Who reads Rousseau anymore? He’s a thinker largely now lost to the world he helped create, known primarily (if at all) now for igniting the romatic movement and progressive education, rather than for the political philosophy that fired the French Revolution and ushered in modern republican thought. His time was in many ways like ours, and any philosophers of ours might do well to study him and his. He deserves to be brought back out of obscurity — not the least because he was perhaps never properly understood, despite having an influence that dwarfs nearly any other thinker in the modern canon.
We pick up a copy of G.D.H. Cole’s English translation of the Discourses and the Social Contract, and are struck again and again by the fact that it has aged astonishingly well in the two-and-a-half centuries that have elapsed since the Social Contract was penned. It dates itself like any document, but the argument rings out clear as any extended syllogism ever written down, and it has yet to be answered. There is no substitute for reanding the original, but that argument can perhaps be paraphrased as follows.
First, in the Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences, he flies his colors: to the question posed — ‘Has the restoration of the arts and sciences had a purifying effect upon morals?’ — he answers a decided ‘no’.
The argument is simple: morality is a social phenomenon, and society, by which he means civic association and the solidarity thereof, depends on opinion, by which he means common assent — not just what everyone believes, but what everyone believes everyone believes, which is what makes it an article of civic faith taken simply and for granted without questions of validity or evidence even arising. Science, by which he means all disciplined inquiry as to the truth of things (inclusive of history, philosophy, etc.), is precisely the suspension of assent in the service of inquiry: it starts by taking some article of faith and asking whether it’s true, what is the evidence for it, whether it tallies with other things we believe, and so on. It is impossible to pursue science without destabilizing opinion, and therefore science is contrary to society — as philosophers since Plato couldn’t help knowing in their bones, science is inherently cosmopolitan, and the philosopher in particular is necessarily a stranger to his time and place. Stipulating that morality is a product of social solidarity, it follows therefore that to the extent that science undermines the basis of society in opinion, science weakens morality.
As to the arts, the cause is different but the effect is the same: most of them amount to diversions and entertainment with no moral value, and insofar as they offer vicarious occasions for sentiment they act as a substitute for these in regular life — one can weep with pity and outrage in the theatre, then step over a bum in the street without a thought of helping him because one has discharged one’s sympathies elsewhere.
Moreover, he says, the arts both encourage and depend on a culture of luxury and idleness, which are hardly known for their salutary effects on morality, to put it mildly; and the cultural lionization of art tends to encourage valuing talent above integrity, of saying things well rather than saying something important.
Rousseau’s writing is riddled with careful qualifications, and if one doesn’t attend to these it seems at a glance to be riddled with inconsistencies; the key qualification to this argument, which will be important later, is that he does not say that science is inimical to goodness or virtue in the individual scientist (or art the artist), as for example the biography of Descartes (or Shakespeare) will demonstrate. What he does say, with great emphasis, is that the activity of the scientist, so far as it’s carried out in public, is inherently irreverent of opinion and has the side-effect of destabilizing the common assent that makes civil association possible, therefore weakening morality; and likewise, ‘art for art’s sake’ is inherently contemptuous of common tastes and mores, and as such tends to disrupt and weaken them.
It’s a criticism similar to the one D.H. Lawrence makes of Jesus in his commentary on the Apocalypse: the moral and spiritual path of Jesus demands a level of self-mastery and integrity that most people don’t have, and while it may have a salutary effect on a strong willed, independent minded person, it may very well have a crippling and deforming effect on anyone else who tries to live according to it — which is why the Church had to come into existence, being a kind of hospital for the spiritual casualties, and why through its entire history the Universal Church found itself ever at odds with the Local Authorities. Rousseau doesn’t hesitate to draw the parallel in later writings: any universalistic ideal, whether scientific or religious, will necessarily conflict with the particularistic ideals of a polity, and set its people against themselves by dividing their loyalties and placing demands on their individual judgment too heavy for most to bear.
The first Discourse can then, with justice, be read as a qualified defense of prejudice: prejudice can serve as a kind of social infrastructure, and to this extent bears some of the load of morality. To the extent that the arts and sciences are in opposition to prejudice, they are prejudicial to morality. This was diametrically opposite the prevailing intellectual winds of Rousseau’s place and time, as exemplified by figures like Voltaire and Diderot, who were as perplexed as anyone when this essay first propelled Rousseau to celebrity.
