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Source: Introduction to 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. 1.
INTRODUCTION. ROUSSEAU AS POLITICAL PHILOSOPHER
The work of Rousseau is little known in this country, and less understood. The title of the Contrat social is familiar. But to most men it suggests an extreme form of individualism. It stands, that is, for ideas which are either expressly repudiated by the author, or saluted hurriedly from afar. What the real argument of the book may be, or what its place in the history of political theory, few have troubled themselves to enquire. And fewer yet are aware that it forms but a small part of what Rousseau wrote upon this subject; or that, with one exception (the Discours sur l’inégalité), the remainder of these writings are based on ideas still further removed from the individualist—indeed, from any abstract—doctrine than the Contrat social itself.
Strike out the Discours sur l’inégalité with the first few pages of the Contrat social, and the ‘individualism’ of Rousseau will be seen to be nothing better than a myth. Strike out a few more chapters of the Contrat social, and his results, if not his methods, will be seen to be not abstract, but concrete. Even when sweeping principles are laid down, the widest possible latitude is left for their application. They are not imposed as a law. Rather they are held up as an ideal, the acceptance of which may quicken the sense of justice in the more favoured communities, but which even the most favoured community can never hope fully to attain.
That Rousseau himself is partly responsible for this misunderstanding, may readily be allowed. But it remains true that his readers have been singularly blind. Within the last five and twenty years light has doubtless begun to break in upon the darkness. It has so in this country; it has so, perhaps more generally, in Switzerland and France. But it may be doubted whether even professed students of the subject have yet grasped either the vast range of thought which Rousseau opened up, or the goal to which it pointed.
Before justice can be done to him, it is necessary that his work in this field should be studied as a whole. And it is the object of these volumes to remove the obstacles which have hitherto lain in the way of such a study. Here—as I believe, for the first time—the whole body of his work as political philosopher is collected and arranged in order of time: the practical part of it as well as the speculative; the writings which he published himself, as well as those which, until the last few years, lay buried in the Libraries of Neuchâtel and Geneva.
Three points at least will be made clear by a study of this collection. The first is that Rousseau, so far from supporting the individualist theory, is its most powerful assailant. The second, that he concerns himself with action no less than with theory; that he is at least as much a practical reformer as a political philosopher. And the third, which indeed is the natural consequence of the second, that his arguments, so far from being abstract, have the closest reference to conditions of time, place and historical antecedent; that to him, as to Burke, ‘circumstances, which with some men pass for nothing, in reality give to every political principle its distinguishing colour and discriminating effect.’ The first appears from the two main speculative treatises, the Contrat social and the Économie politique. The second, from the treatises upon the affairs of Geneva, Corsica and Poland; it might indeed be suspected by the reader of the Contrat social itself. The third is writ large on the later pages of the Contrat social; and the subsequent treatises are one long application of the principles there laid down. A doctrinaire, who deliberately shuts his eyes to circumstances and rides rough-shod over consequences—that is still apparently the Rousseau of popular belief. Can we honestly say that it is the Rousseau of the Contrat social or of Le Gouvernement de Pologne?
GENERAL POSITION OF ROUSSEAU
Like other men of his mark, Rousseau worked his way by slow stages to the point which he ultimately reached. He began as the pupil of Locke. In the crucial years of his growth he was the whole-hearted disciple of Plato. And towards the close—the first stages of the process may be plainly traced even in the Contrat social—he passed, and was indeed the first great thinker to pass, beneath the spell of Montesquieu.
The strongest influence of these three was undoubtedly that of Plato. And in at least one cardinal point, the doctrine of Sovereignty, it was reinforced, strangely enough, by reluctant respect for the masterful genius of Hobbes. But, either late or early, the other two influences also told strongly upon his work. The voice of Locke is heard plainly, and with results disastrous to the general tenor of the argument, in the opening chapters of the Contrat social. After that, though it is doubtful whether the pupil ever recognised how far he had drifted from his master it silently drops out. Far more fruitful is the influence of Montesquieu; and, unlike that of Locke, it was strengthened, not weakened, by time. In the Contrat social it is not yet fully assimilated. It breathes through every page of the practical treatises which followed. It is not always easy to reconcile with the influence of Plato. It runs directly counter to the more abstract strain inherited from Locke.
The influence of Montesquieu was, from the nature of the case, first and foremost an influence upon method. That of the other two thinkers was in the first instance an influence of ideas. The ideas, in this case, may be summed up in one word—Right. That was the chief object of the search of Plato. In another and far narrower sense, it was the goal also of Locke. There is no sense in which the same could be said of Montesquieu. And, with all respect for present modes of thought, that is the one thing wanting to his achievement. ‘He did not concern himself with the principles of Right. He was content to treat of the positive rights recognised by existing Governments. And no two studies in the world could be more different.’ This is Rousseau’s verdict on ‘the one man of modern times who was capable of calling this great, but useless science into being .’ And, however deep our admiration for Montesquieu—no man could have admired him more than Rousseau—it must be admitted to be just. The historical method, invaluable as a servant, is an ill guide when taken for master. It gives inestimable aid in the application of first principles. But it is powerless to discover them. In and by itself, it can never rise above considerations of circumstance and expediency. But beyond and above these lies man’s unconquerable craving for justice and for Right. And it is the lasting service of Rousseau that, with all the weight he allows to considerations of the former character, he never ceases to give the first place to the latter. The realisation of Right, in anything approaching to the full sense of the term, may, he holds, under given circumstances, be impossible. But he never falters in the faith that, wherever possible, it is and ought to be the ideal. That is the conviction which underlies the Contrat social. With a yet fuller allowance for circumstances, it is the faith also of his writings on Geneva, Corsica and Poland.
The first question, therefore, which Rousseau sets himself to answer is: What is the nature, and what the source, of Right? It is only when this is disposed of that he goes on to ask: Under what circumstances, with what limitations, is it to be realised in the given case? It is with the former question, and with that alone, that we are concerned at the present moment. And to this question the earlier writings of Rousseau—it must be remembered that this means no more than the two Discourses—suggest, though they do not explicitly give, a very different answer from the later. The earlier have commonly, and with some show of reason, been taken to plead for an extreme form of individualism. The Contrat social and the Économie politique, on the other hand, subordinate the individual ruthlessly to the community at large. The former find the ultimate base of Right in the will of the individual; the latter, in that of the community in which the individual is merged.
The fact is that two lines of thought meet and cross in the Politics of Rousseau. He is the champion of individual liberty. He is the champion also of the sovereignty of the State. He is the heir of Locke. He is the disciple also of Plato and, in this point though in no other, of Hobbes. That, in truth, is his historical significance. Standing at the parting of the ways, he embodies the results of the past; he prepares the ground for the wholly different ideals of the future. He sums up the instincts of revolt which had already shattered the medieval Church and were soon to lay the axe to the root of the still semi-feudal State. He points the way to the constructive principle which was once more to draw order out of chaos; to lift to a higher unity the elements which, in the world as he found it, were held together by nothing better than by blind custom or by force.
Such are the two strands which run through the political thought of Rousseau, the two threads which it is the business of the reader to hold carefully apart. In Rousseau himself they are apt to be entangled, rather than interwoven, with each other. He realises the vital conditions of the problem—the necessity of individual freedom, the equal necessity of collective control—with amazing clearness. That he is as successful in harmonising them, it is impossible to maintain. When all is said, the two rival elements, the individual and the community, are left not so much reconciled, as in ill-veiled hostility, to each other. In his earlier writings he asserts the freedom of the individual, but of an individual divorced from all communion—it is hardly too much to say, from all connection—with his kind. In his later work he reverses the process, and exalts the claims of the community to the utter ‘annihilation’ of individual interests and rights.
Both arguments are manifestly one-sided. But both are landmarks in the history as well of action as of thought. In his own day and in the generation which followed, it was the earlier argument which struck home. The later argument was either disregarded, or explained silently away. The ‘principles of 1789’ were universally supposed to be, and to some extent actually are, the principles of Rousseau. But it was the Rousseau of the second Discourse. And it is through them that Rousseau has left the deepest mark upon subsequent history; the history not only of France, but of the civilised world. Wherever, during the last century and a half, man has revolted against injustice and oppression, there we may be very sure that the leaven of the second Discourse has been working; there the spirit of the great liberator has without doubt contributed to the result.
To trace the working of this influence upon individual thinkers would be lost labour. It is manifest in such men as Paine and Godwin, Mill and Spencer, in this country. It is not to be mistaken in Kant and the earlier treatises of Fichte. During the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century it was probably, so far as English publicists are concerned, the strongest force at work. And though it may have been less strong upon the continent, even there it was a power to be reckoned with.
With the later argument, that of the Contrat social and the Économie politique, the case is curiously different. In the field of action, their direct influence is probably confined to the short period during which the ideals—which, for our purposes, must be sharply distinguished from the methods—of Saint-Just and Robespierre prevailed. Indirectly they may have told upon subsequent socialist movements. But, as Rousseau was no socialist in the economic sense, it can have been only in a vague and general manner. His doctrine of Sovereignty would, doubtless, find a ready welcome among socialists. Even his theory of Property, as we shall see later, may be held to have no distant affinity with theirs. But the glaring differences have probably blinded them to the few points of resemblance. And altogether it would be hazardous to expect from them any hearty acknowledgement of a debt which, for all that, it is impossible wholly to deny.
Nor again, when we turn to more distinctly speculative thought, is it any easier to gauge what the influence of the Contrat social has actually been. Those who have followed the same line of argument have been shy of acknowledging Rousseau for their master. For various reasons, of which the chief is probably the supposed taint of individualism in his doctrine (or again, his alleged responsibility for the excesses of the Revolution), one and all—Fichte, Hegel, Comte, Mazzini, above all Burke—have borne a grudge against his name . All we can say is that he was the first to attack individualism face to face and in its speculative stronghold; the first also to take up and extend the assault directed against it by Montesquieu on what may conveniently be called historical grounds. It is difficult to believe that he has not influenced those who have followed him in this path. It is equally difficult to lay the finger upon any clear instance—still more, upon any explicit acknowledgment—of the debt. What Burke would have said, if the debt had been brought home to him, it is impossible even to imagine. It is a strange case of negligence, not to say ingratitude. But signs are not wanting that the father of modern collectivism, if the term may be used in a sense which has no reference to Economics, is at last about to come by his own.
So much by way of introduction. We now turn to consider the broad bearings of his work in the two—if we ought not rather to say the three—main stages of its growth.
THE DISCOURSES AND LONGER FRAGMENTS
It was as moral reformer that Rousseau first came before the world. And his earliest writing, the Discours sur les Sciences et les Arts , has no more than an indirect bearing upon political action. To political theory, in the strict sense, it has no reference at all. To an Englishman the position of the writer may best be expressed by saying that he anticipates—or rather, goes far beyond—Carlyle: that his main object is to assert the supreme—it would not be too much to say, the exclusive—importance of the active and moral virtues; to deny that they are in the slightest degree dependent upon man’s intellectual or imaginative advance. Indeed, the author goes much further than this. He is ready to assert that the effect of the latter has always been disastrous; if Macaulay’s phrase may be adapted, that ‘as civilisation’—by which is here meant knowledge of the Arts and Sciences—‘advances, moral virtue necessarily declines.’ This was to open a deadly breach in the system of Voltaire and the Encyclopedists, and it is no wonder that they should at once have taken alarm. The first note of disquiet was sounded by d’Alembert in his Introduction to the Encyclopédie, which was published later in the same year (1751) . Rousseau is here treated as a brilliant, but erring, brother who may yet be recalled from the error of his ways. But the next six years were to shew that the Encyclopedists were hopelessly mistaken in their man. The controversy, which had begun as a friendly difference, gradually widened into a breach which nothing could bridge over. And the mild protest of d’Alembert finally swelled into a cry of execration and contempt. For the moment, however, all this lay far in the future. It belongs, moreover, to the history rather of Rousseau’s life than of his work.
With the deeper issues of Rousseau’s work as moral reformer—and they are full of instruction—we have here no concern. For us the crucial point is that, in assailing the moral perversity of his age, he was inevitably led on to attack its social institutions. To him the whole organisation of society is rotten to the core; and the vanity which leads men to despise the homely virtues is at once effect and cause of this corruption. Other causes, he fully admits, have been at work. But this is one of the most serious and far-reaching.
The vein of thought opened in the first Discourse is explored further, and with entirely fresh applications, in the second . And in the interval the armoury of the writer had been strengthened out of all knowledge. The first Discourse is little more than an explosion of temperament. The second is a masterpiece of reasoning and eloquence. The title of this famous piece is Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes; or in the still more significant wording of the theme, as proposed by the Academy of Dijon: Quelle est l’origine de l’inégalité parmi les hommes, et si elle est autorisée par la loi naturelle? The latter was the form of the question which Rousseau had before him when he thought out his answer. And, as will appear in the sequel, the very difference of titles is full of meaning.
Among the causes assigned in the first Discourse for the general corruption of mankind was ‘the fatal inequality which springs from the exaltation of talent and the disparagement of virtue .’ And in another passage the author had denounced ‘the invention of the odious words mine and thine, the division of mankind into the cruel and brutal beings known as masters and the lying rascals whom we call slaves .’ In the second Discourse both texts are again taken up. This time, however, the stress of the writer lies not on the former but the latter. His first thought is now not so much for the individual as the race. He speaks no longer as personal moralist, but as critic of social, and even political, institutions.
From this and other circumstances it has commonly been inferred that we have bere the first draft of Rousseau’s political philosophy, that the main object of the treatise is to trace the historical origin and, as a natural consequence, to enquire into the philosophical justification, of the State. To this interpretation there are, however, strong grounds of objection. And though there is something to be said for it, the balance of evidence would seem to be clear against it. The chief object of the author is, in truth, rather practical than speculative. As in the first Discourse, his results are not so much positive as negative. He is still concerned rather to expose the abuses of man’s life—in this case, of his social life—than to lay down a theory either of origins, or of Right.
A brief sketch of the argument will put the reader in a position to judge for himself. Given an original ’state of nature’—and that assumption was implied in the question put before him— What form, Rousseau asks, is it likely to have taken? It was not the ‘war of all against all’ imagined by Hobbes; nor was it the state of ‘peace, good will, mutual assistance and preservation’ conceived by Locke. The one writer imports the vices, the other the virtues, of civilisation into a state which, ex hypothesi, is its very opposite . The state of nature, if it existed at all, must rather have been a state of isolation; a state in which each man lived solely by and for himself . Even the Family had not yet come into being. Male and female met casually, and casually parted. The mother reared her children till they were strong enough to fend for themselves, and then saw them no more .
Under these conditions, man was infinitely stronger and more adroit in body than he is now. He was in fact, all things considered, a match for any of the beasts that crossed his path . In intelligence, again, there was little to distinguish him from them. The only mental gifts which set him above them were the capacity for pity and the capacity for development . The former contained the germ of all that has since made him a moral being. The latter, both intellectually and morally, was ultimately to prove of supreme importance; and that, for evil at least as much as for good. But, in the beginning, its operation was both lingering and slight. Advance came mainly from the growth of his passions; and this, in turn, from the extension of his needs . At first these were uncommonly simple; and, in a being whose perceptions were rudimentary and whose only passions were desire and fear, their development was slow . It was the more so, because speech was as yet unknown to him; and without speech, thought in any true sense is impossible. How these twin faculties were wakened to life, is and will probably always remain a mystery. Ages may have passed before they came to birth. And until they did, it is evident that man must have remained, to all intents and purposes, cut off from his kind; though the converse is also true, that nothing but long intercourse with his kind could make speech, and with it thought, either necessary or possible .
The state of nature, then, is a state of solitude; of wants almost purely physical in character; of desires limited to the passing moment, and remaining the same from one generation to another. To call such a state ‘miserable’ is an abuse of terms; for misery implies a conscious craving for something other and better than what we have; and by the nature of the case such a consciousness is here excluded. Besides, are we really sure that man is worse off in the state here supposed than in that which we proudly term civilisation? To call it ‘immoral,’ again, is a pure confusion; for that likewise implies a consciousness of something higher, together with a recognised obligation to strive after it, of which there can obviously be here no question. Unmoral, no doubt, it is; a state neither of virtue, nor of vice. And who shall say that this is not better than the state of vice of which our vaunted civilisation is the fruit? But, above all, the state of nature is not, as Hobbes asserted, a state of war; nor are its ‘cardinal virtues force and fraud.’ For these things imply a power of calculation, a forethought, of which man in the state described is manifestly incapable. They imply also the absence of that pity which is natural to man even as we know him and which, if we may judge from the less educated classes of men at the present day, must have been far stronger in the state of nature .
Once more, however, we are confronted with the question: For what reasons, and by what stages, did man pass out of this state into one so radically opposed to it as the state of bondage with which, in one form or another, we are all familiar? To this question none but hypothetical answers can be given. It may have been from the pressure of population which, under primitive conditions, is likely to have multiplied more rapidly than at present. It may have been owing to a change from the precarious livelihood, offered by the wild fruits of the earth, to that of hunting or fishing, which call for cooperation. Or it may have sprung from a series of accidental causes, which are now beyond our divination. In any case, the result is certain. The wandering life of primitive man was at some time exchanged for a home, more or less settled, and the first faint beginnings of property. His solitary existence was slowly replaced by the life of the Family. The Family insensibly grew into the Tribe and so brought with it the earliest forms of political association, loose enough at first but gradually tightening their hold, until they have now become the controlling law of our being. This, in turn, has brought about a revolution in the very character of man. It has brought dependence, rivalry, self-assertion, vanity: things unknown in the state of nature, but evil in themselves and destined to bring yet greater evils in their train . Most savage races of the present day are still in the earlier stages of this process. And, though such a life lacks the innocence of the state of nature, it is probably the happiest that man has ever known. It is free at once from the discomforts of ‘nature’ and the full-blown vices and miseries of civilisation .
Of this intermediate state the leading characteristics, as has been said, are mutual dependence and the beginnings of property. And, as invention advances, each of these inevitably developes. The practical arts, one and all, depend on cooperation; and agriculture, the most important of them all, is inconceivable without some form of ownership. It is here that the true corner-stone of civil society is to be sought. It was to convert possession into property, an usurpation into a right, that Law was founded and the State called into existence. ‘The first man who enclosed a plot of ground and bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found others foolish enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society .’
But, before things could come to this pass, great disorders must already have arisen. And it was as an escape from these, in particular as they affected ownership, that the creation of Law and the formation of the State was proposed. Who had the adroitness to bring about this revolution? the poor, or the rich? The latter, without a doubt. It was they who profited by it. The poor, expecting perhaps to gain by it, were in fact further impoverished and enslaved. The proposal was, in truth, a masterpiece of cunning, ‘the most deeply calculated scheme which has ever entered into the wit of man.’ And it was crowned with complete success. ‘The whole world ran to meet its chains.’ The rich had secured safeguards by which they stood to gain all that in equity would have been withheld from them. The rest were henceforth ‘condemned to toil, slavery and misery.’ And as the earth becomes covered with such communities, the same spirit of greed pollutes their dealings with each other. Open war without, veiled civil war within—that is the subsequent history of mankind .
The new order of things, it must be added, was confirmed by a contract which, like all other contracts, is dissolved ipso facto, directly its conditions are broken. And its dissolution necessarily carries with it a return to the state of nature. Hence it is that, whenever the despotism of the ruler becomes intolerable, his power is overthrown by a revolution; and the community starts afresh with another ruler, or another polity, of its own making. The contract is compatible with the most diverse forms of government; the particular form in each case being determined by the distribution of wealth and influence at the time of its conclusion .
So ends the formal argument of the Discours sur l’inégalité. The conclusion, however, yet remains to be considered. And it is strangely different from what the received interpretation of the author’s purpose would have led us to expect. What we look for, as the practical moral, is a call to action: a demand that the false contract, the birth of fraud and deception, should be swept away, and the true contract, that of Right and equity, be put summarily in its place. What we find is a burning denunciation of the moral evils which are inseparable from all forms of civil government; which, in the long run, reduce even the best form, that in which the whole body of citizens is Sovereign, to a despotism of the rich over the poor . What we find further is that man is powerless to stay this tide of corruption; that ‘the vices which make social institutions a necessity are the same vices which, at a later stage, make the abuse of them inevitable .’ Submission to an iron law is the conclusion of the whole matter. The second Discourse, like the first, points straight to fatalism and despair. It is not a call to political action. It is not a theory of political Right. It is the hopeless voice of the prophet crying in the wilderness; the despondent wail of the moralist denouncing evils which neither he, nor any other man, has the power to remove.
The conclusions suggested by the end of the treatise are borne out by the general tenor of the whole. No one, it may be assumed, after reading the above analysis will contend that Rousseau’s object was to prepare the way for political reform. His attack throughout is directed not against any one form of Government, but against civil society as such. For a reformer, the only possible remedy, under these circumstances, would have been to demand a return to the state of nature. That, no doubt, is the course which popular opinion and lively critics supposed Rousseau to prescribe . It is a remedy, however, which he himself expressly repudiates, as unthinkable and absurd .
Political action being thus excluded, can we suppose that the Discourse is intended for a statement of political theory? For this interpretation more, perhaps, is to be said than for the last. Yet here too the objections are too serious to be lightly put aside. It is manifest that the theory in question must be either a theory of historical origins, or a theory of Right. If it is a theory of historical origins, how does it happen that the author again and again insists upon the purely hypothetical character of his facts ? that the state of nature itself, the very first link in the chain, is admitted to be a state ‘which may perhaps never have existed ’? If, on the other hand, it is a theory of Right, how can we account for the fact that the course of events which leads up to the foundation of society is, as the author never ceases to insist, a tissue of injustice and of wrong? how, for the yet more damaging fact that, once founded, all forms of society lead with equal certainty, though some sooner and some later, to the ’slavery’ of the many and the yet more hateful despotism of the few?
