Jean Jacques Rousseau: The Rediscovery of the Community. Between the writers most characteristic of the French Enlightenment and Jean Jacques Rousseau is fixed a great gulf. Its existence was patent to everyone concerned; its exact nature has never been finally settled. Diderot described it as the vast chasm between heaven and hell and said that the very idea of Jean Jacques Rousseau disturbed his work as if had a damned soul at my side. Rousseau tn turn said that any man who could doubt his honesty deserved the gibbet.
All Europe-resounded with the quarrel and the bitterness on both sides passes belief. Even the elementary question of personal honesty is still debated, though probably few now believe that Diderot was anything but an upright man or that Rousseau was really a hypocrite. Thomas Carlyle once said that he differed from Sterling only in his opinions.
Jean Jacques Rousseau differed from his contemporaries in everything but his opinions; even when he used the same words he meant something different. His character, his outlook on life, his scale of values, his instinctive reactions, all differed essentially from what the Enlightenment regarded as admirable. The twelve years from 1744 to 1756 that he spent in Paris brought him into close association with the circle that wrote the Encyclopaedia but they only produced on both sides the conviction that Rousseau did not belong there.
This opposition, and indeed all that Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote on philosophy and politics, grew in some devious way from his complex and unhappy personality. His Confessions gives a clear picture of a deeply divided personality, in which morbidities both of sex and religion played a large part.
My tastes and thoughts, he says, always seemed to fluctuate between the noble and the base. His relations with women, both real and imaginary, display a violent sensuality failing alike of animal satisfaction or effective sublimation, but issuing in a riot of sentimental fancy and introspective attitudinizing.
For him the discipline, intellectual or moral, characteristic of Calvinism in its more vital forms had never existed. But he continued to be bedevilled by a Puritan conscience, a sense of sin, and the fear of damnation. It had little effect perhaps on what he did but it produced, by way of compensation, a fine crop of moral sentiments easily forget my misfortunes, but i cannot forget my faults, and still less my virtuous sentiments.
Jean Jacques Rousseau’s passionate belief that men are naturally good Which he ones said was the fundamental principle of his ethical writings, was less an intellectual conviction than a reversal of his fear that he was bad. By throwing the fault on society he was able at once to satisfy his need for condemnation and to shelter himself in a comfortable myth.
This conflict in Rousseau’s personality between the Noble and the base, the ideal and the real, robbed him of all satisfaction in his work or confidence in its value. The inception of an idea was like i from heaven, resolving all the contradictions of our social system. The expression conveyed not one-quarter of the vague but glittering Vision. In social relations he labored under a painful sense of inadequacy, stupidity, and self-distrust. He seems never to have been top fortable except with women and in relationships practically devoid intellectual content.
By inclination he was parasitic and during considerable periods he lived in a state of semi-dependence, but he could never accept dependence gracefully. Instead, he built around himself myth of pseudo-Stoicism and fictitious self-sufficiency, which expressed itself most definitely in suspicion of those who tried to be friend him and in the discovery of elaborate plots, probably imaginary to ruin and betray him. Before the end of his life these suspicions became well-defined delusions of persecution.
Despite his years of no uncongenial vagabondage, he represented in taste and morals the sentimentality of the lower middle class. Essentially he was interested in homely things, was terrified of science and art, distrusted polished manners, sentimentalized commonplace virtues, and enthroned sense above intelligence.
The Revolt Against Reason:-
More than most men Rousseau projected the contradictions and maladjustment of his own nature upon the society about him and sought an anodyne for his own painful sensitivity. For this purpose he adopted the familiar contrast between the natural and the actual current in all the appeals to reason. But Rousseau did not appeal to reason. On the contrary he turned the contrast into an attack upon reason.
Against intelligence, the growth of knowledge, and the progress of science, which the Enlightenment believed to be the only hope of civilization, he set amiable and benevolent sentiments, the good will, and reverence. What gives value to life is the common emotions, perhaps one might say instincts, in respect to which men differ hardly at all and which he imagined to exist in a purer and less perverted form in the simple, uneducated man than in the enlightened and sophisticated.
A thinking man is a depraved animal. All his moral valuations turned upon the worth of these common feelings the affections of family life, the joy and beauty of motherhood, the satisfactions of the homely arts like tilling the soil, the universal feeling of religious reverence, above all, the sense of a common lot and the sharing of a common life all that men learned after him to call the realities of everyday living. By contrast science is the fruit of idle curiosity; philosophy is mere intellectual frippery; the amenities of polite life are tinsel.
