On The Nature of Civil Society

Hence, the purpose of government and the idea behind individuals coming together and associating with one another and thus creating a “civil society” is “to keep the pauper in his poverty and the rich man in the position he has usurped.” It follows that: “Learned inquiries into public right are often only the history of past abuses; and troubling to study them too deeply is a profitless infatuation.” After all, and as Rousseau argued: “How can a man or a people seize an immense territory and keep it from the rest of the world except by a punishable usurpation, since all others are being robbed, by such an act, of the place of habitation and the means of subsistence which nature gave them in common”?

As Rousseau wrote in regards to the real nature of ‘civil society’: “The first man, who, after enclosing a piece of ground, took it into his head to say, ‘This is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society.” Before the creation of civil societies, men were believed to be in a primitive state predicated upon natural liberty. Therefore, sacrificing individual liberty in order to bind oneself to the will of a civil society or state is for a purpose, namely, the protection of one’s property and self-preservation. Otherwise, sacrificing natural liberty and giving oneself to a master has no inherent purpose. As Rousseau wrote:

“To say that a man gives himself gratuitously, is to say what is absurd and inconceivable; such an act is null and illegitimate, from the mere fact that he who does it is out of his mind. To say the same of a whole people is to suppose a people of madmen; and madness creates no right.”

It follows that: “Since no man has a natural authority over his fellow, and force creates no right, we must conclude that conventions form the basis of all legitimate authority among men.” Without the element of legitimacy conferred upon it by other men, authority becomes arbitrary. Thus, the way in which an authority degenerates, according to Rousseau, is when authority is transferred from the many to the few. However, the transfer of authority or power from the many to the few is believed to be the “natural propensity” of authority and power.

Also, the transfer of power from the many to the few is a sign that the authority or government is getting weaker. As Rousseau wrote:

“Indeed, governments never change their form except when their energy is exhausted and leaves them too weak to keep what they have. If a government at once extended its sphere and relaxed its stringency, its force would become absolutely nil, and it would persist still less. It is therefore necessary to wind up the spring and tighten the hold as it gives way: or else the State it sustains will come to grief.”

In turn, it is difficult to determine whether the attempts to change the makeup of an authority or government that has degenerated stems from “the will of a whole people” or “from the clamor of a faction.” In any case, the natural propensity mentioned before supposes the usurpation of power by either an individual or the few, thus the trek towards despotism as mentioned before.

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