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For more than two thousand years, thinkers have speculated upon, analyzed, and debated the best forms of government, reasons for obeying the state, the rights of the individual, and the concepts of freedom, equality, and justice. At the dawn of the democratic Western political tradition in the eighteenth century, which grew out of the humanist intellectual sensibilities of the Scientific Revolution of the previous century, three great works of Enlightenment political philosophy, presented together in this volume, emerged as the keystones of democracy as we know it: John Locke's The Second Treatise of Government, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract, and Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man.
John Locke's Second Treatise of Government (1690) is one of the most important works in the history of Western political thought. The central principles of what today is broadly known as political liberalismindividual liberty, the rule of law, government by consent of the people, and the right to private propertywere made current in large part by Locke's Second Treatise.
At the foundation of Locke's theories are individual rights and natural law, as well as the argument that popular consent is necessary for legitimate government. Locke (16321704) asserts that individuals are naturally in a state of liberty and equality, but he also recognizes that there must be limitations on the individualwhat he termed the law of naturethat stipulates that every individual must, despite inherent self-interest, seek to protect the life and liberty of everyone else. Locke suggests that an individual is more likely to limit his own freedom if he believes that his life and liberty are better served by doing so. For Locke, the desire for political association is natural law at work, uniting self-interest with public interest.
The Second Treatise makes clear that the protection of property interests is the fundamental purpose of government. Locke made the property right “natural,” and therefore inalienable; he argued that unequal distribution of property also occurs naturally and that the primary function of government is to protect and preserve disparities in wealth, thereby increasing the stability and general welfare of the entire community. Locke did not ignore those without property, however. He supported individual liberty by stressing the ultimate sovereignty of the people, their right to establish the form of government and their right to revolution. Locke argues that government has an obligation to protect the interests not only of the propertied classes but also of those without. Moreover, Locke asserts that the rulers' belief in popular sovereignty provides greater restraint on political power than institutional structures or a system of checks and balances. The Second Treatise is, in this respect, a rhetorical tour de force. It succeeds in persuading the ruling class to advocate, and actually to put in place, a political system that constrains its own power out of self-interest, in order to take into account the interests of all.
The bestselling author of pre-Revolutionary France, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778), remains today perhaps the greatest proponent of direct, participatory democracy. In his towering work of political philosophy, The Social Contract, Rousseau asks: Must people accept legalized domination and inequality in order to enjoy the benefits of social life? Is it our fate to choose between natural freedom and civilized servitude? The answer, Rousseau tells us, is The Social Contract, the result of his quest to find an alternative to the modern state as it was formulated by John Locke, who believed to varying degrees that the people must delegate power to government to avoid chaos and to protect property and individual rights.
At the beginning of the Contract, Rousseau proudly announces that he is a citizen of Geneva, Switzerland. Geneva was one of Europe’s last free states or republics, governed by citizens collectively. European republics had largely disappeared, due to the nature of communal self-government and the need for free states to remain small. But republics would again emerge after the American and French Revolutions had transformed them into modern territorial states with systems of representation. In the Contract, however, Rousseau insists on popular sovereignty: the people, not rulers, together maintain sovereignty, or ultimate political authority. Furthermore, sovereignty cannot be relegated to representatives; “We the People” remain in charge.
More controversially, Rousseau develops a theory whereby the people unify their wills into a single common will: the General Will, the will of the community. Boldly, Rousseau claims that the General Will can never be directed at anything specific; it is in the general interest even when individual interests diverge. In the Contract, the meaning and significance of the General Will remains enigmatic, the goal being political consensus, a republic of collective consciousness.
The second half of the Contract abandons logic for the rhetoric of the classical political tradition. Rousseau revered the classical republics of Sparta and Rome, praising their forgotten practices and institutions, such as the assembly of the citizenry in public, essential in preventing tyranny, and civil religion, the civic rituals that united people and swayed them to serve the city-state. Rousseau was the first to romanticize the classical republics, infusing the Contract with nostalgia for a pure, vanished world of virtue and heroic devotion to the city-state.
In his masterpiece Rights of Man (1792), Thomas Paine presents an impassioned defense of the Enlightenment principles of freedom and equality. Though many more sophisticated thinkers of the day argued for the same principles, no one was better able to fire the hopes of the common man and stir him to political action. Paine (17371809) was one of the most influential proponents of American independence and is best remembered for his pamphlet Common Sense (1776), which was largely responsible for motivating the American colonists to declare independence from England. His Rights of Manthe only comprehensive account he gave of his understanding of Enlightenment humanismis of enduring general interest to contemporary readers fascinated by the “age of revolutions” and to readers with a passion for economic justice and democracy movements today.
Rights of Man captures the revolutionary spirit of the most elevated Enlightenment authors, and brings their ideas to the level of the average reader. Loosely echoing Locke and Rousseau, Paine distinguishes between “society,” the natural product of the association of peoples, and “government,” the sole rational purpose of which is the protection of societies’ members from threats to their pursuit of happiness and freedom. Paine argued that government unjustly redistributes through taxation the wealth of the majority to rich landowners and to royalty. In his detailed scheme for redistributing tax monies to the poor, Paine earned some fleeting friendships in revolutionary France, but, given the rise of capitalism, ultimately lost many allies in America and England.
The truth of the contemporary human condition, according to the Rights of Man, is as follows: Men are born by nature equal and good, content to live with a relatively equitable distribution of material goods, provided these are adequate to the maintenance of a comfortable life. But the majority of people are everywhere corrupted by a rapacious few who use force and deception to establish governments, the sole purpose of which is to satisfy their avarice. Such governments conduct wars simply to legitimate excessive taxation and to perpetuate the status quo; governments deprive their own people, driving them into desperate circumstances in order to pay for their rulers’ excesses.
More than two hundred years later, these issues are still hotly debated. Paine’s theories, as well as those of his predecessors Locke and Rousseau are as relevant today as when they were written. In our twenty-first-century world, where the polarized American democracy, the fledgling democracy of an evolving European Union, the emerging democratic movements in the former Soviet bloc, and especially the debate about the role of the industrialized West in promoting democratic change in the Middle East make up the pressing issues of our day, readers would be wise to contemplate the wellsprings of the Western political tradition, and to read closely the works in this collection that truly constitute the keystones of democratic thought.