Mistakes Were Made

Raffi’s post on legal executions in the Talmud and the doctrine of double effect reminded me of a “mistake” I had made a couple years back–although I doubt that reminding me of this mistake was his intention. My mistake–in academic parlance, they’re called readings–hinged on an inference I had made into the intent behind Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract.

Before we get into my reading, I’ll give you a general overview of the text. Rousseau’s main concern is how civil authority can be established legitimately; that is, how anyone can be said to have the right to tell anyone else what to do. He claims that such an authority can be legitimately derived only from the title social contract, which entails “the total alienation to the whole community of each associate with all his rights; for, in the first place, since each gives himself up entirely, the situation is equal for all; and the conditions being equal for all, no one has any interest in making them burdensome for others.” Only in this way, Rousseau argues, can mankind set up an authority without alienating his natural freedom, and what’s more, the authority will govern perfectly, since the interest of one should be perfectly aligned with the interest of the many.

As might be expected, Rousseau’s high standard for legitimacy puts draconian strictures on the his ideal society and government. In order for the government to act in the best interests of all of the people, there can be no other competing interests; private associations are therefore banned, government is only by direct democratic assembly and there is no absolute right to property. Citizens must be taught to act reasonably, so education and media are both strictly controlled. Most controversially, in order for the contract to remain binding on all members, Rousseau’s government has the absolute right to enforce its dictates on all of its subjects; in his infamous formulation, “to force [them] to be free.”

The Social Contract has traditionally been read, irony intended, like the literal Gospel. In 1791, Robespierre opposed a law on suffrage primarily because it failed to conform to The Social Contract: “Can the law be termed an expression of the general will when the greater number of those for whom it is made can have no hand in its making? No.” The idea that the government must have the unlimited power to enforce its own authority is the ideological underpinning of the Terror. Again, the words of Robespierre: “Is a revolutionary government the less just and the less legitimate because it must be more vigorous in its actions and freer in its movements than an ordinary government? No! For it rests on the most sacred of all laws, the safety of the people, and on necessity, which is the most indisputable of all rights.” Robespierre saw Rousseau’s work as a blueprint for the first modern regime of terror, and, to be honest, taking Rousseau literally, it’s a fair reading. The aping was so complete that even Edmund Burke, no fan of Rousseau himself, found himself writing this half-hearted defense: “I believe, that were Rousseau alive, and in one of his lucid intervals, he would be shocked at the practical frenzy of his scholars, who in their paradoxes are servile imitators; and even in their incredulity discover an implicit faith.”

I tend to agree with Burke here; Rousseau’s a lot trickier than Robespierre would make him out to be. The first time I read The Social Contract, I found myself intrigued by his introductory note, a very strange piece of writing. He begins with a mission statement that reflects a level of doubt found nowhere else in the text: “I want to inquire whether, taking men as they are and laws as they can be made to be, it is possible to establish some just and reliable rule of administration.” Only in this short segment is the possibility of setting up an ideal government in question; elsewhere, it is only a question of feasibility and will. He goes on to contradict himself in the astonishing space of four sentences:

I shall be asked whether I am a prince or a legislator that I write on politics. I reply that I am neither; and that it is for this very reason that I write about politics. If I were a prince or a legislator, I would not waste my time saying what ought to be done; I would do it or remain silent. Being a citizen of a free State, and a member of that sovereign body, however feeble my voice may have in public affairs, the right to vote on them is sufficient to impose on me the duty of informing myself about them; and I feel happy, whenever I meditate on governments, always to discover in my research new reasons for loving that of my own country.

Rousseau praises his own country out of fear or sarcasm. Rousseau’s grandfather and his father had been forced to flee Geneva when they clashed with the ruling aristocracy; he knew from his own experience that Geneva was far from free. And if he did have the right to participate in the government of his own country, why didn’t he try to put his plans into action? Neither of the two statements in these four sentences can be true without falsifying the other one. If Geneva is a free state, Rousseau is obligated to try to make his theory into law. If Rousseau is not free to participate in lawmaking, then Geneva is not a free state.

There is a third solution: Rousseau simply believes that there is no way to “establish some just and reliable rule of administration.” The entire Social Contract is an argument reductio ad absurdum against the state. These absurd lengths, Rousseau is arguing, are what it will take to make the state just, and even if you were to try to implement them, you’d likely still fail. Reading The Social Contract this way clarifies the somewhat obscure first lines of the work:

Man was born free, and everywhere he is in chains. Many a one believes himself the master of others, and yet he is a greater slave than they. How has this change come about? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? I believe I can settle this question.

