“At its core, Rousseau’s political philosophy is simply a more poetically expressed version of Locke’s social-contractarian liberalism. Though they sometimes use different theoretical frameworks, in practice the political institutions that they advocate would look fairly similar, and they should not be thought of as belonging to a fundamentally distinct or separate school of thought.” Is this accurate?

In philosophical terms, a school of thought is a collection of people who hold similar or the same outlooks, thoughts and opinions of beliefs, and disciplines, which fall under their philosophical views. I also think that in order to belong in the same school, two philosophers must not disagree with each other’s views. In order for John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau to be considered as being of the same school, regardless of how similar their frameworks or political institutions would look in practice, they must believe in the same or similar core principles and not disagree with each other. If the meaning of ‘poetic’ can encompass being more extreme and idealistic, then Rousseau’s political philosophy could be perceived as a more poetically expressed version of Locke’s social-contractarian liberalism. Defining ‘political framework’ to be the general bare structure and ideas upon which society is built, I will explore how the two philosophers seem to have more similar political frameworks, through their social contract, the sovereign, the people and their ideas of freedom. However, although Rousseau’s ideas could be considered to be a more poetically expressed version of Locke’s, even with similar political frameworks and ideas, they disagree with each other’s core principles, thus, they do not meet the criteria of belonging in the same school of thought.

The social contract is created during the transition period between the state of nature and the formation of a governed state. On the surface, Locke’s social contract is an agreement between the people and their sovereign. However, this is controversial as Locke does also write that a society is only a political or civil one when everyone gives up his or her “executive power…and resign[s] it to the publick” (Locke 325). Putting on the “bonds of Civil Society” is done by “agreeing with other men to joyn and unite into a Community” where they will enjoy “comfortable, safe, and peaceable living…a secure Enjoyment of their Properties, and a greater Security against any that are not of it” (Locke 332). The one responsible for upholding the contract is the Sovereign, and Locke leaves it unclear as to whom the contract is actually between. Although the people retain the right to rebel should the sovereign fail to fulfill his duty in upholding the contract, Locke gives the sovereign the right to act at his own discretion for the good of the people “where the municipal Law has given no direction” (Locke 374). Locke understands the problems that come with such power and addresses it by describing the best leader being a “godlike prince” (Locke 378). Also noticing this problem, Rousseau has a clearer standpoint on whom the contract should be between. He claims that a “true contract between the population and the leaders it chooses for itself” where the leader must “prefer on every occasion the public utility to his own interest” is risky as it would lead to the “inevitable abuses” and “infinite disorders that this dangerous power would necessarily bring in its wake” (Rousseau 75). Rousseau argued that for such a government to work, it would need a basis “more solid than reason alone”, but also require “public tranquility” and a “sovereign authority [with] a sacred and inviolable character” given by the “divine will” (Rousseau 76). Both philosophers agree that in a government with a contract between the sovereign and its people, the sovereign should have a godlike or divine quality. Their disagreement lies in that Locke agrees with the possibility of having the contract between a sovereign and the people whereas Rousseau does not. Rousseau believes the contract should be between the people alone. 

Locke’s response in preventing the potential oppression from a sovereign is his core principal belief in representational democracy. Rousseau, on the other hand, did not agree with indirect or representative democracy. Rousseau’s philosophy on this matter could be considered as a poetic version of Locke’s if we were to assume that Locke only suggested indirect democracy because it was more realistic. Believing every single individual could be involved in the making of every law was impractical and was indeed a romanticized, idealistic view of the public. Locke believed representative government ensured the government was responsive to the people and that “every individual that united into it…is bound by that consent to be concluded by the majority” (Locke 332). He explained that when “any number of men”, with the “consent of every individual make a community”, that community becomes “one body” and has the power to “act as one body”, which is “only by the will and determination of the majority” (Locke 331). Locke could be understood as alluding to how a government would only be legitimate should it be agreed upon by the majority. To Rousseau, this was not enough and he took it further by believing in the practice of the general will and opposing to the “will of all”, which would have been Locke’s will of the majority. He thought it only right if citizens were actively involved and there was a direct democracy. He believed that “any law that the populace has not ratified in person is null; it is not a law at all.” meaning that citizens could not delegate their civic duties and must not be represented (Rousseau 198). Locke and Rousseau should be considered as belonging to different schools as following Rousseau’s idea, all the laws in Locke’s state would be considered “null”. Rousseau thought the will of the majority could be mistakenly considered for being what is right, whereas the general will, would be what was in the best interest of the people and was the standard of what was right. However, Rousseau does not clarify how the general will and best interest of the people would be decided upon, leaving his idea as impractical and idealistic. Although Locke’s and Rousseau’s beliefs were similar in that they both believed in democracy, Rousseau disagreed with Locke’s belief in indirect democracy. Rousseau’s belief could either be seen as a more “poetic” version of Locke’s democracy, or simply an impractical, idealistic version of it. Nevertheless, it is clear that their beliefs about representation differ. Seeing as indirect representation is one of Locke’s core ideas, Rousseau disagrees with Locke on his core beliefs in the ideal type of ruling of a state. Their disagreements could be an indication that they belong in separate schools of thought.