Once more. The theory of the Discourse, if there be any theory at all, can by no possibility be anything but a theory of individual rights. The conception of man implied throughout the first part of it is that of an isolated being. And such a conception, if applied to political speculation, could end in nothing but individualism run mad. How then is it conceivable that the man who wrote the Discourse should within a year and a half—it is an outside estimate—write and publish a work which is a negation of all the principles that individualism holds dear? that, at the very moment when he was correcting the proofs of the former, he should in all probability be meditating and composing the latter? Yet, on the interpretation we are now dealing with, that would be the case as between the Discours sur l’inégalité and the Économie politique .
For these reasons, the opinion that the Discourse is a treatise on political theory—a crude version of the Contrat social—must be rejected no less than the suggestion that it is a cry for political reform. And when these two interpretations are set aside, what alternative is left but to treat it as, in the first instance, the work of a moralist? as a return to the theme which, from another side, he had already handled in the Discours sur les Sciences et les Arts? Here, as there, the chief purpose of the writer is to expose the vices which for ages have poisoned the life both of the individual and the race: the eternal sacrifice of virtue to reputation, of the substance to the shadow of well-being . Here, as there, he sees no hope of remedy; he is convinced that the disease is the inevitable consequence of steps long ago blindly taken but, once taken, never to be retrieved. This is the main thread of the treatise. But with it other threads are inextricably, and not very happily, entwined.
For the last dozen years, as we learn from the Confessions, Rousseau had thought deeply over the problems of political philosophy . The idea of the state of nature, universally accepted in those days, had sunk into his mind and fired his imagination. He saw, as a man of his eloquence and dialectical genius could not fail to see, with what effect it could be used to drive home his ethical appeal. And the contrast between ‘man’s man and nature’s man ,’ which forms the core of the whole argument, gave a force and sting to that appeal such as no other weapon could probably have supplied. At the same time it must be confessed that he gives more space to themes of history and philosophy than is easily to be justified in a moral argument. And this has served, more perhaps than anything else, to confuse the issue to his readers, not impossibly even to himself.
Nor is philosophy the only disturbing element. The moral zeal of the man was always winged with religious fervour; and the moral argument is here enlisted in the service of a religious idea. If he denounces the follies and vices of man, it is largely that he may justify the ways of God. ‘Everything is good as it comes from the hand of the Creator. Everything becomes evil in the hands of man.’ The thought expressed in these words is the central thought of Émile. Though seldom mentioned, it is never far from the surface in the second Discourse. It appears plainly, though not obtrusively, in the Lettre à Philopolis, which immediately followed. And when, long afterwards, Rousseau wrote the history of these years in the Confessions, it is on the moral and religious side of the argument that he lingers, while its political aspect is almost, if not entirely, ignored .
Yet the political argument is there, and it would be madness to overlook it. It bore little or no fruit for the moment; but it is of great importance in the history of the author’s political ideas. It shews us where Rousseau stood at the moment when he had shaken off all but the last remnants of the theory inherited from Locke, and was about to enter, if he had not already entered, on the task of weaving a more valid theory for himself.
The knot of the whole question lies in his treatment of the state of nature. It is here that his speculative genius asserts itself for the first time and beyond all possibility of dispute. The more obvious points of conflict between him and Locke have already been noted. But there are other and yet more vital differences behind. To Locke, as we have seen, the state of nature is a state of ‘good will and mutual assistance’ between man and man; to Rousseau, a state in which each man is utterly isolated from the rest. To Locke, therefore, the state of nature is the civil state, minus only its political machinery. To Rousseau the one is the direct opposite of the other. It may be admitted that neither conception is anything better than a fiction. But it is the merit of Rousseau that, unlike Locke (or indeed any other previous writer), he has a lively consciousness that it is so. It is a further and still more striking merit that his fiction is by far the more plausible and fruitful of the two. The ‘natural man’ of Rousseau does at least answer to his name. The corresponding being of Locke’s fiction is nothing less than a very good Christian in disguise. The one is a healthy animal. The other has pored himself pale over the Sermon on the Mount.
And here we come to the core of the whole matter. The corner-stone of Locke’s theory is the assumption of a ‘natural Law’—a law of admitted duty to others—‘known and read of all men’ in the state of nature. Rousseau is under no such illusion. He sees that the sense of duty must necessarily be a thing of slow growth; that to suppose it implanted as an ‘innate idea’ in the breast of man was not only inconsistent in Locke, but wholly unreasonable in itself; that for primitive man, even as he is conceived by Locke, much more as he must have been in reality, it is nothing short of an absurdity. For these reasons, he sweeps away the idea of natural Law, root and branch. It is conspicuously absent from the Discours sur l’inégalité. In the first draft of the Contrat social, which in all probability goes back to a date shortly before, or shortly after, the Discours, it is explicitly thrown aside. The chapter in which he demolishes this article of the faith is a monument of speculative insight .
To his mind, the term Natural Law—or, as he rightly prefers to call it, the Law of reason —is a legitimate term to denote the common sense of justice which has gradually formed itself in the minds of men during long ages of moral discipline and of positive Law. In this sense, it may, perhaps not altogether wrongly, be applied as a rule for testing the standards of ages other than our own. It may even, if we are careful to remember what we are doing, be applied in this fashion to the conditions—we cannot here say the standards—of the state of nature. But to suppose that in the state of nature it operated, or could by any possibility have operated, as a guide to conduct—and that is manifestly what Locke means by the Law of nature—is a fatal error.
The truth is that the meaning of the term ‘natural Law’ necessarily varies from age to age. It stands for nothing more than the code of morality commonly accepted in a given state of civilisation . And in an essentially unmoral—not, it will be observed, immoral—age like that of primitive man—an age which is ‘without moral relations’ of any sort or kind —it can have had no existence at all. It may be read into the mind of primitive man by descendants who are, or at least claim to be, civilised. But for primitive man himself it would have been utterly without meaning.
The argument is a striking proof of Rousseau’s originality. The idea of natural Law had held the field since the days of the Roman Jurists. With the political philosophers of more recent times, it had been commonplace since the days of Hooker and Grotius. None of them save Hobbes and Spinoza—the latter far more completely than the former —had escaped its tyranny. The authority of Locke had given it a new sanction. And even apart from the almost unbroken tradition in its favour, there was much in it that could not but appeal strongly to the spirit of Rousseau. It is therefore the clearest proof both of his speculative genius and of his intellectual honesty that he should have decisively rejected it. And the chapter of the original Contrat social, which lays bare in detail the hollowness of the whole conception, is a masterpiece of philosophical criticism. Together with the illuminating Essay, Que l’état de guerre naît de l’état social, it is by far the most important of the Fragments here published . And of the two it is decidedly the more original.
It is, therefore, one of the services rendered by Rousseau in the second Discourse that he leaves the idea of natural Law, so dear to the Academy of Dijon , entirely on one side and treats primitive man as the creature purely of impulse and of instinct. No doubt, there is a sense in which Spinoza, writing eighty years earlier, had done the same. Like Rousseau, he banishes the idea of duty, he bars out all moral relations, from the state of nature. But, unlike Rousseau, he credits the ‘natural man’ with a sagacity, a calculating power, which it is absurd to suppose that he possessed. ‘A city of hucksters,’ is Vico’s criticism of Spinoza’s civil state . And, in a less degree, the criticism applies also to his state of nature. In this cardinal point, therefore, the work of Rousseau opens a new era in political philosophy. And it is a point for which he is entitled to more credit than he has received.
Another signal merit of the Discours sur l’inégalité—and this again applies to the two Fragments just mentioned—is the ruthless firmness with which the assumptions of the individualist theory are here pushed to their logical conclusion. All other forms of that theory seem pale and flaccid beside this. If the individual ever existed apart from his kind, we say to ourselves, it must have been as he is conceived by Rousseau, rather than by Hobbes or by Locke. Neither wolfish war with his neighbour, nor serviceable peace, is the natural outcome of the separate existence from which all forms of the theory take their start, and to which, so far as it can be realised, all of them tend as their consummation. Isolation—unbroken except by fleeting accident—that alone satisfies the unspoken cravings of the individualist ideal. No doubt, the very completeness of the individual’s isolation in the state of nature makes it well-nigh inconceivable that he should ever pass into even the loosest possible form of the civil state. In this respect, the theory of Rousseau is exposed to the same objection which, on slightly different grounds, attaches to the corresponding argument of Hobbes. But this very objection throws a searching light upon the hybrid and watered individualism, which passes muster with the common herd of political critics and which ultimately goes back to the Civil Government of Locke. It is the very half-heartedness of this theory which alone gives it plausibility. It is only because the individual is at every turn credited with acute social instincts and a burning desire for the public good—in other words, only because he is represented as something quite other than the individual—that he becomes a possible member of the ‘individualist’ State. And even so, it remains a mystery by what witchcraft he is induced to make vast sacrifices for ends which have nothing to do with his own welfare or even with his immediate neighbour’s: for social reform, for national defence and independence, for foreign conquest—in a word, for all those ends which, so far from securing life and property, are likely to imperil them; so far from increasing the freedom of the individual, are certain to diminish it; and which only the wildest confusion of thought can reconcile with the premisses on which the individualist theory, even in its least individualist form, is based. No State, which should cleave consistently to individualist principles, could hold together for a moment. And it is very certain that no State, of which this could truly be said, has ever existed. The ‘noble savage’ of the second Discourse—and he is your only thorough-bred individualist—must have run wild in his native woods to the end of time. He is the reductio ad absurdum of his tribe.
The last of the great services rendered by the Discourse has already been noticed. It is to have quickened beyond measure the hatred of injustice and social wrong which was already stirring at the time; to have sounded the charge for the Revolution which Rousseau himself seems at moments to have foreseen . None of his works, not even the Économie politique, gives so burning an utterance to this side of his genius . None so unmistakably bears the stamp of that ‘inextinguishable hatred of oppression’ which was among the strongest and noblest elements of his strangely blended nature .
L’ÉCONOMIE POLITIQUE AND LE CONTRAT SOCIAL (GENEVA MS. AND FINAL VERSION)
In the Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau had pointedly declined to ‘enter on an enquiry into the nature of the social Contract,’ and excused himself on the ground that the task ‘needs to be done afresh from the beginning .’ This was the problem reserved for the next group of his writings; and the Contrat social, in the two versions which have come down to us, contains, among many other things, the solution of it which he had carefully thought out.
Of the Économie politique (1755), which must have been written about the same time as the earlier parts of the first draft of the Contrat social, it is unnecessary to speak in detail; the more so, as the original Contract, though tacitly assumed as the foundation of all Government, is never explicitly defined. In all other respects—there is one exception which will be duly noted in its proper place —the Économie politique anticipates step by step the argument of the more famous treatise which followed. The doctrine of the ‘corporate self’ (le moi commun ) and of the ‘general will’ which serves as its organ ; the doctrine of the Law as, in the strictest sense, the expression, the living voice, of the general will ; the doctrine of Sovereignty ; the analogy between the State and the animal organism —in short, all the more abstract ideas which lie at the root of the Contrat social are here, summarily perhaps in some cases, but yet quite definitely, forestalled.
We may pass, therefore, at once to the Contrat social; and, except for special reasons, the difference between the two drafts of it—differences which, in fact, hardly extend beyond the cancelling of two important chapters —will be rigorously ignored.
The Contrat social was published in 1762, seven years after the Économie politique. Much of it may have been—parts of it, including in all probability the two chapters finally suppressed, certainly were—written at a much earlier date . But the exact truth on this point is now beyond our reach. And, with the exception of those two chapters, the question is fortunately of no great importance. Antiquarian discussions here sink into the background. The significance of the book lies entirely in its matter: in its speculative originality and in the vast influence which, both directly and indirectly, it has exercised upon the subsequent course of thought.
This influence, like that of the author’s work as a whole, has told in two different, indeed in two contrary, directions. The opening chapters, with their assumption that no Government can be lawful which was not in the first instance set up with the free consent of each individual concerned, gave a fresh life to the individualism which the main argument of the book was destined to destroy. Until the Contract is made—such is the tenor of the opening pages—the individual, ‘stupid and limited animal’ as he is, is unchallenged lord of his own fate. And it is only by his own spontaneous act that his independence can be lost. But throughout the rest of the treatise all this is forgotten. From the moment the Contract is concluded, the individual ceases to be his own master. His life, his will, his very individuality are merged in those of the community. He is as much lost in the communal self as the member is in the body. He has no longer the independent value of an unit. He has become a mere fraction whose worth is determined solely by its relation to the whole .
That these doctrines are necessarily inconsistent with each other, there is no need to maintain. That is question which will have to be considered later. All that concerns us here is that they are manifestly drawn from different sources and represent wholly different strains of feeling and of thought. The one is individualist in character, the other strongly, not to say defiantly, collectivist. But, different as they are, each has left its mark upon the upheaval which came after. The former of them prevailed during the opening phases of the Revolution. It was the ideal of the National Assembly and of the ’spontaneous anarchy’ which gave that Assembly at once its irresistible strength and its incurable weakness. The later and more terrible phases of the struggle saw the triumph of the latter. It was the necessity, if not the ideal, of the Convention. In a distorted form, it was the ideal of the Jacobins. It was the ideal, above all, of Robespierre and Saint-Just.
Each of the two parties to that conflict, individualists as well as collectivists, appealed to the Contrat social. But the men who drew up the Declaration of Rights thought only of the opening pages of the treatise; they thought still more of the second Discourse. The Jacobins, on the other hand, appealed to the body of the work. And, whatever their aberrations, they had at least the merit of grasping that here, and not in the preparatory chapters, was to be found the real message of the treatise, its true claim to originality. The glosses they put upon the text were un warrantable. By no man would they have been repudiated more vehemently than by the author . But the text itself was sound, as well as authentic. And it had the supreme importance attaching to a new principle; a principle in the light of which the whole fabric of European polity was to be recast.
When we turn to the book itself, the first thing to strike us is that we are at last face to face with the question of Right. In the earlier writings—and this applies even to the Économie politique—that question had either been left in the background, or deliberately set aside. Here for the first time it is put in the forefront of the argument. The very title of the work—Du Contrat social, ou Principes de Droit politique —proclaims that the author has thrown away the scabbard and is ready to do battle for the Right. It is the former part of the title, in truth, which is open to objection; and it is a thousand pities that Rousseau did not replace it, as at one moment he intended to do, by the neutral phrase, De la société civile . A ‘Contract’ could not fail to suggest to his readers, it has in fact universally suggested, that his theory is no more than a variant upon Locke’s. And that is the very last inference that he should have desired to see drawn. So far from adopting the principles of Locke, he is in full revolt against them. The very Contracts of the two writers—not to speak of the ultimate consequences involved in each of them—are about as different as two things can possibly be. Yet the mischief, however fatal, is now done beyond recall. And the determined foe of individualism is still, after five generations, labelled as its champion through thick and thin. Other things, no doubt, have contributed to this misapprehension. But an ill-judged and picturesque title must bear no small part of the blame.
Principles of political Right—that, then, is the real subject of the Contrat social. And setting out to discover the foundations of Right, Rousseau naturally begins by sweeping away the false foundations laid by his predecessors, which can only end in wrong .
Civil society, he argues, is not an offshoot of the Family, though the Family may perhaps have served, in the first instance, for its model . Still less is it the creation of force, whether that force take the shape of apparently peaceful influence (as in the Discours sur l’inégalité), or of actual conquest by the sword. Such force may exist in fact. It may form the basis of many Governments known to history or the experience of the present. But it can never constitute a Right, nor form the basis on which Right may subsequently be built up. Moreover, it is as shifting as it is unjust. And that being so, it cannot serve as a permanent foundation for anything, not even for a wrong. Nor, even when we confine ourselves to the region of fact, can it ever explain the formation of the most primitive societies; the transition, if for the moment we may anticipate matters, from the natural to the civil state.
So far, Rousseau is merely summarising the results he had already reached in the Essay on the state of War, and in one of the two cancelled chapters of the first draft of the present treatise . In what follows, except in so far as it coincides with the Économie politique, he is breaking entirely fresh ground .
These ‘false bonds of social union’ being thus disposed of, the only one that remains is the free consent of those who join to make it. In other words, civil society is the offspring of convention, or it is nothing .
Convention, however, in all its senses implies a contrast with what exists outside of it: in this case, a contrast with what may conveniently be called the state of nature. Of the state of nature Rousseau, who had known all about it when he wrote the second Discourse, can now tell us nothing. It has become a mere blank, the purely logical negative of the civil state. Even on the steps which led to the abandonment of it he is studiously vague. ‘I suppose men brought to the point at which the obstacles which make it difficult for them to remain in the state of nature carry the day over the forces which each individual can bring to bear, so as to maintain himself in that state. That being so, it is impossible that the primitive state should continue; and mankind would perish, if their way of life were not entirely changed .’ Clearly, that does not tell us much. And Rousseau was at least as well aware of this as we.
The resources of the individual being thus exhausted, it is plain that the only hope left lies in an association of many: an association so complete as to enable them jointly to overcome the disruptive forces against which each singly was powerless to contend. Hence the necessity of the civil state and of the social compact which, in right if not in fact , is the only possible foundation for it. But the question at once arises: How is it possible to reconcile the mutual concessions, indispensable to any joint action of the whole body, with the maintenance of the liberty which is essential to the well-being of the individual members? ‘This difficulty may be stated as follows: How can we find a form of association which shall enlist the forces of the whole community for the protection of the person and goods of each associate? and in virtue of which each, uniting with all, shall in spite of this obey no one but himself, and remain as free as he was before? Such is the crucial problem, the solution of which is given by the social Contract .
‘The clauses of this Contract,’ Rousseau continues, ‘are so completely determined by the nature of the act that the smallest deviation would make them null and void. Hence, although they may never have been formally declared, they are everywhere the same; everywhere tacitly admitted and recognised, until the moment when, the social pact being broken, each individual re-enters upon his primitive rights and resumes his natural freedom, thus losing the conventional freedom for the sake of which he had renounced it.
‘These clauses, properly understood, reduce themselves to a single one; that is, the total surrender (aliénation totale) of each associate with all his rights to the community at large.... If then we put aside all that is not of the essence of the Contract, we shall find that it reduces itself to the following terms: Each of us throws himself and all his powers into the common stock, under the supreme control of the general will; and, as a body , we receive each individual member as an inseparable part of the whole.
‘At that very instant and in virtue of this act of association, the individual self of each contracting member is replaced by a moral and corporate body, composed of as many members as the Assembly contains votes. And from the same act this collective body receives its unity, its corporate self (son moi commun), its life and its will .’
All that is left is to provide a sanction for this formidable instrument. And the only sanction possible is force: the united force of the community as a whole. ‘In order that the social compact may not prove an empty formula, it includes the tacit undertaking that, whoever refuses to obey the general will, shall be compelled to obedience by the whole body of citizens. But this means nothing more than that they will force him to be free .’
Such, according to Rousseau, is the fateful act upon which the whole subsequent destiny of man necessarily depends. The effects of it are far-reaching indeed. And they are at least as much moral as political. The paragraph in which Rousseau describes the former is perhaps the most crucial in the whole treatise: ‘The passage from the state of nature to the civil state brings about a momentous change in man. In his conduct, it replaces instinct by justice, and gives to his acts a moral character which was wanting to them before. The voice of duty takes the place of physical impulse; right supplants appetite. Now for the first time, man, who hitherto had thought only of himself, sees himself forced to act on other principles, and to consult his reason before listening to his desires. It is true that, in the civil state, he deprives himself of many advantages which he holds from nature. But, in return, he gains advantages so great, his faculties are so trained and developed, his ideas so enlarged, his whole soul exalted to such a degree, that, if the abuses of the new order did not often degrade him below the level of that from which he has escaped, he ought without ceasing to bless the happy moment which tore him for ever from the old order, and which, of a stupid and limited animal, made him a reasoning being and a man ’
There is a page in the first draft which takes the same thought from the negative side, and expresses it yet more vividly and precisely. The author is here seeking to prove that there can at no time have been a ‘general society of the human race’; a society, that is, not cemented by any civil bond or positive compact, but held together solely by mutual good will; the kind of society, in short, which is assumed in Locke’s version of the state of nature. His conclusion is that such a society, even had it been possible, would have been wanting in the best things that civil society, as we know it, has to offer.
‘More than that. This perfect independence, this unchartered freedom, even had it never ceased to go hand in hand with primitive innocence, would always have suffered from an inherent flaw, a flaw fatal to the growth of our highest faculties: namely, the lack of that bond between the parts which constitutes the unity of the whole. The earth might be covered with men, but among them there would be hardly any communication. We might touch each other at point after point, and find union in none. Each would remain isolated among the others; each would think only of himself. Our understanding could never develope. We should live without any feeling, and die without having lived. Our whole happiness would consist in not knowing our misery. There would be neither kindness in our hearts, nor morality in our acts. We should never have tasted the sweetest feeling of which the soul is capable: that is, the love of virtue .’
The upshot of both passages is that neither reason, nor the moral law, is to be realised by man except in and through the civil state. It is a conclusion which few readers can have expected from the author of the second Discourse.
But, if the moral consequences of the Contract are momentous, no less so are those which we are apt to regard as distinctively political. Henceforth the individual self of man is replaced by the ‘corporate self’; his individual will by the ‘general will’ of the community as a whole . By the ‘general will,’ Rousseau is careful to explain that he does not mean the sum of the individual wills taken separately; but the corporate will which, from the nature of the case, belongs to a body having a common life, an organised being, of its own . It is not invariably—it is seldom most clearly—to be discerned by the mere process of counting heads . It implies a collective consciousness—more than that, a public spirit—leavening and giving unity to the whole mass. He may not always be consistent in working out this conception . But it is clear that, when he is true to himself, this is what he is striving to express. Indeed, once accept the idea of the ‘corporate self,’ and that of the ‘general will,’ as at once the inward unity and the specific organ of this new self, necessarily follows.
But the will is no will unless it takes shape in act. And the act of the political will, as can be seen from the English term ‘Act of Parliament,’ is nothing more nor less than a law. The Law, accordingly, is the outward expression of the general will, or it is nothing. The moment it ceases to be so, the moment either the will which enacts it, or the end to which it is directed, ceases to be general, it becomes nothing better than a fraud .
