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EPILOGUE - Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Political Writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau vol. 2 
The Political Writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau, ed. from the original manuscripts and authentic editions, with introductions and notes by C. E. Vaughan. (Cambridge University Press, 1915). In 2 vols. Vol. 2.
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The présent war has flashed a fierce light upon many problems of political philosophy; upon none more insistently than those which lie at the root of all: What are the rights of the State as against its members? What are the rights and duties of the individual State towards other States and, through them, towards mankind?
To these questions the individualist has a simple answer. The State has no rights as against its members. It has only the duty of protecting them: a duty which, it must at once be admitted, carries with it the right of coercing such of its members as disturb the peace or property of the rest. As towards other States, it should either keep itself out of relation to them altogether—and this would seem the only absolutely consistent principle for the iadividualist to adopt—or, at the most, its rights extend solely to résistance against all forms of forcible aggression and to the protection so far as lies in its power, of the life and property of such of its members as engage in trade or travel in foreign parts. There is, indeed, a third course which the individualist might conceivably take. It is to plead boldly that, as States are purely ‘artificial persons,’they have no rights and no duties as against each other; that to each other they are simply in the’ state of nature; that therefore each is entitled to molest, harry and destroy its neighbours up to the furthest limits of its power. Nothing could illustrate more clearly the inherent contradictions of the individualist principle than the fact that three such incompatible constructions can be placed upon it: nothing, except the further fact that all three may be found jostling one another in the minds and on the lips of those who profess the individualist creed.
We turn to the opposite extreme: to the whole-hearted champions of what Fichte called the ‘absolute State.’ Of all the ideas represented by this ominous phrase Fichte himself is the noblest and most clear-sighted exponent. And at this moment his works have a spécial value, because they are manifestly the arsenal from which the later prophets of German nationalism, doubtless with many fantastic embellishments of their own, have drawn their heaviest artillery. His statement of the case is to be found in two courses of Lectures delivered in Berlin, the one two years before, the other a year after, the crushing humiliation of Jena Die Grundzüge des gegenwärtigen Zeitalters (1804–5), and the better known, though in fact less remarkable, utterance, Reden an die deutsche Nation (1807–8).
To both questions before us Fichte—at least, in principle—returns an uncompromising answer. As the embodiment of Right and reason—and it is as such alone that he deigns to speak of it—the State, he urges, has unlimited rights both against its own members and against other States.
It has so against its own members. To him, as to Rousseau, the’ surrender ‘of the individual member—it is significant that he invariably uses the harsher term,’ subjection’—is total and absolute. It is so in a much harsher and more sinister sense than it is to Rousseau himself. For, on the one hand, the qualifications with which Rousseau subsequently fences in the sweeping assertion of his opening chapters are conspicuously wanting in his successor. And on the other, Fichte scornfully brushes aside the demand for a popular control of the Government, which lies at the root of the whole theory of Rousseau. What the constitutional form of Government adopted may be, he argues, is of no importance. Once establish the State on the true basis, the basis of Right and reason; and the community has every guarantee for the justice and wisdom of its policy that can be desired1 . All else is mere machinery: machinery beneath which the living spirit and the true ends of the State may easily be stifled. Experience, to say nothing of common sensé, tells a different tale. Had Fichte been more ready to listen to it, he would have seen that, in his very dread of machinery, he was reducing the State to a machine of which the whole life and driving power was centred in the Government, while the community at large was nothing better than a dead mass of iron and steel. Or, to employ a metaphor more congenial to Rousseau, he would have recognised that, in treating the Ruler as shepherd, he was taking the surest way to reduce the nation to a flock of sheep. Had Germany but been brave enough to denounce the fallacy, she might have been spared all the mistakes and miseries of the last hundred years.
No less unlimited are the rights of the State as against its neighbours Between one nation and another, he holds, there is always either actually or virtually, a state of war: the war of all against all which Hobbes decreed to the individual in the state of nature. And to Fichte, as to Hobbes, the cardinal virtues of that condition, however much he may strive to conceal it, are force and fraud. ‘It is the natural tendency of every civilised State ‘he says, ‘to widen its borders on every side and to take up all avallable territory into its own civic unity. So it was in ancient history . . ..And in modern times, as each State has acquired inward strength and as the power of the Church, whose interest it was to divide Christendom, has been gradually broken, this tendency to set up an universal Monarchy over the whole of Christendom was bound to reveal itself . . ..Hence it is that every State strives either to assert its rule over Christendom, or, falling that to win the power of doing so at some future time: to maintain the balance of power, that is, in case another State seeks to disturb it; and, in dead secret, to secure the chance of disturbing it hereafter on its own account. Such is the natural and necessary course of events, whether it be admitted, whether it even be consciously realised, or no1 .’ The strong, that is, will take the way of force, and the weak the way of fraud. In either case they will be doing nothing more than what is dictated by ‘nature and necessity.’ A few further touches, and the gospel of Fichte will have become the ‘perfect law of liberty’ proclaimed by Treitschke.