The hero of Rousseau’s primitivism was not the noble savage; it was the irritated and bewildered bourgeois, at odds with a society that despised and looked down on him, conscious of his own purity of heart and the greatness of his own deserts, and profoundly shocked at the badness of the philosophers to whom nothing was sacred. By some queer logic of the motions, therefore, he joined in an equal condemnation both the social order that oppressed him and the philosophy which had attacked the foundations of that society.
Against both he set up the pieties and the virtues of the simple heart. The truth is that Rousseau first made vocal a newly awakened fear, the fear that rational criticism, having demolished the more inconvenient pieties like the dogmas and disciplines of the church, might not be made to stop before the pieties which it still seemed judicious to retain.
These vain and futile declaimers [the philosophers] go forth on all sides, armed with their fatal paradoxes, to sap the foundations of our faith, and nullify virtue. They smile contemptuously at such old names as patriotism and religion, and consecrate their talents and philosophy to the destruction and defamation of all that men hold sacred.
In short, intelligence is dangerous because it undermines reverence; science is destructive because it takes away faith; reason is bad because it sets prudence against moral intuition. Without reverence, faith, and moral intuition there is neither character nor society. This was a note which the Enlightenment could not easily understand unless it were a covert defense of revaluation and the church, as in fact it was not-for the Enlightenment was accustomed to center its faith and its hope in reason and science.
The enormous importance of Rousseau lies in the fact that, broadly speaking, he carried philosophy With him against its own tradition. Kant acknowledged that Rousseau had first revealed to him the surpassing value of the moral will as compared with scientific inquiry, and Kant’s philosophy, if not the beginning of a new age of faith, at least began a-new division between science on the one side and religion and morals on the other.
In this new alignment philosophy was less the ally of science than the protector of religion. Science must be carefully confined to the phenomenal world, where it can do no harm to the verities of the heart, to religion and the moral law. To say that science knows only appearances at least suggests that there is some other way of knowing realities.
Philosophy, once released from science, did not always walk soberly with the moral law. Sometimes it sought the higher truth by ways non-rational and irrational, by faith, by the light of genius, by metaphysical intuition, or in the will. The distrust of intelligence was written large over the philosophy of the nineteenth century.
A political philosophy which, like Rousseau’s, began by magnifying the moral sentiments against reason, might be carried out in a variety of ways but it was bound to be contrary to the traditional liberalism either of natural rights or of utility. Both Rousseau and Kant denied that rational self-interest is a reputable moral motive and excluded prudence from the list of moral virtues.
The outcome-might be a more radical doctrine of equality that could be defended on grounds of reason and individual rights, since Rousseau supposed that the moral virtues exist in the greatest purity among the common people. As he said in Emile:
It is the common people who compose the human race; what is not the people is hardly worth taking into account. Man is the same in all ranks; that being so, the ranks which are most numerous deserve most respect.
A democracy of this sort, however, need imply very little personal liberty because it attaches only slight importance to individual preeminence. An ethics that identifies morality with rational self-interest as least presumes freedom of private judgment, but an ethics of sentiment, especially if it stresses sentiments that are equally native to all men, need not do so.
In the end what it is most certain to inculate is reverence for the authority of tradition and custom. The morality of the plain man, however much of the good will it may embody, is inevitably the morality of his time and place. Its standards are rather those of the group than of the individual, and such a morality always teaches submission to the group and conformity to its customary duties. This being so, there is no assurance that they will turn out in the end to be democratic at all.
It was more or less an accident that Rousseau put a high estimate on a simple society with no marked differences of rank. The virtues of loyalty and patriotism, which he chiefly admired, and the glory of finding happiness in the welfare of the group, need have no special reference to democracy. It is hard to say whether Rousseau belonged more truly to Jacobin republicanism or to conservative reaction.
Man as Citizen:-
it is convenient to distinguish between two periods of Rousseau’s political writing, a formative period dated about 1754-55, in which have shape to his own ideas in opposition to Diderot, and the period in which the final version of the Social Contract was prepared for publication in 1762. Many critics have felt a fundamental logical discrepancy between the works of these two periods, described by Vaughan as the defiant individualism of the Discourse the equally defiant collectivism of the Social Contact.
It is certain that Rousseau himself felt no such opposition; in the Confessions he says that every strong idea in the Social Contract had been before published in the Discourse on Inequality. In general Rousseau’s opinion was correct, though it is also true that incompatible ideas abound throughout his writings. Much that seems like defiant individualism persisted in the Social Contract, and none of his works can be reduced to a consistent system. The difference between the earlier works and the Social Contract is merely that in the former he was writing himself free from an uncongenial social philosophy and in the latter he was expressing, as clearly as he could, a counter-philosophy of his own.