From this conception of the general will and of the Law, as its embodiment, results a practical consequence of the last importance. It is that the right of framing the Law belongs of necessity to the whole body of citizens; that the smallest exclusion—there is no talk here of voluntary abstention—is enough to invalidate the result. In other words, no political society can be held legitimate which is not based on the sovereignty of the people. The sense in which Rousseau understood this principle must be held over for later consideration .
So far, we have spoken about the Law, as if the manner of its first establishment were self-evident. That, however, is far from being the case. Whatever time we may suppose to have passed between the making of the Contract and the first beginnings of settled Law, it is manifest that, until the latter step is taken, the community is still quite unformed; that its members cannot be very far removed from the ’stupid and limited animals’ of the state of nature. How, then, can they hope to accomplish a task which would be none too easy for the wisest and most experienced of sages? ‘How can blind multitude, which often does not know its own mind because it seldom knows its own interest, carry out in its own strength an enterprise so vast and intricate as that of legislation?’ The question seems to defy an answer. The terms of the problem appear to carry with them a contradiction from which it is impossible to escape. In order to solve it, ‘the effect,’ we are driven to say, ‘would have to become the cause; the civic spirit, which is to be the result of the legislation, would have to inspire the legislation itself; all the associates would have to be before the Law that which they can only become by and through the Law.’ Nothing short of a miracle can reconcile these contradictions. And for this miracle, Rousseau invokes the Lawgiver—a highly idealised version of Moses, Solon and Lycurgus; a Social Contract incarnate in the flesh .
‘The Lawgiver,’ he writes, ‘must feel himself in a position to change the nature of man; to transform each individual, who in himself is a self-contained and isolated whole, into part of a larger whole, from which he receives, in some sense, his life and his being. He must feel himself able to alter the constitution of man, with a view to giving it greater strength; to put a dependent and moral existence in place of the independent and physical existence which we have received from nature. In a word, he must take from man his natural powers, in order to give him powers which are foreign to him, and of which he can make no use without the help of others. The more completely those natural powers are mortified and annihilated, the greater is the strength and durability of those which he acquires; the more solid and perfect, moreover, is the work of the Lawgiver. It follows that, if the individual citizen is nothing and can do nothing without the aid of all the rest, if the powers acquired by the whole body are equal or superior to the sum of the powers belonging by nature to all the individual members, then we are entitled to say that the legislation has reached the highest point of perfection which it can attain .’
This account of the matter presents two difficulties of which it is necessary to take notice. The first of them is this: What is the relation of the Lawgiver to the ordinary machinery of government? how are his functions to be reconciled with the sovereignty of the people? On the answer to this question Rousseau does not hesitate for a moment. The work of the Lawgiver, however commanding his genius, can never become law until it is freely accepted by the community as a body. The sovereignty of the people is a principle which can never be set aside, least of all at a moment when the whole future destiny of the people is at stake. ‘The people has no power to lay aside or transfer its rights, even if it wished to do so. For by the original compact it is only the general will that can bind the individual. And there is no assurance that the general will is represented by the will of the Lawgiver, until the matter has been submitted to a free vote of the people, as a whole .‘ The Lawgiver, in short, is a kind of cross between a medieval Podestà and a modern constitutional minister, between one of Carlyle’s heroes and an ‘old parliamentary hand.’
The other difficulty is, at first sight, less serious; but it has an important bearing on the central idea of the whole treatise. At what time in the history of a people does the Lawgiver commonly appear? In what relation does his work stand to the original Contract? Rousseau assumes throughout that a long time, perhaps many ages, must pass between the Contract and the work of legislation . But he tells us nothing of the conditions which prevail in the interval. And, but for his explicit statement to the contrary, we should naturally have supposed the one event to follow immediately upon the other. It is obvious, indeed, that the two things are inseparable from each other; that the earlier without the later is an empty form of speech. The very words in which the work of the Lawgiver is described are almost the same as those applied elsewhere to the Contract . And on Rousseau’s own shewing, he is there solely to bestow pith and substance on the Contract, to give reality to the changes which, as we now learn, the Contract was only able to foreshadow. ‘The Contract,’ he tells us, ‘gave life and being to the body politic; it is for the Lawgiver to endow it with will and motion .’ But, without will and motion, it is hard to say what ‘life’ a body can claim. Again, Rousseau explicitly assures us that ‘the laws, properly speaking, are nothing more nor less than the terms of political association .’ And what are we to say of an association, the terms of which are drawn up centuries after the association itself has been formed? The truth is that this is one of the instances in which Rousseau has been led astray by the desire to square a theory, which in its essence was ideal and abstract, with certain concrete and historical facts. The Social Contract, so far at least as its fundamental principles are concerned, is a ‘pattern laid up in the heavens .’ It has nothing to do with considerations of time and place. Its argument is concerned not with what is, but with what ought to be. It does not gain, but lose, by reminiscences of Solon and Lycurgus, of William the Silent or of Calvin.
In one respect, however, the incongruity is significant. With the Lawgiver, as we shall see directly, Rousseau reaches the turning-point of his argument. In the Lawgiver he finds the wonder-working magician who takes command of the host at the parting of the ways; whose mission it is to lead man from the ideal to the actual, to guide him from the abstract principle to its practical application. With this necessity in his mind, he allows himself—most unfortunately, it must be admitted—to forestall the future, to introduce outward facts and circumstances at one stage earlier than, by good rights, the argument allowed. The new actor is brought upon the scene a moment or two sooner than his cue directed, and those who held the stage before him are inevitably thrown out.
In any case, with the appearance of the Lawgiver a new page of the argument is opened; a wholly new range of thought—that suggested by Esprit des lois—is spread before us. Up to this point, Rousseau had rigidly limited himself (as his title, if strictly interpreted, required that he should) to principles of Right. He now turns, though he by no means confines himself, to confines himself, to considerations of circumstance and expediency. Hitherto he had dealt solely with the abstract conditions of the problem. Henceforth he is ready to reckon with the qualifications imposed upon them by outward conditions of time and place, of racial character and historical tradition. The influence of Montesquieu is writ large upon the remainder of the treatise; but nowhere more clearly than in the chapters which define the task and methods of the Lawgiver.
‘Before putting up a large building’—such are the opening words of this section—‘the architect observes and tests the ground, to discover whether it will bear the weight. In the same way, the wise Lawgiver begins not by framing laws good in themselves, but by asking himself whether the nation for which they are destined is capable of bearing them .’ It is not the business of the Lawgiver, he had said in an earlier writing, to lay down a code of abstract justice. ‘If that were all, the veriest novice of a law-student could draw up a code of morals as pure as that of Plato. That, however, is not the only question. His real task is to adapt his code so completely to the nation for which it is framed’ that obedience follows almost of itself. ‘It is, as Solon saw, to impose on the nation not so much the laws that are best in themselves as those which are the best it can bear in the given conditions .’ The conditions in question are partly those of soil and climate; partly the extent of the given territory and the size of its population; above all, the national character, whether inborn, or the outcome of present circumstances and of past history . All these must be taken into account by the Lawgiver; and to do so requires consummate wisdom and insight, as well as an exalted ideal. It is for lack of these qualifications—particularly, perhaps, the two former—that so many rulers have gone wrong. Peter the Great, for instance, ‘saw that his people were barbarous; he failed to see that they were not ripe for refinement (la police). He attempted to civilise them, when he ought to have rested content with hardening them to war. He strove to make Germans and English of them straight away, when he ought to have begun by making them Russians....His genius was imitative, not the true genius which creates a world out of nothing .’ It is a shrewd thrust; and when we remember the adulation lavished first on Peter, then on Catherine, by the philosophers, it is one highly creditable to the sturdy bent of Rousseau’s character and intellect .
There is no need to dwell longer upon the wider aspects of this argument; the less so, because the subsequent course of thought has made them common property to all. But this must in no way make us forget that more than one third of the Contrat social is devoted to this sort of consideration, and that to ignore the part which it plays in Rousseau’s theory is a fatal error. We pass at once, therefore, to the special applications given to these principles by Rousseau; and in particular to what he says of the various forms of Government, and of the conditions by which the choice of the Lawgiver, in deciding between them, should be guided.
Before entering on the subject, it is well to remind the reader that Rousseau distinguishes sharply between Sovereignty and Government. Put baldly, it is the difference between the Legislative and the Executive. The former, according to Rousseau, belongs, and in all rightful forms of Government must necessarily belong, to the community as a whole . The latter may be lodged in the hands of all, or of some, or of one—it may be a democracy, or an aristocracy, or a monarchy—as circumstances, or historical accident, may happen to decide . In Governments originally founded on the feudal model, this distinction is unfortunately obscured. In England, for instance, the term ‘Sovereign’ is legally applied to the chief executive officer, and to him alone. But the question where the real Sovereignty—that is, the ultimate controlling power—resides in such cases, is left wholly untouched by such legal technicalities.
The distinction so drawn is enough of itself to prepare us for Rousseau’s main line of argument in this crucial section of his work. So long as the sovereignty of the people is preserved—so long as the legislative power, which is the badge and seal of that sovereignty, is left solely in their hands—the specific form of Government, be it democracy, monarchy, or aristocracy, is a matter of indifference. It is a question to be decided by circumstances, and by nothing else. In theory, all alike are compatible with the sovereignty of the people. And though, as the conventioual use of the term ’sovereign’ implies, the monarch is in practice more often absolute than not, still there may be cases—in his softer moments, Rousseau might have been willing to admit that the England even of his day was such a case—in which the monarch himself has to bow to the legislative power of those who all the time are officially called his subjects .
All forms then being, at least in theory, alike legitimate, we are naturally led to ask: To which, if any, is the preference to be given? and, if given, on what grounds? The ground of Right, with the one limitation just mentioned, has already been excluded. To base our answer upon it is to misunderstand the first principles of the subject. And that being so, the only test left is expediency—adaptation to circumstances which inevitably vary from case to case .
Judged by this test, Democracy, in the unusual sense which Rousseau attaches to the term, is condemned as placing demands on human nature greater than, under ordinary circumstances, are likely to be made good. If Democracy means, as it is here taken to mean, that form of polity in which the actual administration is in the hands of all, where shall the wisdom be found equal to such a task? and where the public spirit? A multitude is liable to be swept by gusts of passion; it is almost certain therefore to commit acts of folly and injustice. It is still more certain to leave the actual management of affairs to a small handful of its members. In that case, the Government manifestly ceases to be a democracy in anything more than name. In all probability it becomes a shifting sea of factions, which struggle among themselves for mastery and ultimately plunge the community into civil war. The very theoretical virtues of this form of government are its practical defects. ‘If there were a nation of gods, its form of Government would be democratic. So perfect a Government is not adapted for men .’
The dangers of Monarchy are even greater and more certain. If elective, it will commonly lead to faction and corruption. If hereditary, the best of monarchs is always liable to be succeeded by the worst, the weakest and most foolish. Nay, in such a post even ability has its dangers. An ambitious king finds himself too big for the position he has inherited; ‘he causes as much misery to his people by the abuse of his talents as a fool or sluggard by the want of them.’ Even apart from the certain recurrence of these inconveniences, there are two evils of the first magnitude from which Monarchy cannot possibly escape. The first is that this form of Government is suitable only for large States. And large States are almost invariably ill-governed. The best of rulers in such a State is compelled to govern mainly by deputy; and we know what a monarch’s deputies are likely to be. Moreover, large as his dominions may be, he always desires to make them larger yet. The result is that the evil is constantly on the increase; and the more it increases, the more does the control of the people—and that is essential not only to all good, but to all legitimate government—become an empty name. A further result is that the monarch is for ever plunging his people into war. ‘And war is, with tyranny, one of the two worst scourges of mankind .’
The second evil is yet graver; it is also still more inevitable. Experience teaches us that all monarchs alike desire to make themselves absolute. And if a sage assures them that it is against their own interest to do so, they laugh him to scorn. ‘Even the best king wishes to have the power of doing harm, if the whim seizes him, without ceasing to be master. His personal interest is always to see his people weak and miserable; in short, utterly powerless to resist him.’ By the former evil, the sovereignty of the people is reduced to a mockery. By the latter, it is openly assaulted, and must eventually be destroyed .
For these reasons, it is impossible to award the preference either to Monarchy, or Democracy; though either of them may find ample justification in the circumstances of a given case. The only form of Government yet left is Aristocracy; and it is evident that here, if anywhere, the working ideal is to be found. ‘There are three kinds of Aristocracy: natural (i.e. that of age), elective and hereditary. The first is suitable only to primitive communities. The third is the worst of all forms of Government. The second is the best; it is Aristocracy in the true sense of the term .’
Aristocracy, in this form, has the following advantages. It distinguishes sharply between the executive and the legislative power. It lodges the former in the hands of a few, chosen freely by their fellow-citizens on account of their talents and virtue. It retains the latter in the hands of the whole body of citizens; and in addition reserves to them a general, though not a detailed, control over the acts of the Executive. Few, if any, of these merits can be claimed either for Monarchy or Democracy. It is certain that all of them together meet in Aristocracy alone. It is to Aristocracy therefore that the Lawgiver will assign the preference, whenever circumstances permit .
It will be observed that by Aristocracy Rousseau means what we should commonly call Democracy . It is, in short, nothing more nor less than Cabinet Government: with this difference, that the Cabinet is appointed not by Monarch or President, but by the whole body of citizens; that it is responsible not to an assembly of Representatives, but to the people as a whole; and that the people which conferred the power may revoke it at will . What may have been his motive for this curious, and not very happy, use of terms, it is not possible to say for certain. It may have been a desire to veil the boldness of his conclusions from the arbitrary Governments of the day. It may have been a wish to humour the susceptibilities of the Genevan authorities, who might be shy of hearing their constitution described as ‘democratic.’ If these were his intentions, they were doomed to a speedy disappointment. The Contrat social was prohibited in France . It was assigned as one of the grounds for the Decree of Arrest launched against the author by the Government of Geneva; and, with Émile, it was burned by the hands of the common hangman . What is certain is that, in the Lettres de la Montagne—written after he had renounced membership of his native city—he habitually describes the constitution of Geneva, his professed ideal , as a ‘democracy ’; and that, in his notable letter to Mirabeau (July 26, 1767), he speaks of the principles of the Contrat social as being those of an ‘austere democracy .’ He would have avoided confusion, if he had used the same term in the Contrat social itself.
With the discussion of the various forms of Government, the main argument of the Contrat social comes to an end. The rest of this, the third Book, is taken up either with a reinforcement of first principles from particular points of view, or with a statement of certain practical consequences which Rousseau has specially at heart. With the former we need hardly concern ourselves. Of the latter, three may be taken out, not only on account of their intrinsic importance, but also for the searching light they throw upon the author’s political ideas.
The first is that ‘the institution of Government is not a contract’ between the governors and the governed; that, on the contrary, it is a purely fiduciary act; and that, like the appointment of trustees under a private will, it may therefore be revoked at any moment, at the pleasure of the appointer. This is manifestly directed against Locke and his disciples .
The second conclusion is that government by Representatives is radically vicious and illegitimate; that it is an ‘absurd’ relic of the feudal system and, like the rest of that system, ‘degrading to humanity’; that it involves a surrender of the popular sovereignty which no plea of convenience can justify. This is a direct blow at the English ideals which were already becoming fashionable among the amateur politicians of France . It marks a rebellion also against the authority of Montesquieu .
The third corollary—already anticipated in Rousseau’s criticism of Monarchy, and further forestalled in the preceding argument—is that the small State is infinitely preferable to the large; that, ’so far as I can see, it is impossible, under present conditions, for the Sovereign to preserve its rights, unless its numbers are very small’; unless—as the Geneva Manuscript puts it still more trenchantly—‘the State is limited to a single town, at the very most .’ This leads straight to the doctrine of Federation, which the author had at one time intended to treat at length. But his views on this subject, if ever written, have now, by the treachery of a friend, been irrecoverably lost . In this matter, as in his assault on individualism, Rousseau was a pioneer.
The fourth Book of the Contrat social is in the nature of an appendix. With the exception of the last Chapter, it is almost entirely devoted to historical illustrations of the ideas expounded in the main body of the treatise. And these are drawn, with few exceptions, from the history of the Roman Republic—‘the best government there has ever been .’
The closing Chapter, which we know to have been an after-thought, is the famous—and, in one sense, most unfortunate—discourse on Civil Religion. But, however much we may deplore its practical conclusions, the ideas which lie behind them are full of significance and instruction. It is a misfortune that the inferences drawn from them by the author, and carried into act by Robespierre, should inevitably have tended to discredit them.
LEADING IDEAS OF THE CONTRAT SOCIAL, AS AN ABSTRACT THEORY
We pass now to consider the leading ideas of the Contrat social; but the leading ideas only. All that is necessary to say may be grouped under three heads: the Contract itself, and the whole chain of ideas attaching to it; the relation of the principles of Right, as conceived by Rousseau, to considerations of expediency; and lastly—but this will be reserved for a separate section—the chief practical applications given by Rousseau to the speculative principles which lie at the root of the whole treatise.
The doctrine of Contract was a commonplace among the philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But Rousseau, like Hobbes before him, gave it an entirely fresh turn. To his predecessors, with one exception, it had served as the corner-stone of individualism. To him—as, in an utterly different way, to Hobbes—it forms the porch to a collectivism as absolute as the mind of man has ever conceived. This is the assumption of the Économie politique. In the Contrat social he sets himself to prove it by every argument at his command.
With the opening sentence, indeed, we seem for the moment to be back again at the second Discourse; at no great distance, perhaps, from the Civil Government of Locke. ‘Man was born free; and everywhere he is in chains .’ What could promise better for an individualist theory than this? But the very next sentence is enough to dispel the illusion. ‘Such an one believes himself to be the master of others, when all the time he is as much of a slave as they.’ It is clear that we have passed suddenly from ‘freedom’ in the abstract and political sense to ‘freedom’—or ’slavery’—in the concrete and moral sense; from mere naked independence to the state of the man who ought to be a ‘law unto himself,’ but is, in fact, a slave to his own passions and, by an inevitable consequence, to the will of others . And this transition, however little we may defend its suddenness, furnishes the key to the whole treatise. Throughout, the idea of independence is replaced by that of freedom from ignorance and brutishness. Throughout, it is not a negative goal, the mere absence of restraint, but the positive one of moral discipline, of which Rousseau is in search. The freedom which he desires, as the result of the Contract, is in truth the very opposite of that which formed the ideal of Locke. And that is the reason why, when its terms are examined, his Contract is seen to have nothing but the name in common with the Contract of Locke.
The importance of this initial difference is hardly to be over-rated. To Locke—still more, to later individualists—politics are entirely divorced from morals, or indeed from any spiritual need of man. The individual leads his life—moral, religious and intellectual—wholly to himself. All the State does is to provide the machinery which shall enable him to do so; or rather, to remove from his path the obstacles which might let and hinder him from doing so. The State is something wholly external to his life; it never touches the inner springs of his being. The result is that the life of the State is emptied of all that has any vital interest for man. All that makes his life worth living is rigidly excluded from its ken. All action on the part of the State, beyond the bare protection of life and property, is regarded with the bitterest suspicion. ‘Government,’ wrote Paine, ‘even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one .’ And this accurately reflects the feeling which lies at the heart of every individualist.
Contrast this with Rousseau’s view of the relation between the individual and the State. Here the conditions are exactly reversed. It is the individual who is here empty of all definite content; of all that saves man, as we know him, from being as ’stupid and limited’ as the beasts. It is in the State alone that he acquires his intelligence, his sense of Right and duty: in one word, all that constitutes his humanity. It is there only that he ‘becomes a reasoning being and a man.’ And the Chapter from which this description is drawn closes with words which bring us back to the point from which we started. ‘To the gains conferred by the civil state must be added that of his moral freedom. And it is this alone which makes him master of himself. For the promptings of mere appetite’—and he had just said that they are man’s only motive in the state of nature—‘are slavery; and obedience to the law which we impose on ourselves is what constitutes freedom .’
It needs but a slight acquaintance with the history of philosophy to see that these words involve nothing less than a revolution in political speculation. For the last two centuries, one thinker after another—all of them under the spell of individualist assumptions—had been in search of a principle which should make politics wholly independent of ethics. It is not the least of Rousseau’s services to have abandoned this, as a false scent, and to have cast back to the sounder doctrine of Aristotle and Plato. Thirty years later, both Kant and Fichte—doubtless, in a spirit very different from that of their forerunners—were still engaged in the same unprofitable quest. Had they but taken to heart the teaching of the Contrat social, they might have spared them-selves the trouble .
So far, then, the argument of Rousseau is beyond reproach. It is, in fact, a restatement, in his own terms and with his own implications, of the Greek principle: ‘Man is by nature a political animal.’ And it would have been well if the rest of the argument had been carried out in the same vein. The misfortune is that this was impossible for Rousseau. He brought to it a mind charged and clogged with ideas which no skill could reconcile with it. These were the idea of an original state of nature and the idea of a Contract as, both in fact and in Right, the only way of escape from it. Both ideas were a bequest from Locke and the individualists. Both entangled him once more in the individualist system from which he was struggling to shake free.
In handling these ideas, had he confined himself to the ground of fact, no great harm might have been done. Even granted that the ‘civil state’ is a state indispensable—and therefore, in a very real sense, natural—to man, it is not absolutely impossible that there may have been a stage in his history at which that state had not yet come into being, and during which there was no bond of connection, still less of fellowship, between one individual and another. In the Discours sur l’inégalité, Rousseau had already—avowedly as a mere hypothesis—indicated the steps by which this isolation of man from man might imperceptibly have passed into some rude form of political association. And other hypotheses of the same sort might readily be suggested; they might easily have found acceptance with Rousseau himself. Nor, so long as either accident or some form of force, veiled or open, is conceived as the moving cause of such a change—so long, that is, as all ideas of Right are rigidly excluded—is there any great objection to such historical, or legendary, speculations. In the Contrat social, however, Rousseau is no longer content with grounds of fact, actual or hypothetical. Nothing will now satisfy him but that the change must be based on ideas of Right. It is to provide a foundation of Right for the State that he has recourse to the Contract. For the Contract is a guarantee of free consent on the part of the citizens; or, as Rousseau more accurately puts it, of the ‘associates .’ And from first to last the assumption is that, unless such consent be given at the outset, the State is for ever debarred from resting upon Right.
