Reading Rousseau: The Social Contract Book IV

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 mostly 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 judgement.

If you were going to shorten The Social Contract by one book then Book IV, the lat one, would be the most likely to go.  Most of the concepts are established by this point,  and there is rather a lot of detail about Roman history.  The major areas of discussion which add to the first three books are: religion, dictatorship.  Rousseau introduces the idea that Christianity is unsuited to an effective state, an idea which he may have taken at least in part from Machiavelli.  It would be incorrect to see Rousseau (or Machiavelli) as motivated by a desire to just extirpate Christianity.  A lot of the analysis is around the purification of Christianity of its associations with the state and a shift within Christianity towards inner spirituality and away from the world.  What Rousseau criticises most about Christianity is the ways in which the catholic church is entangled with the state, which goes back to the entanglement of early Christianity with the Roman state after the Emperor Constantine started to favour Christianity.  As other writings show, Rousseau had a very serious and deeply felt interest in Christianity when taken as the basis of a very personal spirituality and communication with God outside institutionalised Christianity, and as wee have seen he favoured the religious reformer Jean Calvin as a great secular legislator for the city republic of Geneva.

The reference to Calvin leads us into Rousseau’s regard for legislator-prophets including Moses as well as the legendary law makers of ancient Greece. His favoured religious leaders who are also law makers additionally includes Mohammed, and he puts forward early Muslim states where the religious leader (emir) is also the political leader as positive models.  At these points Rousseau seems to combine his very personalised view of Christianity with a taste for state power-religious authority combinations which do not leave room for any idea of personal choice and individual differences.  However, the best way to take this is maybe that Rousseau thinks that religion has a very personalised aspect independent of what institutions, state backed or otherwise, teach; and that as much as religion is in the public sphere it should be concerned with reinforcing properly constituted political institutions, along with the morals and customs necessary to a political community based on law and rights.  We can see this in his discussion of censors in Ancient Rome.  Censors primarily existed to gather the names of those entitled to vote, and produce proper electoral rolls. Their work extended to punishing behaviour against public morals which sounds very intrusive and it was.  However, we should see their work  as instrumental rather than as some inquisitorial attempt to hunt out heresies and torture suspects into confessing forbidden thoughts and acts.  The censors made sure that public order was maintained.  I would not put it forward as an institution to imitate, but it existed as a means of stabilising the social body at a time when there was no police of the modern kind, very limited education, if any, for most people, and there was a lot of social violence.  I don’t find Rousseau’s resort to ancient institutions of social control, and various examples of state-religion education to be ideal, not in the eighteenth century when there was some movement away from such ideas of social control.  We should also remember that there was not much support for for the level of tolerance of difference about religion and personal majority considered normal in current democracies.  There were moves towards religious tolerance in the 18th century, but not for the right to open atheism, or for the acceptance into public office of those with religious views very divergent from the majority.  Sexuality was very controlled in law.  Ideas of what could be said to challenge state authority were limited.  This is true of classical liberal thinkers, and in that context though Rousseau can and should be faulted, the tradition in which Rousseau is blamed as the originator of totalitarianism is completely absurd.

The other major theme introduced in Book IV is that of dictatorship, which again is the sort of thing the Rousseau as totalitarian crowd will use, but again inappropriately.  Rousseau defends dictatorship as its existed in the early Roman Republic.  He is completely against the dictatorship of late Republican military men who seized power (Sulla, Marius, Pompey, Caesar) and early modern examples of dictatorship like Oliver Cromwell’s rule in Britain.  The dictatorship he is defending (again probably under the influence of Machiavelli) is that of the early Roman Republic where the dictator was appointed for 6 months only in a time of emergency, that is a war, and was appointed largely to command armies in war.  The executive power was normally exercised by two Consuls appointed for annual terms (who shared the power of the old Roman kings).  The dictatorship meant the power was appointed by one man, the dictator, who named as n assistant known as the Master of Horse (referring to the military role of the dictatorship).  The most famous examples is Cincinnatus, a legendary figure from early Republican history.  Cincinnatus was a member of the aristocracy at a time when that included men who farmed their own land side by with a few servants of slaves, and he seems to have been such a person.  He was called away from his plough to command armies as a dictator, resigning his office at the earliest possible opportunity to return to his farm. George Washington was referred to as a Cincinnatus because he left public life after one term as first President of the United States, and did not use his position as military commander during the War of Independence to establish a monarchical office.  Rousseau’s argument largely concerns what he sees as the failure to use the office of dictator during the late Roman Republic in order to dispose of threats to the Republic and its rule of law.  His most concrete suggestion is that Cicero would have been justified in taking the office of dictator at the time he crushed the Catiline Revolt with executions of dubious legality, but with the authorisation of the Senate.  Rousseau  does not completely excuse Cicero2s acts, suggests as they were done it would have been better if they had been done through the office of Dictator.  That is Cicero, usually regarded as one of the great advocate martyrs of limited government, the rule of law and constitutionalism.  He lost his life due to his speeches against Mark Anthony’s abuses of power in Rome after the assassination of Julius Caesar.  On the whole Rousseau is arguing for well designed institutions which can cope with emergencies and suit politicians of a legalistic persuasion.


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