Second, in the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, which must be read as a sequel to the first despite putatively being about something else, he makes a more convoluted but no less cutting argument: that inequalities of social status are always and everywhere due to social causes, unnatural in origin. This thesis rings less shocking to our ears because because it has since become a matter of common assent (almost), but it is hard to overstate what a radical break it was with all political philosophy up to that point: it completely breaks the back of the classical way of thinking known to us now as a relic called ‘natural law’, and instead inaugurates what one could call ‘functional explanations’ of social phenomena, grounded in empirical history rather than natural theology, and culminating in thinkers like Nietzsche and Skinner and Foucault.
The argument goes: In a presocial state, the physical environment would have been the determining factor in human survival and development, and since variations in environmental conditions are a matter of hazard and natural accident, indifferent to any natural differences in capacities that might exist among humans, in a presocial state differences in natural ability would have been minuscule in magnitude and marginal in effect, unable to result in any systemic differences in quality of life. While one might benefit and another might suffer based on the randomness of time and place, everybody’s life in a presocial state can be expected to be more or less the same. But in a civilized state, we observe the extreme opposite: inequalities of rank, power, wealth, ability, prestige — status, for lack of a better collective term — are the rule, not the exception. Therefore, these systemic inequalities can only have social causes, not natural causes.
The methodical principle established in this bit of reasoning is one Rousseau makes extensive use of elsewhere: for instance, he uses it to dispose curtly of Aristotle’s contention that some people are slaves by dispositon — if that’s so, it’s because they’ve been beaten into that shape by generations of being enslaved. Modern social science is unthinkable without this fundamentally anti-naturalist methodical principle, which is perhaps the main contemporary significance of the second Discourse. But here we’re concerned with Rousseau’s train of thought, not with its progeny, and it goes on from here to try to carry out what the principle requires — to account for the transition from presocial to social existence, and then to the origins of inequality within civilizations, step by step.
As Rousseau himself says, he’s hardly the first to try to do this, but his predecessors have all made the cardinal mistake of reading rationality backward from social to presocial humanity, and trying to derive society from some sort of rational deliberation on the part of presocial humans. Of course this makes no sense: reason depends on abstract thinking, which depends on language, which is already a social phenomenon insofar as it presumes the attempt to express something to someone using commonly understood terms. Therfore, presocial humans can’t be rational in the required way, therefore the transition had to be some sort of natural accident, forced on us, as it were, rather than voluntary.
Rousseau finds the key to the transition from presocial to social life in what his contemporaries called amour-propre, which can perhaps be least misleadingly translated as ‘pride’. The sense of it can be better distinguished by comparing it with what he calls amour soi de meme, which is the asocial self-preservation that accompanies all our simple or elementary wants, like for food and water; what makes the difference between this and pride is that the latter requires not just the satisfaction of some simple want, but the recognition of one’s want in the eyes of others in order to secure their cooperation. He goes right up to the point of implying that pride is, in this sense, the driving force behind the development of language: the desire to secure the recognition of, and collusion in, one’s desires by others. (This leads him to hypothesize that babies and children did more to teach adults to speak than vice versa, originally, children having a greater need to communicate their wants to their parents than vice versa.)
Once set in motion, pride drove the advance of reason: finding clever ways to do things and acquire resources, manipulate one’s surroundings, persuade one’s fellows, and so forth. More generally, it also drove all attempts to distinguish ourselves from others: by talent, by appearance, by strength, by wealth, by power, by wit, by wisdom — in short, driving us to perfect ourselves along every possible avenue by which we might distinguish ourselves in rank above others. All of these things derive their desirability from their symbolic value in a game of social position, as opposed to their brute utility in securing biological necessities.
As societies grew and became sophisticated, those in the best position to leverage their status as credit in order to acquire more by the collaboration of others (themselves hungry to improve their rank) became more and more influential, and inequalities of rank and status became more and more pronounced, definitive and ossified into property by custom. The result of this process is, well, all around you.
The notion that pride was the driving force in human affairs was not remotely novel to Rousseau; it’s already there in Machiavelli and Gratian, pushed fully to the fore in Hobbes and La Rochefoucauld, and taken up in a softer light by Mandeville and Locke, all of whom Rousseau had read. What is new here is that Rousseau doesn’t take it for granted, but drives it all the way back to its genesis, making it exactly coeval with society itself. This has the effect of changing it from a natural constraint to be worked around or restrained, to being the quintessential social force and the very engine of civic life — it is, as he says, the engine of both our virtues and our vices.