It is doubtless true, as Rousseau urges , that this account of the matter, if otherwise sound, does provide a solid basis for Right. The misfortune is that it raises many more difficulties than it solves. In the first place, it is at glaring variance with the facts, so far as we know them. In the second place, if the Contract is to have binding power—and unless that be the case, where is the use of making it?—there must obviously be some sanction behind it. But in this case, no sanction is possible except either force, or a sense of moral obligation. The former, as Rousseau himself insists, must be excluded at once. It is, in his view, the direct antithesis of Right; it is therefore impossible that it can ever serve as the basis of Right . The only sanction left is that of moral obligation. And that too, as a little reflection will shew, has been effectually barred out by Rousseau.
In the first draft of the Contrat social, the conception of ‘natural Society’ and, with it, of ‘natural Law’—the conception so dear to the individualists and so essential to their plea—had been expressly repudiated . And though the Chapter in question is cancelled in the final version, there is nothing to shew that the author had withdrawn from this position. On the contrary, everything points to the opposite conclusion. When he speaks of man in the state of nature as being entirely devoid of ‘reason, duty, justice and humanity,’ he is merely saying the same thing in other words .
Now it is obvious that any sanction on which the Contract is to rest must be acknowledged as binding at the moment of its conclusion. But we have it from Rousseau’s own lips that, at the time when the Contract is made, man is entirely lacking in all that constitutes the moral sense. And that can only mean that he is incapable of recognising any moral obligation. The moral sanction, therefore, falls to the ground, as that of brute force had done before it. And the Contract is left with no sanction what-soever. It might just as well have never been made.
The strange thing is that, in another of his writings, Rousseau virtually makes this admission; or rather, by doing so in a parallel case, he leaves us no choice but to apply his argument to the present instance for ourselves. The passage referred to occurs in Émile, where he denounces the folly of exacting promises from children, which he considers to be merely a means of entrapping them into ‘le mensonge de droit.’ ‘This lie,’ he continues, ‘is still less natural than the last (‘le mensonge de fait’). For all promises to do, or to abstain from doing, are acts of convention. They take us out of the state of nature; they are an infringement of liberty. More than that: all promises made by children are, by their very nature, null and void. The outlook of children is limited, and cannot reach beyond the moment. When they pledge themselves, they do not know what they are about .’
It will be noticed that two arguments are here brought forward against the validity of promises made under such conditions. One is that every promise is an ‘act of convention,’ and therefore cannot have any binding force on those who, when they make it, are in the state of nature. The other is that all promises made by those who ‘cannot look beyond the moment are, by their very nature, null and void.’ Each of these arguments applies, and applies with yet greater force, to the case before us. The social Contract is still more manifestly than the child’s promise an ‘act of convention,’ and it is made by those who are still more mani-festly in the state of nature. And if all promises made by children are, by their very nature, null and void, what are we to say of promises made by those whom the author himself describes as ’stupid and limited animals’? It is evident that the capacity of such beings must be yet more limited than that of children; that they must be in a worse position even than children for ‘knowing what they are about.’ A contract made under such conditions is clearly no better than a fraud. And any state of things which results from it is a state founded not upon Right, but upon deception, and consequently upon wrong.
Thus on Rousseau’s own shewing, the Contract and the state of nature are only disturbing elements in his theory of Right. There was nothing to gain, and everything to lose, by their importation. Historically, they are, to say the least, improbable. Logically, as he now admits, they are not only unavailing, but destructive. He was right in thinking that, unless the individual will is subordinated, and freely so, to the general will, the State, as we now know it, is impossible. He was wrong in supposing that this subordination could ever be the result of a single and conscious act; much more, the act of men who, up to the moment of its accomplishment, were wholly undisciplined and unhumanised. He was right in holding that the civil state, in some form, is essential to the moral life of man, to the existence of even the most rudimentary sense of duty. He was wrong in assuming that either the civil state, or the sense of duty, could ever have sprung to birth in a single moment; that it was possible for them to be anything but the slow growth of time.
Time, however, is just what he is not willing to give. And to him, as to Bacon, and, for that matter to Plato also, ‘time is the great innovator, which impaireth all things.’ The good is always, in his view, the birth of a single moment, the product of a single effort. Directly that moment is passed, that effort completed, time, the enemy, begins his insidious work; and there is nothing to look for but degeneration and decay. Thus all that is salutary in man’s record—the Contract which gave him ‘reason and humanity,’ the Law which gave to that Contract reality and substance—lies wholly outside of the natural order. It is as much a miracle as any that staggered the faith of the Savoy Vicar in the sacred books of Christendom. Nature resumes her work only when the miracle is accomplished. And it is a work of ceaseless hostility and destruction. It is a strange result for the ‘worshipper of nature’ to have reached; an unhappy consequence of his refusal to recognise that if man, in his strength as well as in his weakness, is not a part of nature, he is nothing. Rousseau would have been the first to exclaim against any such judgment on the ways of outward nature; the first to insist that we have here a world of ordered growth, in which miracle has no place. Yet in the world of man, he steadily refuses to see anything but discord and confusion. Wherever these cease, there he traces the hand of some higher power, whose action is beyond reckoning; and whose work, directly his hand is withdrawn, falls a prey to the perversity of man and the corroding spite of time.
Thus, in the case before us, his difficulties are largely of his own making. They depend upon the sharp antithesis between Right and force, which he assumes from the beginning. And, so far as historical origins are concerned, that antithesis is false. In the earlier stages of man’s history the two things are inextricably entangled with each other. Look merely at the outside of things, and it is probable that we shall see little beside brute force. Once get beneath the surface, and it may well be that, behind that brute force, we shall recognise the first crude beginnings of Right, the seed of what has since grown to be the ‘civil state.’ And when conditions are favourable, it has been the task of succeeding ages gradually to strip off the outer rind of force and allow the ’soul of goodness’—of Right and justice—to unfold itself from within. There is no need of Contract, of heaven-sent Lawgiver, or any other form of miracle. The whole thing is a natural process, brought about by human will and human wisdom, working with persistent stubbornness upon material that responds.
Once more, however, there is no one moment at which we can say that force has passed definitely into Right. It is the essence of the process to be imperceptible; and Right is an ideal to be striven for, not a fixed point that can ever be finally attained. In other words, the idea of development is essential to a true theory of Right. And it is because that idea was entirely foreign to his mind that the theory of Rousseau is so imperfect . He persistently conceives of Right as belonging to a golden age—or rather, a golden moment—in the past, rather than as a thing to be slowly realised in the present and future. The advance of man, in his view, is not forwards, but backwards; not progress, but retrogression. We have already traced this tendency, on the moral and intellectual side, in the two Discourses. In the Contrat social it reappears, in application to the State.
The general tendency, then, of Rousseau is to fix an impassable barrier between might and Right; to deny that any community originally founded upon the former can ever hope to raise itself to the latter. And this means that, so far as he is true to his own principle, the test he applies to all governments is not their present beneficence, but their past orthodoxy; that, in Burke’s words, he is always ‘at war with governments not on a question of abuse, but a question of competency and a question of title .’ There is, however, one passage in the first draft of the Contrat social—a passage unfortunately suppressed in the final version—which approaches, though it may not absolutely reach, the sounder view of the matter:
‘All this dispute about the social Compact reduces itself, as it seems to me, to a very simple question: What but their common advantage can have induced men to join of their own will in corporate society? This common advantage, then, is the basis of civil society. That being granted, how can we distinguish between the rightful State and a mere forced aggregation which nothing can justify, but by asking what is the aim or end of the one and of the other? If the form of the community is such as to tend to the common good, then that community will live according to the spirit in which it was founded. If, on the other hand, it has in view nothing but the interest of its chiefs, then, by every right of reason and humanity, it is illegitimate .’
In this passage, if in this only, Rousseau explicitly makes public advantage, l’utilité commune, the end of the State, and he establishes the closest bond between it and Right. Not that he falls into the error, so common since his day, of asserting that, apart from expediency, Right has no existence. So gross a delusion was to him impossible. What he does is to hint, though it may be no more than hint, that Right and expediency stand in the nearest relation to each other. Both are virtually described as the ‘end’ of the civil state. But what the exact relation between them may be, is left wholly undefined. A little reflection might have shewn him that it could be nothing but the relation of the end to its necessary means; of the idea, considered as abstract, to its organic articulation in concrete facts and deeds. That, however, is an inference which he refrains from drawing in words. It is improbable, though not impossible, that it was ever present to his mind. Yet, had he followed out the vein of thought he had here struck upon, he must inevitably have come to this conclusion. And then it is safe to say that his theory of Right would, in some crucial points, have been very different from what it is. The state of nature and the Contract, so far as they bear on the plea of Right, would have vanished from the argument. Had they remained at all, it would have been for the humbler purpose of providing a possible explanation of the way in which, historically speaking, society may have shaped itself out of chaos. So far as these preliminaries are concerned, he would have reverted, more or less closely, to the position of the second Discourse. He would have freed his argument from logical embarrassments of which he was apparently half conscious, but which, for fear of opening the door to tyranny, he never had the courage to face. That, it is only fair to remember, was the real cause which prevented him from following out the above line of thought to its logical conclusion. It was because the Contract seemed to him the one impregnable barrier against tyranny that he was prepared to stake all in its defence.
So much for the difficulties which beset the opening pages of the Contrat social. We now pass to the core of the treatise. We leave the preliminaries of the Contract behind us, and turn to consider the nature of the Contract itself.
The first thing to strike us is the gulf which parts the Contract of Rousseau from that of Locke. And this is no less true of its form than of its matter. The Contract of Locke is an absolutely free contract. Its terms may be indefinitely varied. It is capable, at least in theory, of taking as many shapes as there are communities to make it . That of Rousseau, on the contrary, is a tied contract. Once men have decided to enter upon it, no choice is left as to its terms. ‘They are so completely determined by the nature of the case that the smallest departure from them would make the whole act null and void .’ This amounts to saying that, in the very act of making the Contract, the individual has already laid aside his ‘natural’ liberty, and exchanged it for the ‘moral’ liberty which, from the point of view of individualism, is no liberty at all.
The same difference holds good in respect of matter. To Locke, the Contract is essentially an instrument of individual freedom. Its terms may indeed vary indefinitely with the varying circum-stances out of which it springs. But throughout it is taken for granted that the aim of the individual will always be to give as little power to the community, and to keep as much in his own hands, as he possibly can. It is further assumed as a fundamental principle that no powers belong to the community except such as have been expressly entrusted to it by the individual; that all which have not thus been passed over to it remain, both in fact and of right, in the hands of the individual. It follows from this that the Sovereignty of Locke’s State is avowedly a limited sovereignty; or, to put the same thing otherwise, that in the last resort it is vested in the individual.
With Rousseau, all these conditions are reversed. To him, the Contract is the ‘total surrender’ of the individual. More than this; it is the ‘mutilation,’ the ‘annihilation,’ of his separate personality; its replacement by the corporate personality, the ‘collective self,’ of the community as a whole . Again, in the act of forming the association, the individual reserves, and can reserve, no powers to himself. From the nature of the case, everything—his goods, his rights, his very will—is ‘alienated’ to the State. The Sovereignty of the State is therefore an absolute sovereignty. There neither is, nor can be, any constitutional limit upon its powers .
Thus, while the Contract of Locke is expressly devised to preserve and confirm the rights of the individual, that of Rousseau ends, and is intended to end, in their destruction. By the former, the individual contracts himself into the full exercise of his primitive freedom; or at least, of as much of it as, by the ‘natural law,’ he has any right to possess. By the latter, he deliberately, and for the sake of a greater and higher benefit, contracts himself out of it. The one is a charter of individualism. The other, with certain crucial qualifications to be noted shortly, is an extreme form of collectivism. A more complete contrast it is hardly possible to conceive.
Yet it must never be forgotten that Rousseau himself, like most men of his day, had been brought up on Locke’s theory; and that as the champion of political liberty, as the sworn foe of political tyranny, there was much in it to which he must have been powerfully drawn. What, then, were the motives which impelled him to adopt conclusions so startling in themselves, and so deeply at variance both with his own prejudices and with the dominant convictions of his time?
There can be little doubt that both political and moral causes were at work. And it is significant that, in his mind, the two things were inseparably interwoven. On the side of politics, he was convinced that such a community as is presented in Locke’s Treatise was incapable of the keen public spirit, the strong communal life, which was to him the supreme good attainable in the State. Rome and Sparta, with their constant sacrifice of private to public interests, always hovered before his imagination . The passionate intensity of their civic life never ceased to be his ideal. Nor was it only an imaginative impulse that drove him in this direction. It was also a reasoned distrust of all purely abstract theories of Politics; a deep conviction that no theory which does not rest itself upon the passions of men, as well as their calculating instincts, can hold water for a moment. This was his quarrel with the crazy theories of the Physiocrats . It would be strange if it were not also one of the causes which weaned him from the principles of Locke. For apart from all logical inconsistencies—and they are glaring enough—that is one of the fatal flaws in Locke’s theory, or indeed in any theory which bases itself upon the sovereignty of the individual. They reduce the State to a mere device of convenience; an institution which may be necessary, but can certainly never become an object of devotion.
When the State is stripped of all its moral aims, when it claims to be no more than the guardian of life and property, it is idle to hope that it can draw the love, or even the respect, of its members; still more idle to dream that it can enlist their passions in its service, or act as a quickening and controlling force upon their soul. ‘To make us love our country,’ said Burke, ‘our country ought to be lovely .’ And how can it be so, when all that appeals to the higher and nobler nature of man is rigidly banished from its ken? It is of the essence of individualism to disparage the State. And if the theory had ever been strictly carried out—a feat which no community on record has attempted, much less accomplished—all that is commonly understood by the State and the spirit of citizenship would have been destroyed. To no man of modern times would such a result have been so hateful as to Rousseau.
But, if political considerations were enough to drive Rousseau from the camp of Locke and the individualists, much more were the moral consequences with which, in his mind, they were inseparably bound up. One of these—doubtless, from another point of view—has already been mentioned; and we have seen that to him, as to Plato and Aristotle, the crowning value of the State lies in the specific influence it has upon the character of its members, the specific quality which it stamps upon their soul. It lies, that is, in the passionate public spirit which was fostered by such States as Rome and Sparta, and which he had caught himself, while yet a mere boy, from the glowing pages of Plutarch. Fabricius and Regulus, Agesilaus and Lycurgus—such were the characters that he reverenced beyond all others. And he did so, because they lived not for themselves, but for their country; because virtue itself was to them the same thing as love of country. It is for this reason that, in a striking passage of the Économie politique, he puts even Socrates below Cato. ‘For Athens was already lost, and Socrates had no country left but the wide world; while Cato never ceased to bear his country in the inmost chamber of his heart; he lived for nothing but his country, and could not bring himself to outlive her .’
Behind this motive, however, there lies another yet more fundamental and more purely ethical: a motive which, just because it is purely ethical, goes to the very root of all political speculation. It is Rousseau’s conviction—and once more he treads in the steps of the great Greek thinkers—that without organised society there can be no such thing as morality for man. And by organised society he, like Plato and Aristotle, understood the State. Of the two, it was obviously Plato who served as the source of his inspiration. And the argument of Socrates in Crito has stated for all time the plea which must have come home no less to his intellect than his heart . The Laws, it is there written, watch over the birth, the rearing, the education of the citizen. They give him a share, with all other citizens, of all the blessings in their power. How shall he, then, turn round in after life and, repaying good with evil, do them all the harm that lies in his power, by defying or evading them?
It is not often that Rousseau puts such thoughts into words. But when he does so—as in his picture of the change wrought in man’s nature by the Contract and the Lawgiver —he speaks with a conviction that comes from the bottom of his soul. And the idea which prompts these passages forms the very key-stone of the argument which the Contrat social builds up. The truth that Plato taught had faded from the minds of men in the interval. And to rediscover it was hardly less of a service than to proclaim it at the first.
That society of some kind is the first condition of morality is, of course, admitted by all. Once grant that all, or nearly all, the acts we specifically describe as ‘moral’ are acts done from man to man, and that consequence follows of itself. So far, Locke is at one with Plato and Rousseau; and it would be impossible for any man who knows what he is talking about to dispute their conclusion. To Locke, however, a purely ‘general society’—a society without organisation and without positive Law, a society which may fairly be described as in the ’state of nature’—is enough to meet the needs of the case. And he justifies his position, as indeed he was compelled to justify it, by the assumption that such a society, of itself and in default of all positive legislation, will be governed by ‘natural Law’; that its members will, in the main, act on the ‘golden rule’—Do as you would be done by. To him, therefore, a sense of the moral law is part of man’s primitive endowment. All that it lacks in the state of nature is an outward and positive sanction.
To Rousseau, as we have seen, this hypothesis is incredible. The primitive, the ‘natural,’ state of man is a state not of society, but of solitude and isolation. And there is no halting-place between this isolation and a ‘civil state,’ controlled by positive (though it may well be unwritten) Law, and based upon the ‘absolute surrender’ of its individual members. Between these two states there may have been a period of transition. If so, it was a period of misery; of misery so great that it could not possibly endure. For ‘in proportion as we are severed by our passions, we are driven together by our wants; and the more we hate our kind, the less we can do without them’; so that, ‘if such a state could endure, it would be an unfailing source of crimes and misery for men, each of whom would see nothing but his own interest, follow nothing but his own impulse, and listen to nothing but his own passions .’ Thus, if the civil state is a necessity to man, it is not only because without it there is no external sanction to the moral law. It is also, it is far more, because, until this sanction is provided, until men have formed themselves into civil communities, the law itself does not exist, the moral sense is so utterly undeveloped as to have no influence upon their conduct. Hence it is not too much to say that the moral sense, the sense of duty and obligation, is, in Rousseau’s view, the creation of the State. ‘It is from the State that our first distinct notions of justice and injustice are derived. For the Law is anterior to justice, not justice to the Law .’
If this be an accurate statement of the case, it is clear that, on moral no less than on political grounds, Locke and Rousseau are diametrically opposed. Their views of the state of nature are directly contrary. So also are their views of the civil state. To Locke, the former is essentially a moral state; a state in which the rights of each are, at least in principle, recognised by all. It is, in fact, the rule of the Gospel enforced, so far as it is enforced, by the sanctions of the Gospel. To Rousseau, on the contrary, it is a state entirely without moral ties; a state equally without Law and without Gospel; a state, in the first instance, of ‘bestial’ isolation; and, as the isolation passes into neighbourhood, a state of active ‘enmity, misery and crime.’
No less violent is the contrast between the two conceptions of the civil state. To Locke, the civil state is, in fact though not by his own admission, less fully moralised than the state of nature. An outward sanction, unknown to the state of nature, has indeed been provided against certain acts of violence and fraud. But the distinction, which from the first was latent, between the sphere of social compulsion and the sphere of conscience has now become explicit. All that, on the narrowest construction, does not fall within the scope of the former is permitted, or at least tolerated, by the State. With the intrinsic justice or injustice of an act the community has no concern. That is a matter solely for the conscience of the individual. So long as certain outward forms are observed, the State is satisfied; it has no right to interfere. The result of this upon the life of the State has already been pointed out. There is a further, and corresponding, consequence to the life of the individual. When the State insists on deciding right and wrong by purely formal tests, when it asserts the right of each man to do what he will with his own, can we wonder that the individual should follow suit? Is it surprising if he pronounces the morality which is good enough for the community to be good enough also for himself? The distinction between justice and legality may have been made, in the first instance, for the benefit of the former. But once made, experience shews that it is but too likely to be pressed into the service of the latter. And a right pushed to its furthest limits—a right, that is, drained of all moral content—is the extremest form of wrong. That Locke himself never intended such an abuse, is absolutely certain. Theories, however, are to be judged not only by intentions, but by the consequences which may naturally be drawn from them. And the history of the individualist theory is one long proof that this consequence invariably results.
Few men have felt this so keenly, or so bitterly, as Rousseau. From the second Discourse to Émile and the Contrat social, his soul is burdened with the sense that oppression is abroad upon the earth, that the weak are everywhere sacrificed to the strong, that the forms of justice are universally employed to maintain and perpetuate injustice. And the chief aim of his political writings—above all, of the Économie politique and the Contrat social—is to discover a method by which this veiled conspiracy may be defeated, the rule of the ‘general,’ or corporate, will asserted and the supremacy of the Law established, in fact as well as in name, against the craft and violence of the individual . It is to this end that all his efforts are directed. And it is only when we bear this practical end in mind that the true scope of his theory is made clear.
What, then, are the leading points of that theory, as set forth in the more abstract chapters of the Contrat social? They are: firstly, that the moral sense, the sense of duty to others, begins only with the foundation of the State. Secondly, that this sense belongs directly to the community thus organised, and only by derivation to the individual member. Thirdly, that justice is to be secured only when the individual will has been totally ’surrendered’ or ‘annihilated,’ and its place taken by that of the community at large. And lastly, that the Law, which is the voice of that ‘general will,’ is by its very nature concerned only with general objects; and that the moment it begins to distinguish between man and man, between class and class, it has destroyed the very purpose of its being and forfeited all title to respect. It will be observed that, the first step once granted, all the other steps follow logically, if not necessarily, in its train; that every step is deliberately calculated to bar out the intrusion of the individual; that, from first to last, the theory of Rousseau is, and is intended to be, the exact antithesis to that of Locke.