Yet, even as he utters this counsel of despair, there are two concessions which he is willing to make. The first is that, among Christian nations at any rate—Heathens and Mussulmans are apparently for ever to be left in outer darkness—there is to be no such thing as a war of extermination1 : a relief for which, under present circumstances, it would seem that we must be thankful. The second is the admission that, though ‘natural and necessary ‘under present conditions, this gospel of hatred must not be regarded as the ultimate ideal; that the plea of Kant and Rousseau for a ‘perpetual peace’ of Europe may still be nursed as a dream for the far future. ‘It has been my task to point out,’ he writes, ‘that, when a State has once reduced a people beneath its sway, though it will never restore their independence, it will yet refuse for ever to use them merely for the narrow-spirited purposes of its own preservation, purposes which, after all, have been thrust upon it solely by the fault of the times; and that, when once the perpetual peace (to which, surely, the world must come at last) has been established, it will employ them for worthier ends2 . ‘It is perhaps, not much. But it is more than could be found in the revised gospel, as preached by Treitschke. And the gulf which parts the two men would be yet more apparent, if this were the place to set forth the whole argument of thèse mémorable lectures.
What is the spirit in which Rousseau meets the two questions under consideration? How far can we find in him the answer of which we are in need?
As to the first of them—What are the rights of the State as against its members?—his answer, at least on the first shewing, is liable to grave abuse. To him, as to Fichte, the’ surrender’ of the individual is ‘total and absolute.’ And he seems to clinch that surrender still further, when he explicitly denies the right of individual citizens to associate themselves for any private or ‘partial’ purpose, within the boundaries of the State. This is to deny to the State the only instrument by which, humanly speaking, progress is possible. It is to leave the individual at the mercy of a will which may, in name, be that of the community; but which, in fact, is only too likely to be the will of an aggressive section forcing its purposes, sometimes from the best of motives, upon the rest.
So far, it might be said that there is nothing to choose between him and Fichte; or even, inasmuch as the Grundzüge is entirely silent on the matter of association, that the advantage rests with Fichte This, however, would be to leave out of the reckoning the various qualifications which, at a later stage of his argument, Rousseau does not fall to introduce: his assertion that the State is not entitled to exact from the subject anything beyond what is necessary for its service; his admission that, when once the demands of the ‘civil religion’ have been satisfied, the State has no right to take further cognisance of opinion; with the inevitable consequence that, in so far as they do not challenge its supremacy, all forms of religious dogma and all types of religions community lie beyond the purview of the State.
With the limitation just mentioned, this leaves the whole field of opinion free. With the same limitation, it also removes the ban upon association for religious and intellectual—though not, it would seem, for political or for any other kindred—purposes. And this, in itself, is a heavy retrenchment on the sacrifices which, in the first instance, it seemed likely that the individual would be called upon to make.
But there are other qualifications which cut yet deeper than this. The only State which Rousseau has in view is the State of which every member is fired with a resolute craving for the welfare of the whole: the State in which the ‘general will’is, so far as may be, the ‘will of all,’It may be that this is an ideal never to be realised wholly, and seldom even in part; and it is probable that Rousseau himself was under no illusions on that matter. But it cannot be denied that this was his ideal; nor that, in so far as it is realised, the objections which are commonly cast against his theory must necessarily lose the sharpness of their sting. The individual will which he seeks to foster is the will which loses itself in that of the whole body; the general will which he has in mind is not that which overrides, but that which has inspired and penetrated itself with, the needs and interests of the members taken as a whole. In such a State, so long as it remains such, there can be little fear that the majority will trample upon the just claims of the minority; no fear at all that a minority will ride rough-shod over the will or needs of the majority. Respect for the ‘equity’in which Rousseau finds the test and seal of the ‘general will’should bar the way to the former evil. The existence of a keen public spirit, giving life to all parts of the community, will exclude the latter. Add to this the injunction, so often repeated by Rousseau, that no law is valid which does not apply equally to all members of the community. Add further his avowed expectation that the number of laws in a well ordered State will be comparatively small. All these things go to lessen the chances of high-handed legislation. All conspire to give security that the individual is little likely to suffer oppression, though he is inevitably and rightly bound to suffer inconvenience, from his’ surrender’to the State.
