VIII. THE CONSERVATIVE

The same year 1755 that witnessed the publication of the second Discourse saw the appearance, in Volume V of the Encyclopédie, of a long article by Rousseau—“Discours sur l’économie politique.” It requires note because it diverged from the earlier discourses in some vital particulars. Here society, government, and law are honored as natural results of man’s nature and needs, and private property is described as a social boon and a basic right. “It is certain that the right of property is the most sacred of all the rights of citizenship, and even more important in some respects than liberty itself. … Property is the true foundation of civil society, and the real guarantee of the undertakings of citizens”;133 i.e., men will not work beyond the provision of their simplest needs unless they may keep the surplus product as their own, to consume or transmit as they may desire. Now Rousseau approves the bequest of property from parents to children, and cheerfully accepts the class divisions that result. “Nothing is more fatal to morality and the republic than the continual shifting of rank and fortune among the citizens; such changes are both the proof and the source of a thousand disorders, and overturn and confound everything.”134

But he continues to inveigh against social injustice and the class favoritism of the law. Just as the state should protect private property and its lawful inheritance, so “the members of a society ought to contribute from their property to the support of the state.” A rigorous tax ought to be laid upon all persons in graduated proportion to their property and “the superfluity of their possessions.”135 There should be no tax on necessaries, but a heavy tax on luxuries. The state should finance a national system of education. “If the children are brought up in common [in national schools] in the bosom of equality, if they are imbued with the laws of the state and the precepts of the general will, … we cannot doubt that they will cherish one another mutually as brothers, … to become in time defenders and fathers of the country of which they will have been the children.”136 Patriotism is better than cosmopolitanism or a watery pretense of universal sympathy.137

As the two earlier discourses were overwhelmingly individualistic, so the article on political economy is predominantly social-istic. Now for the first time Rousseau announces his peculiar doctrine that there is in every society a “general will” over and above the algebraic sum of the wishes and dislikes of its constituent individuals. The community, in Rousseau’s developing philosophy, is a social organism with its own soul:

The body politic is also a moral being, possessed of a will; and this general will, which tends always to the preservation and welfare of the whole and of every part, is the source of the laws, and constitutes for all the members of the state, in their relations to one another, the rule of what is just or unjust.138

Around this conception Rousseau builds the ethics and the politics that will henceforth dominate his views of public affairs. The rebel who thought of virtue as the expression of the free and natural man now defines it as “nothing more than the conformity of particular wills with the general will”;139 and he who so recently saw law as one of the sins of civilization, as a convenient tool for keeping exploited masses in docile order, now declares that “it is to law alone that men owe justice and liberty; it is that salutary organ of the will of all which establishes, in civil right, the natural equality between men; it is the celestial voice which dictates to each citizen the precepts of public reason.”140

Perhaps the harassed editors of the Encyclopédie had cautioned Rousseau to moderate, in this article, his attack upon civilization. Seven years later, in The Social Contract, we shall find him defending the community against the individual, and building his political philosophy upon the notion of a sacred and supreme general will. Meanwhile, however, he continued to be an individualist and a rebel, hating Paris, asserting himself against his friends, and making fresh enemies every day.

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