Me on Rousseau at the July ‘Rousseau’s Republics’ conferences in Bristol

My abstract has been accepted and my registration has been completed for the Seventeenth Biennial Colloquium of the Rousseau Association, Rousseau’s Republics.  

I have no claim to be a Rousseau specialist, but I hope to have something of value to offer as someone very interested in Rousseau, and who is working in political theory.  I tend to work in various things, but at present if I’m a specialist in any one figure, or aspiring to be in my current research, it would be Foucault.  Things I’m working on in Foucault will have some relevance to the Bristol paper, but I will only refer to him in passing.  Machiavelli, Montaigne, Pascal, and Hobbes will be my main references apart from Rousseau. These are not full discussions, other wise the paper would take hours to read, but aspects of their thought which illuminate Rousseau’s position on sovereignty and law in a modern republic, compared to an ancient republic   I should be speaking on Foucault at an event later in the Summer, more on that when everything is confirmed.  

The title and abstract are at the bottom of the post.  Broadly, I’m looking at Rousseau in the light of the contrast between ancient republics and modern republics.  The contrast was set up in the eighteenth century, though most famously by Benjamin Constant in the early nineteenth century (‘The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns’).  I consider the contrast to be illuminating buy question it in its sharpest forms.  The more rigid forms of this contrast tend to make Rousseau the modern enemy of modern liberty, on the grounds that he wanted to revive the total authority of the social body over the individual in the ancient republic.  That this is a brutal portrait of Rousseau would come as no surprise to Rousseau scholars, but I think there is more to be said about how Rousseau both idealises Ancient Republics particularly Rome, and how he is distant from them in important respects, largely to do with his view of law as will by a political sovereign rather than emerging from local customs, and the ways in which law comes from the divine and natural realms in antiquity.  That modern emphasis on the relatively arbitrary nature of law making, and its source in a political sovereign will connect with issues I looked at in a workshop paper on Hobbes from a couple of years ago (and which I have failed to work on since),  and in which I bring in Pascal on the paradoxes of law.  That is the way that human willed law lacks absolute justice, which it must claim, since it is historically contingent and dependent on political will.  Montaigne also comes in here with regard to the foundations of law, and Machiavelli with regard to a view of politics in ancient Rome which Rousseau draws on, but which is much less rationalistic and abstracted.  

As I am not a real Rousseau specialist, unsurprisingly most names at the conference were previously unknown to me, but I am looking forward to hearing all the papers, given the conference is organised round a clear theme, and all the paper titles look connected to me.  The only speaker known to me before as a Rousseau specialist is the conference organiser, Chris Bertram.  I recognised two other names, Charles Griswold and Ryan Hanley, with regard to their work on Adam Smith.  That is certainly an interesting connection for me (Smith and Rousseau) and brings up a major preoccupation for me, the relation between libertarian political theory/classical liberalism (emphasising individualism and voluntary cooperation in the economy and civil society ) and republican political theory (which emphasises the value of politics).  There is a widespread view that more of one means less than the other.  Though I agree that a lot of one excludes the other, I don’t believe that it is always a question of mutual exclusion, and within moderate limits more of one can mean more of the other.  If anyone finds this strange, for the moment I will just refer to: Ancient Athens, most democratic, most individualistic, and most commercial, of the Ancient Greek republics; Renaissance Italian city states; nineteenth century France, Britain and America (not to idealise any of these examples).  






Rousseau’s political thought is in large degree an attempt at a purified version of the Roman Republic.  Rousseau discusses the history of Rome, including Cicero’s account of the Republic, and engages in a more implicit discussion of Machiavelli’s understanding of Rome.  Rousseau finds that the Roman Republic is established on the basis of general will, and on his understanding of government under general will, but also deviates from the general will.  The Ciceronian understanding of the republic is of a mixed mode, a form of government rejected by Rousseau.  Though Rousseau is close to Machiavelli’s Discourses in some respects, e.g. praising the institution of dictatorship, he is also implicitly opposed to the value Machiavelli places on political conflict.  The distance of Rousseau from both Cicero and Machiavelli, is the outcome of the the emphasis on the ‘general will’.   The foundation of ideal republican law, on the purity of the general will, makes Rousseau distant from the Ancient republics he praises, since the laws they have are relatively impure, and do not rest on the purity of the ideal of the general will.  Rousseau looks for the work of the general will in the law codes of ancient legislators, and in this falls back into justificatory myth comparable with his view of religion as civic religion.  The kind of law Rousseau aims for has a universality, and fixity, lacking in ancient republics.  Ancient republics referred to the sanctity of supposedly unchanging law and tradition, but not of an unchanging formal set of laws decided by a deliberating sovereign body.   Cicero thought that the best republic was Rome, because Roman laws and institutions developed in stages.  Rousseau prefers to emphasise that law as given in a pure form by Numa, whom he equates with ‘nomos’.  Rousseau’s conception of law is distinctly modern rather than ancient, and comes from the difficulties early modern thinkers discussed in defining law, and the foundation of law, as purely just.  Montaigne, and then Pascal, gave particularly well defined accounts of the problem of equating state enforced law with justice.  The general will, in Rousseau, is an implicit answering claim that there can be law which is just.  Rousseau is also implicitly answering Hobbes’ suggestion that there is no republican liberty, except as an anarchic threat, because all states rest on law issued by the sovereign, which constrain all citizens.  The Hobbesian condition of being under law is a restraint on liberty in all states.  Rousseau needs to show how the sovereign must be the whole people, which is the general will, and that the people cannot delegate the general will to any individual or institution.  In this, Rousseau partly follows Hobbes’ account of how the initial compact is formed, but resists Hobbes’ next step of the creation of an artificial man as the law making sovereign.  Hobbes argues against the cogency of ancient republicanism.  Rousseau can only defend Roman republicanism by instituting a modern republicanism based on the purity, and inalienability, of law, distinct from ancient republicanism.  


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