There is yet another check on oppression which no estimate of the general scope of Rousseau’s doctrine can afford to overlook. With all his austerity, the individualist in him was never wholly exorcised by the collectivist. It breaks out again and again in the Économie politique; it breaks out in the Contrat social1 ; it breaks out in the Lettres de la Montagne. Even his last utterance, the Gouvernement de Pologne, betrays at least one trace of it, in his partial defence of the Liberum Veto and the right of Confederation. Such outbreaks may be disconcerting enough to logic. But they have a double significance. They are a guarantee that, had fate called him to govern, the author of the second Discourse would not have pushed to extremities the collectivist austerities of the Contrat social. And they bear witness to the difficulty—a difficulty which no thinker has yet entirely overcome—of providing a speculative adjustment between the antagonist claims of the State and the individual; of settling in theory, what, after all perhaps, is only to be settled, if at all, by the rough and ready way of practice: the eternal conflict between the moi humain and the moi commun, between the ‘individual’and the ‘corporate’ self.
Compare this, in its total effect, with the blank outline, the formless idea, of the State—the ‘absolute State,’the ‘State of Eight and reason’—conceived by Fichte. In the civic ideal of Rousseau, we have the guarantee of a Law, defined as the living voice of equity2 , and imposed not from above but by the ‘general will ‘freely expressing itself, of the community at large. We have the still surer guarantee of a keen corporate life which Works, as alone it can work, through the passionate devotion of the individual members to the State which their own will has founded and which only their own will can maintain. Finally, we have the assurance that the powers of the State will be devoted not to the senseless and corrupting task of enlarging its borders at the expense of others, but to the welfare and ennoblement of its own members. And what that means to the health and soundness of a nation’s character, is a lesson writ large, by contraries, in history: not least, in the history of the present day.
On all these points, Fichte’s answer is precisely the reverse. The nature of the Law to be instituted is left without a word of d finition. It is imposed from above, and administered with no check from the community as a whole. The individual members of the community are mere machines in the grip of an all-powerful Government. And the main function of the State—the only function upon which Fiehte dwells at any length—is not to preserve peace, but to wage incessant war. It may please him to call this the State of ‘Right and reason.’But we have nothing more than his word for the description. And the results, as exemplified in the history of Prussia, are not encouraging.
Thus, even with regard to the first question—the rights of the State as against its individual members—Rousseau is far from accepting the doctrine of the ‘absolute State.’And when he passes to the second question, when he comes to define the rights of the State as against its neighbours, he is at once seen to be further yet.
It is true that, in his blind worship of Rome, he condones, if he does not actually applaud, the fatal policy which, in the end, made her mistress of the world and at the same time, ‘with the end of her greatness, marked out the inevitable moment of her fall 1 .’And this, if we could suppose it to represent his settled opinion, would logically involve the acceptance of Fichte’s gospel in its fullest extent. But, as with most other men, it is clear that the standard he applied to the ancient world differs widely from that by which he judged the actions of modern States; and there is justice in the distinction. As to modern times, his verdict is unwavering. From the early État de guerre to his final utterance on Poland, he never falters in the conviction that ‘war is, with tyranny, one of the two worst scourges of mankind’; and among the deadliest evils which it brings in its train is the tyranny with which it is coupled in this unsparing condemnation. This tyranny, he urges, may be directed either against the conquering despot’s own’ subjects,’ or against the nation whom they unite to trample under foot: more probably, against both of them together. In either case, the war, which is at once the cause and consequence of the tyranny, is equally hateful in itself and equally fatal in its results.
The sole war that he is prepared to justify is the war of selfdefence: the war which is waged on behalf of the one object that stands yet higher than peace; the war which is waged for independence, for protection against tyranny, for the right of each community to shape its own destiny, to ‘maintain the social order’ which it has deliberately chosen and which is ‘the base of all its remaining rights1 .’
