he is in chains.”[23] As Rousseau already established, the route to a civil society is one that develops property rights for the protection of the citizens inhabiting such a society and yet in The Social Contract where Rousseau advocates for such an improvement from the state of nature, he compares such rights as chains, expressing that, in a state of nature man is inherently free, and yet is found in chains when the social contract is signed. Man gives up his own natural liberty for the protection of his property. This statement is in agreement with the content of the Second Discourse[24] that in search for protection of their natural rights, man found himself more enslaved than before. Furthermore, The Social Contract dictates some negative connotations of property rights, namely that “the state of war cannot arise from mere personal relations, but only from property relations.”[25] Rousseau elaborates that in a state of nature, war cannot exist as there are no fixed rights to property - this shows too that war is the adverse consequence of obtaining property rights and whilst war also should not exist in society where it is unauthorised by law, this is often undermined in the pursuit for property.[26]


Conversely, the Second Discourse does affirm property rights in some areas, such as to obtain security from the sovereign.[27] Rousseau adamantly believed that an individual has a right to their own body, and ownership of oneself is never contradicted in his texts.[28] He also affirmed that knowledge of this form of ownership made the human species superior to other animals.[29]  Arguably, the ownership of oneself opens some gateways for the furtherance of man, and although ultimately Rousseau expresses this in a negative fashion in the Second Discourse, many examples he provides can only be marginally unfavourable, such as leisure, beauty, relationships, and love; which in moderation cannot be the “demise of the species” Rousseau claims it will be.


It is important to note that the Second Discourse was written and published seven years before The Social Contract was. The Second Discourse was written after Rousseau spent some time travelling between many European cities, often working for various noblemen and ambassadors as secretaries and the like. His witnessing of the immense poverty within each country compared to the vast wealth of the individuals he was employed by inspired him to write when he returned to Geneva and this experience explains his theories regarding the inequality produced by civil society. After this however, he spent some time settled in Switzerland and France and the success of his early works lead to both friendship and admiration of many influential people including Diderot and King Louis XV. His newfound acquaintances and success greatly influenced the writing of his next major works, including The Social Contract, which could explain his more positive treatment of property rights and of society in general in The Social Contract.


There is no question that a contradiction between Rousseau’s two highly influential pieces exists.  It is clear that there is contradiction in his writing, but it is submitted that any contradictions between the Second Discourse and The Social Contract are only apparent as the former was written anterior to the text which it contradicts. Like his texts, Rousseau challenged his earlier experiences in life which altered his character, inspiring him to clearly contradict that which he wrote before, and therefore it is submitted that there are real contradictions within Rousseau’s work. However that is not to say that one must be more heavily weighted than the other, or that one is wrong in its opinion. Fundamentally they are both theories, and they may both be accurate observations from different mind sets. Rousseau is entitled to change some of his opinion providing his contradiction can be justified, which it is in this case.[30] Both the Second Discourse and The Social Contract detail complex and, at the time they were written, unique theories in an articulate and well-reasoned fashion - the fact that they were produced by the same author who therefore appears to contradict himself should not make them any less the cornerstones of legal, social and political theory.



[1] Also known as the Second Discourse

[2] J. Rousseau, A Discourse on Inequality, (trans.) M. Cranston (Middlesex, 1984 (first published 1755)), 109

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid., 111

[7] ibid.

[8] ibid., 113

[9] ibid., 115. See also J. Locke, An Essay on Human Understanding (London, 1993 (first published 1905)), book four, 3.18

[10] Rousseau, A Discourse on Inequality, 115

[11] ibid., 116

[12] ibid., 119

[13] ibid., 122

[14] ibid., 137

[15] ibid., 122

[16] J. Rousseau, The Social Contract, (trans.) M. Cranston (Middlesex, 1968 (first published 1762)), book one, 59 and 68

[17] ibid., 61

[18] L. Crocker, Rousseau’s Social Contract: An Interpretive Essay (Ohio, 1968), 94

[19] Rousseau, Social Contract, 65

[20] ibid., 61

[21] Crocker, 67

[22] ibid.

[23] Rousseau, Social Contract, 49

[24] See footnote 11.

[25] Rousseau, Social Contract, 56

[26] See footnote 11.

[27] Crocker, 67

[28] See also Rousseau’s discussion on slavery: Rousseau, Social Contract, 55

[29] Rousseau, A Discourse on Inequality, 110

[30] Crocker, 67

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