In his writing, Rousseau describes two main forms of freedom— the absolute liberty we enjoy in the state of nature and the freedom we preserve in civil society. The former freedom is fundamentally unattractive, and the latter can be achieved only with the concept of the general will. While this democracy is seemingly equitable, it ultimately suffers from numerous flaws that cause the freedom achieved in this state to be rather unappealing.
In the state of nature, freedom is described as the condition where mankind is allowed to do virtually anything. They are limited only by ability and their notion of pity, which inspires them to act in their own self-interest while doing as little harm to others as possible. While not subjugated to arbitrary rule in this state, men are also isolated. And as we see from mankind’s tendency to have families, form communities, and live in society, we would be unable to maintain this form of freedom.
But even if we could, there are several reasons why the absolute liberty of the state of nature is undesirable. First off, there is no uniform standard for how each person should pity another. While one person might refrain from kicking a man when he’s down, another, less agreeable individual might not do the pitiful man the same favor. Furthermore, this lack of standard mixed with the condition of absolute freedom can easily lead to a Hobbesian state of war. Life in such a state would truly be “nasty, brutish, and short;” society must be formed to prevent such a paltry condition. And finally, as Rousseau suggests, the savage man is devoid of thought. He has no appreciation for the arts, no strong emotions, and neither reason nor wisdom to guide his actions. Subsequently, freedom in the state of nature comes at the price of mankind being quite unhappy.
Rousseau admits that the evolution from the state of nature into a civil state is favorable, as we gain justice and morality in place of sheer impulse. This shift from “natural liberty” to “civil liberty” also indicates a shift in the concept of freedom. As a part of society, each person is subject to laws and the power of government; in a sense forfeiting all liberties. The only way for each individual to retain his freedom, then, is if he were the one who authored the laws and him who authorized government to rule. This can only be achieved when the community agrees to the general will. By doing so, each individual is subject to the rule of the community of the whole, which he is inherently a part of. By this logic, because the community, as the general will, rules in the public interest, the individual still essentially rules over himself. There is no leeway for an independent or outside force to gain power, thereby preventing arbitrary rule.
But achieving such a state is rather difficult, and the course of human events has suggested a different progression of authority in society. Rousseau first argues in The Second Discourse that human progress and the...