The first two points stand in the closest connection with each other and may best be taken together. At the outset it must be confessed that Rousseau himself is here responsible for some confusion. And it is necessary to strip the substance of his argument of the half historical form in which it is unfortunately clothed. The question is not whether man, as a mere animal, ever existed, or may be supposed to have existed, apart from some kind of civil organisation. That is a question for the biologist, or the anthropologist. And their results have little bearing upon political philosophy. It is whether some form of civil society is not essential to the life of man, as an intellectual and moral being. In his answer to this question, Rousseau is at one with the best thought of those who had gone before him: at one with Plato and Aristotle among the ancients, with Vico and Montesquieu in the generation just before his own. And subsequent thinkers, from Burke onwards, have followed in his steps. They have given a depth and fulness to the argument, which would have been impossible to Rousseau. But, as for its speculative basis, they have added little or nothing to what was already contained in the Contrat social.
‘Man is by nature a political animal.... By nature (or ideally) the State is prior to the individual’—in these two sentences of Aristotle we have the root of the whole matter. Strip the individual of all that he owes to the teaching of the home and of the school, to the national tradition which, with different results in each country, has collected itself, age after age, in these two vital forces; strip him of all that he owes to the influences—religious, moral, social, political and intellectual—which surround him and are as the air he breathes every moment of his life: and you will leave him little more than the empty name of man; you will reduce him to something which defies both experience and imagination, and which can hardly be said to bear the mark of humanity at all.
To conceive of the individual as apart from a given society, a given community, is, in truth, a plain impossibility. If we attempt the task, we shall find that, in the last resort, we are defining him by a mere string of negatives, which offer nothing definite for the understanding to lay hold of. It is as member of a community that we know the individual, and as that alone. And, as member of a community, he has become something entirely different from what the imagination may conceive that he might have been, as the unsocial, naked individual, who may conceivably have existed in the remote past, and of whom we talk so glibly in the present. In each community, and by that community, he has been moulded to all that gives him any positive quality, to all that stamps him with distinctive character, to all, in short, that constitutes his individuality. It is the traditions of his particular race, his particular social order, his particular polity and religion, that have made him what he is. It is these that constitute his ‘permanent reason’ and his true self. Without them, as Burke said, ‘men would be little better than the flies of a summer .’
Such is the thought which underlies the whole of the more abstract part of the Contrat social, and which comes to the surface in such chapters as those on the Lawgiver and the Civil State. At the time when Rousseau wrote, it was entirely original; it marked a wholly new departure in political philosophy. It was indeed a commonplace with the Greek philosophers; but since their time it had fallen dead in men’s minds. It is doubtless presupposed—in the one case more, in the other less, vaguely—in the great works of Montesquieu and Vico ; the former of which preceded the Contrat social by more than a dozen, and the latter by nearly forty, years. But the bent of both these writers was rather for history than philosophy. And Rousseau was the first to lift this cardinal principle of Politics into clear consciousness; the first to give it speculative form and to grasp the full bearing of all that it involves. In this respect, even Burke—and that, quite apart from any direct debt he may have owed to Rousseau—must yield to his precursor. And before any further advance can be recorded, we have to look forward to Fichte and to Hegel. To find anything like it in the past, we have to go back, as Rousseau himself went back, to Aristotle and Plato.
The pity is that, in grasping this fundamental truth so firmly, Rousseau should have lost his hold on the opposite truth, which is necessary to supplement and correct it. However much the individual may owe to the State or the community, he owes much also to himself. However much the ‘general will’ may differ from the mere sum of individual wills, those individual wills are, after all, the material, and the only possible material, out of which the general will is to be shaped. The individual will is not only the evil principle which has to be ‘mortified’ and ‘annihilated.’ It is also the source, and the only conceivable source, of the good principle by which man is purified and elevated; by which, as we say, he is taken out of himself and made capable of the self-sacrifice, of the devotion to corporate aims and collective purposes, which is the essence of the State. More than that: the general will is not only compatible with the existence of strongly marked individual wills; it is infinitely poorer for the lack of them. It is not only none the worse, it is beyond all estimate the better, for their energy. There are moments when Rousseau recognises this as fully as could be desired. When he insists that the best State is that which enlists the passions of the citizens the most strongly in its service, he must mean this, or he means nothing. But there is no disguising the fact that he commonly ignores it. And the reason is too plain. For the purpose of founding the State, and as the indispensable condition of its foundation, he had reduced the individual to a cipher. How was it possible, then, that, at any later stage, the individual should recover the value which had thus ‘absolutely’ been taken from him? How, without resolving the State into its primitive atoms, could he regain the powers, the will, the self which he had deliberately given up? It was only when he made himself a ‘fraction’ that the State came into being. If he should once more become an unit, it must inevitably fall in pieces.
Thus the first step in overstatement could never afterwards be retrieved. The ’stupid and limited animal’ of the earlier state could never, without the aid of a miracle, become the ‘reasonable being, the man,’ of the later. And, even granted the double miracle of Contract and Lawgiver, he could never attain to spiritual majority, never be fit to move without leading-strings, never be anything more than a puppet in the hands of the ‘general will’ and of the State. This is the conclusion which inevitably follows from the premisses. It is the conclusion which Rousseau himself, in his more abstract moments, unhesitatingly accepts.
This brings us at once to the third stage of Rousseau’s argument, as it appears in the earlier and more abstract chapters of the Contrat social. Given that the ‘natural man,’ the individual, is, as such, incapable of recognising the moral bond which unites him to his fellows, it follows that the only means of establishing this bond is the ‘annihilation’ of the natural man ‘with all his rights’; the ‘total surrender’ of the individual will to the ‘corporate will’ of the community which, from reasons into which there is no need to enquire further, he has been led to form. In this revolution, according to the Contrat social, lies the only hope either of calling out the moral and intellectual capabilities of the individual, or of maintaining the existence of the community which his needs have led him to create.
The leading idea of this section of the treatise is that of total surrender’ and ‘annihilation.’ That carries with it the conception of the ‘corporate self,’ by which the mere individual and ‘animal’ self of the natural man has, in the civil state, to be replaced. And that, in its turn, unfolds itself into the doctrine of the ‘general will’ which, with more or less of alloy, has now passed into the common currency of political thought. For the moment, it is expedient to put aside all the limitations with which Rousseau subsequently surrounds this ‘unconditional surrender,’ and to consider the theory under the sweeping form in which it was originally laid down.
The analogy between the animal and the social organism, so elaborately worked out in the Économie politique , is conspicuous by its absence from the Contrat social . But its spirit dominates the whole treatise. And, unless taken in the most vague and general sense, no analogy could be more misleading. It is of the essence of the animal organism in its healthy state that no one of its members has a separate life, a separate will, of its own; that all of them live and will solely in and through the whole body. Far otherwise is it with the body politic. There, the members have a double life: on the one hand, an intellectual and moral life, which is no doubt largely conditioned by that of the community, but which is always distinguishable—if not, in the strict sense, separable—from it and is capable of rising into the sharpest antagonism with it; and, on the other hand, a physical life which, in all but the most indirect manner, is absolutely independent of it. And there are moments when Rousseau himself is as keenly alive to this distinction as it is possible for any man to be. Thus in an early fragment he writes as follows: ‘The difference between the work of man’s art and the work of nature makes itself felt in the result. The citizens may call themselves members of the State. But they can never be united to it as closely as the members are to the body. No power on earth can prevent each of them from having an individual and separate existence, in virtue of which he is self-sufficient to his own maintenance. The nerves of the corporate body are less sensitive, the muscles are less powerful, the bonds which unite one member to another are looser; the smallest accident is capable of dissolving the whole frame .’
These considerations are obvious enough in themselves. But they are a notable admission on the lips of Rousseau. And it is to be wished that, when he came to write the Contrat social, he had given them greater weight. For though this is the most original part of the treatise, it is also the most exaggerated, and therefore the most open to question. A profound truth may, and does, lie at the bottom of the argument. But the precise form in which Rousseau clothes it justly provokes objection. That objection rests on two grounds: the one of logic, the other of the practical consequence which the whole argument involves.
As to the former, even though it be granted—as it certainly must be—that, for all that is most vital to his intellectual and moral life, the individual depends upon the community of which he is a member, it in no way follows that this dependence is absolute and unlimited; or that the ends of the community are to be attained only by the ‘annihilation’ of the individual, by the ‘total surrender’ of his will to that of the community as a whole. That, after all, is a purely mechanical way of conceiving the relation between the two elements in question; and as such, it is little likely to give adequate expression to what, from the nature of the case, must be a moral relation, or nothing at all. The union between the individual and the community must surely be not mechanical, nor even organic. It must involve not the absorption of the one in the other; but the reaction of each upon the other, the interpenetration of each by the other. And that is precisely what is barred out, on any strict interpretation of the passages before us. Or, to put the objection otherwise: when we say that the individual is dependent upon the community, this does not in the least imply that the dependence must necessarily be on one side only. It in no way excludes the possibility that it exists equally on the other. Between these two possibilities the facts—the facts, as interpreted by a just sense of relative values—alone can judge. And, in this instance, it is the latter construction which squares with the facts. The former flies straight in their face.
And this brings us direct to the other ground of objection. Not only is Rousseau’s statement of the case at plain variance with the facts, as we know them. It also leads to consequences which would be fatal to the welfare of mankind. The relation of the individual to the State is, on his shewing, one of unmitigated slavery. ‘Individuality is left out of their scheme of government ,’ was Burke’s charge against France, as she was under the Directory. It is hardly less true of Rousseau. If we press his words, he is, in fact, the sworn foe not only of individualism, but of individuality. The individual is, for him, absolutely merged in the community, his freedom utterly lost in the sovereignty of the State. This is against all reason and all experience. A State of which this were true would be a State without freedom, without life, without hope of progress.
That Rousseau himself goes far to accept these consequences— including, as we have already seen, the denial of progress—can hardly be gainsaid. It appears from what he says of the individual. It appears also from his condemnation of all partial or subordinate societies—religious, political, industrial and others—such as custom has sanctioned within the borders of the State. He was doubtless right in holding that, whenever such societies either defy the sovereignty of the State or strive to withdraw themselves from its control, they have forfeited all right to forbearance, and that any concessions made to them under such circumstances are no more than concessions of grace. But he goes much further than this. He regards the very existence of such societies as a permanent threat to the rights of the community, a standing menace to the corporate life of the whole body. He denounces them as nests of faction and disloyalty. He holds that, by their very nature, they are bound to corrupt, and in the long run to destroy, the purity of the general will, upon which the welfare of the whole community depends.
On these principles, it is clear that the very right of association is called in question; or rather, peremptorily denied. Now it may safely be said that, without the right of association, the individual is left helpless in presence of the State. He can neither secure the redress of his own grievances, nor influence public opinion for the benefit of the whole mass. In fact, if the right of association is necessary to the freedom of the individual, it is no less necessary to the welfare of the State. Without it, the sovereignty of the State is likely to be nothing better than another name for tyranny. It is certain to end—as Rousseau, with characteristic fatalism, foresaw that it must end—in stagnation and decay.
As has already been stated, this must not be taken to mean that the right of association is absolute and unlimited. On the contrary, like all other rights, it is subject to the general control of the community, acting as the State. For the manner in which this control should be exercised, no rules are to be laid down. All we can say is that it should never be put in force save in extreme cases; and that, even when set in motion, it should be with leniency, and to an extent no greater than the circumstances manifestly demand. The guiding principle, in this as in all such matters, is expediency: expediency construed in a generous sense, and with a leaning towards mercy. Yet, when all is said and done, the rights of the community, thus interpreted, are above those of the association or the section; and in extreme cases there is no choice but to enforce them. To hold otherwise is a dangerous error. It bars the road to progress no less certainly than the doctrine of the Contrat social itself. The arguments by which it is commonly defended are its strongest condemnation. They are a survival of the feudal spirit—the spirit of separatism and obscurantism—against which Rousseau, whose name is an object of holy horror to the champions of ecclesiastical and other sectional ascendencies, waged inexpiable war. So far, it is right that we should go with him. It is equally right that we should part company with him, when he falls into the opposite extreme.
Up to this point, we have dealt with Rousseau’s doctrine solely in its most abstract and uncompromising form. It is now time to consider the successive qualifications which it eventually receives. And in so doing, we pass to the fourth and last article of this section of the Contrat social: to Rousseau’s conception of the ‘general will’ and of the Law. This, in its turn, will lead on to the latter part of the treatise: to the more sweeping qualifications—due to time, place and circumstance—which the influence of Montesquieu, an influence which in the first instance can hardly have been congenial, induced the great idealist to accept.
The main importance of these ideas—the General Will and the Law—lies in their bearing upon the relation of the individual to the State. But before entering on this subject, it is well to sift out the precise meaning which they conveyed to the mind of Rousseau, as taken by themselves.
And first, for his doctrine of the general will. From one point of view, the general will is to him simply the expression of the corporate self. It is that self, as directed to, and issuing in, action. It implies, therefore, the existence of the State as, in the fullest sense, a corporate body, with a life of its own quite apart from that of the individual members of which it is built up. Hence the distinction, already noticed, between the ‘general will’ and the ‘will of all,’ between la volonté générale and la volonté de tous . It is a cardinal distinction: a distinction in which the whole of Rousseau’s theory, on its more abstract side, is implicitly contained.
To Rousseau, however, the term volonté générale means a great deal more than this. It has not only a speculative, but also a practical, sense. It stands not only for a faculty of the corporate self, but also for a specific temper or habit of mind which, in any healthy condition of things, must be manifested both in the corporate self and in the individuals who compose it. This is the temper that we commonly call ‘public spirit.’ It is roughly equivalent to what Montesquieu, in a well known passage, describes as ‘virtue,’ and pronounces to be the distinguishing mark of a democracy . Rousseau, justly enough, objects to this limitation, on the ground that the sovereign authority is the same in all good forms of Government, and that the animating principle must therefore—doubtless in varying degrees—be ‘everywhere the same .’ Of all the practical consequences which flow from his theory, this is at once the most far-reaching and that which lies nearest to his heart. His whole conception of the State assumes the existence of a public spirit which to modern ears may sound incredible, but which was intensely real to the student of Plutarch, to the spiritual child of Sparta and of Rome. To maintain this is the first duty, as to possess it is the first condition, of the State. To secure this, Rousseau is willing, in case of need, to sacrifice all other ends: even the sovereignty of the people, even the yet more sacred right of personal freedom. This once given, he is prepared, at least for the moment, to tolerate serfdom; he is prepared to tolerate that hereditary aristocracy which, of all rightful forms of Government, he had pronounced to be the worst .
Much simpler is his conception of the Law. That to Rousseau always means one thing, and one alone. It is invariably the ‘voice,’ the ‘organ,’ of the general will; the sole means by which that will can find expression. ‘By what mysterious skill,’ he asks, ‘was the means discovered for bringing men into subjection, in order to make them free? for employing in the service of the State the possessions, the arms, the very life, of all its members, without constraining them and without consulting them? for enthralling their will with their own permission? for vindicating their consent against their refusal, and for forcing them to punish themselves when they do that which they have not deliberately willed? How can it come about that they obey while none commands them, that they are servants and yet have no master: all the more free in truth, because, under the appearance of subjection, no one of them loses any part of his liberty except that which runs counter to the liberty of another? These miracles are the work of the Law. It is to the Law alone that man owes justice and freedom. It is this beneficent organ of the will of all which reestablishes in the world of Right the equality which belongs to man in the state of nature. It is this voice from heaven which dictates to man the commands of the corporate reason (la raison publique) and teaches him to obey the maxims of his own judgment and not to be for ever in contradiction with himself. The laws constitute the sole motive power of the body politic, which acts and feels only through them. Without them, the State would be nothing more than a body without soul, bare existence without action. For it is not enough that each should submit himself to the general will. In order to comply with it, he must know it .’
Not that Rousseau desires to see laws multiplied on the right hand and on the left. On the contrary, he regards such a multiplication as a sure sign of perversion or decay. The better the spirit of the community, the fewer—after the initial work of the Lawgiver—are the laws it will demand . And if doubtful cases arise, he is willing to leave a large discretion in the hands of the Executive, which can always divine the decision of the general will by asking itself, What are the equities of the matter? and which is more likely to reach a just conclusion, because less likely to be swept by gusts of passion—more likely to see the facts as they are, because less liable to be blinded by ignorance—than the body of citizens, as a whole .
The Law then is the organ of the general will. And the only further condition to be observed is the obvious one that the will, of which it is the living voice, must be general in deed as well as in name. And that means, as we have already seen, that it must be general in two distinct senses: general, not only in respect of its source, but also, and no less, in its character and scope .
And firstly, in respect of its source. The general will, if it is to be in fact what it claims to be in word, must not cancel—still less, must it formally exclude—the will of one single individual. On the contrary, it must take up all into itself. It may remould them, it may transform them; the more completely it does so, the better. But at least it must include them all, it must draw its mandate from them all. The will which does not base itself upon the consent of the whole community, upon the sovereignty of the whole people, is not general at all. That is what Rousseau meant by saying that the corporate will, and the Law as its expression. must be general in its source.
It is equally necessary that it should be general in its scope. The Law is no respecter of persons; nor again is it a respecter of classes or of sections. Directly it becomes so, directly it begins to discriminate between man and man, between class and class, it loses the universality which is essential to its being, and forfeits all title to respect. It is, in fact, no Law at all. By marks which are evident to all men, it is null and void.
This brings us at once to the bearing of the two conceptions, the Law and the general will, upon the relation between the individual and the State. Each of these two conditions, when we consider its practical effect, is seen to furnish, and is intended by Rousseau to furnish, a guarantee for the freedom of the individual, or of the social group, against the tyranny of the community: in other words, to restore to them some part at least of the independence which, on the author’s first account of the matter, seemed to have been irrevocably withdrawn. The first of the two secures that the voice of each individual shall have the chance of making itself heard; that, in the spirit as well as in the letter, the Law shall represent the will of the community as a whole. In this connection, it is necessary to remember the secondary meaning which the term volonté générale, as we have already seen, bore to the mind of Rousseau: the ‘public spirit,’ the renunciation of all selfish or sectional interests, which to him it necessarily involved .
The second of the two conditions works still more powerfully in the same direction. By denying the right of the State to pass any law which does not, in theory at any rate, equally affect all members and all sections of the community, it is evident that Rousseau largely reduces the powers of the State and, in exactly the same proportion, largely increases those of the individual; more than that, of the various social groups into which the community naturally, if not inevitably, falls. Once more, therefore, it is clear that a sweeping qualification is here grafted by Rousseau upon his original account of the matter; that, to a large extent, he gives back to the individual, and even to the section, with one hand what in the first instance he had taken, or seemed to take, away with the other.
The same result follows from yet another qualification, to which Rousseau evidently attached much weight, but which readers of the Contrat social are far too apt to overlook. By the terms of the Contract, as has again and again been insisted, the ’surrender’ of the individual is ‘total’ and ‘without reserve.’ We are, therefore, hardly prepared for the following statement which occurs at a later point of the treatise: ‘We are all agreed that the only part of his powers, his possessions and his liberty that the individual surrenders by the social compact is that part of them which is of service to the community. But we must also agree that the sovereign’—that is, the community—‘is the sole judge of what that service demands .’ Even when all allowance has been made for the closing sentence, it is clear that a fresh colour is here put upon the whole transaction. The intellectual and moral freedom of the individual receives a safeguard of which, on the first statement of the case, there had been no suspicion. The absolute right of the State is limited by a whole network of utilities and expediences. And, though the right itself remains in the abstract, in practice it is pared down to something far less formidable than could ever have been supposed. This is notably the case, as Rousseau himself points out, in the region of religious thought; a fact which must be borne in mind when we come to consider the Chapter on la religion civile .
It may be objected that all three safeguards are illusory; that they offer securities which are either mere words or, at the first temptation to override them, will be thrown to the winds. The objection is not captious; it deserves serious consideration. It is unfortunate that, for that purpose, each of the three conditions must be taken by itself.
As to the first condition, that relating to the general will, it must be owned that we have to do mainly with a question of words. The general will, says Rousseau roundly, can never err . This is subsequently explained to mean that, whenever it does err, it ceases to be general. And that does not afford much practical help. Even this, however, is enough to clear Rousseau from the extravagance, sometimes attributed to him, of holding that whatever the majority wills is always sure to be just. He had already gone out of his way to deny this in relation to the dealings of one country with another; and on the explicit ground that the two communities stand to each other as two individuals in the state of nature . He now makes the same admission with regard to cases which may easily arise within the bounds of the community itself. When they do arise, it is because individual or sectional interests, ‘masquerading under the sacred name of the public interest,’ carry the day, and the general will—which ‘remains unvarying, incorruptible and pure’—‘is reduced to silence .’
As against the two remaining checks, the objection is not so much that they are a matter of words as that, in practice, they would come to nothing. And first, for that which concerns Rousseau’s conception of the Law. A law, he insists, must always be general in its scope. If it be aimed at any one man, or group of men, it is null and void. Now it is safe to say that, on any strict interpretation of this canon, a large number of the laws enacted in all States ought never to have been passed. An Act regulating the Liquor Trade or Limited Liability Companies, an Insurance Act, a Merchant Shipping Act—all these are directed against—at the least, they injuriously affect—particular classes or groups of men. All therefore are, on Rousseau’s principles, so many violations of the Right. Yet without them, no State, especially under the enormous complexity of social and industrial relations at the present day, could hold together for a moment. Writing as he did, before the expansion of European industry had been born or thought of, Rousseau would doubtless have replied that these relations are wholly artificial, that there is no need for their existence, and that the sooner they are swept away, the better for the moral, and even the material, welfare of mankind. That is a subject to which some return must be made later. It is certainly true that the State which he has in view—the City State of the Greek world, or its counterpart in medieval and modern times—is largely, if not entirely, free from such embarrassments. And for the purposes of the present argument, he is perhaps entitled to the benefit of his assumption. Yet even the City State must raise taxes. And the whole aim of taxation is, or ought to be, to throw the burden upon the shoulders most capable of bearing it; to draw as little as possible from the poor, and as much as possible from the rich. No man could have proclaimed this duty more loudly than Rousseau himself . Yet here is a plain instance of discrimination between class and class, between one section of the community and another.
