Reading Rousseau: The Social Contract Book I

I have a copy of  a new edition of Rousseau.  I won’t mention what edition exactly until I’ve finished blogging on its contents, which will most be about Rousseau’s thought rather than the qualities of the edition.  I’ll comment on the edition after I’ve posted on its contents, bit by bit, by which time I should have the basis for a for a judgement.

So first post on Of the Social Contract; or Principles of Political Right, Book One.  I will start by noting that the title page identifies the author as  J. J. Rousseau, citizen of Geneva.  Rousseau goes onto justify writing the book as a consequence of being a citizen of a community where he needs to be informed.  This is in answer to the hypothetical question of what business he has writing a book on political principles.  The hypothetical questioner suggests that would be be the business of a prince of legislator.  Rousseau’s answer is that if he were such a person he would be busy with his official duties.  So in the end the justification for the book is that it is a book a conscientious citizen should write.  A rather bizarre answer, but the real point being made is that the book refers to the point of view of a conscientious citizen concerned to define his rights and duties (since Rousseau assumed that only men were full citizens, I will retain the masculine bias when reporting his views, which is of course not an endorsement), and more generally is a book about the rights and duties of citizens with the assumption that a properly formed citizen would wish to read such Rousseau’s book, that the book contains an account of the interests of citizen (which is not the same as a complete account of the interests of the individual who bears that title).

Famously the  main text opens with the assertion that men are born free but live in chains.  This radical claim is never completely justified and explained.  Of course what follows contains a lot of justification and explanation, but if man is everywhere in chains, what is the point of the proud assertion of his citizenship of Geneva?  Are not the citizens of Geneva free from tyranny?  The answer maybe that Rousseau outlines an ideal of citizenship and sovereignty which no existing state could match.  Another answer is that living in society makes an individual a slave, which would not be the answer that Rousseau would approve.  However, there is  constant sense of unease in Rousseau with dependency on other people, dependency on society, and any situation other than one of complete isolated self dependence.  The point is not that Rousseau is arguing for such an ideal, he does not, but that it does have some kind of force of attraction on him and is part of the energy of his writing,which is frequently an impassioned attack on dependency and often refers to states of isolation.

The main antagonist at this point is Hugo Grotius, the 17th century Dutch writer on law, the state, war, and peace, amongst other things.  Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury and Aristotle appear as subsidiary antagonists.  It’s one of the oddities of the history of ideas that many have read Grotius attacked by Rousseau, but few have read Grotius.  Even high level university courses in political theory are unlikely to require students to find out enough about Grotius to match his apparent role as the anti-hero founder of modern legal and political theory that Rousseau assigns to him.  The issues that Rousseau raises in which Grotius serves as the master of darkness are those of slavery and the basis of monarchy.  The topics are linked for Rousseau as the very existence of slavery is tied up with the very existence of monarchs for him.  The Grotian defence of both depends on placing facts above rights.  Slaves appear to be suited to slavery and monarchs appear to be suited for ruling, because social conventions have led to that situation.  Grotius’ arguments about rights refer to facts based on the reality of bad conventions that justify slavery and monarchy.  Such bad conventions create monarchs who are uniquely experienced as a class in matters of government.  They also create slaves who appear slavish because they have been forced to live in that way.  Rousseau argues that the only correct conventions that individuals can properly agree on rest laws and government on consent, and do not allow any institutions that undermine consent.  As Grotius himself notes, the institution of monarchy must itself be preceded by agreement amongst members of that community (a similar and presumably related discussion can be found in Hobbes).  If a community agrees to monarchy, its agreement cannot bind the next generation, so there can be no proper justification for monarchy by right of inheritance, or even during the reign of a long lasting monarch.  Slavery is simply an absurdity because a slave can have no rights, and therefore there can be no obligations between master and slave.  The whole master-slave relationship lacks any kind of a sound basis since there is  no way of defining rights of obligations within slavery.  Similar arguments apply to the relation between the individuals in a nation and the monarch of that nation.  The main subsidiary antagonist with regard to monarchy is Hobbes, the main subsidiary antagonist with regard to slavery is Aristotle.

The more positive account that comes out of the foregoing is that a sovereign which makes laws can only be the body of all citizens, that is individuals with political rights, who arrive at laws through freely made decisions with no external influence.  That sovereign cannot bind itself, so absolutely free it must be. There is an echo of theological debates here about whether God can limit himself, and there are various moments in Rousseau where the metaphysics of religion are in the background of his political concepts.  The sovereign creates freedom of the best kind through its laws, which enable us to rise above mere animal desire.  There are distinct overtones of antique Stoic ethics here.  Since the sovereign must maintain such laws by punishing those who break them, we can say that we are forced to be free.  This is the phrase most used against Rousseau, as part of the tediously widespread claim that he was the prophet of totalitarianism, the bad egg from which all modern totalitarianism hatched.  I don’t defend Rousseau’s views on liberty in all respects, but that kind of reaction is absurd.  Who denies that liberty rests on law,and that laws are only meaningful if enforced by the threat of punishment, that is laws rest on force and force guarantees liberty?

We also see Rousseau’s desire for the self-dependent man, though it is introduced in rather a negative way.  He argues that a Robinson Crusoe character, as in the novel of Daniel Defoe about an Englishman cast away on a tropical island, cannot demand ownership of land to the exclusion of anyone else who comes along later.  There is an implicit reference to John Locke, in the reference to land holdings as something that should be restricted to what an individual can work on his own and which is necessary to subsistence.  What Locke argues in the Essay on Civil Government is that property is land mixed with labour and that land should only be taken to the extent which does not intrude on the possibility of others obtaining land.  However, Locke’s vision is not of self-dependent owners of modest amounts of property in land, which is what Rousseau likes.  Locke’s comments on property must be seen in the light of his comments on trade and commerce, his belief that property benefits the whole community when it an be part of a system of exchange so that the benefits spill over.  That is, someone having some vast amount of land is not a bad thing if they are selling the produce that comes from that land, which brings its benefits to everyone.  Getting back to Rousseau, he does not mention Locke in these Locke influenced moments, and that is presumably because of the way they exist in Locke in the context of s belief in commercial society.

In total, Rousseau’s arguments are about the ways in which when we leave nature, we need natural law.  That is, in nature relations between individuals depend on a mixture of force and family bonds.  Once a community of individuals emerges which needs laws, and once the child leaves the family, there must be laws which are agreeable to universal reason (natural law) and there must be a supreme body for deciding laws collectively (the sovereign).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s