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The Idea Of Autonomy In Rousseau And Nietzsche

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Rousseau and Nietzsche are both prominent figures of modern Western political philosophy, even though they lived over one hundred years apart from one another. In this essay I will try to compare and contrast the idea of autonomy in Rousseau’s and Nietzsche’s political theories through their discussion of the state of nature, general will, slave morality and the will to power. Ultimately, I will come to the conclusion that Rousseau and Nietzsche view autonomy very different in human society.

Autonomy can be defined as ‘self-rule’ and is basically another word for liberty. If you have autonomy you have the capacity to make your own decisions. There are two basic types of autonomy: individual and collective. Rousseau discusses both individual autonomy (in Emilie) and collective autonomy (via the social contract), however he believed that in modern society (as man no longer lives in the state of nature), autonomy belongs to human beings as a group. However, Nietzsche argues for individual autonomy, in that he believed autonomy belongs to each individual human being via the will for power.

Rousseau used the promise of autonomy to criticise modern society by stating “man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” He believed that modern society must be judged by the virtue of its citizens – and, in contrary to popular belief, he argued the Enlightenment period was corrupt and led to social frustration and jealousy. However, Rousseau believed that naturally, human beings are born with an innate capacity for pity and empathy. Men fall when they come into contact with others and “the more (men) come together, the more they are corrupted.” It is only when man come into contact with each other that they develop the new need to depend on each other for satisfaction. In modern society, man becomes relative to others; and he compares and judges, and is compared and judged. According to Rousseau, individuals are controlled by property relations of dependency and by others’ approval and praise. When the dependency increases the individuals’ need for approval grows, and their thirst for popularity rises – man conforms to what others expect and what society demands. Man develop a sensation of false autonomy and a feeling of who they believe they are from the opinions of others. Due to social existence, human beings have had their body weakened, and their minds enslaved.

In his book ‘Emile’, Rousseau discusses how to cultivate individual autonomy where he writes about the upbringing of a ‘universal child’ Emile. As Emile grows up, he should be given no more than he needs and should be given as much freedom as his body permits. With the hidden care of his parent, Emile will learn to live and grow to look after himself. Rousseau roots man’s ethical behaviour in our human nature – as he saw in himself, human beings empathise with those around them and therefore has the capacity for suffering. So, if man build more relationships with others from their grown ethical behaviour, man can grow a bigger distinctive sentiment of pity towards others. And as man mature, we develop moral sentiments of right and wrong, good and bad, as we think about treating others like how we wish to be treated. Furthermore, this means that justice and goodness become experiences between ourselves and others. Rousseau suggests that natural moral education starts with sentiments of love and hate, so, in other words, we will either hate of love things that happen to us. From this, we grow to learn reasons for why an action is loveable or hateful and this then leads to ideas of justice, goodness etc. And from this, our conscience builds more reason – this thought of what we ought to do, rather than what we want to do – this is then an act of autonomy, rather than the influence of society which poses on most of man in modern society. So, according to Rousseau, society and moral autonomy are intertwined with one another; society conditions man’s potential of morality and individual freedom. In society, man should think of others when deciding what he out to do which implies man should be collectively autonomous. The possibility of individual freedom (and moral autonomy) goes alongside his perfect model of the republic. If ‘Emile’ is the vision of the moral autonomous individual, ‘The Social Contract’ is a vision of a state and society composed of Emiles – a vision of communal autonomy. To really be autonomous, is to not act in accordance to your own private or particular interest, but rather to act in accordance to your idea of what you ought to do – which is to act on your conscience that reason implies, should become a universal law. To disobey this is to deny your own moral autonomy to act according to it.