When all is said and done, however, the principle which Rousseau lays down is a principle of the first importance. As a general principle, it lies at the root of all justice and all equity. And Rousseau did well to insist that, as a general principle, it offers a precious security for justice, an inestimable check upon injustice and oppression. His mistake lay in not recognising that, like most other principles, it is capable of perversion; that to apply it in all cases would be the surest means of giving a licence to the injustice, the tyranny of the rich over the poor, which he regarded with ‘inextinguishable hatred.’
The last condition imposed by Rousseau is that the rights of the State over the individual extend no further than its own welfare and the needs of its own service demand; the State itself being the sole judge of what those demands actually are. Once again it may be said that this is a safeguard rather in theory than in practice; that there is no State which will not persistently interpret so vague a maxim to its own advantage, and to the disadvantage of its members. The answer to this is that from that danger there is no sound way of escape; that not only in Rousseau’s State, but in all States where the sovereignty is undivided, the individual will sometimes be sacrificed without reason for the benefit of the community, or the prince. The only remedy is to divide the sovereignty. And that—as the experience of the United States shews—is a remedy worse than the disease. It puts the State at the mercy of the individual; and that is still more disastrous than to put the individual at the mercy of the State.
That Rousseau himself, in adopting the latter course, was keenly alive to the dangers besetting it, it is impossible to doubt. The qualification here placed on the original terms of the Contract is one proof. The following passage is another: ‘The existence of the State is so closely bound up with the security of its members that, if allowance had not to be made for human frailty, the social compact would in strict right be dissolved if a single citizen perished when his life might have been spared, if a single man were wrongfully imprisoned, if a single action were decided in face of what was manifestly just.... Has not the nation bound itself to watch over the life of the least of its members with the same care that it gives to all the rest? And is the community less concerned with the welfare of the individual citizen than with that of the whole State? Let them tell us that it is expedient that one man should perish for the sake of all the rest. I shall admire such a maxim on the lips of the patriot who devotes himself to death, of his own free will and as a duty, for the salvation of his country. But, if it be meant that it is legitimate for the Government to sacrifice an innocent man for the benefit of the multitude, then I hold that doctrine to be one of the most execrable that has ever been devised by tyranny, the most false that could be put forward, the most dangerous that could be admitted, and the most utterly opposed to the fundamental laws of human society .’ Such were the principles of Rousseau when he wrote the Économie politique. And there is no ground for supposing that he had departed from them by one hair’s breadth in the interval between that and the Contrat social. The practices of the Committee of Public Safety have sometimes been charged upon his name. Those who do so must have forgotten that they are here branded in advance.
On the whole, then, it must be said that the qualifications with which we have been concerned represent a marked advance upon the original statement of the theory. They are doubtless not so precise as some critics might desire. But it would be the height of injustice not to recognise the intention with which they were put forward, or refuse to credit the author with an honest effort to guard the rights both of individuals and minorities, and, by so doing, to meet the dangers which the doctrine of absolute sovereignty inevitably carries with it. It is quite true that, for the accomplishment of this end, he trusts rather to the spirit than to the letter; that he rejects all attempts to limit sovereignty by statute, and relies solely upon the sense of equity without which no statute, no constitutional check, can have any value whatsoever. But in this it is by no means certain that he was wrong. Weak or impracticable as his securities may seem to some, it is, to say the least, doubtful whether any others, however promising in theory, would in practice prove more effective. The guarantees which he rejects are things of paper and of parchment. Was he not right in preferring the ‘public spirit’ which, to him at any rate, meant a passionate craving not merely for the general good, but for the welfare of every member, a conviction no less passionate that each of these is to be won only by and through the other ?
Such then, in its main outlines, is Rousseau’s theory of the State. In his presentment of that theory, as we have seen, there are two stages which must be held carefully apart: the abstract form in which it is originally presented to us, and the more concrete and qualified form which it ultimately assumes. The former, the defiantly abstract presentation, is a theory of pure collectivism: a collectivism as uncompromising as that of Plato and, thanks to the doctrine of popular sovereignty, far more consistently carried out. In both writers, the burdens of citizenship are at least as conspicuous as its privileges. In both, the daily life of the citizen—it would not be too much to say, his every act—is subject to incessant direction and control. The difference is that, in the Republic, both burdens and privileges are confined to a small fraction; in the Contrat social, they are distributed equally over the whole mass. In the one, the bulk of the community is left, in the main, to follow its own course: to buy and sell, to marry and to give in marriage; and there is nothing to shew that, so long as a decent appearance is kept up, the rulers will trouble themselves to interfere. ‘God careth not for such cattle’—that is the unspoken thought of a great part of the Republic. In the other, every member of the community is a member also of the sovereign. But every member of the sovereign is also subject to the sovereign’s decrees. All his rights, we are expressly told, are held at the sovereign’s discretion. It is true that the sovereign, on its side, has no right to require of him more than can be proved ‘of service to the community at large.’ But it is equally true that ‘the sovereign’—that is, the community—‘is the sole judge of what that service demands.’
At this stage, the whole conception of Rousseau is manifestly determined by the unspoken analogy of the body and the members. The ’surrender’ of the individual to the community is ‘absolute and unreserved.’ His ‘powers, his possessions, his liberty, his very will and self’ all lose their separate existence. They are all merged in the sovereignty, the will, the ‘corporate self,’ of the community as a whole. Such is the communal despotism which, at least in the first presentment of his theory, Rousseau is willing to accept.
At later points of the treatise the bonds are considerably loosened. In theory, the community is still absolute master of the individual. Its will has, once for all, absorbed and taken the place of his. In practice, however, we learn that there are, and ought to be, large remissions of his dependence. The sovereign is bound, so far as possible, to respect the individuality of its members. It has no right to demand of them more than it is for its own interest to obtain. Again, it is only by laws passed with every constitutional formality that any restriction on individual liberty can be imposed. And as the author spares no pains to discourage the passage of new laws, it is evident that, in his view, the number of restrictions will be comparatively small . Lastly, no law, we are told, is to be justified which is not equally applicable to all. And Rousseau was convinced—far more deeply convinced than he had any right to be—that no community will pass a law, from the effects of which every member is liable to suffer .
The general upshot of all this, at least in the intention of the author, is to surround the original absolutism of the community with a whole network of limitations; to restore to the individual in practice a large share of the rights and liberties which, in theory, he had surrendered. The harshness of the primitive theory is thus considerably softened. The latter part of the theory opens the door for qualifications which, in the abstract statement of the earlier part, might well seem irrevocably barred out. And the same process—towards the concrete, and away from the abstract—is carried yet further in the still more startling qualifications which we are now about to consider.
LEADING IDEAS OF THE CONTRAT SOCIAL, AS MODIFIED BY THE INFLUENCE OF MONTESQUIEU. LATER WRITINGS
‘Before putting up a large building, the architect observes and tests the soil, in order to see if it can bear the weight. In the same way, the wise lawgiver begins not by drawing up the laws which are the best in themselves, but by examining whether the nation for which they are destined is capable of bearing them .’ ‘Liberty is not a fruit which grows in all climates. It is therefore not within the reach of all nations. The more we reflect on this principle established by Montesquieu, the more its truth will be felt. The more it is disputed, the larger the opening for estab-lishing it by fresh proofs .’ If title-page and author’s name were not there to prove it, who would ever have guessed that these sentences were written by Rousseau? Who would believe that more than a fifth part of the Contrat social is devoted to expounding them ? or that the whole of the author’s subsequent work in Politics—the three treatises which close the present edition—is nothing more nor less than an application of the principle here summarily laid down?
For reasons which have already been given, and which moreover are sufficiently obvious in themselves, there is no need to explain these principles at length. It is enough to point out that we have here a full acceptance of the ‘historical method,’ subject only to the limitations which the truth demands, but which the fanatical champions of the method—among whom Montesquieu himself is not to be reckoned—persistently disregard. It is a remarkable instance of the working of one great mind upon another: the more remarkable, when we remember how bitter was the general prejudice against which Montesquieu had to battle, and how strong the inner bias which Rousseau himself, as disciple both of Locke and Plato, had to overcome. The philosophers, whose ways of thought were nothing if not abstract, might speak scornfully of Esprit des lois . Rousseau, unlike them in this as in most other things, was the earliest convert to its teaching. The influence of Montesquieu is, in truth, the dominant influence throughout the latter part of the Contrat social, as well as the practical treatises which followed. It is no less marked in Rousseau’s treatment of the three traditional forms of Government—Democracy, Monarchy and Aristocracy—than in what he says of the ‘empire’ of soil and climate, of the moulding force exercised upon the ideals and destinies of nations by outward circumstance, by inherited character, by historical tradition.
There is no need for us to ask, what is the value of these principles and of the method which they carry with them? That is now universally acknowledged. Nor need we much concern our-selves with the detailed application given to them by Rousseau. That must be left to the reader to discover for himself. The sole question which, for our purposes, demands an answer is: How far are these principles—how far is this method—consistent with the method and principles of the earlier part of the treatise? Does Rousseau, or does he not, succeed in fusing what he had learned from Montesquieu with what he had beaten out independently for himself? Is the one element brought into organic unity with the other? or are they forced together at nothing better than the arbitrary fiat of the author?
Upon the abstract character of the opening chapters there is no need to insist further. For good or for evil, it has been felt by all readers from the first moment of publication . The ‘total surrender’ of the individual is expressly said to be the first con-dition of the rational State. And that surrender is to be made not to any one man, or body of men, but to the community as a whole. The ‘annihilation’ of the individual and the sovereignty of the people—these are the two principles upon which all States, worthy of the name, are bound to rest. And the smallest departure from either of them is enough, in right if not in fact, to dissolve any community into its primitive atoms. If this line of reasoning is not abstract, it is nothing.
With the second Book, however, a change appears to come over the spirit of the treatise. In particular, we are met by two argu-ments which seem to tell in the opposite direction. These are, firstly, the argument which restores to the individual some at least of the independence which he had originally laid down; and secondly, the argument which asserts that the form of polity, and with it the national ideal, of each State must be largely determined by considerations of soil, climate, character and surroundings; and which, in the case of hereditary monarchy at any rate, seems to admit a form of Government not easily to be reconciled with the sovereignty of the people. In both arguments, the ground of discussion is shifted from the abstract to the concrete. Both appear to admit qualifications which the sweeping assertions of the opening chapters would certainly not have led us to expect. And the question at once arises: Are these qualifications, is this change of ground, inconsistent with the principles originally adopted by the author? or do they mean no more than that he is now recognising facts which from the first were present to his mind, but which, in a summary statement of first principles, might legitimately be ignored?
It is manifest that the two cases must be taken separately. And that of the relation between the State and the individual—the question so recently before us—will most conveniently be taken first.
On this point, by any fair construction of the matter, Rousseau must be acquitted. A glance at the Économie politique will shew that the conception of the general will and of the Law—and it is upon them that the qualifications in question depend—had taken com-plete shape in his mind some six or seven years before the Contrat social was published . It is hardly conceivable, therefore, that, when he wrote the opening pages of the later treatise, the limitations, already sketched in the earlier one, should not have been present to his thoughts. That, of course, does not exclude the possibility that his method of statement was misleading. He was a born stylist and controversialist. His first instinct was always to arrest the attention of the reader, at the very start, by a sweeping asser-tion. And it is only when that end is attained that he begins to define, to limit, to suggest necessary qualifications. The effect, at any rate on some minds, may have been different from what he intended. It is a defect inseparable from the method. For the moment, however, we are concerned with his intentions. And to any practised reader these are plain enough. The qualifications at issue were not an afterthought. They were intended from the first.
On the other point it is impossible to speak with the same confidence. And there are two positions against which the assault may be directed, the admission that Monarchy is a legitimate form of government; and the admission that Right, as it is understood in the Contrat social, is by no means always to be realised—that ‘freedom is no fruit for all climates, nor within the reach of all nations.’ The latter admission is by far the more damaging of the two.
The recognition of monarchy, when fairly considered, does not raise any serious difficulty. It would do so, no doubt, if it were true that monarchy is always and necessarily the same thing as despotism. But it is notorious that, even in Rousseau’s day, that was far from being the case. Poland among elective, England among hereditary, monarchies were striking instances to the contrary. And in our own time, not only has the example of England been widely followed; but England herself, while retaining monarchy, has imposed far stricter limits upon its powers than were in force when the Contrat social was written. Now this is just the point upon which Rousseau fastens. To him a limited monarchy is legitimate. It is only when absolute that he will have none of it. And the reason is plain. In the former case, it is not incompatible with the sovereignty of the people; in the latter, it manifestly is. That is the distinction which his principles compelled him to draw; and that is the distinction which he draws in fact.
It may be objected that, in his day, all forms of monarchy, limited as well as absolute, were hostile to the popular sovereignty, as interpreted in the Contrat social, and that he ought therefore to have rejected them all. And it is to be wished that he had drawn more distinctions, and drawn them more carefully, than he does. But there are two things to be borne in mind. The first is that, treating as he was of first principles, he was bound to take account not only of what was, but what might be. And the experience of later times has shewn—the experience of the past had perhaps shewn already—that it is not impossible for monarchy to go hand in hand with the fullest measure of popular sovereignty. The second is that, with every motive for measuring his words, he makes no attempt to conceal his conviction that, as a matter of fact, monarchy does almost invariably end in despotism, and is therefore, even when apparently harmless, to be viewed with suspicion and mislike. ‘All kings,’ he writes, ‘desire to be absolute ’; and when they are so, we know how he would desire to deal with them. From all this it is clear that, if he admits monarchy among the legitimate forms of government, he does so with reluctance; and that, in his heart, he regards it with suspicion, if not with contempt. He does not, and cannot, condemn the principle in itself. But he believes the use of it to be hardly separable from the abuse. Motives both of prudence and honour made it hard for him to speak out. But, if we construe his words fairly, there is little inconsistency in the letter, and none at all in the spirit.
The other line of attack is far more difficult to meet. In the opening chapters of the treatise there is no hint but that a ‘free’ government—that is a government based on the Social Contract—is open to all. Indeed, Rousseau expressly says that ‘the terms of the Contract, though they may never have been formulated in so many words, are everywhere the same and everywhere tacitly admitted and recognised,’ until the moment when they are broken, and chaos comes again. After this sweeping announcement, who would expect to hear that there are large tracts of the earth in which monarchy—which, in at least one passage, he contrasts with the ‘free’ forms of government —is virtually a necessity? and others, still larger, in which no decent form of government—no form which, on the most liberal construction, can be squared with the Social Contract—is possible at all ?
In this case, the contradiction lies not only in the words, but in the thought. The former might, with some management, be explained away. The latter is inherent in the whole tenor of the argument. The earlier passage suggests, if it does not directly state, that the Contract is available always, everywhere and for all. Its terms are, in fact, ‘dictated by the very nature of the case; and the smallest departure from them is enough to make the whole act null and void.’ If this does not mean that it is within the power of all men, under all circumstances, to enter into the Contract, and that it is their duty to do so, it must be confessed that the author has not written with his usual clearness. It is certainly the sense which the words naturally bear; it is the sense which they have borne to the vast majority of his readers. And if this be the correct interpretation, how is it possible, at a later stage of the argument, to confine the benefits of the Contract to a small minority of mankind? to that part of it which is fortunate enough to live within the temperate zone, and lucky enough to have formed itself into communities of such a size that monarchy, with all its attendant evils, is not a necessity? In the first statement of his argument, Rousseau lays down sweeping principles which, on any natural construction, claim to be of universal application. In the sequel, if a phrase may be taken from Burke, he is driven to ‘limit logic by despotism’: the despotism of outward circumstance and historical fatality. It is hard to see how the contradiction can be denied.
The truth is that in the theory of Rousseau, as his opponents have always seen, there is a hard core of abstraction which rebels against all qualifications, and stiffens itself against the touch of all outward circumstance and condition. It was under an abstract form—the form bequeathed to him by Hobbes and Locke—that the problems of political philosophy first presented themselves to his mind. And when, at a later period, he was led by Montesquieu to see that, in actual practice, there is no principle which is not modified by circumstances, the abstract bent had already been given; the unbending ply was already taken; and the new experience could never fit itself perfectly into the rigid framework which he had built up from the beginning.
The result is one of the strangest upon record. The two strands of thought, the abstract and the concrete, lie side by side in his mind, for ever crossing each other, yet never completely interwoven; each held with intense conviction, but each held in entire independence of the other. At one moment he is more abstract than Locke or Plato; at the next he is as ready to yield to circumstances as Montesquieu or Burke. At one moment he holds that all men are equal and, in respect of capacity for freedom, that all men are alike. At the next he assures us that there is no such thing as equality between one group of men and another; and that the differences are due not to their own doing, but to the tyranny of soil and climate and of the conditions, economic or political, which spring partly from these physical causes, partly from the inherited traditions of the past. He follows the one line of thought no less ardently than the other. He betrays not the smallest suspicion that the one runs counter to the other.
In the earlier chapters of the Contrat social, it is clear that the more abstract vein was that which lay uppermost in his mind. In the fierce ring of the opening sentences, who has not heard a call to battle, and a call which he hoped would reach every corner of the earth? And who can suppose that, when he put them there, he was not conscious of the thrill they were to send through every heart, of the answering shout they were to awaken from one nation after another? Here, at any rate, is no paltering with soil and climate, no balancing of circumstances, no quailing before the traditions of the past, no misgiving that one nation may be less born for freedom than another. The whole world is summoned to throw off its chains, to regain the heritage it had lost, to reassert the rights which no time can destroy and which, when boldly asserted, no force is able to withhold.
Pass on few years—pass on even a few pages—and the relations are reversed. In the latter part of the Contrat social, still more in the Lettres de la Montagne and the Gouvernement de Pologne, the abstract plea has fallen into the background; a cautious, almost a timid, regard for national prejudice and historical tradition has taken its place; and the freedom for which Rousseau pleads is no longer a right common to all men, but a right strictly limited by time and place, by the circumstances of the present, by the habits and precedents formed under the pressure of a thousand accidents during the forgotten struggles of the past. In one word, it is a freedom specially calculated for Geneva, for Corsica, for Poland. It is no longer a freedom to be sought and won by all nations, by the united efforts of mankind.
More than that. Let it be proved that freedom, even in this limited form, is to be won only at the cost of civil conflict, and Rousseau will have none of it. No bondage, he now holds, however galling, can justify man in shedding one drop of his brother’s blood. ‘Regain your freedom, if you can,’ he writes to the citizens of Geneva, ‘but choose slavery before parricide. Shed the blood of the enemy, if need be, whatever your repugnance. But let that of your fellow citizens be sacred .’ And a yet more staggering instance of the change which had come over him is to be found in the Gouvernement de Pologne, where he is willing to accept even serfdom, at least for the moment, as a hateful necessity inflicted by the dead hand of the past.
The change of spirit is, no doubt, partly due to a change of scope and purpose. The Contrat social—yet even there, as we have seen, the change makes itself strongly felt—is intended to deal with none but the general principles of the subject. It is, as the title tells us, a treatise on the Principles of political Right. And in the first draft, he apologises for introducing considerations of circumstance, on the express ground that matters of expediency have, strictly speaking, no place in an exposition of Right . The later works, on the other hand, are manifestly concerned with the affairs of particular States at a particular crisis of their history. And a difference of spirit and out look was accordingly inevitable. But the differences which actually meet us go far deeper than this. They amount to nothing short of contradiction; and that, on those questions of principle and method which lie at the root of the whole matter. And we are driven to ask ourselves: Is this due to pure levity and infirmity of purpose? or is it because the mind of the author bad, in the interval, gone through a great change?
The latter is the more charitable explanation, and it is also the more probable. The mind of Rousseau worked slowly. And with such minds, new ideas may be recognised long before they are fully accepted and taken to heart. At the first glance he had seen the importance, as well as the novelty, of the methods and principles of Montesquieu. But it took years of brooding before he made them thoroughly his own. And even then, it is doubtful whether they would have borne fruit, save for the call of outward circumstance and the demands made on him by the patriots of Geneva, Corsica and Poland. Thanks to this, he found himself suddenly summoned to test his theory by practice. And he had to make up his mind which of the two conflicting elements of that theory was the more helpful for his purpose. What his conclusion was, may be plainly gathered from the result. The abstract principles of the earlier part of the Contrat social are left entirely on one side. It is to the concrete principles and the historical methods of the latter part—in other words, to the methods and principles of Montesquieu—that he instinctively has recourse. The relative proportions of the two elements are now exactly reversed. What in the earlier treatise was all-important has now almost faded out of sight. What in the earlier treatise appears as little more than an afterthought has become the guiding principle of the whole. The ideas implanted in the first instance by Montesquieu are now almost more real to Rousseau than those he had worked out for himself. But, in becoming his own, they have ceased to be what they were in the soil from which they were transplanted. They have none of the fatalism, none of that tendency to bow to the accomplished fact, which may be traced fitfully in Montesquieu, and persistently in most of his disciples. They do not exclude a faith in the power of man—under strict limitations, doubtless—to shake off the chains which have been forged for him by his past. For here too, as in the Contrat social, is a call to freedom. And the voice which utters the call, though cast in a lower key than formerly, is still unmistakably the voice not of Montesquieu, but of Rousseau.
Thus the political work of Rousseau, when taken as a whole, presents an unbroken movement from one position almost to its opposite. He starts as the prophet of freedom, in the most abstract sense conceivable. His ideal, in the second Discourse, is a state of things in which each individual is absolutely independent of the rest. And that ideal finds a ringing echo in the opening sentences of the treatise which marks the next stage of his advance. It is, however, no more than an echo. And, save for those opening sentences, the Contrat social represents a very different—and assuredly a less abstract, as well as a less individualist—ideal. Here freedom is no longer conceived as the independence of the individual. It is rather to be sought in his total surrender to the service of the State. It involves therefore a close network of concrete duties, a tissue of definite relations to other individuals and to the whole. Yet, here too, the abstract character of the conception is not to be mistaken. The individual is emptied, so far as may be, of all that gives him individuality. And, so far at least as the State is concerned, all individuals are equal, and all are assumed to be alike. More than that, each State is built on the exact model of every other State. All are founded on the same rigid principle, and the smallest deviation from that principle is fatal to their claims.
