The Citizen in a Civil Society
For non-westerners like myself who currently live in the United States, it is quintessential to understand the roots and origins that drove the American people to become the society it is today. In order to understand the structure of American society, we must first comprehend where it departed from. Western philosophers believed that there was a “state of nature” before the creation of a civil society. The state of nature does not have a static definition. Instead, it is a concept that was subjected to various interpretations. However, in this study of the understanding of the role of the citizen in a civil society, we are going to narrow our focus on four philosophers of the Enlightenment Era and their understanding of the state of nature. These philosophers are Thomas Hobbes, Charles de Secondat Baron de Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke. These four philosophers (Hobbes) contrastingly contributed to the creation of the American republic and to the role that the citizen plays within the republic.
Amongst these four philosophers mentioned, Thomas Hobbes was the most radical of all. The English philosopher wrote The Leviathan, which was published in the 17th century. Hobbes argued that the state of nature was “nasty, brutish and short”. It means that the state of nature was a place where humans are perpetually at war against one another. For Hobbes, personal property and injustice did not exist because there were no laws in the state of nature. According to Hobbes, the state of nature exists at all times among independent countries, over whom there is no law except for those same laws of nature (Leviathan, Chapters XIII, XXX end). The only way to escape the state of nature was to create a mutual contract that would lead to establishing a political society within a sovereign who would be the guardian of that society. The main disagreement between Hobbes and the Framers of the US Constitution was that Hobbes explicitly and categorically rejected the idea of separation of powers which constitute the structure of government. Hobbes’ views of government were that a political society or civil society had to be led by the sovereign would singularly rule the commonwealth (the nation). In The Leviathan, Hobbes asserted that the sovereign shall be an individual in whom all political powers will be vested in. The Framers of the United States Constitution disagreed with Hobbes’ perception of government because they believed that a sovereign with all the political powers at his disposal will inevitably and ultimately become a tyrant and thereof will arbitrarily convey the mutual contract that settles the relationship between the citizen and the sovereign in a civil society. The very purpose of the Founding Fathers in drafting the Constitution was to ensure that the sovereign (the central government) does not rule civil society tyrannically. That is why, the principle of separation of powers was implemented within the Constitution to guarantee that the central government will preserve, protect and defend the life, liberty, and property of the citizen. Hobbes’ vision of government contrastingly influenced the Framers’ decision to accentuate and implement the principle of separation of powers and the system of checks balances.
Charles de Secondat Montesquieu is also a pioneer of the creation of American civil society because his theories on the principle of separation of powers underlined the engine that drives the central government today. According to Montesquieu, the state of nature was a place where individuals were so fearful of each other that they would at all cost avoid violence. He [Montesquieu] championed the fact that natural laws were already in existence within the state of nature. He also advocated on the extent of citizenship in a civil society. In his work entitled The Spirit of Laws, Montesquieu stressed that Republican political systems vary depending on how broadly they extend citizenship. Certainly, the more a political system extends or gives more rights to the citizen, the more the citizen has the opportunity to participate directly in the government’s action. The extent to which the citizen’s involvement in government’s decision-making impacts the political system in which he lives in. For Montesquieu, the fulfillment of the citizen in a civil society is the cornerstone of democratic regimes. Hence, we clearly acknowledged that Montesquieu’s political philosophy played a decisive role in the Bill Rights.
The third philosopher who has also influenced the structure of American civil society is Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The French philosopher is famously known for writing Du Contrat Social (The Social Contract). The Social Contract summarized the relationship between the citizen and his government. The thoughts of Rousseau wedged American civil society because the philosophy of the general will (La Volonté Générale) embodied the legislative branch. Unequivocally, the legislative branch is the most powerful branch of government in American politics because it is through the legislative branch that the citizen takes action within the government. Theoretically, the right to vote is the most powerful right that a citizen possesses because he gives his consent by electing an official to represent his will in the legislature.
The fourth and last philosopher who left his indelible mark on American civil society is John Locke. The United States Constitution is based on Second Treatise of Government. In the introduction of Elements of Constitutional Law, it was argued that the state of nature was dictated by a lack of authoritative power that would regulate society and that the creation of a political society would provide security and liberty to its citizens. It was, in fact, security and liberty that defined the role of government Vis a Vis to its citizens. For Locke, it is paramount that the citizen is endowed with the most elementary rights to safeguard the duties that the government must fulfill toward him [the citizen]. Locke argued that under a civil society, the citizen is entitled to life, liberty, and property. It is, therefore, the duty of the sovereign to protect these three rights to ensure that the citizen is contented in the covenant that settled the contract between the sovereign and the citizen. American civil society is very different from British, Australian, French, American and Spaniard civil society. The reason for that difference is rooted in the concept of individualism. When we look at the political map of the world, we observe that the more eastern we go, the more collectivism is enshrined. The more western we lean-to, the more we witness a stronger individualistic society.
