Rousseau Philosopher


TWO months before the publication of La Nouvelle Héloïse, Rousseau wrote to M. Lenieps (December 11, 1760):

I have quit the profession of author for good. There remains an old sin to be expiated in print, after which the public will never hear from me again. I know of no happier lot than that of being unknown save only to one’s friends. … Henceforth copying [music] will be my only occupation.1

And again on June 25, 1761:

Until the age of forty I was wise; at forty I took up the pen; and I put it down before I am fifty, cursing, every day of my life, the day when my foolish pride made me take it up, and when I saw my happiness, my repose, my health, all go up in smoke without hope of recapturing them again.2

Was this a pose? Not quite. It is true that in 1762 he published both Du Contrat social and Émile; but these had been completed by 1761; they were the “old sin to be expiated in print.” And it is true that he later wrote replies to the Archbishop of Paris, to the Geneva Consistory, and to the requests from Corsica and Poland to propose constitutions for them; but these compositions were pièces d’occasion, induced by unforeseen events. The Confessions, the Dialogues, and the Rêveries d’un promeneur solitaire were published after his death. Essentially he kept to his novel vow. It is no wonder that in 1761 he felt exhausted and finished, for in the space of five years he had composed three major works, each of which was an event in the history of ideas.

Far back in 1743, when he was secretary to the French ambassador in Venice, his observation of the Venetian government in contrast with the Genevan and the French had led him to plan a substantial treatise on political institutions. The two Discourses were sparks from that fire, but they were hasty attempts to get attention by exaggeration, and neither of them did justice to his developing thought. Meanwhile he studied Plato, Grotius, Locke, and Pufendorf. The magnum opus that he dreamed of was never completed. Rousseau did not have the ordered mind, patient will, and quiet temper needed for such an enterprise. It would have required him to reason as well as feel, to conceal passion rather than reveal it; and such self-denial was beyond his reach. His renunciation of authorship was his admission of defeat. But he gave the world in 1762 a brilliant fragment of his plan in the 125 pages published at Amsterdam as Du Contrat social, ou Principes du droit politique.

Everyone knows the bold cry that opened the first chapter: “L’homme estné libre, et partout il est dans les fers” (Man is born free, and he is everywhere in chains). Rousseau began with conscious hyperbole, for he knew that logic has a powerful virtus dormitiva; he judged rightly in striking so shrill a note, for that line became the watchword of a century. As in the Discourses, he assumed a primitive “state of nature” in which there were no laws; he charged existing states with having destroyed that freedom; and he proposed, in their place, “to find a form of association which will defend and protect, with the whole common force, the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself to all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before. … This is the fundamental problem of which The Social Contract provides the solution.”3

There is a social contract, says Rousseau, not as a pledge of the ruled to obey the ruler (as in Hobbes’s Leviathan), but as an agreement of individuals to subordinate their judgment, rights, and powers to the needs and judgment of their community as a whole. Each person implicitly enters into such a contract by accepting the protection of the communal laws. The sovereign power in any state lies not in any ruler—individual or corporate—but in the general will of the community; and that sovereignty, though it may be delegated in part and for a time, can never be surrendered.

But what is this volonté générale? Is it the will of all the citizens, or only of the majority?—and who are to be considered citizens? It is not the will of all (volonté de tous) , for it may contradict many an individual will. Nor is it always the will of the majority living [or voting] at some particular moment; it is the will of the community as having a life and reality additional to the lives and wills of the individual members. [Rousseau, like a medieval “realist,” ascribes to the collectivity, or general idea, a reality additional to that of its particular constituents. The general will, or “public spirit,” should be the voice not only of the citizens now living, but of those dead or yet to be born; hence its character is given to it not only by present wills but by the past history and future aims of the community. It is like some old family that thinks of itself as one through generations, honors its ancestors, and protects its progeny. So a father, out of obligation to grandchildren yet unborn, may overrule the desires of his living children, and a statesman may feel himself bound to think in terms not of one election but of many generations.]* Nevertheless “the vote of the majority always binds all the rest.”4 Who may vote? Every citizen.5 Who is a citizen? Apparently not all male adults. Rousseau is especially obscure on this point, but he praises d’ Alembert for distinguishing “the four orders of men … who dwell in our town [Geneva], of which only two compose the public; no other French writer … has understood the real meaning of the word citizen.6

Ideally, says Rousseau, law should be the expression of the general will. Mn is by nature predominantly good, but he has instincts that must be controlled to make society possible. There is no idealization of a “state of nature” in The Social Contract. For a moment Rousseau talks like Locke or Montesquieu, even like Voltaire:

