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.