The ideal of Fichte, as we have seen, is ‘universal monarchy’: the domination of one State over the whole of Christendom, That of Rousseau is national independence, with a strong preference for the small, rather than the large, State as the unit. And this preference is determined by the deep conviction that only in the small State is to be found the keen public spirit which to him is, or ought to be, the end and object of every political association. Hence the large part which Federation, as the only security for the integrity of the small State, plays in his political speculations; from the État de guerre, which was probably among the earliest of his writings, to the Gouvernement de Pologne, which fitly closes the whole list. Yet behind this faith in the small State—a matter upon which it is often lightly assumed that the verdict of history has gone finally against him—there lies, and he was well aware of it, the wider, the yet more fundamental question of international Right. To Fichte, if he were to be judged solely by the Griundzüge, there is no such thing. That each State should strive, by force or fraud, to ‘draw all the others into its own civic unity’is, to him, the law of ‘nature and neeessity.’ And Germany, to her undying shame, has done her best to better his instruction. Once more, it is to Rousseau that we must turn to vindicate the conscience of mankind. To him, every State—the smallest as well as the largest, the largest as well as the smallest—has the inalienable right to shape its own ends and, as the first condition of this, to maintain its own integrity and independence. And, if any other State interferes with that freedom, it commits the foulest of wrongs. ‘If any creed,’he urges, ‘becomes exclusive and tyrannical, if it makes a nation bloodthirsty and intolerant, so that it breathes nothing but threatenings and slaughters and thinks to do a holy deed in killing all who will not accept its gods and its laws, that creed is bad. It is not lawful to cement the bonds of a single community at the cost of the rest of mankind1 .’The words were written of the old national religions; but they have a wider application, which suggests itself but too readily to the mind. It has been the misery of Germany that, for the last fifty years, she has persistently sought to ‘cement her own unity’—or rather, to increase her own material strength—at the cost of the moral rights of mankind.
The State has a double duty: to its own citizens within; to other communities without. How, according to the two writers before us, is this twofold task to be fulfilled?
As to the former duty, both are agreed that self-sacrifice on the part of the citizens is the first thing needful for the health, and even the very existence, of the State. Neither of them—but Fichte far less than Rousseau—is alive enough to the necessity of providing practical safeguards against the tyranny of the State. Here, however, the resemblance between them ends. To Fichte, the citizen is a passive instrument in the hands of the State, or rather of the Government which usurps the name and functions of the State; and it is with the latter that rests the sole right of determining the purposes for which the instrument shall be used. To Rousseau, the citizen is active, or he is nothing; and the State which should consist of obedient dummies would be no State at all. For this conviction, which lies at the core of his whole civic faith, there are two reasons to assign. The acceptance of it is, in his view, as necessary to the citizen as to the State. For the latter, it is the only security possible against the blindness of sovereign aristocracies and the inconceivable follies of monarchs. For the former, the passion of public service, widely spread and eagerly cherished, is, of all boons, the highest which the State has to offer. To those peoples, who have never had the courage or the wisdom to strive for it, the loss will seem as nothing; perhaps it will be taken for a gain. But it is just that which is their punishment: the judicial blindness which for ever denies to them ‘the most heroic of all passions,’which for ever forbids them to ‘know more happiness than this their present lot.’
As to the duty of the State towards its neighbours, the variance between the two writers is complete. To Fichte, the ideal of each State is limitless aggrandisement; and the chief means to that ‘natural and necessary’end is war. The consequence, though he never puts it in so many words, is inevitable: there is no place left for international Eight. Reverse this dismal doctrine, and we have the creed of Rousseau. Respect for the rights of others is the first duty of each State. A ‘perpetual peace,’with guarantees for its permanent maintenance, is the ideal for which all should strive and which, but for the folly of their rulers, all might realise to-morrow1 . A policy of self-aggrandisement is as fatal to the conquering State as it is unjust and humiliating to the conquered. The only war to be tolerated is the war of defence against an invader from without, or from a tyrant within. A policy of offensive wars, in addition to its countless other evils, invariably carries with it, as it did to Rome of old, as it has done in recent times to each nation in turn that has adopted it, the scourge of despotism and oppression.
With each writer, the one side of the theory necessarily follows from the other. With Rousseau, we have an ideal of self government and of corporate, if not individual, freedom within; of respect for the rights and freedom of others without. With Fichte, the sacrifice of the individual, to exalt the State whatever be the nature of the ends which it pursues, within; the sacrifice of all other nations, to enlarge its own territory and secure its own domination, without. The latter is the logical outcome of the doctrine of the ‘absolute State.’It is the ideal—say rather the nightmare—of the drill-sergeant or dragoon. It is the flat negation of all freedom and all Right.
Such is the conflict between the ideals of Rousseau and of Fichte. It is not a conflict between the spirits of the two nations. For there was a time when the nobler minds of Germany took the creed of the French writer, the man to whom France was a second country, for their own. Among the torch-bearers of that higher and truer Germany was the greatest thinker Germany has brought forth. Kant, who died in the very year in which Fichte proclaimed his gloomy gospel, was proud to call himself the disciple of Rousseau2 . And Kant, no less than Rousseau, would have rejected the creed of Fichte with loathing and contempt. What would he have said to the doctrines, and what to the practical infamies not obscurely connected with them, which find favour with Germany at the present moment?