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Furthermore, Rousseau discusses about his theory of society and government. He builds his idea of a legislator off his understanding of the state of nature – a time before man existed as a society and had a government. Rousseau argues man to be neither good nor bad – so not naturally sinful, and so man have the capacity to create good on earth and to be autonomous. Citizens with self-knowledge and the ability of moral autonomy is the key towards a legitimate state. However, to begin with, the state should be governed by a legislator – in other words a community is brought together by a powerful sovereign, and he is one of the people required to form the social contract. To move out of the state of nature, Rousseau believes that we have to give up our freedom and follow a social contract; in this case man loses their individual autonomy for the sake of society. The legislator is someone who can transcend the environment and shape it, and the people in it. As the legislator is capable of changing human nature, he able to make a ‘good society’ and so is autonomous – however he is not necessarily a leader, but more a creator and educator of the framework of how to lead and make laws. He almost guides man into good moral autonomy as he can appeal to divine authority if need. Rousseau goes on to argue that as human nature transforms, eventually the society becomes the legislator, and the legislator becomes society – ultimately making society a collective autonomous state.

However, in contrast to Rousseau, Nietzsche believes his argument of the social contract is a reflection of slave morality. He argues that modern society still lives in slave morality today and is based on resentment; this resentment is due to man feeling powerless, frustrated by being ruled by someone more powerful. Slave morality only exists if there is a legislator for man to be resentful towards – in this state of resentment, it is only the legislator who can be open with the self and truly autonomous. According to Nietzsche, the idea of a divine authority to judge the legislator is incorrect. He argues “God is dead” to imply that there is nothing that a political leader can use to justify his authority over others. With the death of God, the legislator has no justification of his authority and so cannot be autonomous in the way Rousseau argues. Nietzsche instead, argues that men who can philosophise, are commanders and legislators. He argues this point by putting forward the idea of the overman, which he defines as a man who is above the limits of humanity. In order for human excellence to develop freely, there should be no constraint of ‘equality’ on people – in other words, an overman should not be forced to be a slave, and a slave should not be made to be an overman. Nietzsche argues, that instead, human beings should be free to compete for power, at which naturally the overman will win the right of autonomy and so can be a ruler of society.

The concept of the general will can be discussed to better understand Rousseau’s argument for autonomy and the rule of the legislator. The general will can be defined as the will of common good held by people in their quality and citizens – so man can make good moral decisions using their intuition and full knowledge. The ‘common good’ can only be achieved when members of the social contract surrender their rights. Rousseau describes that the general will is chosen when man put aside their selfish needs, and think about others’ particular interests. This implies that the general will provides individual moral autonomy and civil freedom. Rousseau then goes on to argue that the legislator is a representor of the general will, and his fundamental task is to achieve the common good amongst man. He discusses that the general will can only be understood in society, as it is not naturally imbedded in us by God. Human beings who do not want to reach the general will do not realise what is good for them, so, the legislator exists to educate the citizens into common good, as choosing the general will and common good requires proper guidance. According to Rousseau, the social contract leads to a just and fair political order – which can be viewed as an authority of collective autonomy (also known as the general will).

On the other hand, however, Nietzsche does not see the general will as an authoritative collective autonomy, instead he argues the general will to be a reflection of slave morality. He argues that Rousseau is an example of a man who represents slave morality. Nietzsche criticises Rousseau’s political theories, as they argue for somewhat of a dictatorship – a non-autonomous society; instead the general will just leads to a rule of people who follow the leader like a mindless herd of sheep. Unlike Rousseau, which I discussed earlier in this essay, Nietzsche believes that moralities are not natural, but instead creations by autonomous individuals rather than man as a whole. The strong man uses their autonomy and impose their will on the weak man and enslave them. Nietzsche argues that the strong do not repress their instincts, but instead, glorify them. On the other hand, the weak do not do this which leads them to a state of slave morality – which is a reaction of revenge against rulers and their values. Nietzsche discusses that in slave morality, man live life full of guilt and sin, and so have created the existence of God to provide comfort in getting revenge on the strong in a supposed ‘other life’, as they are unable to get the power they want in this life. Nietzsche argues that the will to power is what drives every living creature in the universe – everything wants to grow and develop. This idea of the will to power can easily be associated with the longing for autonomy like the overman, and the desire to dominate other human beings.

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The Idea Of Autonomy In Rousseau And Nietzsche. (2021, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 4, 2022, from
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