The social philosophy from which Rousseau had to disentangle himself was the systematic individualism which, by the time he wrote, was attributed to Locke. It held that the value of any social group consists in the happiness or self-satisfaction which it produces for its members, and especially in the protection of their inherent right to own and enjoy property.
Human beings are led to cooperate by enlightened self-interest and a nice calculation of individual advantage. A community is essentially utilitarian; in itself it has no value though it protects values; the motive on which it rests is universal selfishness; and it contributes mainly to the comfort and security of its members.
Quite rightly Rousseau attributed this philosophy as much to Hobbes as to Locke. Against Hobbes he brought the pertinent objection that the state of war attributed to individual men in a state of nature really belongs to public persons or moral beings called sovereigns. Men fight not as detached individuals but as citizens or subjects.
The writer who did most to release Rousseau from this individualism was Plato. With Rousseau there begins, in fact, a new era of classical influence in political philosophy, which was extended theory Hegelian-ism and which was more genuinely Greek than the pseudo classicism of the eighteenth century. What Rousseau got from Plato was a general outlook.
It included, first, the conviction that Political subjection is essentially ethical and only secondarily a matter of la, and power. Second and more important, he took from Plato the presumption, implicit in all the philosophy of the city-state, that the community is itself the chief moralizing agency and therefore represent, the highest moral value.
The philosophy to which Rousseau stood op, posed began with fully formed individuals; to them it imputed a full complement of interests and the power to calculate-a desire for, happiness, the idea of ownership, the power to communicate with other men, to bargain with them, to make an agreement, and finally to make a government that will give the agreement force.
Plato stimulated Rousseau to ask, Where do individuals get all these capacities except from society? Within a society there may be individuality, freedom, self-interest, respect for covenants; outside it there is nothing moral. From it individuals get their mental and moral faculties and by it they become human; the fundamental moral category is not man but citizen.
To this conclusion Rousseau was led also by his own citizenship in the city-state of Geneva. It is difficult to see in his early life that this ever exerted any tangible influence on him while he was subject to it, but afterward he rationalized and idealized it. This may be seen in the dedication which he placed before the Discourse on Inequality, written at a time when he planned to make Geneva his home.
This idealization of the city-state was one reason why his political philosophy never articulated closely with contemporary politics. In formulating a theory he never envisaged a state on a national scale, and in writing on concrete questions, his views had little to do with his theories. Rousseau himself was in no sense a nationalist, though his philosophy contributed to nationalism.
By reviving the intimacy of feeling and the reverence connoted by citizenship in the city-state, he made it available, at least as an emotional coloring, to citizenship in the national state. The cosmopolitanism implied by natural law he chose to regard as merely a pretext for evading the duties of a citizen.
During the two years in which his political ideas were forming, Rousseau was largely concerned with the meaning of conventional expressions such as the state of nature or the natural man, which were obviously incompatible with his own idea that men have no moral qualities outside a community. A difference of opinion on this subject with Diderot began the life-long quarrel between the two.
The volume of the Encyclopaedia published in 1755 contained an article on Natural Law by Diderot and one on Political Economy by Rousseau about the sometime he wrote a criticism of Diderot’s article for the Social Contract but later excluded it from the final draft.
Diderot’s article was a rhetorical flourish with conventional ideas. Man is rational; his rationality subjects him to the law of natural equity; the test of morals and government is the general will of the race, embodied in the law and practices of civilized peoples. its very conventionality made it the proper object for Rousseau’s attack; he dissented from every article of the accepted creed.
In the first place, the society of the whole human race is a veritable chimera a race is not a society because mere likeness of kind creates no real union, while a society is a moral person arising from a real bond (liaison) uniting its members. A society must have common possessions, such as a common language and a common interest and well-being, which is not a sum Of private goods but the source of them.
The human race as a whole has nothing of this sort in common. In the second place, it is absolutely false that reason by itself would ever bring men together, it they were concerned only with their individual happiness, as the conventional theory supposes. The whole argument is fictitious because all our ideas, even of self-interest, are drawn from the communities in which we live.
Self-interest is not more natural or more innate than the social needs that draw men together in communities. Finally, if there is any idea of a general human family, it arises from the little communities in which men live instinctively; an international community is the end and not the beginning.
