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Civil Society: Rousseau (1753) and Locke (1690)

June 9, 2008


Like many viewers initially watching the television seriesLost, I remained lost throughout its entire unfolding. At times we joked that is must be written from episode to episode with about the same level of thought given to fictional productions in the cynical sit-com Made in Canada on what really happens in the name of television productions. But according to US Today journalist, Keveney (2007) the ABC televised drama apparently paid homage to western philosophers who focused on a study of man, nature and society as namesakes for Lost fictional characters: John Locke (1632-1704), English philosopher of the Enlightenment Era, Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-78), French philosopher, born in Switzerland, Stephen Hawking (1942-), Anthony Cooper (1671-1713), English philosopher and Third Earl of Shaftesbury, English theoretical physicist, Edmund Burke (1730-97), Irish political writer whose work delved into philosophy).

We met Danielle Rousseau, the intensely suspicious survivor of an earlier ill-fated expedition, who survived but was unhinged due to extreme isolation in the wild, was driven by her desire to find her daughter. Her fictional character is meant to refer to Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78), the French philosopher, born in Switzerland who also grew paranoid later in life and had a famed falling-out with philosopher colleague David Hume. In his writings, Rousseau adopted a more positive attitude towards civil society since it enabled people to work together and to provide each other with some form of security. David Thomer, who teaches philosophy at La Salle University, argued that Rousseau’s relationship to the natural world became self-destructive and is therefore a warning about the potential for destruction in “the state of nature.”

John Locke, the frustrated wheelchair-bound office worker who was miraculously transformed to a vital, ambulatory explorer on the island is loosely based on John Locke (1632-1704), the English philosopher of the Enlightenment Era. Unlike his namesake, the island version of Locke represents faith over reason and science. The island healed him so he feels a spiritual bond with its mystery. Like the Enlightenment philosopher, the island boy scout also believes in the tabula rasa, or blank slate, and learns through experience. Thomer, argued that just as John Locke, the philosopher saw humans starting in a state of nature, Lost survivors, also moved toward a form of social contract. His belief that action is based on experiences fits in with Lost‘s ample use of flashbacks in which we see how particular life experiences motivates certain characters to behave the way they do.

“The first person who, having fenced off a plot 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 (Rousseau 1753).”

“the State of Nature has a Law of Nature to Govern it, which
obliges everyone: And Reason … is that Law” (Locke 1690).

God “has given the earth to the Children of Men, given it to mankind in common” (Psalms 115:16 cited in Locke 1690).

In his germinal essay (1753) entitled “Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inegalite”, Jean-Jacques Rousseau addressed humanity as a whole. He focused on the situation of the individual in society and the distinction and relationship between Self and the Other. He praised Geneva’s republican form of government which to him represented the principles of freedom. He this descriptive text he attempted to reconstruct the history of mankind, a hypothetical evolution of society. Rousseau compared himself to ancient philosophers and metaphorically placed himself in the Greek Lyceum.

In his essay on political philosophy entitled “Two Treatises of Government” (1690) John Locke argued that a government’s assurance of the individual right to private property [1] was a positive result of the alignment of natural and civil law whereas Jean-Jacques Rousseau viewed civil society as a regrettable end to a superior mode of living. Hayllor following Miller (1992 ix) points out that Rousseau’s hypotheses regarding the state of nature were largely drawn from the Comte de Buffon’s seminal text Natural History.

Notes

1. In these essays (1690) Locke distinguishes between political power and other distinct power that the same individual man might have over others. Political power refers to the power of a magistrate over a subject in a commonwealth. The same individual may also have power as a father over his children, a master over his servant, a husband over his wife, a captain of a galley over his seamen and a lord over his slave. Locke’s concept of political power is that power that gives one the “right of making laws with penalties of death, and consequently all less penalties, for the regulating and preserving of property, and of employing the force of the community, in the execution of such laws, and in the defence of the common-wealth from foreign injury; and all this only for the public good” (Locke 1690). It is crucial to read both Locke and Rousseau in context. Locke’s essay is considered to be a strong rebuttal of monarchist ideas and critique of forms of governance in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. It is interesting to note that in 2008 the wikipedia article on Rousseau’s “Two Treatises of Government” (1690) continues to provoke controversy and remains on the list of articles requiring editing to ensure it remains free of bias. His treatises have been used by anti-capitalists as the beginning of capitalist arguments for private property.

[2] Rousseau’s essay was written in response to a call for papers by Dijon academy. Rousseau wrote the response to the question, “What is the Origin of the Inequality among Mankind; and whether such Inequality is authorized by the Law of Nature?” He also refers frequently to Hobbes and refutes Hobbes’ arguments but to different ends. Rousseau wrote elegantly without formal education.

Webliography and Bibliography

Hayllar, Andrew. “Virtue or Vice? Exploring the Role of Property in the Works of Locke and Rousseau.

Mercken-Spaas, Godelieve. 1978. “Some aspects of Self and the Other in Rousseau and Sade.” SubStance. 6: 20:71-77. Autumn. University of Wisconsin Press.

Keveney, Bill. 2007-03-28. “‘Lost’ philosophy: Something to think about.” USA Today.

Locke, John. 1690. “Two Treatises of Government.”

Locke, John, Two treatises of government, Student Edition, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought series, ed. P Laslett, Cambridge University Press,

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1964. The first and second discourses, trans. R & J Masters, ed. R Masters, St. Martin’s Press, New York.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1973. Social contract and discourses, Everyman’s Library no. 660, trans. GDH Cole, ed. & rev. J. H Brumfitt and JC Hall, JM Dent & Sons Ltd., London.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1992. Discourse on the origin of inequality, trans. DA Cress, Hackett Publishing Co., Indianapolis, 1992. Introduction by J Miller.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1753. “Discourse on the origin of inequality.” Second discourse.

Ryan, A. 1984. Property and political theory, Blackwell Publishing Ltd., Oxford.

Wokler, R. 2001. Rousseau: A very short introduction, Oxford University Press.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1753. “Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inegalite.”

de Sade, Marquis. 1795. La Philosophie dans la boudoir.”

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