Rousseau’s ultimate answer to why inequalities arise in society, then, is that it’s because this is precisely what everybody is striving to achieve all the time: the unremitting rage for distinction, as he calls it, knows no natural limits and puts everyone in the position of constantly jostling for rank and status, a game at which some will necessarily win big and others lose big. This is Hobbes’ war of all against all, except Rousseau puts it not in the primordial state of nature but in the entirety of human history, including right here right now. The central problem of politics is then how to limit and canalize pride, for everyone’s sake.
Which leads us at last to The Social Contract, the statement of a solution following the framing of the problem in the Discourses. It can be read alone, in the sense that it’s written as a free-standing structure, but the foundation is in the Discourses, and the thought process is continuous with them. It doesn’t hurt to bear in mind that the book is primarily a rejoinder to Hobbes, and so begins like Leviathan with the question of the nature and origins of sovereignty — also a very well-worn topic by the time Rousseau got to it, but one never before treated with such clarity and vigor.
The point of the sovereign is to put a check on individual ambition and pride, by constituting an absolute civic authority — absolute in the sense that there is no higher source of legitimacy than it, and therefore that its will can’t be legitimately contradicted. The sovereign tells you where to get off, whether you’re the lowliest or the highest member of society.
From this axiom of noncontradiction, Rousseau proceeds to derive a number of consequences, such as that if a sovereign could be divided, it could legitimately contradict itself, and therefore sovereignty is indivisible. If it’s indivisible, it must either inhere in some subset of the people functioning corporately as the government, or else in all of the people as a whole. Since there are cases where the people have legitimately contradicted the government, pace Hobbes, sovereignty can’t inhere in the government. Therefore, sovereignty must inhere in all of the people. If sovereignty inheres in all of the people, sovereignty is inalienable: any alienation of it from the whole people to a smaller subset is equivalent to a contraction of the public or a secession. And so on: all of these clarify what sovereignty has to mean if it means anything at all, but so far none of it explains how such a thing could exist.
To understand the basis of sovereignty from the ground up, as it were, we can start by noting that the wills of individual persons can potentially contradict eachother over any particular. I want you to sell me your watch, you don’t want to, that kind of thing. This means that if the sovereign is to inhere in all of the people, and not to contradict itself, then the sovereign will can’t concern any particular. Which means that the sovereign can only be concerned with universals: not merely things like ‘all men shall wear fedoras’, on which we might violently and legitimately disagree, but things like ‘no person shall have their throat cut for wearing a fedora’, about which we can’t legitimately disagree, even if it should happen that we all agree that nobody should wear a fedora, since you might find yourself with one on your head someday. This distinction seems slippery at first glance, but Rousseau renders it amply precise: a universal will is not merely what happens to be willed by everyone, but what everyone must will for everyone, vicariously as it were. That is, it’s not merely what you want, but what you want everyone to want.
Since everything hinges on the formal requirement of universality, it’s worth getting this exactly fixed in your mind. If three people all want the same apple, that’s not a universal will, because they can’t all want that they should all want the same apple, since that would be a practical contradiction; it’s a particular will that happens to be held in common. If three people all want to divide an apple evenly into thirds between them, that’s a universal will because they can all want that without any practical contradiction — they can will that all of them wills that. Our entire notion of fairness, justice and right is derivable from this basic principle. And on this principle, all law, which synonymous with the sovereign will, has the form of this kind of universal will: if everyone acted in accordance with it, even if there were no government to officially declare it, it would be a law de facto. Law, sovereignty, and universal will are all synonyms.
Practically speaking, what the argument up to this point does is to dispose of the Hobbesian conclusion that sovereignty inheres in the government and therefore the government commands unconditional obedience; the only thing that commands unconditional obedience is the law, and the law is not only for all but from all. It allows for completely unrestricted right of dissolving and replacing the government if the latter be in contradiction to the sovereign, i.e. the universal will of the people. It also implies that all the machinery of government has its sole legitimation in expressing the universal will, and where it exceeds this mandate it’s operating out of scope, pursuing its own corporate interests; and that institutions like voting are emphatically not a matter of expressing individual preferences about particulars, but about voicing what you as a citizen believe to be the universal will. The proper function of the ballot box is to be a divining rod, in other words, and not a request box.