Concerning the forms of government, Locke and Rousseau both oppose Monarchy. According to Locke, “God and Nature never [allow] a Man to abandon himself, as to neglect his own preservation”, thus he cannot “give another [the] power to take [his life]” (Locke 380). He describes “Absolute Monarchy” as being “inconsistent with Civil Society, and so can be no Form of Civil Government at all” (Locke 326). Rousseau also writes about the “inevitable defect” of a monarchical government being in that those who “attain these positions in monarchies…serve often to display their incompetence to the public as soon as they reach these positions” (Rousseau 184). It is unclear as to whether Locke is suggesting that all governments other than absolute monarchy are permissible as long as the majority consents to it. However, he does describe certain limitations such as the “Legislative Power” being “limited to the publick good of the Society” and has “no other end but preservation, and therefore can never have a right to destroy, enslave, or designedly to impoverish the Subjects” (Locke 357). This seems to contradict an idea mentioned previously on ruling about the sovereign being able to act at his own discretion. Rousseau expresses his doubt about such a ruler and instead, explains that the “body politic [has] an absolute power over all its members”, which is directed by the “general will” and “bears the name sovereignty” (Rousseau 156). Rousseau gives the power from the people to the people over the people. Locke binds the people in his society to be “concluded by the majority”, which risks becoming a state governed by the tyranny of the majority (Locke 332). Rousseau goes more extreme and writes that “whoever refuses to obey the general will will be forced to do so by the entire body” and will be “forced to be free”, which verges on not only the tyranny of the majority, but also despotism (Rousseau 150). Rousseau’s political philosophy may be questioned as to whether a state governed by the people and, possibly, without government is still considered a state. In fact, his society is similar to Locke’s state of nature. Rousseau writes the contract “guarantees [man] against all personal dependence” and Locke describes the state of nature as being where no man is “depending on another man”(Locke 269). In this sense, it could be difficult to compare the two political institutions, even though the views are similar, since one is describing a state of civilization, and the other, the state of nature. If Rousseau’s society is not considered a state, then their political framework could also be argued as being different.

The basis of all free agency and legitimate authority was in Rousseau’s concept of the general will. The social contract was the foundation of the general will, and an answer to the problem of natural freedom, which had no guidelines or rules. In effect, the core of Rousseau’s political philosophy could be the emphasis on the liberation of will from all. Rousseau’s contract may be separated into two main parts. The first part was very similar to Locke’s protection of all humans’ natural rights. The second half was more to do with the individual “obey[ing] only himself and remain[ing] as free as before” (Rousseau 148). Even though this seems initially to be a contradiction, as Rousseau previously stated that each man must give up all their rights to freedom to each other when entering the contract, he explains this as being a misunderstanding. When “properly understood”, all his clauses could be summarized as the “total alienation of each associate together with all of his rights to the community” (Rousseau 148). This was Rousseau’s way of ensuring equality in the terms of the contract for everyone. Only when the entire community is in total alienation will each individual become part of the general will and not be obliged to any private will. Locke’s government’s aim also included the preservation of liberty and his understanding of liberty was fairly similar to Rousseau’s understanding of it. Locke writes that the “Natural Liberty of man” is to be “free from any Superior Power on Earth” and not be under the “Will or Legislative Authority of Man” and to only have the “Law of Nature” as his rule (Locke 283). Rousseau’s idea of natural liberty is: “an unlimited right to everything that tempts him and he can acquire” (Rousseau 151). However for Locke, the “Liberty of Man in Society” is to be “under no other Legislative Power, but that established, by consent, in the Common-Wealth” (Locke 283). Whereas for Rousseau, what man gains form the social contract is “civil liberty and the propriety ownership of all he possesses” (Rousseau 151). The freedom which Rousseau’s political philosophy strived for was moral freedom. Under the general will, each citizen would have the freedom to do what the general will commands, rather than the natural freedom in the state of nature. Since the general will only works towards the good of the general public, without excluding the minority, it gives men a moral quality to their actions and substituted instinct or primacy in his behavior with justice. Having obtained both civil liberty and moral liberty, a man became truly the “master of himself” (Rousseau 151).

Locke and Rousseau both used the social contract in their governments for the protection of life, liberty and property. But even if this common need for a social contract and the components, which make up their political societies, have a similar framework, it does not mean that they belong to the same school. Belonging to the same school would mean having similar or the same outlooks, thoughts and opinions of beliefs, and disciplines without disagreeing. Rousseau’s political philosophy is a much more idealistic and extreme version of Locke’s and although they may have similar ideas and concepts, in many instances they did not necessarily agree with each other. Having disagreements would mean they differed in their opinions of beliefs and thus, albeit having seemingly similar concepts, they do not belong to the same school of thought.


Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, and Donald A. Cress. Basic Political Writings. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 1987. Print.

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. 3rd ed. N.p.: Cambridge UP, 1988. Print. Laslett.

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