Tony Woolfson

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Political Science


Professor Derry Novak


This thesis is concerned with Jean-Jacques Rousseau's treatment of the effect of political actions on the human problem. Four emphasis in that treatment are considered.

In the first place, Rousseau is concerned about what can be called a tension between nature and society, a tension which is basic to the human situation as he sees it. He wants to distinguish between good nature and bad society and between a good, natural self and a bad, social self.

In the second place, closer scrutiny reveals that the tension between nature and society hinges on the problem of passion. Rousseau wants further to distinguish between good, natural passions and bad, social passions, and the political problem is always and everywhere the same: how to control the bad, social passions.

In the third place, there is a dialectical unity in Rousseau's treatment of the tension between nature and society. Contrary to many interpretations, he does not treat nature and society as concrete abstractions but only as hypothetical abstractions. His writings are consistent; he is both idealistic and realistic, theoretical and practical, optimistic and pessimistic.

In the fourth place, whether Rousseau is talking about individuals or societies there is a continuing emphasis on an organic cycle of life and death. An ironical situation develops nature and society. Political actions have to be as natural as possible, but they confront nature as limit, in the form of a natural tendency on the part of individuals to place their own interests ahead of those of their fellows. Rousseau envisions no way out of that vicious circle, and we are, therefore, faced with the prospect of a never-ending cycle of life and death of all organic bodies, including bodies politic.

Those four emphases inform the structure of this thesis. The thesis is divided into a series of chapters dealing with different aspects of the tension between nature and society. The thesis begins with a discussion of how Rousseau himself dealt with the problems that he faced in his life, given that he considered himself an exemplar of what it meant to be both natural and human. The thesis then looks at the tension between nature and society viewed as hypothetical abstractions, after which the tension is considered from an historical perspective.

The centrepiece of the thesis consists of a discussion of how political actions can affect the tension between nature and society, through communitarian and egalitarian politics. The cycle is completed by showing why, in the long run, all bodies politic are bound to decay and die, bearing in mind, however, that regeneration is always possible.

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