It also leads to the conclusion that, since an individual right is a duty of respect on all other individuals (and, symmetrically, an individual duty is a right of respect for all other individuals), and since all individual rights and duties derive solely from the law, then all individual rights derive solely from the universal will. Since the universal will is synonymous with the sovereign, this also means that the inalienability of sovereignty trickles down into individual rights: alienation of any individual right implies alienation of sovereignty, and so alienation of any individual right implies a contraction of the public, i.e. denying someone’s rights amounts to taking away somebody’s citizenship, it is all or nothing. But on the other side, it implies what Rousseau calls the radical alienation of the freedom of each to all: I give up certain natural liberties, like the liberty to eat your lunch, in order to gain conventional ones, like the liberty not to have my lunch eaten. This makes all other rights-based concepts, like property, contingent on the social contract, and not absolutes unto themselves.
Again, this third thesis was radically new: not that the state originated in some form of social compact, but that this compact was all or nothing and rooted inalienably in the universal will of the people. It was this third thesis that captured the imagination of the next generation of French (and American) intellectuals, and fired what became the revolutionary republican movement — and remains the heart of republican political thought, always and everywhere.
Of course there is a loose end here, and if we go all the way to the end of The Social Contract we find that it ties back into the beginning of the first Discourse: his premise in the latter that society rests on opinion survives into the former, and we must reconsider it in order to explain that very strange Book IV that strikes the modern reader as flatly and horrifyingly out of sync with everything in the preceding three Books.
In Book IV of The Social Contract, Rousseau starts off innocently enough extolling the virtues of Rome; he then moves slightly less innocently to extolling the virtues of the old Roman institution of the Censor as an organ of public opinion and morality; then turns up the heat gradually by arguing against allowing any monotheistic Church to coexist on its own terms outside of civic authority; and then finally boils the proverbial frog by coming out flatly in favor of civic religion, allegiance to which should be an absolute condition on citizenship, and heresy against which should be punishable by exile or death. Like all of the surface paradoxes in Rousseau, all of this is extremely deliberate, and it requires explanation — especially coming from someone who earlier got exiled from Geneva for converting to Catholicism, and then later had his own books burnt for allegedly offending against orthodoxy.
The key to all of these apparent paradoxes or contradictions is that they are ironic attempts to reconcile the demands of contrary audiences, as revealed by careful attention to the qualifications Rousseau makes.
To read the passage rightly, one needs to know that censorship by the government already existed in 18th century France, and that there was at all times a delicate dance between the censor and the intellectual avant-garde like Voltaire (who published his most incindiary work anonymously or under false attribution). The power of the censor was often used arbitrarily, more in accordance with who in the magistracy was likely to be offended than in accourdance with any sort of higher principle; and the writers often took a perverse advantage of this to both play brinkmanship-games for prestige, and get eachother in trouble by spreading rumours of attribution. Rousseau was unique among his peers for always writing under his own name, but this forced a kind of discipline on his writing unparalleled in those who published anonymously: he always had to walk the line between acceptability by the censor and getting his intended message across to his target audience.
In this case, what appears as praise of the institution of censorship is in fact simultaneously a backhanded moral lecture to the censor and a discreet middle-finger to his more cowardly peers — many of whom he sincerely viewed as vain, cynical, and pernicious burdens on the republic, both symptoms and accelerants of civic decay. ‘The censorial tribunal’, he says, ‘so far from being the arbiter of the people’s opinion, only declares it, and, as soon as the two part company, its decisions are null and void.’ Your job, censor, is to serve public judgment and you have no reason to exist and no legitimate authority otherwise; as to you sophists who turn the censor to your own private advantage, so that you can pretend to bravery while sheltering yourself from responsibility, you and I both know it’s an empty status game that has nothing to do with speaking up for right and truth, and if I were the censor I’d ignore you completely rather than helping you cloak your vanity in iconoclastic glory. In a hilarious stroke, he obliquely likens the latter to drunkards defiling the public assembly. The literary effect is quite exquisite in context, but one needs the context to detect the extremely thick irony — otherwise it just seems incongruous from the mouth of a man who elsewhere is so ardent about liberty.
