The Pathos of Politics (31) Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Civilization is a hopeless race to discover remedies for the evils it produces. ~ Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Genevan philosopher and composer Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) was a keen moralist, and a fierce critic of 18th-century French society. His political philosophy influenced the 1789 French Revolution, which was the political culmination of the Age of Enlightenment.

Rousseau had an idealized imagining of human social evolution: from solitude to increasing interdependence. Rousseau’s predominant interest was to find a way to preserve freedom in the interdependent complex that constituted modern society.

The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “this is mine,” and found people naïve enough to believe him; that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: “beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.” ~ Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The dimensions of this concern were both material and psychological; the latter of greater importance. Rousseau saw that people derived their sense of self from others, which he considered corrosive of freedom and individual authenticity.

Our souls have been corrupted in proportion to the advancement of our sciences and our arts toward perfection. ~ Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Fame came to Rousseau by his winning an essay competition in 1750. His Discourse on the Science and the Arts scandalized Enlightenment contemporaries with the proposition that progress was counter-productive to human well-being. His follow-on essay, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Among Men, served a 2nd helping.

The extreme inequality of our ways of life, the excess of idleness among some and the excess of toil among others, the ease of stimulating and gratifying our appetites and our senses, the overelaborate foods of the rich, which inflame and overwhelm them with indigestion, the bad food of the poor, which they often go without altogether, so that they over-eat greedily when they have the opportunity; those late nights, excesses of all kinds, immoderate transports of every passion, fatigue, exhaustion of mind, the innumerable sorrows and anxieties that people in all classes suffer, and by which the human soul is constantly tormented: these are the fatal proofs that most of our ills are of our own making, and that we might have avoided nearly all of them if only we had adhered to the simple, unchanging and solitary way of life that nature ordained for us. ~ Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Rousseau’s arguments extended those of Machiavelli and Montesquieu about the growth of affluence and luxury leading to moral decline and loss of liberty.

Rousseau’s Stoic endorsement of simplicity, and severe criticism of increasing dependence on commodities, angered Age of Reason thinkers, whose trust in progress was bedrock to their beliefs. Voltaire declared that Rousseau wanted people to “walk on all fours” like animals and act like savages.

The ideal of the noble savage can be traced back to Tacitus (56–117), a Roman senator and historian, in reference to the Germanic tribes outside the Roman Empire. The phrase first appeared in English in the 1672 play by John Dryden: Conquest of Granada.

I am as free as Nature first made man,

Ere the base laws of servitude began,

When wild in woods the noble savage ran.

In many respects, Rousseau’s sentiments bore a striking resemblance to the later indictment of Western civilization by Indian social leader Mahatma Gandhi.

What do I think of Western civilization? I think it would be a very good idea. ~ Mahatma Gandhi

Plato was a powerful influence on Rousseau in 2 respects. First was the conviction that political subjection is essentially ethical, and only a matter of power and law secondarily. More importantly, Rousseau agreed with Plato that the community itself is the chief moralizing agency in polity, and so represents a society’s moral value. Like Plato, Rousseau believed in the primacy of politics.

The social pact, far from destroying natural equality, substitutes, on the contrary, a moral and lawful equality for whatever physical inequality that nature may have imposed on mankind; so that however unequal in strength and intelligence, men become equal by covenant and by right. ~ Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Rousseau perceived that civil society evolved for the protection of the property of a relative few. The institutionalization of inequitable property rights put an end to self-sufficiency and brought misery to the majority.

From the moment it appeared advantageous to any one man to have enough provisions for two, equality too disappeared, property was introduced, for work became indispensable, and vast forests became smiling fields, which man had to water with the sweat of his brow, and where slavery and misery were soon seem to germinate and grow up with crops. ~ Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Whereas Hobbes saw man evolving from a state of social enmity to civility through social contract over private property, Rousseau envisioned the opposite: that natural gregariousness gave way to social dissension through property, which created inequality and mutual dependence.

The rich required the services of the poor, while the poor survived upon the leavings of the rich. As the discrepancy and social distinctions sharpened, the poor coveted the property of the rich, the rich feared loss, which lead to the social conflict which Hobbes viewed as the natural, not evolved, state.

Despite his cogent analysis, Rousseau was no socialist. He regarded property as a most sacred citizen right, though with no definite idea about its place in communal affairs.

Like Plato, Rousseau’s indictment of property was on moral grounds. His ideal was unrealistically idyllic: an economic system based upon small farmers tilling their own tracts of land.

No man has any natural authority over his fellow men. ~ Jean-Jacques Rousseau

In libertarian spirit, Rousseau considered consent as the basis for a just state but emphasized the importance of community along with the need to ensure individual freedom. This too was Platonic idealism.

The State, in relation to its members, is master of all their goods by the social contract, which, within the State, is the basis of all rights. ~ Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Rousseau considered the making of just laws a problem beyond human ken.

In order to discover the rules of society best suited to nations, a superior intelligence beholding all the passions of men without experiencing any of them would be needed. This intelligence would have to be wholly unrelated to our nature, while knowing it through and through. It would take gods to give men laws. ~ Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Rousseau thought a participatory democracy desirable, as it virtuously secured freedom, self-rule, and equality.

What, then, is the government? An intermediary body established between the subjects and the sovereign for their mutual communication, a body charged with the execution of the laws and the maintenance of freedom, both civil and political. ~ Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Rousseau firmly believed that freedom only occurred when people governed themselves and participated in the law-making process. Contrastingly, Rousseau considered parliamentary democracy a sham.

The English people believes itself to be free. It is gravely mistaken. It is only free during the election of Members of Parliament. As soon as the Members are elected, the people are enslaved. ~ Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Eschewing anarchy, Rousseau grappled with devising a polity that would protect individual liberty while subscribing to social decency. He rejected representative institutions, which he viewed as creating factionalized competition.

Rousseau despised competitiveness in both economics and politics, as competition killed cooperation and affiliative feeling for one’s fellows. He rejected Locke’s liberal formula of government as the vehicle of private property protection, seeing it as the means to entrench inequality under the pretense of legal equity.

Rousseau’s conceptual conniptions came in trying to ensure personal freedom while ensuring equity and fostering moral virtue and community spirit. He admitted defeat.

Were there a people of gods, their government would be democratic. So perfect a government is not for men. ~ Jean-Jacques Rousseau