Locke and Rousseau: Government Operations in Civil Society

Matthew Walsh


During the 19th century, and particularly the early years following the French Revolution, many theorists sought to completely redefine how government functioned, in hopes of bringing about a lasting new change to society. Even within this context, it is hard to imagine a more radical proposal for the functioning of government than Rousseaus Social Contract. The idea of a government with complete authority over all matters of society, yet consistently checked through the power of the general will, and yearly assemblies comprised of every citizen in society, is one theory that has not had much influence on Western democracies.

In stark contrast to this, was the version of government put forth by John Locke, which while agreeing with Rousseau concerning the dangers of the state of nature, or an un-governed population, presented what has appeared to be the template for Western democracies today. A form of government not based on absolute power, but instead on a series of standing laws, specifically designed to counter this very thing.

This essay investigates these two opposing viewpoints, proposed by Rousseau and Locke in The Social Contract, and the Second Treatise of Government. Special thanks to Professor Michael Wallack of the Political Science department at Memorial University for his information concerning both these theorists and their respective views of government.

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