Such is the view presented in the main body of the Contrat social: the view which, at the time of publication, seems to have been dominant in the author’s mind. Side by side, however, with that view—yet, for the moment, manifestly subordinated to it—is to be found the different and far more concrete conception, derived by Rousseau, as by all subsequent thinkers, from Esprit des lois. According to this view, the determining principle of the State is to be sought rather from without than from within; rather in external circumstances than in the will of men resolved at all costs to be free. It springs from conditions of soil and climate; from the economic needs and the national character, which in the main are their result. Thus, so far from identity of political type, we have endless variety; a variety very far from exhausted by the familiar division of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy.
In the Contrat social, little or no attempt is made to reconcile these different, if not opposite, conceptions. Nor is there any formal reconciliation, in the practical writings which followed. Yet, silent though it is, the change of tone and temper is complete. The abstract principles of the speculative treatise have dropped out of sight, and almost out of mind. Their place is taken by an appeal to outward circumstance and historical precedent, which might have come from Montesquieu or Burke. The abstract individualism of the second Discourse, the abstract collectivism of the Contrat social, are alike forgotten. We are in a world of concrete con-ditions, of interwoven relations, in which neither of them could find place. The long journey is at last ended. And Rousseau now stands at the opposite point of the compass from that at which he started.
But still the question forces itself upon us: Is there, then, no means of harmonising the two strains that we hear by turns in the Contrat social? Is it impossible for the reader to find the link, the absence of which the writer himself seems never to have discovered? A vague answer is all that can be expected in such cases, and it is all that will be offered.
The dominant principle of the Contrat social is the sovereignty of the people; the conviction that no Government which is not founded upon that principle can be either legitimate or ‘free.’ On the other hand, there are not a few passages in which Rousseau argues, apparently with no less conviction, that many communities—all, in fact, whose lot is not cast in the temperate zone—are incapable of realising that ideal; and consequently that the government of most nations can be neither legitimate nor free. The ideal, so far from being open to all alike, is to be attained by none but the favoured few. It is not the ideal, but an iron law of circumstance—physical, economic, historical—that forms the true principle of the State.
The resemblance between the latter doctrine and that of Montesquieu is too plain to be mistaken. It is avowed again and again by Rousseau himself. When closely examined, however, it is found to be a resemblance with a difference. And this is still more true of the occasional writings—those on Geneva, Corsica and Poland—than of the Contrat social itself. For here the author has passed from the bare statement of the doctrine to its practical application; and in so doing, he has restored some measure of the ideal element which, in the first instance, he had at any rate appeared to rule out. It is by following this vein of thought that we are most likely to discover that link between conflicting theories which Rousseau himself was too hasty, or too negligent, to seek.
The leading principle in all these occasional pieces is the necessity of reckoning with given circumstances and conditions; the conviction that, at every step, the life of the community is largely, if not wholly, determined by the outward needs of the present and the more inward, but no less urgent, traditions inherited from the past. And the zeal with which, in each case, Rousseau sets himself to master the intricate conditions of the problem is surprising in itself, still more surprising when we consider that all his instincts must have lain the other way. In the case of Geneva, the obstacles from without were comparatively small. The past history of the city had long been familiar to him . The spirit of its life had entered into his very soul. Where his own knowledge was at fault, a score of friends were at hand to correct or guide him. But with Corsica and Poland it was another matter. There he had no previous knowledge; the information at his disposal was broken and uncertain; and he had no friend to help him in case of need. The difficulties of the task might well have staggered him. But, in the work on Poland at any rate, he triumphed over them all.
Compare it with Burke’s writings on the affairs of France. The author of the Reflections started with everything in his favour. His genius lay in the patient unravelling of detail. His life had been one long discipline in the use of the historical method. The main facts of the case were accessible to all the world; and where there was any reasonable doubt, further information might have been readily obtained. All these advantages, however, were thrown wantonly away. He made no effort to form an unbiassed judgment. He deliberately surrendered himself to prejudice and passion. And though his work in this field is a masterpiece of speculative genius, yet in practical insight, in breadth and wisdom, in power of marshalling and interpreting the facts of the case before him—in all that, on his own showing, is necessary to a sound judgment of political affairs—he is im-measurably inferior to the man of whom he never speaks but with scorn and loathing: to the despised theorist, the metaphysical ‘madman,’ of Geneva.
This, then, is the characteristic mark of the last group of Rousseau’s writings: a patient use of the historical method, a determination to master all the known facts of the case, to bolt them to the bran, to interpret them in the light not of any preconceived theory, but of expediency and practical possibility. Is, then, the historical method, pure and simple, a sufficient guide to us in such matters? Is it true that the circumstances, when set in the dry light of reason, are enough to speak for themselves? It is clear that Rousseau at least did not think so. It is doubtful whether any man, who knew what he was doing, has ever thought so. An ideal of some kind—it may be conservative, it may be liberal—must be there to guide the enquirer from the first. A vital principle of some sort must be brought to bear, before the circumstances will speak. And it is to the lasting credit of Rousseau that, with all his fidelity to the facts, he never shrinks from acting upon this conviction; that he always views the facts in the light of an ideal; and that his ideal is always to secure the utmost pitch of liberty, the highest degree of national energy, that the circumstances will admit. The outward obstacles may be strong; the national spirit, crushed by a vicious tradition, may to all appearance be lamentably weak. But he is always on the watch for any sign of yielding in the one, always ready to catch any spark of life that may linger in the other. In the last resort, the latter is the one thing needful. There must be some token that in promise and potency, if not in actual energy, the corporate spirit, the ‘communal self,’ is there and is capable of development; that the members of the community feel themselves, however dimly, to be united in one body, and have the will to surrender their private interests for the benefit of the whole. If such tokens be present, Rousseau is willing to sacrifice all else. He is ready to lay aside his most cherished convictions. He is prepared to put up, at least for the moment, with serfdom, or with the oligarchy of privilege which the Contrat social had condemned; to waive, at least for the moment, doctrines so fundamental as the right of personal freedom, or the sovereignty of the people.
Thus at every turn the one tendency is controlled and modified by the other. If Rousseau bows to circumstances, it is only in pursuit of an ideal which no circumstances can reveal. If he seeks to realise that ideal, it is only through the means which circumstances—the circumstances of the given time and the given place—seem to put into his hand. The two strands of thought, which in the Contrat social are held jealously apart, are now woven, sometimes more and sometimes less completely, into one. And, in the process, each has lost something of the abstract, unbending quality which it bore in the earlier and more speculative treatise. The idea of an unvarying Right—the same always, everywhere and for all—is now definitely abandoned. On the other hand, the conception of an iron law of circumstance, overriding the will of man and setting impassable barriers to his action, has been manifestly softened. The gulf which the Contrat social had fixed between the two theories is now narrowed, if not actually bridged. And if the author himself does not attempt to pass it, he has at least put his readers in a position to make the passage in his name.
But, if this be a correct account of the matter, it is clear that the whole argument of the Contrat social has been silently recast. And before leaving the subject, it will be well to shew, as Rousseau himself had neither the will nor perhaps the power to do, how much of the original doctrine survives in the final form of his theory, and how much has been silently suppressed.
The crucial fact in the writings before us is the tacit abandonment of the abstract idea of Right. And when this, the corner stone, is withdrawn, the whole theory of the State, as built up in the Contrat social, is shaken to its base. To the author of the Gouvernement de Pologne, the perfect State, the ‘pattern laid up in the heavens,’ is still doubtless what it was in the more sanguine days when the Contrat social was written. The total surrender of the individual, the replacement of the personal by the corporate self, the corresponding right of every individual to an equal share in the government of the whole—there is nothing to shew that he had departed by one step from this ideal. But it is now no more than an ideal: an ideal which may and ought to ‘regulate’ or inspire action, but which is no longer imposed on all men, as an article of the faith. In the Contrat social it was an absolute standard, the infallible test of the legitimacy, or illegitimacy, of any State. In the later writings it has become merely a counsel of perfection: a model which all States will do well to keep in view, but to which few, if any, can be expected fully to attain. In the Contrat social, all that fail to conform to it are cast into outer darkness; they are branded as bastard growths which nothing can redeem. In the later writings, no such ban is passed upon them. So long as any sign of life can be traced in them, so long as any spring of energy remains to them, Rousseau is always ready to welcome them with encouragement and hope.
More than that. If the first efforts at reform are feeble and imperfect, he still has faith that the future may have better things in store. If he consents to tolerate serfdom, it is because he trusts that, at the first opening, it will be swept contemptuously away. If he puts education in the forefront of political duties, it is because he sees in the young the sole hope of the ultimate regeneration of the State. On the strength of such scattered hints, we might even be tempted to detect in his latest writings what none would claim for any of the earlier treatises: the first faint beginnings—at the highest estimate, it is impossible to go further than this—of a belief in progress. If that were indeed the case, there could be no stronger proof of the change which, as we know on other grounds, had come over the whole spirit of his creed.
And if we ask what is the principle to which this change of outlook may be traced, the answer comes at once. It is the principle which Montesquieu first threw upon the world; the conviction that the State is a natural, and largely unconscious, product; that not ideas, but circumstances, are the dominant factor in its growth. Of the writings of Rousseau, the Contrat social is the earliest in which this principle appears; and, as we have seen, with no very fortunate result. It is cast into the midst of an argument which, both in form and tenor, is nothing if not abstract and exclusive. And no attempt is made to remove, or even soften, the discord which inevitably results. The two principles are left to fight it out as best they may; and the more abstract of the two, lying as it does at the root of the whole treatise, naturally prevails.
In the years that followed, the balance was silently reversed. The abstract principle, the abstract method, of the Contrat social fade swiftly into the background. The concrete principle, the concrete method, of Montesquieu insensibly take their place. Yet the ideal which inspired the Contrat social, the ideal of a State self-governed and self-determined, is never wholly cast aside. It is no longer an ideal which is to be conquered in defiance of circumstances. It has become an ideal which is to be sought only through a given train of circumstances, to be attained only in so far as those circumstances will permit. The Contrat social may admit the principle of Montesquieu in words. But the main argument, rigid and unyielding, remains virtually untouched. The later writings go far to reverse the process. It is now the principle of Montesquieu that forms the groundwork of Rousseau’s argument. His own principle, the principle of the Contrat social, is admitted only when he has bent and bowed it to a yoke which, as he first conceived it, it was never intended to endure.
Yet who will deny that the final form of the theory, as it may be pieced together from its practical application, marks a signal advance not only upon the Social Contract, but upon the Spirit of the Laws? And who will not regret that, by the time the new light dawned upon him, Rousseau had bade farewell to philosophy, and that the ripest fruits of his reflection were consequently never cast into speculative form? A new Contrat social, a Contrat social revised in the light of the Gouvernement de Pologne, would have been one of the most curious and instructive books on record : more curious than the last Books of the Confessions, which were never written; more instructive than the Institutions politiques, which was ruthlessly destroyed. As it is, the Contrat social is left as the one systematic statement of Rousseau’s political philosophy. And it is by the Contrat social that, in the main, he will inevitably be judged.
CONTRAT SOCIAL. SOME DETACHED PROBLEMS
It remains only to return upon a few points which, standing apart from the main argument of the Contrat social, have hitherto been passed over. Three only of these will need to be considered: the chapter on the Civil Religion, the references to Federalism, and the position which Rousseau holds towards economic Socialism. The last subject will naturally lead to the Collectivism which lies at the core of the two capital treatises, the Contrat social and the Économie politique; and so, in a concluding section, to a general estimate of Rousseau’s work in political philosophy, as a whole.
(a) The Civil Religion
The chapter on the Civil Religion formed no part of the original scheme of the Contrat social. It was an afterthought, added after the completion of the first draft and shortly before the second and final draft was sent to the press . The rough version of it, which however was considerably altered before publication, is to be found scribbled on blank pages of the Geneva Manuscript ; and from the haste with which it is written, we can see that Rousseau was working under the spur of a first, fevered inspiration. The general conclusions, however, were reached much earlier in his life. They appear in the well-known letter which he wrote to Voltaire, after reading his poem on the Earthquake of Lisbon (Aug. 18, 1756) . We may infer therefore that the closing chapter of the Contrat social, so far from being a caprice of the moment, represents, at least in sum and substance, the settled opinions of the author. The argument is as follows.
No State can exist without some form of religion; and it is of the last importance that the form adopted shall be both true in itself, and such as will serve the legitimate purposes of the State. The former test is enough to bar out Paganism; the latter is fatal to Catholicism, as well perhaps as to some varieties of Protestantism. For Paganism, in spite of its civic virtues, is not only demonstrably false; it also fans the flames of racial hatreds and barbarities. Catholicism, on the other hand, besides laying immoderate stress on the unessentials of belief, inevitably sets the believer at discord with the citizen, the Church at war with the State. This alone is enough to condemn it. ‘To offer further proofs of its badness would be mere waste of time.’
The only other form of religion with which there is any need to reckon is Christianity—the Christianity not of the Churches, but of the Gospel, ‘which is a very different thing.’ At first sight, this may seem to satisfy both the tests which it is our duty to apply. It is intellectually true; it is also morally ennobling. How then can it fail to make better citizens, as well as better men? This, however, is just where Christianity fails. Its kingdom is not of this world, and for that very reason it can do nothing to strengthen the bonds that bind the individual to the State. Indeed, so far from strengthening, it positively weakens them. ‘So far from binding the heart of the citizen to the State, it weans him from this, as from all other earthly ends.’ If Paganism is the religion of the citizen and Catholicism that of the priest, Christianity is the religion of the individual soul; and nothing more hostile to the spirit of citizenship can easily be conceived. The very perfection of the Christian ideal is fatal to the State.
So far, our results are purely negative. Paganism, if favourable to intensity of civic life, is intellectually false and, in some points, morally degrading. Christianity, true and noble in itself, is not only no support to the civic spirit but, in essence and principle, violently opposed to it. It follows that neither of them can offer that of which we are in search. The problem is, therefore, to find a form of religion which shall exclude the drawbacks and embrace the merits of both; which shall unite the truth and nobility of Christianity with the civic fervour, the ardent patriotism, of the purer forms of Paganism. This is the end to which the rest of Rousseau’s argument is avowedly directed.
At the first glance, the problem might well be thought insoluble. It is only when we recall the principles laid down in the more speculative part of the Contrat social that light begins to dawn. The State, it was there argued, has a right to demand of the individual everything that can serve its needs, but nothing beyond. Now that every citizen should have a religion which ‘makes him love his duties’ towards his neighbour and the community, is essential to the State. So far therefore as it is concerned with such duties, religion may justly be demanded of every citizen by the State. But in so far as religion deals with duties towards God, with the things of the other world—and the purely dogmatic, or theological, side of it clearly falls under that head—the State, from the nature of the case, has no interest in the matter, and consequently no right to interfere. With this clue in our hand, it is not impossible that the labyrinth may be threaded.
Christianity, as we have seen, is the religion of the individual. As a motive to the performance of individual duties—and even that is a matter in which the State is profoundly interested—it leaves nothing to be desired. But the duties of the citizen—and to the State that is a point of yet greater importance—lie beyond its ken. It regards them with indifference, not to say hostility. That being so, the course of the State is clear. Leave individual duties to the conscience of the individual and the care of the Churches. Let the State touch them only when the citizen has laid himself open to public penalties by their breach. Leave dogma to take care of itself. What a man affirms, or denies, in that region is no business but his own. But as to public duties, the State is in a very different position. It is essential to her that they shall be discharged, and discharged not only with strictness, but with zeal. She has therefore the right to demand that every citizen shall acknowledge them; the right to impose the only sanction effective for that purpose, the sanction of religion.
‘There is, then, a profession of purely civic faith, the articles of which must be fixed by the sovereign. These must be regarded not strictly as dogmas of religion, but as sentiments of sociability, without which it is impossible for a man to be either a good citizen, or a loyal subject. It is true that no man can be compelled to believe them. But if he does not, he may be banished from the State: banished, not as irreligious, but as unsociable; as incapable of loving the Law or justice with sincerity and, in case of need, of sacrificing his life to his duty. Again, if, after publicly accepting these dogmas, he behaves as though he did not believe them, let him be punished with death. He has committed the most heinous of all crimes: he has lied in the face of the Law.
‘The dogmas of the civil religion should be few and simple.... The existence of a God of power, reason, goodness and loving providence; the life to come, the happiness of the just and punishment of the wicked; the sanctity of the Social Contract and of the Law—such are the dogmas to be affirmed. As for the dogmas to be repudiated, I limit them to a single one—intolerance. It brings us back to the religions which we have already barred out.... Now that the national and exclusive religions (Paganism and Judaism) have had their day, we are bound to tolerate all those which are tolerant themselves, in so far as their dogmas contain nothing contrary to the duties of the citizen. But whoever dares to say “Outside of the Church, none can be saved” ought to be driven out of the State; unless, indeed, the State is the Church, and the Pontiff the chief magistrate .’
Such is the doctrine which brought a thousand troubles on Rousseau in his life, and has never ceased to weigh upon his memory in death. The moral objections which it provokes are glaring. They may be summed up in one word—Persecution. A religious test is imposed on all members of the State. Those who fail to satisfy it are to be driven out or, under certain circumstances, to be punished with death . And the test is so framed as to strike equally at two opposite classes: atheists or agnostics, on the one hand; bigoted Catholics, upon the other. Can we wonder that both attacks should have been bitterly resented? Is it surprising that an age which was just beginning to learn the lesson of tolerance should have risen against this sudden revival of intolerance? that the persecutions, which had seemed odious in the Church, should have been none the more welcome when they were recommended in the name of the State? At the moment when Rousseau wrote, the tide of opinion was already beginning to turn against persecution in any form, political, intellectual, or religious. In the interval between his day and ours, it has set still more decisively in the same direction. To accept this has now, we may hope, become part of the moral heritage of mankind. It is grievous to think that a man like Rousseau should have done his utmost to fight against the light, to drive the world back into the darkness from which it was at last struggling to escape.
But, grave as are the moral objections to his argument, there are other objections which it is impossible to overlook. Let us grant that religion is as necessary to the welfare, to the very existence, of the State as Rousseau believes. Let us grant, if only for the sake of argument, that it is just for the State to impose a religious test upon its members. Admit both propositions: and is there the smallest proof that the test will do anything to secure the end for which it is imposed? is Rousseau one step nearer to the goal which he desires to attain? There are two unanswerable reasons which compel us to deny it.
In the first place, tests of the kind proposed are—and Rousseau ought to have known that they are—a premium on hypocrisy . And the very reason he assigns for imposing them—that the atheist, having rejected the only possible sanction of duty, must of necessity be without the sense of duty—is in reality the strongest reason for renouncing them altogether. It is obvious that the man who has no sense of duty will not scruple to commit perjury. And to impose a test on such a man is no better than a farce. It is true that Rousseau meets this objection by a second test still more odious than the first: by the provision that ‘whoever, having accepted the dogmas of the civil religion, behaves afterwards as if he did not believe them, shall be punishable with death.’ This doubtless saves his intellectual consistency; but only at the cost of plunging him in a moral enormity, which is infinitely worse. Accept this solution, and we have accepted a principle worthy of the Inquisition at its height: a principle which would substitute rumour for evidence, vague suspicion for proved fact, and turn every Court of Justice into a whispering gallery of calumny and intrigue. And this from the man who claimed, and not altogether without reason, to be exceptionally tolerant: ‘the only tolerant man I ever knew .’
The second objection cuts even deeper than the first. What Rousseau professes to seek in the civil religion is a living faith, a faith that shall issue not in words, but in deeds. Anything short of that, for his purposes, is nothing. Now that is just what no test can ever provide. Hypocrisy apart, the utmost a test can prove is that certain beliefs are accepted by the intellect. It can never shew that they are also welcomed by the heart; still less, that they are in the smallest degree likely to work themselves out into the life. And the last is the one thing needful. If that be lost, nothing that is worth having can possibly be won. It was not the least of Rousseau’s services to remind the world that religion is nothing, if not a thing of the spirit and the heart. This was the truth that he braved all to proclaim to others. This was the faith in which his own soul found refuge, when all earthly hope had been torn from his grasp. And it is a bitter irony that the man whose life was one long witness to the spiritual nature of religion should have stooped for one moment to treat it as a matter of police. Yet this, and nothing else, is the conclusion to which the whole argument of the Civil Religion inevitably leads.
But, if a religious test has no positive value, it may be argued—and Rousseau himself argues—that it has a negative one: that at least it will serve to exclude avowed atheists, to save the State from harbouring a band of men on whose sense of duty no reliance can be placed. It may be that this plea presents more difficulty than the others. But there are three grounds on which it must be set unflinchingly aside.
Firstly, whatever may be the philosophy of the matter and whether it be true, or no, that religion is the ultimate sanction of moral duty, there can be no doubt that some of the justest and most public-spirited men who ever lived have been atheists or agnostics. The author of the Nouvelle Héloïse should have been the last man to dispute this. And if that be the case, the test proclaims itself at once as an unjust test; a test which acts purely at haphazard; a test which, while professing to operate on moral grounds, may admit those who are morally worthless, and exclude those who are morally beyond reproach . All that it can do is to bar out the conscientious atheist—which to the creator of Wolmar should hardly have seemed a gain —and to let in those of less scrupulous conscience: which, if there is to be any discrimination at all in such matters, must surely be a loss.
Secondly, the conscience of mankind has come, and justly come, to be more and more against the imposition of penalties—let alone the death penalty—upon speculative opinion or belief. And the reason is plain; it is insisted upon elsewhere by Rousseau himself . What I believe, or do not believe, is a matter not of the will, but of the intellect or of instinct. In either case, it is a matter entirely beyond my own control. On no theory of justice can it be a proper matter for punishment. And the man who makes it so throws himself violently against the barriers which the thought of the best men, Rousseau himself included, and the labour of many generations have built up.