The passage from the state of nature to the civil state produces a very remarkable change in man, by substituting law for instinct in his conduct, and giving his actions the morality they had formerly lacked. … Although, in this [civil] state, he deprives himself of some advantages which he had from nature, he gains in return others so great, his faculties are so stimulated and developed, his ideas so extended, and his whole soul so uplifted, that, did not the abuses of his new condition often degrade him below that which he left, he would be bound to bless continually the happy moment which took him from it forever, and instead of a stupid and unimaginative animal, made him an intelligent being and a man.7

So Rousseau (who once talked like a not quite philosophical anarchist) is now all for the sanctity of law, if the law expresses the general will. If, as often happens, an individual does not agree with that will as expressed in law, the state may justly force him to submit.8 This is not a violation of freedom, it is a preservation of it, even for the refractory individual; for in a civil state it is only through law that the individual can enjoy freedom from assault, robbery, persecution, calumny, and a hundred other ills. Hence, in compelling the individual to obey the law, society in effect “forces him to be free.”9 This is especially so in republics, for “obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves is liberty.”10

Government is an executive organ to which the general will provisionally delegates some of its powers. The state should be thought of not as only the government, but as the government, the citizens, and the general will or communal soul. Any state is a republic if it is governed by laws and not by autocratic decrees; in this sense even a monarchy can be a republic. But if the monarchy is absolute—if the king makes as well as executes the laws—then there is no res publica, or commonwealth, there is only a tyrant ruling slaves. Hence Rousseau refused to join those philosophes who praised the “enlightened despotism” of Frederick II or Catherine II as means of advancing civilization and reform. He thought that peoples living in arctic or tropical climates might need absolute rule to preserve life and order;11 but in temperate zones a mixture of aristocracy and democracy is desirable. Hereditary aristocracy is “the worst of all governments”; “elective aristocracy” is the best;12 i.e., the best government is one in which the laws are made and administered by a minority of men periodically chosen for their intellectual and moral superiority.

Democracy, as direct rule by all the people, seemed to Rousseau impossible:

If we take the term in the strict sense, there never has been a real democracy, and there never will be. It is against the natural order for the many to govern and the few to be governed. It is unimaginable that the people should remain continually assembled to devote their time to public affairs, and it is clear that they cannot set up commissions for that purpose without changing the form of administration. ...

Besides, how many conditions difficult to unite are presupposed by such a government? First, a very small state, where the people can be readily assembled, and where each citizen can with ease know all the rest; secondly, great simplicity of manners, to prevent business from multiplying and raising thorny problems; next, a large measure of equality in rank and fortune, without which equality of rights and authority cannot long subsist; and lastly, little or no luxury, for luxury corrupts at once the rich and the poor—the rich by possession and the poor by covetousness. … This is why a famous writer [Montesquieu] has made virtue the fundamental principle of republics, for all these conditions could not exist without virtue.... If there were a people of gods, their government would be democratic, but so perfect a government is not for men.13

These passages invite misinterpretation. Rousseau uses the term democracy in a sense rarely ascribed to it in politics or history, as a government in which all laws are made by the whole people meeting in national assemblies. Actually the “elective aristocracy” that he preferred is what we should call representative democracy—government by officials popularly chosen for their supposedly superior fitness. However, Rousseau rejects representative democracy on the ground that the representatives will soon legislate for their own interest rather than for the public good. “The people of England regards itself as free, but it is grossly mistaken; it is free only during the election of members of Parliament; as soon as they are chosen, slavery overtakes the people, and it ceases to count.”14Representatives should be elected to administrative and judicial offices, but not to legislate; all laws should be made by the people in general assembly, and that assembly should have the power to recall elected officials.15 Hence the ideal state should be small enough to allow all the citizens to assemble frequently. “The larger the state, the less the liberty.”16

Was Rousseau a socialist? The second Discourse derived almost all the evils of civilization from the establishment of private property; yet even that essay judged the institution to be too deeply rooted in the social structure to permit its removal without a chaotic and desolating revolution. The Social Contract allows for private ownership, but subject to communal control; the community should retain all basic rights, it may seize private property for the common good, and it should fix a maximum of property allowable to any one family.17 It may sanction the bequest of property, but if it sees wealth tending to a disruptive concentration it may use inheritance taxes to redistribute wealth and diminish social and economic inequality. “It is precisely because the force of things tends always to destroy equality that legislation should always tend to maintain it.”18 One purpose of the social contract is that “men who may be unequal in strength or intelligence shall all become equal in social and legal rights.”19 Taxes should fall heavily upon luxuries. “The social state is advantageous to men only when all have something and no one has too much.”20 Rousseau did not commit himself to collectivism, and never thought of a “dictatorship of the proletariat”; he despised the nascent proletariat of the cities, and agreed with Voltaire in calling it “canaille”—rabble, scum.21 His ideal was a prosperous, independent peasantry and a virtuous middle class composed of families like Wolmar’s in La Nouvelle Héloïse. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was to accuse him of enthroning the bourgeoisie.22