We conceive a general society according to our particular societies; the establishment cf little states makes us think of large ones; and we begin properly to become men only after we have become citizens. This shows what we should think of those pretended cosmopolitans who, in justifying their love for their country by their love for the human race, make a boast cf loving all the world in order to enjoy the privilege of loving no one.
Nature and the Simple Life:-
The argument of the Discourse on Inequality, which was published at about the same time, was seriously clouded by the arresting attack on private property for which the work has been mainly known. Obviously if there are no rights of man, property is not one; in his Plan for a Constitution of Corsica Rousseau even said that the state ought to be the sale owner. But certainly he was not a communist.
In the article on Political Economy he referred to property as the mos, sacred of all the rights of citizenship and even in the Discourse itself he treated it as a quite indispensable social right. It is true that the hale, century before the Revolution produced in France schemes of utopian communism which bear about the same relation to middle-class radicalism as Winstanley’s communism to the political doctrine of the English Levellers.
Meslier before Rousseau and Mably and Morelly after him sketched natural schemes of society in which goods especially land, were to be owned in common and the produce shared, and in the revolutionary era itself Marechal’s Manifesto of Equals and Babeuf’s communist uprising in 1796 carried on the idea that political freedom is a superficial remedy without economic equality.
To this body of communist ideas Rousseau’s attack on private property in the Discourse may be said vaguely to belong. But he had no serious idea of abolishing property and no very definite idea about its place in the community. What Rousseau contributed to socialism, utopian or other, was the much more general idea that all rights, including those of property, are rights within the community and not against it.
As a whole the Discourse was meant to deal with the same question as the chapter in criticism of Diderot’s article on Natural Law. It was this which Rousseau put into the Preface as the problem of the book. What really is natural and what is artificial is human nature? In general terms his answer is that, over and above self-interest, men have an innate revulsion against suffering in others.
The common basis of sociability is not reason but feeling; except to the perverted man suffering anywhere is directly painful. In this sense men are naturally good. The calculating egoist of the theories exists not in nature but only in a perverted society.
The philosophers know very well what a citizen of London or Paris is but not what a man is. What then is the truly natural man? The answer cannot be drawn from history because if natural men ever existed, they certainly do not now. if one tries to make a hypothetical picture, the answer is certain.
Natural man was an animal whose behavior was purely instinctive; any thought whatever is depraved. He wholly lacked language, unless in the form of instinctive cries, and without language any general idea is impossible. Consequently the natural man was neither moral nor vicious. He was not unhappy but neither was he happy.
Obviously he had no property, for property resulted from ideas, foreseen wants, knowledge, industry, which were not intrinsically natural but implied language, thought, and society. Selfishness, taste, regard for the opinion of others, the arts, war, slavery. vice, conjugal and paternal affection all exist in men only as they are sociable beings who live together in larger or smaller groups.
This argument was quite general it proved merely that the natural egoist is a fiction, that some kind of community is inevitable, and that no society is purely instinctive. Rousseau intertwined with it, however, another argument that was logically irrelevant. His early writings far more than the Social Contract are filled with a kind of pessimism, probably the result of irritation induced by his residence in Faris, which made him believe that existing French society was little more than an instrument of exploitation.
Grinding poverty in one class contributes merely to parasitic luxury in another; the arts fling garlands of flowers over men’s chains because they are beyond the reach of the masses on whose labor they are supported; and economic exploitation sues naturally in political despotism.
Against this perverted society Rousseau chose to set an idealized simple society which is in a just mean between primitive indolence and civilized egoism. Evidently the conclusion that existing societies are perverted and should be simplified has nothing to do with the prior conclusion that some kind of society is the only moralizing force in human life.
If society as such were a perversion, the conclusion would be that it ought to be abolished. Rousseau has been accused of timidity for not drawing it. In act this was not his conclusion. The simple society that he chose to admire is very far removed, as he was at pains to show, from natural instinct. For this reason it is not very clear just what practical consequences, if any, do flow from his criticism of the state of nature. It all depends on the nature of the society in which the individual is to be embedded.
A national state, a militant working-class, or ultramodern Catholicism might all claim, as easily as the city-state that Rousseau affected, to represent the ultimate value to which men ought to give their loyalty. The implications can be conservative quite as easily as radical.
Of the early works that which stated Rousseau’s political theory most clearly is the article on Political Economy in the fifth volume of the Encyclopaedia. It was evidently in some sense a companion-piece to Diderot’s article on Natural Law in the same volume. Rousseau’s most characteristic political idea, the general will, appeared in both, and it is uncertain whether he or Diderot invented the term.