Introducing American Individualism
The word individualism is a very broad word. It is subsequently imperative to locate the word in its context. The literary interpretation of the word highlights the conception of self-worth and self-reliance. Although the literary meaning of the word individualism is critical, the aspect of the word that we will focus on through this essay is the political aspect of individualism. In West Africa and mainly in Francophone West African culture, the individual heavily relies on the government for assistance. This government’s reliability creates a strong involvement of the government in the citizen’s private life. The purpose of individualism in a civil society is to set boundaries regarding the extension of political authority. In Francophone West Africa, the government highly controls all aspects of the citizen’s life because the power of the government is centralized in the executive branch. The absence of adequate separation of powers infringes individual liberties and imposes the collectivist ideal on its citizens.
In American culture, the archetypal of individualism is rooted in the perception of social elevation. American individualism lies in self-reliance and competition. In America, they [the people] believed that each individual’s life belongs to himself and he has an inalienable right to live as he sees fit, to act on his own judgment, to keep and use the product of his effort, and to pursue the values of his choosing.
Most Americans despise collectivism because it absorbs and over-shadow the values of self-worth. One of the reasons that triggered the American people to reject collectivism is because it [collectivism] annihilates the individual’s ability to rationalize, to think and decide for himself and his own interest. For instance, the rise of Hitler and the creation of Nazi Germany was generated in collectivism. According to the Nazi dictator, the individual has no substance, no significance, and no purpose. The individual is simply a product and a possession of the sovereign (The State). The Nazis deemed necessary to use the theory of collectivism in order to empower the legitimacy of the German Reich. In this perspective, the Nazi regime used propaganda by depicting the sacrifice of the citizen to create a greater State [Greater Germany]. The Nazis understood however that, using the theory of collectivism would allow them to control the life of the citizen through the suppression of his critical thinking. The Achilles hill of collectivism is that it easily leads to the authoritarian political regime, and implementing collectivism as the political philosophy upon the German people was the primary domestic policy of the Nazi regime. Unlike Nazi Germany where collectivism was at its pinnacle, the real value of the citizen in the United States is substantiated in the Bill of Rights; a set of rights that the sovereign [The central government] cannot infringe, violate and dispossess the citizen of. Although individualism is the core culture of the United States and has been most beneficial to the American people, it has also its limits.
I – American Individualism
The Concept of Personal Responsibility
The United States was a society founded on the almost unique belief that who your ancestor are is far less important than who you are. The praise of the citizen relies on his self-worth. How can one positively contribute to society? The positive contribution to society is rooted in the personal responsibility of the citizen, and its concept is the soul of the “American Dream”. The myth of the American Dream derived from the ideal of the individual who has achieved success from humble beginnings. The concept of personal responsibility is engrained in four core principles: Self-reliance, Competition, Innovation and Family Traditions.
Self –Reliance . The theory of self- reliance in American culture is determined by the point that nothing has authority over the self. According to the famous American transcendentalist philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson; the doctrine of self-reliance encompassed the themes of individual authority, nonconformity and the rejection of community. Unless one is an intellectual or a theorist of culture differences, the common American man cannot acutely fathom the true meaning of individualism. The Bill of Rights is the perfect epithet of individualism. This set of rights attributed to the citizen empowers the latter to have control over his government. Emerson suggested in Self-Reliance that the spontaneous expression of thought or feeling is more in keeping with personal will, and hence with the natural world as constituted by human faculties than that which is passively assumed or accepted as right or good, or that which conforms to social norms. The quintessence of self-reliance opposes conformity. Conformity is established by a broader entity (the community or the government). It encroaches the personal growth of the individual. In American political culture, the government’s (federal government) power is much restrained because its role is not to control the life of the citizen but to protect the citizen’s liberties. The self guides the individual and enables him to pursue his happiness and not what the community or the government believes is right for him. The very secret of America’s greatness essentially remains in the notion of self-reliance because self-reliance embodies freedom and independence.
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