Reading Rousseau: The Social Contract Book II

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.

Book II of The Social Contract includes a definition of republic.  It is a government under law, any form of government is covered, democratic, aristocratic or monarchical.  Rousseau insists on a very strict separation between issues of government and issues of law.  Rousseau’s definition of republic is not exactly what we find in recent discussions of republicanism as a current of political theory, which refers to political participation (Hannah Arendt) or freedom from a master (Philip Pettit).  Rousseau’s definition of republic is not really what anyone thinks of when considering Rousseau as a republican thinker. It is his account of general will, of government, or the mores of citizens, and so on which attracts attention.  The real oddity about his definition of a republic is that it requires government to  be under law which is decided by the general will, when it is not clear what examples of the general will there are in the tine that Rousseau is living, it’s not even clear what examples there are in antiquity.  General will appears in ancient Sparta through the activity of a legislator, Lycurgus, in Athens through the legislator Solon, in Rome through the early king Numa.  These are all legendary moments in history, for which we lack direct evidence so that we rely on retrospective idealisation and outright invention by later generations seeking to give what seems the appropriate founding to the laws and institutions under which they live.  The most recent example Rousseau has of such a legislator is Jean Calvin’s Edicts for the city of Geneva.  Geneva was a self governing city state loosely associated with other parts of what is now the Swiss Federation in Calvin’s time and in Rousseau’s time.  Calvin is of course best known as one of the two big figures of the 16th century  Protestant Reformation who turned Geneva into a city where state violence was used to enforce religiously approved beliefs and behaviour up to, and including burning at the stake.  Rousseau I imagine would have been in real danger of such a fate if he Geneva had continued to operate as it had in Calvin’s time in Rousseau’s own time.  Anyway Rousseau refers to the great memory Genevans will have of Calvin as long as they are patriots and liberty lovers.  Rousseau spent his childhood in Geneva, and was living there during the composition of The Social Contract.  After Calvin, the most recent example Rousseau has to offer is of the Dutch Republic, about which he supplies exactly no information of any kind.  He is evidently referring to the Dutch Revolt against Spanish rule in the late 16th century, which led to the formation of the Dutch Republic (also known then as the United Provinces).  This involved an alliance of Calvinists, merchants and the princely family or Orange against Spain.  We can see it more as a defence of the privileges of Dutch cities and provinces which go back to the Middle Ages, when they were part of the German Empire (known as the Holy Roman Empire), than as the emergence of law from the deliberation of the general will.

The republican politics, intellectual openness and religious debates of the Dutch Republic produced the detestable Grotius, or that is how Rousseau sees the great Dutch jurist, political thinker and theologian.  Grotius appears at the beginning of Book II as the antagonist, as he does a number of times in Book I.  This time Rousseau throws in personal abuse of Grotius, accusing him of producing monarchist thought in order to seek benefits from Louis XIII of France.  He forgets to mention that Grotius had to leave the Dutch Republic, because of a coup against merchant republicans of moderate (Arminian) religious disposition by the Orange family (which controlled the military land forces) allied with Calvinists.  It is true that Grotius served monarchs (along with the merchant city republic of Hamburg), but he did not have a lengthy relationship with the French monarchy, his thought is too complex to be seen as just the product of sycophancy, and Rousseau himself was sycophantic towards the oligarchs of Geneva, who still did not care for him.

The oddities about where the general will appears raises issues of the relation between ideal and reality in Rousseau’s account of sovereignty and law.  In his criticism of Grotius, and others, Rousseau, often complains of confusions about fact and principle.  Rousseau is in no less an awkward position, though with very creative results.  It is interesting to think how Rousseau can put himself in what looks like such an odd position to a modern ruler.  Assumptions which look a bit odd to us, must have seemed obviously plausible to Rousseau.  He has an ideal of the general will which forms the law making sovereign when the will of all is so focused on the object of general concern that individual wills are forgotten.  This requires a complete absence of factions and party interests, and a complete lack of outside influences.  The second proviso connects with Rousseau’s belief that there should be broad economic equality to prevent anyone being dependent on anyone else’s will.  Adam Smith, who was a reader of Rousseau, saw freedom from dependence as possible when economic associations are deprived of state privileges, so that individuals are free to seek employment or set up in business according to individual inclination.  Rousseau does not think that way, and makes it clear in Book II that he does not like much commercial society in his ideal state, which he sees as largely self-sufficient and as providing the basics for dignified existence. Getting back to the general will, its laws are the only genuine laws, and it cannot be divided in any way, though its powers can applied in different governmental bodies.  The unity of that will is one thing that Rousseau thinks separates him from other thinkers.  There are two assumptions he has going behind this.  One is the more explicit one, which is that great men emerge at vital moments in the history of a state (Lycurgus, Calvin etc) to provide laws acceptable to the general will.  The more implicit one, which is just mentioned at the end of Book II is that a republic is based on mores and customs, what we might now call shared tacit principles of justice and of good behaviour.  A republic con only be founded and endure where virtuous customs exist.  A republic that loses such virtue (Rousseau’s prime example as it was for everyone at the time was the Roman Republic) stops being a republic.  It is those customs which are the source of the laws of the Legislator, and which can be expressed abstractly as the general will.  Famously in Book II, Rousseau suggests that Corsica (then an independent island republic) was maybe the only place of Europe suitable for a pure case of legislation according to a virtuous general will.  He wrote a proposal for a Corsica constitution, which we will consider a few posts from now.


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