Certainly Rousseau made it his own. His article touched briefly on most of the ideas developed later in the Social Contract-the theory that a community has a corporate personality, the organic analogy for a social group; the doctrine that the general will of the corporate self sets the moral standards valid for its members, and the implied reduction of government to a mere agent of the general will The general principle behind the argument is that already mentioned that mere likeness of kind does not make men into a society but only a psychological or spiritual bond the reciprocal sensibility and internal correspondence of all the parts analogous to the vital principle of a living organism.
The body politic, therefore, 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, and is the source of the laws, constitutes for all the members of the state in their relations to one another and to it, the rule of what is just or unjust.
The tendency to form societies is a universal trait; wherever individuals have a common interest they form a society, permanent or transient, and every society has a general will which regulates the conduct of its members. Larger societies are composed not directly of individuals but of smaller societies, and each more inclusive society sets the duties of the smaller societies that compose it. Thus Rousseau still left standing the great society, the human race, of which natural law is the general will, but as a society rather than as a race. The bonds of this society, however, are obviously weak. In effect Rousseau sets up patriotism as the supreme virtue and the source of all other virtues.
It is certain that the greatest miracles of virtue have been produced by patriotism this fine and lively feeling, which gives to the force of self-love all the beauty of virtue, lends it an energy which, without disfiguring it, makes it the most heroic of all passions.
Human beings must be made citizens before they can be made men, but in order that they may be citizens, governments must give liberty under the law, must provide for material welfare and remove gross inequality in the distribution of wealth, and must create a system of public education by which children are accustomed to regard their individuality only in its relation to the body of the state. The general problem of a political philosophy Rousseau stated almost in the form of the paradox with which he opened the Social Contract:
By what inconceivable art has a means been found of making men free by making them subject?
The General Will:-
The Social Contract was published in 1762. By Rousseau’s account it was a part of a much larger work which he had projected but was not able to finish. The plan of this larger work is unknown, but in view of the arrangement of subject-matter in the Social Contract itself, he probably began by stating abstractly his theory of the general will and then went on to make observations at large about history and politics.
The latter part of the book as published retains traces of the reading of Montesquieu, as did also Rousseau’s published plan for a we constitution of Corsica and his Considerations sur le government de Pologne.
The Social Contract, in its theoretical part, is excessively abstract; when Rousseau writes on current questions it is usually difficult to see what the theory has to do with his proposals or the proposals with the theory. It is safe to say, therefore, that nothing was lost when he abandoned his more extended work. The general will and the criticism of natural right comprised everything of importance that he had to say.
The practical uses to which that theory might be put were various, and Rousseau had neither the knowledge nor the patience to explore them. His belief that a small community like the city-state is the best example of the general will made it impossible for him to discuss contemporary politics with much point.
The development of the theory of the general will in the Social Contract was involved in paradoxes, partly because of the cloudiness of Rousseau’s ideas but partly, it seems, because he had a rhetorician’s liking for paradox. Manifestly, in view of his criticism of the natural man, he ought to have avoided the notion of contract altogether as both meaningless and misleading.
Seemingly he retained the phrase because he liked its popular appeal, and in order not to make the inconsistency too glaring, he deleted the criticism of the state of nature which he had written against Diderot. Not content with this complication, after introducing the contract he explained it away, so far as any definite contractual meaning was concerned.
In the first place, his contract has nothing to do with the rights and powers of government, since the latter is merely the people’s agent and is so devoid of independent power that it cannot be the subject of a contract. In the second place, the imaginary act by which a society is produced is not even remotely like a contract, because the rights and liberties of individuals have no existence at all except as they are already members of the group.
Rousseau’s whole argument depended upon the fact that a community of citizens is unique and coeval with its members; they neither make it nor have rights against it. It is an association not an aggregation, a moral and collective personality. The word con, about as misleading as any that Rousseau could have chosen.
The social order is a sacred right which is the basis other rights.
The problem is to find a form of association which will find and protect with the whole common force the person goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting self with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free before.
Each of us puts his person and all his power in com under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate Capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible Part y the whole.
Another paradox lay in the fact that Rousseau could not persuade himself to give over trying to prove that men individually gain more being members of society than they would by remaining isolated, This is implied in the famous sentence with which the Social Contract opened and in which he proposed to explain what can make the bondage of society legitimate.
This way of putting the question in, plied that Rousseau was going to show, as Holbach or Helvetius might that being a member of society is on the whole a good bargain. Of course he was going to do nothing of the sort, if the state of nature was a chimera and all the values by which the bargain might be judged were non-existent except in a society.