What place should religion have in the state? Some religion, Rousseau felt, was indispensable to morality; “no state has ever been established without a religious basis.”23

Wise men, if they try to speak their language to the common herd instead of its own, cannot possibly make themselves understood. … For a young people to be able to prefer sound principles of political theory … the effect would have to become the cause: the social spirit which should be created by these institutions would have to preside over their very foundation; and men would have to be before law what they should become by means of law. The legislator, therefore, being unable to appeal to either force or reason, must have recourse to an authority of a different order, capable of constraining without violence. … This is what in all ages compelled the fathers of nations to have recourse to divine intervention, and credit the gods with their own wisdom, in order that the peoples, submitting to the laws of the state as to those of nature, … might obey freely, and bear with docility the yoke of the public good.24

Rousseau would not always hold to this old political view of religion, but in The Social Contract he made supernatural belief an instrument of the state, and considered priests to be at best a kind of celestial police. However, he rejected the Roman Catholic clergy as such agents, for their Church claimed to be above the state, and was therefore a disruptive force, dividing the citizen’s loyalty.25 Moreover (he argued), the Christian, if he takes his theology seriously, focuses his attention upon the afterlife, and puts little value upon this one; to that extent he is a poor citizen. Such a Christian makes an indifferent soldier; he may fight for his country, but only under constant compulsion and supervision; he does not believe in waging war for the state, because he has only one fatherland—the Church. Christianity preaches servitude and docile dependence; hence its spirit is so favorable to tyranny that tyrants welcome its co-operation. “True Christians are made to be slaves.”26 Here Rousseau agreed with Diderot, anticipated Gibbon, and was for the moment more violently anti-Catholic than Voltaire.

Nevertheless, he felt, some religion is necessary, some “civil religion” formulated by the state and made compulsory upon all its population. As to creed:

The dogmas of the civil religion ought to be few, simple, and precisely worded, but without explanation or commentary. The existence of a mighty, intelligent, and beneficent Divinity, possessed of foresight and providence; the life to come, the happiness of the just, the punishment of the wicked, the sanctity of the social contract and the laws; these are its positive dogmas.27

So Rousseau, at least for political purposes, professed the basic beliefs of Christianity, while rejecting its ethics as too pacifistic and international—just the reverse of the usual philosophic procedure of retaining the ethics of Christianity while discarding its theology. He allowed other religions in his imaginary state, but only on condition that they did not contradict the official creed. He would tolerate those religions “that tolerate others,” but “whoever dares to say, ‘Outside the Church there is no salvation,’ ought to be driven from the state, unless the state is the Church, and the prince is the pontiff” thereof.28 No denial of the articles in the religion of the state is to be permitted.

While the state can compel no one to believe them, it can banish him, not for impiety, but as an antisocial being, incapable of truly loving the laws and justice, and of sacrificing, at need, his life to his duty. If anyone, after publicly recognizing these dogmas, behaves as if he does not believe them, let him be punished by death.29

Next to “Man is born free, and is everywhere in chains,” this last is the most famous sentence in The Social Contract. Taken literally, it would put to death any person acting as if he had no belief in God, heaven, or hell; applied to the Paris of that time, it would have almost depopulated the capital. Rousseau’s love of startling and absolute statements probably misled him into saying more than he meant. Perhaps he recalled the Diet of Augsburg (1555), at which the signatory princes agreed that each of them should have the right to banish from his territory any person not accepting the prince’s faith—cuius regio eius religio; and the laws of Geneva, taken literally (as in the case of Servetus), provided an antecedent for Rousseau’s sudden savagery. Ancient Athens had madeasebeia—failure to recognize the official gods—a capital crime, as in exiling Anaxagoras and poisoning Socrates; the persecution of Christians by Imperial Rome was similarly excused; and on Rousseau’s penology the order for his arrest, in this year 1762, could be described as an act of Christian charity.

