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Wednesday, December 29, 2004



jean jacques rousseau powerfully influenced subsequent philosophy, literature, taste, manners and politics through his appeal to the heart, or "sensibility", which came to be known as the romantic movement. since his time, reformers have either been rousseauian or lockean; the two have rarely been compatible.

rousseau was a rather despicable, disingenuous man. the example is of his being found in possession of a ribbon stolen from his employer at the time of her death; he blamed the maid, a friend of his, saying she had given it to him, and she was punished. rousseau recollected: wickedness was never further from me than at this cruel moment; and when i accused the poor girl, it is contradictory and yet it is true that my affection for her was the cause of what i did. she was present to my mind, and i threw the blame on the first object that presented itself. in this was, rousseau substituted "sensibility" for ordinary virtue.

in 1750, he gained fame by winning a prize by his essay which condemned the deleterious influence of the arts and science on morals, blaming slavery on the desires caused by them. he held science and virtue to be incompatible, took success in war as the test of merit, but admired the noble savage -- wrote russell: everything that distinguishes civilized man from the untutored barbarian is evil.

his subsequent essay, which he sent to his friend voltaire, discourse on inequality (1754), elaborated "man is naturally good, and only by institutions is made bad" -- the opposite of church doctrine. civil society originates in property, which is the root of evil in men; he deplores the inventions of agriculture and metallurgy; equality and peace shall be restored if man abandons civilization. voltaire mocked him; they subsequently fell out bitterly, a quarrel which split the philosophes.

rousseau shortly after wrote his most famous works: la nouvelle heloise (1760), emile and the social contract (1762). forced to flee the continent, he took refuge with hume in england; but by this time rousseau was falling into madness. he accused hume, fled and died in poverty in paris.


prior to rousseau, all philosophers since plato had offered arguments in an effort to prove the existence of god, excepting pascal. rousseau, a passionate believer, abandoned this. he appealed only to the emotion of awe and mystery in religious feeling, as well as other aspects of human nature, as defense of belief. the protestants subsequently appropriated this unreasoned justification.

a section of emile, "the confession of faith of a savoyard vicar", articulates for him the abandonment of philosopher's arguments on theology and ethics for "natural religion": "i do not deduce these rules from the principles of a high philosophy, but i find them in the depths of my heart, written by nature in ineffaceable characters." following feeling leads to virtue.

russell wrote:
for my part, i prefer the ontological argument, the cosmological argument, and the rest of the whole stock-in-trade, to the sentimental illogicality that has sprung from rousseau. the old arguments at least were honest: if valid, they proved their point; if invalid, it was open to any critic to prove them so. but the new theology of the heart dispenses with argument; it cannot be refuted, because it does not profess to prove its points.
political theory

social contract set forth rousseau's politics, and is different from his other writings. while glossed in democratic language, the arguments tend to justify totalitarian city-states. he frequently refers to sparta and lycurgus.

"man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. but rousseau, while idealizing liberty, seeks equality even at the expense of liberty. the contract, evolved from a state of nature, consists of "the total alienation of each associate, together with all his rights, to the whole community" -- making each equal and without rights in the face of the sovereign (not government, but a metaphysical conception of the community), save for weak natural rights which are ultimately arbitered by the sovereign. "each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole."

the general will of the sovereign is posited by rousseau to be by definition infallible, and can be conceived of as the net will of all the members. this is not the same as the will of the majority or the will of all; rousseau seems to believe that the selfish interests of each individual will, in aggregate, cancel, leaving only the resultant vector of the socially-interested general will. subordinate associations interfere with the general will, and so are prohibited by rousseau -- church, trade union, political parties.

rousseau abides neither property nor division of powers; the state, as the authority of the sovereign, is absolute. whoever refuses the general will is paradoxically "forced to be free". "elective aristocracy" -- a republic -- is the best form of state, but is not suitable to large and wealthy sovereigns.


rousseau's theology made him an enemy of the church, and his politics (particularly his kind words for democracy) an enemy of the state -- but in the french revolution of 1789, social contract was the bible of robespierre and danton. its poorly defined general will was easily susceptible to tyrannical manipulation, as became seen during the terror.

hegel appropriated much from rousseau, and through german idealism his political philosophy came to be the foundation of the dictatorships of the 20th century.

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