Similarly, the assertion that ma is everywhere in chains implied that society is a burden for which individuals need to be compensated, whereas Rousseau was going to argue that they are not human at all except as members of a community. A bad community might impose chains on its members, but Rousseau was logically bound to hold that it did so because it was bad and not because it was a community. The question, what justifies the existence of communities, should have been treated by him as nonsensical.
The question, what makes one community better that f another, is of course legitimate; it would involve a comparison of communities in terms of the social and individual interests that each conserves, but not a comparison between a community and its absence Again, an individual might be better off in one community than if another, but the question whether he would be better or worse off it no community ought to have been ruled out as unmeaning.
For it we society, he said, that substituted justice for instinct and gave men actions the morality they had formerly lacked. Instead of a stupid and unimaginative animal, it made him an intelligent being and a mar. Apart from society there would be no scale of values in terms of which to judge well-being
The general will, therefore, represented a unique fact about a community, namely, that it has a collective good which is not the same thing as the private interests of its members. In some sense it lives its own life, fulfills its own destiny, and suffers its own fate. In accordance with the analogy of an organism, which Rousseau had developed at some length in the article on Political Economy, it may be said to have a will of its own, the general will.
If the state is a moral person whose life is in the union of its members, and if the most important of its cares is the care for its own preservation, it must have a universal and compelling force, in order to move and dispose each part as may be most advantageous to the whole.
The rights of individuals, such as liberty, equality, and property, which natural law attributed to men as such, are really the rights of citizens. Men become equal, as Rousseau says, by convention and legal right, not, as Hobbes had said, because their physical power is substantially equal.
The right which each individual has to his own estate is always subordinate to the right which the community has over all.
In the community men first gain civil liberty, which is a moral right and is not merely the natural liberty which by a figure of speech might be attributed to a solitary animal.
The Paradox of Freedom:-
So far this is perfectly true and a fair reply to the extravagances of contemporary speculation about the state of nature. Just what it entails, however, about the rights of men in society is far from obvious, and Rousseau’s account of the matter sometimes contradicted itself within the limits of a single page. For example:
The social compact gives the body politic absolute power over all its members.
Each man alienates, admit, by the social compact, only such part of his powers, goods and liberty as it is important for the community to control; but it must also be granted that the sovereign is sole judge of what is important.
But the sovereign, for its part, cannot impose upon its subjects any fetters that are useless to the community.
We can see from this that the sovereign power, absolute | sacred, and inviolable as it is, does not and cannot exceed the limits of general conventions, and that every man may dispose at will of such goods and liberty as these conventions leave him.
In fact, Rousseau moved back and forth at will between his own theory of the general will and the indefeasible individual rights which ostensibly he had abandoned. In itself the mere fact that rights of any sort require social recognition and can be defended only in terms of common good signifies nothing about what individual rights a well, regulated community will give to its members.
Since Rousseau believed as a matter of course that social well-being itself dictates some liberty of individual choice and action, wherever he meets this sort of case he sets it down as a limitation upon the general will. Logically it is nothing of the sort, if liberty itself is one of the things that the genera good requires.
On the other hand, Rousseau was quite capable of arguing that because there are no indefeasible rights in defiance of the general good, there are no individual rights at all. This again was a logical confusion, unless one argues, as Rousseau certainly did not mean to do, that all liberty is contrary to the social good.
The truth is that the general will is so abstract-asserting merely that rights are social-that it justified no inference at all about the extent to which ; individuals might wisely be left to their own devices within society. At the same time the general position was of course valid against a theory of natural rights that left social well-being entirely out of account.
This confusion in Rousseau’s argument gave rise to another para| dox which is especially important and especially irritating, the paradox , of freedom. He began by assuming a burden that was incumbent on egoistic theories but not upon him, provided he meant really to reject egoism, namely, to prove that in society a man may still obey himself alone. Consequently he undertook nothing less than to show that real coercion never occurs in society and that what is taken to be coercion is only apparently so, a paradox of the worst sort. Even a criminal wills his own punishment.
In order then that the social compact may not be an empty formula, it tacitly includes the undertaking that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free. This alone legitimizes civil undertakings, which, without it, would be absurd, tyrannical, and liable to the most frightful abuses.
In other words, coercion is not really coercion because when a man individually wants something different from what the social order gives him, he is merely capricious and does not rightly know his own good or his own desires.