Was The Social Contract a revolutionary book? No and yes. Here and there, amid Rousseau’s demand for a government responsible to the general will, some moments of caution calmed him, as when he wrote: “None but the greatest dangers can counterbalance that of changing the public order; and the sacred power of the laws should never be arrested save when the existence of the country is at stake.”30 He blamed private property for nearly all evils, but he called for its maintenance as made necessary by the incorrigible corruption of mankind. He wondered whether the nature of man would, after a revolution, reproduce old institutions and servitudes under new names. “People accustomed to masters will not let mastery cease. … Mistaking liberty for unchained license, they are delivered by their revolutions into the hands of seducers who will only aggravate their chains.”31

Nevertheless his was the most revolutionary voice of the time. Though elsewhere he belittled and distrusted the masses, here his appeal was to the multitude. He knew that inequality is inevitable, but he condemned it with force and eloquence. He announced unequivocally that a government persistently contravening the general will might justly be overthrown. While Voltaire, Diderot, and d’Alembert were curtsying to kings or empresses, Rousseau raised against existing governments a cry of protest that was destined to be heard from one end of Europe to the other. While the philosophes, already embedded in the status quo, called only for piecemeal reform of particular ills, Jean-Jacques attacked the whole economic, social, and political order, and with such thoroughness that no remedy seemed possible but revolution. And he announced its coming: “It is impossible that the great kingdoms of Europe should last much longer. Each of them has had its period of splendor, after which it must inevitably decline. The crisis is approaching: we are on the edge of a revolution.”32 And beyond this he predicted far-reaching transformations: “The Empire of Russia will aspire to conquer Europe, and will itself be conquered. The Tatars—its subjects or neighbors—will become its masters and ours, by a revolution which I consider inevitable.”33

The Social Contract, which in hindsight we perceive to have been the most revolutionary of Rousseau’s works, made far less stir than La Nouvelle Héloïse. France was ready for emotional release and romantic love, but it was not ready to discuss the overthrow of the monarchy. This book was the most sustained argument that Rousseau had yet produced, and it was not as easy to follow as the sparkling vivacities of Voltaire. Impressed by its later vogue, we are surprised to learn that its popularity and influence began after, not before, the Revolution.34 Even so we find d’Alembert writing to Voltaire in 1762: “It will not do to speak too loudly against Jean-Jacques or his book, for he is rather a king in the Halles”35—i.e., among the burly workers in the central market of Paris, and, by implication, among the populace. This was probably an exaggeration, but we may date from 1762 the turn of philosophy from attack upon Christianity to criticism of the state.

Few books have ever aroused so much criticism. Voltaire marked his copy of Du Contrat social with marginal rejoinders; so, on Rousseau’s prescription of death for active unbelief: “All coercion on dogma is abominable.”36 Scholars have reminded us how old was the claim that sovereignty lies in the people: Marsilius of Padua, William of Ockham, even Catholic theologians like Bellarmine, Mariana, and Suárez had put forth that claim as a blow behind the knees of kings. It had appeared in the writings of George Buchanan, Grotius, Milton, Algernon Sidney, Locke, Pufendorf … The Social Contract, like nearly all of Rousseau’s political and moral philosophy, is an echo and reflex of Geneva by a citizen distant enough to idealize it without feeling its claws. The book was an amalgam of Geneva and Sparta, of Calvin’s Institutes and Plato’s Laws.

A hundred critics have pointed out the inconsistency between the individualism of Rousseau’s Discourses and the legalism of The Social Contract. Long before Rousseau’s birth Filmer, in Patriarcha (1642), had disposed of the notion that man is born free; he is born subject to paternal authority and to the laws and customs of his group. Rousseau himself, after that initial cry for freedom, moved further and further from liberty toward order—toward submission of the individual to the general will. Basically the contradictions in his works lay between his character and his thought; he was a rebel individualist by temperament, ailment, and lack of formal discipline; he was a communalist (never a communist, not even a collectivist) by his tardy perception that no operative society can be composed of mavericks. We must allow for development: a man’s ideas are a function of his experience and his years; it is natural for a thinking person to be an individualist in youth—loving liberty and grasping for ideals—and a moderate in maturity, loving order and reconciled to the possible. Emotionally Rousseau remained always a child, resenting conventions, prohibitions, laws; but when he reasoned he came to realize that within the restrictions necessary for social order many freedoms can remain; and he ended by perceiving that in a community liberty is not the victim but the product of law—that it is enlarged rather than lessened by general obedience to restraints collectively self-imposed. Philosophical anarchists and political totalitarians alike can quote Rousseau to their purpose,37 and alike unjustly, for he recognized that order is freedom’s first law, and the order that he spoke for was to be the expression of the general will.

Rousseau denied any real contradictions in his philosophy. “All my ideas are consistent, but I cannot expound them all at once.”38 He admitted that his book “needs rewriting, but I have neither the strength nor the time to do it”;39 when he had the strength, persecution took away his time, and when persecution ceased, and time was given, strength had been worn away. In those later years he grew doubtful of his own arguments. “Those who pride themselves on thoroughly understanding The Social Contract are cleverer than I am.”40 In practice he quite ignored the principles he had there laid down; he never thought of applying them when asked to draw up constitutions for Poland or Corsica. Had he continued in the line of change that he followed after 1762 he would have ended in the arms of the aristocracy and the Church, perhaps under the knife of the guillotine.

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