Still, there is a real philosophicial tension present that transcends the circumstantial ephemera surrounding the written work. Rousseau found himself in the horns of a dilemma, and rode both of them all the way to the end, and the result is the final chapter on civic religion. The dilemma, as best I can reconstruct it, is as follows.
‘What we ought to do depends much on what we ought to believe’, says Rousseau elsewhere. Therefore, as he says in the chapter on the censor: ‘Right men’s opinions, and their morality will purge itself.’ This is a consistent theme in Rousseau’s literary output, from the earliest to the latest of his major writings — the interdependency of the judgments or beliefs that constitute opinion, and the desires or wants that constitute the will — both of which combine to issue in action. On the individual level, this entails that one must believe certain things in order to act in certain ways, which means that belief has an ethical dimension; it also means that certain beliefs are necessary to certain ways of acting, certain forms of life.
This problem has resurfaced in the work of other philosophers under other names, such as ‘the primacy of practical reason’ (Kant) or ‘the will to believe’ (James), but what it concerns is the status of what we could call non-empirical beliefs or articles of faith whose primary function seems to be to motivate certain kinds of action — such as the belief that natural processes are intelligible as elementary causal relations motivating the practice of physical sciences, or the belief in salvation by cooperation with God’s grace as motivating Catholic religious practice, and so on. These beliefs are, in a word, metaphysical.
What is true at the individual level carries over here to the social level: the universal will depends on opinion, and while Rousseau holds that the universal will is always good, it is susceptible to delusion about what is good. The function of Rousseauvian civil religion, then, is to provide a social metaphysic, a creed to which assent is absolutely obliged as a qualification of citizenship, in order to anchor opinion and thereby keep the sovereign will stable and robust. His actual stated requirements for such a creed are quite minimal, ‘motherhood and apple pie stuff’ one could say, but there is in principle no limit to what such a creed could contain, as long as it were capable of commanding assent from the entire polity.
This is where Rousseau the citizen runs up against Rousseau the philosopher: he is effectively advocating an explicit mechanism of persecution for people who engage in the sort of thing he’s engaging in. The tension is real, but the contradiction is only apparent: Rousseau in his own life distinguished sharply between the private and personal activity of inquiry, and the public and political activity of authorship and advocacy; his defense of prejudice is always qualified, and in his eyes in an established and healthy republic the only legitimate excuse for engaging in public acts of philosophy is to purify public opinion by first judging the good prejudices from the bad and then reminding the public of their allegiance to the former. He had no mercy for those who merely attacked orthodoxy for self-aggrandizement, or who irresponsibly criticized an article of faith without bothering to understand its function or to propose a positive alternative. It is true that his every act as a philosopher or social critic depends on taking a kind of distance from his own civilization; but he remains loyal to it even at a remove, and frequently stuck his neck out for what he believed was its own good.
In other words, the looophole he allows is that while a philosopher, as a citizen, has to assent to the civil religion in public word and action, this does not bar them from engaging in their own private questioning of that faith; it only mandates respect in word and deed for maintaining a minimum orthodoxy, not that anyone be arrested for thought-crime. Ironically, given Rousseau’s dismissiveness toward the Church and scholasticism (in which he’s very much a man of his epoch), this is exactly how it worked in medieval Europe for centuries: you were in fact quite free to dispute and inquire about just about anything under scholastic rules, provided that your final conclusions weren’t seen to contradict Catholic orthodoxy, which was not in fact a very demanding requirement in most respects. Nearly all of the cases of persecution for heresy that we know of were over points of quite specific metaphysical dogma, not natural science as such. Rousseau is advocating a return to city-states rather than a universal Church, but it amounts to the same.
The argument to be said for this, one supposes, is that persecution is likely to arise anyway simply by virtue of the inevitability of pride and prejudice: so, one had better have it carried out in an explicit, lawful, ceremonious manner rather than handing it over to the vagaries of personal vendettas and mob moods. It is congruent with the rest of Rousseau: if the whole point of the social contract is to tame the insatiabilities of pride, it would correspondingly have to restrain the excesses of prejudice that we nowadays call ‘ideology’. We have to take Rousseau at his word: his concern is to preserve the liberty of all by protecting it from the encroachments of each, which entails sharply delineating the private from the public.
Leo Strauss, ‘On the Intention of Rousseau’
Christopher Kelly, Rousseau as Author
Arthur Melzer, The Natural Goodness of Man