The torch of Enlightenment shone, dimly at first, but firmly in the midst of the eighteenth century. The stultifying Old Regime authorities and decadent Parisian elites clashed to form an uneasy powder key of an environment in the French capital during the decades preceding the cataclysmic French Revolution. The Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) was acutely aware of his outsider status among the largely French intellectuals who dominated the cafes and salons. He referred to himself as ‘Citizen of Geneva’ on the title page of his famous Social Contract (1762). Rousseau was anti-authoritarian, but crafted a political philosophy which could (and was) usurped by authoritarians. He was a libertarian (in the philosophical sense) who would have clashed with free market libertarians a great deal. His political philosophy, it seems, was an exploration in how to, if possible, craft a society so as to avoid the corrupting nature of cosmopolitan decadence and uphold and cultivate the great virtues. Additionally, the book explores the nature of political power as well as what constitutes legitimacy. The shackles of bureaucracy, of unquestioned tradition, and of extremes in inequality constitute a stultifying societal structure that has built up over time — a massive impediment to the power of the individual.
Rousseau opened his magnum opus with the immortal words: “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they.” His political philosophy, problematic thought it is, was an exploratory attempt to analyze the nature of authority and freedom — an Enlightenment inquiry consistent with notions of individualism. This work also builds upon key ideas Rousseau began to develop in his famous two discourses of the 1750s — one on the arts and sciences and the other on inequality. Rousseau set himself the rather impossible task of trying to reconcile individualism with notions of a general will in his Social Contract. Rousseau’s revolutionary idea — one of the most important aspects of his political philosophy — was that any kind of legitimate authority would have to justify itself. Hence, his emphasis on a general will — the collective will of a people in a (small) democracy. In the Social Contract, Rousseau had this to say:
“As long as several men assembled together consider themselves as a single body, they have only one will which is directed towards their common preservation and general well-being. Then, all the animating forces of the state are vigorous and simple, and its principles are clear and luminous; it has no incompatible or conflicting interests; the common good makes itself so manifestly evident that only common sense is needed to discern it. Peace, unity and equality are the enemies of political sophistication. Upright and simple men are difficult to deceive precisely because of their simplicity; stratagems and clever arguments do not prevail upon them, they are not indeed subtle enough to be dupes. When we see among the happiest people in the world bands of peasants regulating the affairs of state under an oak tree, and always acting wisely, can we help feeling a certain contempt for the refinements of other nations, which employ so much skill and effort to make themselves at once illustrious and wretched?
A state thus governed needs very few laws.”
-Jean-Jacques Rousseau, from Book IV, Ch. 1 of On The Social Contract
As stated at the outset of this article, Rousseau was immensely proud of his Genevan heritage — calling himself ‘Citizen of Geneva’ in his books. Geneva, at the time, was a small, independent republic. There was much debate about the nature of republics and whether or not they could work on a large scale. This was discussed in great detail by the Founding Fathers of the United States in 1787 when they were designing a new federal government. Philosophers of previous decades took up the question of size and type of government as well. Rousseau spent much time considering nascent civilization and a hypothetical state of nature as a backdrop to exploring republican and democratic ideas. There are some, even in the present day (like Pete Buttigieg) who try to mash the two concepts together. Buttigieg actually stated in an interview with The Minimalists, that the difference between a republic and a democracy was academic. How wrong he is! The problematic nature of democracy in Rousseau’s Social Contract reveals a major difference — a democracy, in its pure form, is mob rule. Democracy killed Socrates and drove Aristotle into exile. Democracy can descend into chaos quite easily (as someone like Thomas Hobbes easily understood). Geneva was a small republic and its form of government worked well because of its size. Certain cantons and portions of cantons in Switzerland can function as direct democracies because of their size. Such government would descend into chaos in larger states. Unlike people like Buttigieg, Rousseau understood the difference between the two, though his use of the term general will did more to confuse rather than emphasize the distinction.
Much of the chaos of the French Revolution was due to a massive over-valuation of democracy, the ability of politics to fix all of society’s problems, and reading (as well as misreadings) of Rousseau’s political philosophy as if it were gospel rather than the theoretical musings of an intelligent, but flawed, thinker. The success of English Common Law rests with the fact that it developed organically, through various gradual reforms (course corrections) over a vast amount of time rather than top-down interventions based on philosophical abstractions from people with little real experience in government.