This kind of argument, in Rousseau and after him in Hegel, was a dangerous experiment in juggling with ambiguities. Liberty had become what Thorstein Veblen called an “honorific” word, the name for sentiment with which even attacks on liberty wished to be baptized.
It was perfectly legitimate to point out that some liberties are not good, that liberty in one direction may entail loss of liberty in another, or that there are other political values which in some circumstances are more highly esteemed than liberty. Straining language to show that restricting liberty is really increasing it, and that coercion is not really coercion, merely made the vague language of politics still vaguer.
But this was not the worst of it. What was almost inevitably implied was that a man whose moral convictions are against those commonly held in his community is merely capricious and ought to be suppressed. This was perhaps not a legitimate inference from the abstract theory of the general will, because freedom of conscience really is a social and not merely an individual good.
But in every concrete situation the general will has to be identified with some body of actual opinion, and moral institution usually means that morality is identified with standards which are generally accepted. Forcing a man to be free is a euphemism for making him blindly obedient to the mass or the strongest party. Robespierre made the inevitable application when he said of the Jacobins, Our will is the general will.
They say, that terrorism is the resort of despotic government. Is our government then like despotism? Yes, as the sword that flashes in the hand of the hero of liberty is like that with which the satellites of tyranny are armed. The government of the Revolution is the despotism of liberty against tyranny.
The general will, as Rousseau Said over and over again, is always right. This is merely a truism, because the general will stands for the social good, which is itself the standard of right. What is riot right is merely not the general will. But how-does this absolute right stand in relation to the many and possibly conflicting judgments about it?
Who is entitled to decide what is right? Rousseau’s attempts to answer these questions produced a variety of contradictions and evasions. Sometimes he said that the general will deals only with general questions and not with particular persons or actions, thus leaving the application to private judgment, but this conflicted with his assertion that the general will itself determines the sphere of private judgment.
Sometimes he tried to make the general will equivalent to decision by a majority, but this would imply that the majority is always right, which he certainly did not believe. Sometimes he spoke as if the general will registered itself automatically by making differences of opinion cancel each other. This opinion cannot be refuted but neither can it be proved.
It amounted to saying that communities-states or nations have an inscrutable faculty for discerning their well-being and proper destiny. Rousseau originated the romantic cult of the group, and this was the fundamental difference between his social philosophy and the individualism from which he revolted. The rationalist centered his scheme of values in the culture of the individual, in intellectual enlightenment and independence of judgment and enterprise. Rousseau’s philosophy emphasized the aggrandizement of a group, the satisfactions of participation, and the cultivation of the non-rational
In Rousseau intention the theory of the general will greatly diminished the importance of government. Sovereignty belongs only to the people as a corporate body, while government is merely an agent having delegated powers which can be withdrawn or modified as the will of the people dictates. Government has no vested right whatever such as Locke’s theory of the contract had left to it, but has merely t e status of a committee.
Rousseau conceived this to exclude any for of representative government, since the sovereignty of the people cannot be represented. The only free government is therefore a direct democracy in which the citizens can actually be present in town-meeting. Just why the general will should be restricted to this one form of expression is not very clear, apart from Rousseau’s admiration for the city-state.
Doubtless it was his belief that the theory of popular sovereignty diminished the power of the executive but this was an illusion. For though the people have all power and all moral right and wisdom, a corporate body cannot as such express its will or execute it. The more the community is exalted the more authority its spokesmen have, whether they are called representatives or not.
Even parties and factions, which Rousseau thoroughly detested, are more likely to be strengthened than weakened by the idea of corporate sovereignty. A well-regimented minority, whose leaders are persuaded of their own inspiration and whose members think with their blood, has proved an almost perfect organ for the general will.
Rousseau and Nationalism:-
Rousseau’s political philosophy was so vague that it can hardly be said to point in any specific direction. In the age of-the Revolution probably Robespierre and the Jacobins owed most to him, for his theory of popular sovereignty and his denial of any vested right in government made, as Gierke said, a kind of doctrine of permanent revolution which was very suitable to the purposes of a radical democratic party.
Moreover, there was really nothing in the conception of the general will that required it to be shared consciously by the whole people or to be expressed only in a popular assembly. Rousseau’s enthusiasm for the democratic city-state was an anachronism.
The small community with a prevailingly rural economy, loosely federated with other similar communities, which would perhaps have represented his ideals most literally, had no importance in Europe and only a passing importance in America.
