Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. Rousseau

I am on a roll with political philosophy books: I recently finished The Open Society, The Communist Manifesto, The Republic and The Social Contract. I have started on the collected works of Thoreau. Rousseau’s The Social Contract reminds me of Thomas Paine’s writing style. Arguments are put forward using rather large metaphysical assumptions and emotional appeals – although I sometimes agree with their conclusions. For example, the quote above sounds really cool but I am not sure it has any concise meaning. This is in contrast to Popper’s dry and logical approach to a similar goal. Rousseau is more abstract than other political philosophers, at times I was just reading “blah blah blah” as the meaning – I am metaphysically skeptical.

The way I (badly) understand Rousseau’s foundational argument, people collectively choose to participate in a state. So far, so existential. Rousseau calls the generalisation of their state’s interest as “the general will”, which is what people would want, if they had the interests of “all” at heart. This approach has some difficulties. We cannot objectively say what the general will is unless everyone is in agreement. Rousseau claims the general will is distinct and unified, as it is the will as if people had no private interests. Unfortunately, we cannot reconcile the possibility if people really have distinct interests, even distinct at the “state level”. Rousseau evades this difficulty by claiming there are sometimes two states in one geographical area. This makes his system unworkable and pretty tautological. This is similar to his definition of “laws”: they are the expression of the general will (and if they are not in agreement, they are merely “decrees”). Since we cannot easily say what is the general will in most realistic cases, we cannot know if a rule is a “law” or a “decree”. All this idealism tends to result in a ruling body, who “knows” what the general will is and can rule over the unenlightened masses. This is Poppers fear as expressed in The Open Society.

Rousseau’s criteria for a successful state are rather worrying. As I remember, he says history will be the judge (which can justify any arbitrary action), that stability and unanimity is good (we can bring in thought crime laws now) and population growth is a good sign. Obviously he was not aware of the dangers of unrestrained population growth! Basically he has some bizarre ideas.

He did have a few interesting points on how governments should be formed, with the executive (“the prince”) and the legislator being separated. This can reduce the arbitrary use of power by the executive. This idea was the basis of the US government system (among others? Greek? Roman?). I find this concept attractive.

He ends with an analysis of the instability that would arise in a completely Christian state. Since Christians tend to tolerate mistreatment (turn the other cheek), they are unable to stop a minority usurping power. He also notes that Christians have been persecuted, along with all non-state religions, for undermining the common code of right and wrong within a state. Having two masters, the state and religion can undermine the “general will”. He contrasts Christianity (and offshoots) with pagan religions where the entire state was forced to worship a common set of gods that represented the ideals of the state. This all seems rather illiberal but, of course, that does not make Rousseau factually wrong.

Anti Citizen One