Rousseau’s Social Contract does have its gems. However, one must read the work a discerning mind. As the old adage goes, ‘democracy is two wolves and a sheep deciding what’s for dinner.’ At the same time, a republican government offers a much more healthy and appealing option for mixed government — one in which rule by one, rule by few, and rule by many can coexist and buttress one another. Rousseau’s best work, it seems, is to be found in his two discourses of the 1750s. His Social Contract, for all the hype it has received from many a political science professor, is an important but flawed work with a major important idea — the legitimacy of people’s sovereignty and several important related ideas — the dangers of bureaucracy, the centrality of liberty, critic of slavery, and the idea that small republican governments are the natural forms of government in which individual liberty can best flourish. The political mechanisms for creating such an environment proposed by Rousseau are far from perfect — it has all the markings of someone who had no real political experience. Thus, it would have needed a co-writer with years of political experience who could have shaped the inchoate and idealistic abstractions Rousseau was exploring.
Rousseau also emphasized the centrality and inalienability of liberty:
“Tranquility is found also in dungeons; but is that enough to make them desirable places to live in? To say that a man gives himself gratuitously, is to say what is absurd and inconceivable; such an act is null and illegitimate, from the mere fact that he who does it is out of his mind. To say the same of a whole people is to suppose a people of madmen; and madness creates no right. Even if each man could alienate himself, he could not alienate his children: they are born men and free; their liberty belongs to them, and no one but they has the right to dispose of it. Before they come to years of judgment, the father can, in their name, lay down conditions for their preservation and well-being, but he cannot give them irrevocably and without conditions: such a gift is contrary to the ends of nature, and exceeds the rights of paternity. It would therefore be necessary, in order to legitimize an arbitrary government, that in every generation the people should be in a position to accept or reject it; but, were this so, the government would be no longer arbitrary. To renounce liberty is to renounce being a man, to surrender the rights of humanity and even its duties. For him who renounces everything no indemnity is possible. Such a renunciation is incompatible with man’s nature; to remove all liberty from his will is to remove all morality from his acts. Finally, it is an empty and contradictory convention that sets up, on the one side, absolute authority, and, on the other, unlimited obedience.”
-Jean-Jacques Rousseau, from On the Social Contract, Book I, Ch. 4.
Rousseau was an outspoken defender of individual liberty and critic of the Atlantic Slave Trade. His statement above makes it clear that Rousseau’s political musings were of instrumental value whereas individual civil liberty is of intrinsic value. This point has to be made because of so many critics who saw in Rousseau’s ideas the precursors of twentieth century totalitarianism. This is probably because they focused so heavily on the specific political layout Rousseau delineated in the Social Contract rather than the thought process and values behind it or the previous works in which Rousseau explored the corrupting nature of cosmopolitan societies.
“The very right to vote imposes on me the duty to instruct myself in public affair, however little influence my voice may have in them.” -Jean-Jacques Rousseau, from On the Social Contract
Statements like the above are among the idealistic, well-sounding statements Rousseau made. The realities surrounding them, are a different matter. How many people in any population takes such notions seriously when voting? Yes, all adult citizens of a polity should have the right to vote and yes, they should consider deeply the weight that their modest voice has on the process. This latter point must be stressed because of the problems related to voter apathy and incumbent advantage. Voter apathy is a form of resignation, not the much-needed bulwark against the status quo. Incumbent advantage allows for the development of a non-hereditary form of aristocracy. Perhaps the example of San Marino — with their two captains-regent who serve for 6-month terms and have to wait so many years before occupying that office again — is the way to go in terms of executive power. In any event, Rousseau at least acknowledged the shortcomings of his more idealistic statement above:
“As soon as any man says of the affairs of the State “What does it matter to me?” the State may be given up for lost.”
-Jean-Jacques Rousseau, from On the Social Contract
Man is born free, yet he is everywhere in chains. Rousseau’s statement still stands, even in societies which are far freer than Old Regime France. This is because, when one takes away authoritarian political impediments to liberty, there are many who yearn for some form of authority. Freedom is glorious but dangerous, even in a constrained form (in comparison with the state of nature). The artist, the entrepreneur, these are among the freest people in society today. They mold themselves into the people they wish to become. They take the initiative to develop themselves and exercise their liberty to the greatest extent possible while the vast majority seek pacifiers st their chains. It has been said that affluence is the precondition for existential angst. This is because the natural, antifragile nature of humanity cannot flourish in the superficial environment of middle class sterility. Rousseau’s political philosophy, in order to be more successful, must be taken into consideration alongside his critiques of both inequality and the arts and sciences. Otherwise, we risk merely replacing one set of chains with another.