Though Rousseau believed that free citizenship was impossible in any form of larger state, it was inevitable under the circumstances that the sentiment which he aroused should result mainly in idealizing national patriotism. Thus in his essay on Poland he might advise a policy of decentralization, but the only effect of the work must lie in its appeal to Polish nationalism. On the other hand, he persistently libelled the humanitarian and cosmopolitan ideals of the Enlightenment as a mere lack of moral principle.
Today there are no longer Frenchmen, Germans, Spaniards, or even Englishmen; there are only Europeans. They are at home wherever there is money to steal or women to seduce.
The net effect was a very uncritical adaptation of the ideal of citizenship as it had been in a city-state to the modern national state, which is an almost wholly different-kind of social and political unit. Thus the state was idealized as including all the values of national civilization, much as the Greek city had overlapped nearly all phases of Greek life, though in fact no modern state did anything of the sort. Thus without being himself a nationalist, Rousseau helped to recast the ancient ideal of citizenship in a form such that national sentiment could appropriate it.
Nationalism, however, was not a simple force acting in a single direction or with a single motive. It might mean democracy and the rights of man, as in general it did in the age of the Revolution, but it might mean also an alliance between the landowning gentry and the new middle-class aristocracy of wealth.
It might sweep away the remnants of feudal institutions only to build in their place new institutions that would rely no less heavily on traditional loyalties and the subordination of classes. Inevitably nationalism in France and England, where there was no doubt of political union, would be quite different from nationalism in Germany, where the aspiration for a national government commensurate with the unity of German culture would soon overlap all other questions.
Rousseau’s idealizing of the moral feelings of the plain man found an immediate echo in the ethics of Kant. Its full significance, especially his idealizing of the collective will and of participation in the common life, appeared in German philosophy with the idealism of Hegel.
Rousseau’s collectivism, however, required a drastic revaluation of custom, tradition, and the accumulating heritage of the national culture, without which the general will was nothing but an empty formula. This, in turn, amounted to a thoroughgoing revolution in philosophical values Since the time of, Descartes custom and reason had by common consent been set in contrast to one another.
The proper work of reason had been to release men from the bondage of authority and tradition, in order that they might be free to follow the light of nature. This was the meaning of the whole imposing system of natural law. This the sentimentalism of Rousseau tacitly set aside.
The idealism of Hegel tried to weave reason and tradition into a single unit-the expanding culture of a national spirit or Consciousness. In effect reason was to be bent to the service of custom, tradition, and authority, with a corresponding emphasis on the values of stability, national unity, and continuity of development.
Hegel’s philosophy conceived the general will as the spirit of the nation, expanding and embodying itself in a national culture and creating its organs in an historical constitution. Apart from the incoherence of Rousseau’s presentation of it, the obvious defect of the general will as he left it was the extreme abstractness of the conception.
It was the mere idea or form of a community, as Kant’s categorical imperative was the mere form of a moral will. Nothing but historical accident, so to speak, attached it to the sense of membership in a nation and the idealizing of national citizenship.
Rousseau’s position as an alien in French national life, his moral incapacity to ally himself with any social cause, and the state of French politics when he wrote, all conspired to prevent him from giving to the general will any concrete embodiment.
This want, however, was at once supplied by Edmund Burke. For Burke the conventions of the constitution, the traditional rights and duties of Englishmen, the living presence of a rich national culture growing from generation to generation were not abstractions but real existences, suffused with the warmth of ardent patriotism and the glow of moral sentiment.
In the later years of his life the shock and horror of the French Revolution forced him to break the habit of a lifetime and to state in general terms the philosophy upon which he had always acted. The result was at once a contrast and a supplement to Rousseau. In Burke the corporate life of England became a conscious reality. The general will was released from temporary bondage to Jacobinism and made a factor in conservative nationalism.
Throughout the eighteenth century the tradition of philosophical rationalism and the system of natural law which was its most typical creation was in a state of gradual decadence. Rousseau’s denial of it was largely a matter of feeling; he lacked the intellectual penetration and the steadiness of intellectual-application to criticism the system in place of which he set up the autonomy of sentiment.
But this criticism already existed, the work of David Hume. From the time of Locke, the growth of the empirical philosophy and the increasingly empirical practice of social studies had caused a steady infiltration of incongruous ideas into the system of natural law.
Perhaps it would be truer to say that the system of natural law itself had included from the start, under the name of reason, a variety of factors which for the sake of clearness needed to be discriminated and which grew steadily more incongruous as social studies advanced.
The breaking apart of the old system was due mainly to the analytic genius of Hume. His negative limitation of reason was really a logical precondition both of the value which Rousseau attributed to moral sentiment and of that which Burke attributed to a growing national tradition.