Reading Rousseau: ‘Of the General Society of Mankind’

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.

The volume contains a chapter on the general society of mankind, found in manuscript Rousseau produced before he published The Social Contract as we know it.  It’s just 8 pages in the volume under discussion in this series of posts, which will provide the opportunity for a bit of  a closer reading than in previous posts, though not for every sentence.

Rousseau begins by establishing the question of why there is a need for political institutions.  This brings up the philosophy of history which is mostly Rousseau’s concern in the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (often know as the Second Discourse), and which has less of a role in The Social Contact. Though Rousseau discusses historical examples in the latter text, it is in the Discourse that he is discusses how society emerges and how it develops early on with the kind of features which are still present.  Let us not confuse this chapter from the Geneva Manuscript with the Second Discourse though.  There is no discussion of the Discourse in this series of posts, since it is not included in the volume under discussion, but readers are urged to study it before arriving at any conclusions about Rousseau’s philosophy of history.  In the manuscript chapter under discussion here, Rousseau suggests that in nature man has needs and strengths which correspond with each other, that is, we have the strength to make sure our needs are satisfied.  Our needs increase in society, so we need the help of other humans to satisfy them.  Rousseau is not very direct about which needs he means here, but presumably he’s thinking about the way s in which humans want things they see that other humans have, so that our sense of what we need increases in history, including the during the moment of process in which we move from natural to social conditions.  Food from wild animals and naturally growing plants comes ot seem less desirable than food that comes from farming, is the explanatory example I am offering.  Farming depends on the co-operation of groups of individuals so is beyond the strrength of one man, and is a way o stimulating needs which the individual cannot satisfy in a completely self-sufficient way.

Rousseau argues that he formation of society both draws humans together and pushes them apart.  We are caught n the painful situation that what binds us to other men also makes us regard themas enemies. Society is referred to as producing good will and that good will is described as stifling to feeling.  We get the idea here that social existence is traumatic, but not because it is painful to leave natural conditions behind and there is certainly no suggestion that we go back to nature.  Rousseau goes on to argues that a return to natural conditions, or a situation in which humans had never left nature could only bring about an ever greater human population on the Earth that did not interact.  There would  only be a an increasing number of lone individuals ignoring each other, who would not undergo moral development.  Natural identity (presumably recognition of common human nature) does not produce peace as it tens to stimulate rivalry as much as brings about unity .  Our existence in a nature does  not produce stability, it produces a constant flux of instability as we can never retain the same state of mind form more than a moments.  Our entanglement with other people makes our own consciousness unstable, as the network of relations between individuals is constantly changing.

Rousseau draws on Hugo Grotius in this text and in a more favourable way than in the finished version of The Social Contract, where he mentions Grotius in order to denounce his methods of argument and the claims for which he argues.  In this manuscript chapter, Rousseau refers to Grotius to indicate the enmity between humans, the ways in which humans are inclined to only respect the rights of others (if at all) for those who belong to the same group of humanity as ourselves.  In other cases, we fight, rob and enslave in a very persistent way.  Rousseau also refers to the Institutes of Justinian, the codification of the Roman laws by the 6th century easter Roman emperor who was maybe the last Roman and the fist Byzantine leaders.  The discovery of this text in the Latin west in the High Middle Ages had an enormous effect on the understanding and practice of law.  Grotius comes at the end of that process of producing a universal and systematic approach to civil law.  Rousseau refers to what seems to us to be the cruelty of punishments in the Institutes and the assumption that other humans who live in a different different community from  us are enemies.  Rousseau’s own show of disturbance about that is a notable part of the Enlightenment growth of belief in universal humanity and  moral sympathy.  As Rousseau shows that Enlightenment ideal is also tied up with anxiety about the intrusion of human community on our freedom, needs and even inner thoughts.



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