Rousseau’s mission, stated in this way, is plainly contradictory nonsense. The idea of “seeking to make chains legitimate” sounds like something out of Rumsfeldian doublespeak. It is nonsense, however, because Rousseau knows it is nonsense, knows that attempting to legitimate civil authority is an inherently absurd task. Following Leo Strauss on Plato, I suggest that Rousseau is not proposing a blueprint for a perfect society, but signaling to the philosophically minded at the very beginning of the text that he is instead engaging in a complex thought experiment that consists of more than is immediately evident on the page.

That was my initial reading, and I think it’s a fair reading, maybe even a good reading. Is it the right reading? That’s still a question that troubles me. For one thing, with what I’ve learned about Rousseau since that initial reading, I doubt that it was Rousseau’s intent to construct such an argument. Rousseau’s corpus is filled with contradictory and ill-formed arguments, and he had the sort of intense self-regard that could lead a man to honestly believe in the possibility of a republic of virtue. That’s not damning evidence against my argument, however; do Woody Allen’s lousy later works or his repugnant biography make “Annie Hall” or “Sleeper” any less brilliant?

Rather, I worry that I’m cherry picking Rousseau’s argument. What if equality and justice in a state are possible, but only with state violence, totalitarian government and the tyranny of the majority? When I read Rousseau this way, am I simply trying to make my revolution into a dinner party?

On the other hand, if this reading of Rousseau benefits society, who really cares? My Rousseau maintains a healthy skepticism towards society and civil authority; he rejects utopian political schemes dependent on state violence. At the end of the day, I would rather read a text incorrectly and hurt nobody than read it correctly and kill for it.

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4 Responses to Mistakes Were Made

  1. brian b says:

    Although I don’t know much about Roussea, I thought this was a very interesting read. If you don’t mind indulging my uninformed questions about your post, maybe they will help you figure out where your confusion over your own reading comes from?

    I had some trouble with your claim that “Rousseau praises his own country out of fear or sarcasm…[because] he knew from his own experience that Geneva was far from free.” Are you sure that’s how he saw it? To fully support that claim would require attempting to understand what the 18th century conception of a “free State” was. The USA was founded on the the principle of liberty, yet slavery was legal. Furthermore, I don’t think it is the obligation of the political thinker to personally attempt to actively implement their own ideas. The role of the thinker in society can, (in some cases), just be articulating novel ideas so that others will hear them and hopefully attempt to implement them.

    I also have some doubts about the idea that “legitimate chains” may be nothing more than double-speak. I don’t know Roussea well enough to have any kind of understanding of what he meant when he spoke of “chains”, but I wouldn’t dismiss the idea of legitimate chains so easily. In my opinion, as long as man exists within a community, he can never be completely free of obligation — and obligations are, in a sense, “chains.” It may not be possible to ever fully legitimize the chains of society, but I can understand why someone would want to attempt to do so. And I don’t doubt that some people would come to the conclusion that it is possible to legitimize such chains (regardless of whether or not they are right to come to that conclusion).

    – Brian

  2. dylansuher says:


    Your first point about different definitions/standards of freedom in the 18th century is more than valid. There is a long tradition of premodern political thinkers defining freedom as freedom from outside oppression, freedom of self-determination, and not universal manhood suffrage, equal rights, etc (See Constant on the “liberty of the ancients” versus “the liberty of the moderns”). Within the introductory note, it seems to me that Rousseau is concerned with the more modern sense of freedom because of the construction, “born a citizen of a free State, and a member of that sovereign body,” in which he seems to be referring more to the free rights of a citizen. I also link this back to a similar celebration of Geneva in the preface of the Second Discourse that is so drawn out and so baldly false that it cannot possibly be taken seriously. That said, am I sure that’s what he meant? No, and I freely admit that it is an unorthodox interpretation.

    On your second point, you may not think that it’s the obligation of the political thinker to implement his or her own ideas (and I’d tend to agree with you), but Rousseau seemed to think it was. Again, the specific language of the introductory note: “I shall be asked whether I am a prince or a legislator that I write on politics. I reply that I am neither; and that it is for this very reason that I write about politics. If I were a prince or a legislator, I would not waste my time saying what ought to be done; I would do it or remain silent.” The limiting factor for Rousseau is his own power; if he had the power, he wouldn’t write about it, he would do it.

    As for the last point, I think most people would agree with you, that obligations are a natural part of living in a society. But as a result, you or I probably wouldn’t describe them as “chains.” Also, it’s the contrast in his first line: “Man was born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” These obligations are posed as both incommensurate with freedom and unnatural. Also, my knowledge of Rousseau’s other work comes into play. Rousseau had a preoccupation-really, an obsession-with what he felt was man’s primitive freedom, destroyed by the institution of society. But once again, my reading is a little out of the ordinary, and there are many who feel that Rousseau is being perfectly sincere here and elsewhere.

    Thanks for your comment!


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