Lastly, unless thought and speech be left absolutely unshackled, there can be no such thing as progress. And the man who persecutes for opinion is not only unjust to his victim, but a declared enemy to the freedom without which there can be no advance in vital knowledge and in truth. Rousseau himself spoke scornfully of science and philosophy. He had little or no belief in progress. But his deeds belied his words. Kant excepted, he was richer in speculative ideas than any man of his century. And he gave an impulse to progress which, after a century and a half, has not yet spent its force. He himself would have received short shrift at the hands either of Rome or of Geneva. The author of Émile, if once in their clutches, would certainly have found his way to the prison, and not impossibly to the scaffold. It is true that he would have suffered, not as an atheist, but as an ‘enemy of the Faith.’ But once admit persecution, it is impossible to fix the limit where it is to stop. His own fate, the storm of persecution that broke on him with the publication of Émile and the Contrat social, was one more warning against the admission of a principle so fatal, as well as so capricious, in its results.
The proscription of bigoted Catholics rests, it need hardly be said, on different grounds. A double charge is brought against them: that their intolerance makes it impossible for them to live at peace with their fellow-citizens, and that they defy the sovereignty of the State. In both charges there is—it is more charitable to say, there was—too much of truth. The judicial murder of Calas took place in the very year when the Contrat social was published . And the whole history of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy—whether that series of measures was wisely planned or no—shews how exorbitant the claims of the Church are capable of becoming, as against the authority of the State. It is impossible, therefore, to deny that Rousseau had some ground for the harsh treatment which he is prepared to deal out to the more fanatical of the Catholics.
Yet here again there is the fatal objection that he imposes penalties not for acts, but for opinions. And if it has sometimes needed great forbearance in the more civilised States to keep terms with their Catholic members, it must be remembered that here, as always, clemency has in the long run been justified by its fruits; that the Catholics, when treated reasonably, have shewn themselves to be reasonable beings. All honour to the statesmen who, in this and other countries, were wise enough to face the real dangers of Emancipation, to sacrifice all other considerations to their sense of justice. Once again, it is sad to think that Rousseau should have done his best to fan the flames of religious enmity: that he, of all men, should have ranged himself, on grounds however plausible, with the hosts of darkness.
How was it, we ask, that he let himself be drawn into this quicksand of reaction? What was it that led him to accept conclusions so alien both to his native tolerance and to some at any rate of his most deeply cherished beliefs? The answer is not difficult to find. It is to be sought partly in speculative causes, partly in a historical tradition which, almost to his own day, had gone virtually unchallenged.
The speculative ground of his action is obvious enough. It was part of his mission to stem the tide of materialism, then running strong in the western parts of Europe. This was at the bottom of his feud with the philosophers. It was at the root also of his daring attempt to strip Christianity of all that was doubtful or irrational, and so reconcile religion with the proved facts of science and history. It was a heroic task. But, in this instance, he suffered the zeal of the Lord’s house to consume him.
In this error he was probably confirmed by the authority of a long line of enlightened thinkers. When Milton wrote his inspired plea for liberty of thought and utterance, he was careful to exclude both Catholics and atheists from its scope . Locke, with whose writings Rousseau was certainly familiar, followed the same course . Even Spinoza, the real founder of modern biblical criticism and, in many ways, of modern beliefs about religious freedom, admits the right of the State to establish a religion and to enforce at least outward conformity upon its members . Thus the very fathers of religious tolerance seemed to support Rousseau in his conclusions. And, though he was too sturdy a thinker to rest his plea on authority, it may well be that, consciously or unconsciously, he was influenced by authorities so imposing. That, however, can hardly be said to constitute an excuse. In his own lifetime, a new light had dawned upon the better minds. And it is the lasting service of Voltaire and the Encyclopedists to have shamed the world, at least in theory, out of its long bondage to bigotry and intolerance. In this enterprise, Rousseau ought to have stood shoulder to shoulder with his enemies and slanderers. But, both on speculative and personal grounds, they were the last men in the world from whom he was likely to take a lesson. He fought them at this, as at all other points. And on this point it was they who were in the right, and he who was in the wrong .
One matter only remains over for consideration. Was he right, or was he wrong, in holding that Christianity is hostile to the civic spirit? So far as the experience of the past went, it would seem that he was justified in his judgment: that Christianity has, far too much, been the ‘religion of the individual’; and that, except in those cases where ‘the State is the Church,’ the instinct of Christians has commonly been to look with indifference, or even hostility, upon the life and aims of the State. In the last generation, however, a great change has come over the temper of religious men in this matter. And the most devout Christians of the present are also those who are most deeply stirred by the civic spirit. Christianity, in fact, has—at least in this country and in Switzerland, among Catholics as well as Protestants—largely come to be a ‘civil religion.’ And the end which Rousseau strove to attain by force is in the way to be reached by peaceful means: by the natural growth of germs, the existence of which he denied, but which, as the Letters of Saint Paul might have shewn him, were in some sense present from the beginning. In this revolution—for it is no less—it is probable that the teaching of Rousseau himself has borne a decisive part. Certainly, he was among the first, if not the first, to demand it.
On the question of Federation there is much less to be said. And the reason is that the materials are scanty. It is almost certain that Rousseau wrote a Fragment of some length—sixteen chapters—on the subject. But the friend to whom he committed it took fright in the early months of the Revolution and destroyed it. We are left with a single sentence of the Contrat social—that in which we are told that Federation would have been one of the subjects treated in the Institutions politiques—and the light thrown upon the matter by Rousseau’s criticism of the Paix perpétuelle of Saint-Pierre.
There is, however, a further passage in Émile. This manifestly sketches the line of argument that the Institutions politiques would have followed; and it is so important that it must be given at length: ‘After having considered each form of civil society in itself, we shall go on to compare them, with a view to discovering their various relations: some large, others small; some strong, others weak; each attacking, insulting, destroying the others; and in this incessant action and counter-action causing more misery, and costing the life of more men, than if they had all remained in their primitive liberty. We shall ask ourselves whether, in the foundation of societies, men have not done either too much or too little; whether the submission of the individual to the authority of the Law and of other men, while at the same time the several communities remain as regards each other in the state of nature, does not leave him exposed to all the evils of both conditions, without the advantages of either; whether, in fine, it would not be better to have no civil society at all than to have several .... Is it not this partial and incomplete association which is the cause of tyranny and war? And are not tyranny and war the two worst scourges of mankind?
‘We shall examine finally the kind of remedy that men have sought against these evils in Leagues and Federations, which, leaving each State master in its own house, arm it against all unjust aggression from without. We shall enquire what are the means of establishing a good form of federal association, what can give it permanence, and how far we can extend the rights of the Federation without trenching on those of Sovereignty .’
From this sketch two inferences may with almost complete certainty be drawn: the one relating to the purpose for which such Federations are to be formed; the other, to the best means for securing that end—in other words, to the guiding principle which is to regulate their scope. Federation, as here conceived, has a double aim. It seeks to do for the whole community, and for all communities concerned, that which the Social Contract has already done for the individual himself; to complete the work of drawing man from the state of nature which the Contract had begun. It seeks further to free man from the scourge of war from without, and the no less cruel scourge of tyranny which war seldom fails to bring upon the community from within. And if we ask what are the States which are most likely to gain by adopting it, we see at once that the small State has more to fear from unjust aggression than the large; that tyranny, which is the natural destiny of the large State, is contrary to the whole end and being of the small. For this reason, Federation is, in a special sense, the interest of the small State rather than the large. It is the weapon with which both reason and experience teach the small State to arm itself against the greed and insolence of the large. That is the reason why Federation lay so close to the heart of Rousseau. In his view—and who shall gainsay him?—it is the only means of preserving the small State, which to him is the only State worth having, from being swept, as in a tempest, off the face of the earth.
So much for the ends which Federation is intended to secure. By what means, we go on to ask, may those ends be most readily attained? what is the best form of Federation? and what the principle on which it rests? Here again there can be little, or no, doubt about the intention of the author. A mere scrutiny of the alternatives will probably put this beyond question .
There are, it may roughly be said, three things that the term Federation might naturally cover: a simple treaty of alliance; a federal State such as the American Commonwealth, the Swiss Federation, or the German Empire—all of the present day; and finally, a form of federation midway between the two, like the Achæan League of the Greek world, the ‘Confederation of the United States’ as it was between 1781 and 1789 , or the Union of the Swiss Cantons as it existed in the days of Rousseau. No doubt, each of these groups offers considerable varieties within itself. The constitution of the German Empire is a different thing from that of the United States or the Swiss Federation. The Union of the Swiss Cantons before the French Revolution was not framed on the same principles as that of the thirteen States of America in the years immediately following their liberation from the rule of the mother country. Even a treaty of alliance may impose obligations of very varying degrees. Still, for our purposes, the threefold division is accurate enough. And for the sake of shortness, we may distinguish the three groups, in a descending scale, as a Federal State, a Confederacy, and a treaty of alliance.
Now it is quite clear that Rousseau contemplates something much closer and more permanent than a mere treaty of alliance. Else, why should he insist on ‘guarding the Sovereignty’ of the individual States concerned ? It would be unusual, though certainly not impossible, that a treaty should result in ‘trenching upon Sovereignty.’ From the same phrase we may draw the inference that he was not in favour of the Federal State. For such an association can hardly exist without ‘trenching,’ and trenching rather deeply, ‘upon the Sovereignty’ of the individual States composing it.
But, if we exclude the Federal State after the fashion of the American Commonwealth upon the one hand, and the mere treaty of alliance upon the other, we are left with nothing but that form of union which lies midway between the two: closer than the treaty of alliance, looser than the Federal State: that form which, for reasons deeply scored in the history of the American Common-wealth, has come to be known as Confederation. And on every ground, that is the form of union which we should have expected Rousseau to prefer.
Affection for the small State breathes from every page of the Contrat social. It is clear that, to Rousseau’s mind, this was the only soil in which that ardent patriotism, which he valued above all things, is capable of growing. It was in the hope of preserving and strengthening the small State—so he tells us expressly in the Dialogues —that all his writings, moral as well as political, were undertaken. How, then, could he be expected to look with favour upon any scheme which, by providing a second country, would have the inevitable effect of weakening the love of the citizen for the first? of distracting his civic affections, only in order to water them at every outlet they can find?
If any further argument be needed, we have only to glance at the closing paragraphs of the Lettres de la Montagne. He sees clearly that, apart from civil war, there is no choice for his former countrymen but either submission, or ‘mediation .’ He recognises that the latter necessarily means a surrender of the full Sovereignty which was theirs by right of birth. And he doubts whether the remedy is not worse than the disease; whether they will not do better to submit to tyranny from their own Government than obtain justice from another. ‘I see plainly,’ he writes, ‘where this remedy leads, and I feel the heart of the citizen die within me. Accordingly I propose nothing. There is no advice I can bring myself to give .’
If he felt thus of a temporary loss of Sovereignty, what would he have said to a surrender of which the first condition is to be permanent and unchanging? Is it not clear that he was bound to prefer a Confederation, in which the individual State surrenders few or none of its sovereign rights, to the Federal system, in which it yields some of the most important? Can we doubt that, in the choice which half a century later was to lie before the Swiss Cantons, he would have stood for the loose league of the eighteenth century rather than for the close Federation of the nineteenth? that, in the alternative which confronted America ten years after his death, he would have been found on the side of Jefferson and the champions of State rights rather than on that of Hamilton and The Federalist? That either form of association implies some surrender of State rights and the establishment of some form of central Government, he would doubtless have admitted. But, on the evidence before us, it is hard to believe that he would not have wished to make that surrender as small, and the powers of the central Government as limited, as the needs of the case allowed. So much we are entitled to say. To define more closely is to travel beyond the record.
From all this it is manifest that the doctrine of Federation, so far from being a mere offshoot, springs from the very root of Rousseau’s political ideal; that the international Contract is necessary to complete the demands of that which gives birth to each nation taken singly; that it is still more necessary for the protection of the small State, which is also the ‘free’ State, against the aggressions of the large. His dream was to ‘unite the external strength of a great nation with the free discipline, the healthy order, of a small one .’ Well might he say that ‘the subject was wholly untouched, and the first principles of it still to ascertain .’
Rousseau was the apostle of the small State. And since his death, the cause of the small State, so far from advancing, seems to have hopelessly fallen back. The United Provinces, the Germanic Body, the Helvetic Confederation, have all vanished from the map of Europe. The first has become a hereditary Monarchy, under the descendants of the old Stadtholders of Holland. The second, the loose structure of which went far to fulfil Rousseau’s ideal, has given way to a Federal Empire, cemented by ‘blood and iron.’ The third—it lay nearer to Rousseau’s heart than any other—has been replaced by a Federal State, which has largely ‘trenched upon the Sovereignty’ of the component units. And with those units Geneva, once a sovereign city with Rousseau for member of the sovereign body, has fallen into line.
The same movement has made itself felt upon a wider scale. A cluster of small States—a mere ‘geographical expression,’ as it was scornfully described—has been welded into a great nation. Nations, already too large to satisfy Rousseau’s requirements, have swollen into Empires. And it has been seriously argued that this is the only goal worth striving for, the only consummation in which a generous spirit can take pride. The author of the Contrat social thought little of Kingdoms. What would he have said to the ‘imperialist’ ideal?
For this change, or series of changes, two main causes may be assigned. The first is the industrial revolution which, with its call for rapid transit, has done much to break down the barriers between one State and another. The second cuts even deeper. It is the sudden growth of the nationalist spirit, which is one of the strangest and least foreseen consequences of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic tyranny that followed. It was this, more than anything else, that secured the reversion of Italy for the House of Savoy rather than for that Federation of Republics to which many enlightened patriots had looked forward. It was this that gave Bismarck and Prussia their lever against the ‘particularists’ of the Free Cities and the South. For good or for evil—perhaps for good and for evil—the strongest force in Europe during the first three quarters of the nineteenth century was the spirit of nationality. To some minds, this will seem the strongest condemnation of Rousseau’s ideal. The verdict of history, they will say, has gone against him beyond all hope of appeal. One thing, however, must be borne in mind. The verdict of history is to be gathered not from years, but from ages. It is valid only for its own time; there are few cases in which it is not liable to reversal, or to modification so great as to be hardly distinguishable from reversal. Who shall say, for instance, that the spirit of nationality is as great a force now as it was half a century ago? or that this is solely because its claims have, in large measure, been already satisfied? It played a decisive, and in the main a salutary, part for two generations. But what are they in the whole history of mankind?
At the moment when Rousseau wrote, neither the industrial, nor the nationalist, movement could have been readily foreseen. Industry was still, for the most part, a matter of the home or the small workshop. The application of steam to industrial processes— much more, to transit—was still in the future. The nationalist movement was even less likely to be forecast. On the contrary, a vague form of cosmopolitanism, a thing hateful to Rousseau, was, at least in France, the sentiment generally in fashion . In its earlier phases, even the Revolution was cosmopolitan, rather than nationalist, in tendency. It was only foreign invasion that drove France back upon the aggressive policy of Richelieu and Louis XIV. Indeed, there were moments in the history of the Revolution when it seemed not unlikely that the old centralised kingdom would break up into a loose Federation of Republics. It was the belief of Burke that this must inevitably follow from its division by Departments . And it is a fact that the instructions of some of the Cahiers pointed straight in that direction ; that the charge of ‘Federalism’ was one of the most deadly weapons forged by Jacobin against Girondin.
Not that Rousseau himself was under any illusions on the subject. He was keenly aware that the tide of events, still more the tide of opinion, ran strong against the small State. He had little, or no, hope of converting the large States to his view. All he strove for was to strengthen the smaller communities in the maintenance of their own ideal against the force or treachery of their more powerful neighbours. He had seen that the one chance of doing so lay in some form of Federation. And from that moment, Federation took its place as an integral part of his whole system. Without it, his theory would have been incomplete; his practical ideal beyond hope of attainment.
(c) Punishment and Property.
Punishment and Property are two test questions. There are few which more promptly call out the difference between the individualist and the collectivist ideal.
The former may be swiftly despatched. Rousseau is in no doubt whatever as to the answer. The very connection in which he puts the question shews what his solution is to be. The right of the State to punish the criminal stands to him on the same footing as her right to demand that he shall risk life and limb in her defence. In both cases this is part of the ’surrender’ which he made on entering the civil state. It is part of the price he pays for the untold benefits of civil life. From that moment his very existence is in her power. It ‘ceases to be the pure boon of nature; it becomes a gift bestowed on him conditionally by the State.’ If he risks his life in war, it is because the State, for whom he risks it, has hitherto guarded him and those dear to him from the dangers of ravage and massacre. If he ends his life in prison or on the gallows, it is because from the first he has accepted these penalties as the only possible safeguard against robbery or murder. It is quite true that, in the latter instance, he presumably did not foresee that he himself would be among those to suffer from the punishments he set up. But this is one of the cases in which, thanks to the very nature of the civil state and the Law which upholds it, a man is bound by his own past; in which ‘his will is chained by his own permission, his past consent set off against his present refusal, and compulsion laid on him to punish himself for having acted against his own deliberate intention .’
The appeal to the consent of the criminal is, no doubt, an act of homage to the individualist assumptions which underlie the whole conception of the state of nature and the Contract that brings it to a close. But, taken as a whole, the argument is one that no individualist could possibly have used. It differs in words only from Burke’s vindication of punishment, as the subjection of ‘the occasional will of man to his permanent reason.’
This, however, is not all. Rousseau is clear-sighted enough to see that he has not covered the case of the deliberate and habitual criminal. And in order to do so, he adds a supplementary argu-ment which is still less individualist in character than the first. ‘Every criminal,’ he writes, ‘is a rebel and a public enemy. It is as such, rather than as citizen, that he suffers.... For a public enemy is not a moral person, but a mere human being . And in this case it is the right of war to kill the vanquished.’ Once again, no doubt, he reverts to the fact that, by mere residence if by nothing else, the criminal is a consenting party to the State and to its laws. But the sting of the plea is now manifestly drawn; the second argument is still more unreservedly collectivist than the first .
As to the nature and origin of Property, the mind of Rousseau went through more than one change. When he wrote the second Discourse (1755), Property was to him the corner-stone of Society; it was presupposed in the very existence of the State. It was, in fact, the hope of turning an usurpation into a right, of converting a precarious into a fixed tenure, that brought the individual from liberty into servitude, from the natural to the civil state. But the right thus created is the greatest of all wrongs. And when Proudhon declared that ‘Property is theft,’ he was in reality saying no more than Rousseau, in yet more memorable words, had said a century before .
In the Économie politique, published (it will be remembered) less than six months later, we find a very different account of the matter. Property is still the foundation of Society; the preservation of it is still the main object for which Society was established. But, Rousseau’s view of the value of Society having changed in the interval, the value of Property has of necessity changed to correspond. It is no longer a curse, but a blessing; no longer a wrong, but the most fundamental of all rights .
It is not until the Contrat social that we come to Rousseau’s final judgment on the matter: the judgment to which, in substance, he remained faithful to the end. Before the foundation of the civil state, he now holds, the individual could claim no more than possession—a possession founded upon the ‘right of the first occupant.’ But, on entry into the civil state, he surrenders such possession, together with all his other powers, into the hands of the community. And the community, respecting the ‘right’ of the existing occupant, who is assumed to be the first occupant, converts the imperfect right into a complete right, mere possession into legitimate ownership. It is, therefore, only from and through the community that the right of property takes its rise. In this case, as in all others, ‘the social order’—or, as it is put elsewhere, the Social Contract—‘is a sacred right, which serves as base for all the rest .’
At this point we are confronted with a difficulty which Rousseau makes little or no effort to disguise. The right of the community is itself based upon that of the individuals who compose it . And, in this instance, that primary right is based—to say the least, there is no presumption that it is not based—upon a wrong: upon the ‘right of the stronger,’ which, on Rousseau’s own principles, is no right at all . So far as the claims of other communities go, he admits this at once, and without reserve. And that can only mean that, in case of war, the conqueror is entitled to confiscate all the land—and why not all the other private possessions?—of his enemies, and distribute it among the members of his own body. It is true that Rousseau himself does not draw this consequence. But, on his premisses, how can it be denied? And how is it to be reconciled with the brand justly inflicted on such practices in his early Fragment, l’état de guerre? No man had denounced this and other iniquities of war in more burning language than the author of that Fragment. No man had brought a more irresistible armoury of reasoning to bear against them. It is disquieting to find that, in an unguarded moment, he should now make an admission which surrenders his whole case.
But what about the relation of the community to its own members in this matter, and the rights of property which each party in turn confers upon the other? It must be owned that Rousseau is not as outspoken in this, as in the previous case. He admits, no doubt, that the ‘right of the first occupant’ is a ‘feeble’ right. He does not admit that, in practice, it is commonly only another name for the ‘right of the stronger’: in other words, for brute force. On the contrary, in order to ward off this suspicion, he surrounds the ‘right of the first occupant’ with a hedge of safeguards, the only fault of which is that not one of them could be enforced. The existing occupant must be, in fact as well as in name, the first occupant; he must have occupied ‘what he needs for subsistence, and no more’; and ‘he must have taken possession not by a vain ceremony, but by his own labour and the tillage of the soil .’ Imagine the primitive State appointing a Commission to overhaul the ‘feeble’ and imperfect title-deeds of its members; and we see at once the hornet’s nest of impossibilities which Rousseau has brought about his ears.
On the principles of the Contrat social, it is, in truth, impossible that the ‘right’ of property should ever be other than a wrong. The distinction between the ‘right of the first occupant’ and the ‘right of the stronger’ can never be maintained. In spite of all he can do to conceal it, the author is driven back upon brute force as the ultimate basis of ‘possession.’ And on his principles, brute force can never yield anything but wrong.
The strange thing is that, in his account of Property, he comes nearer than in any other part of his work to recognising the place of force in the first beginnings of Society. And had he but followed out the line of thought which he here opens, it would seem hardly possible that he should not have ended by acknowledging the fact plainly and without reserve. This, no doubt, would have compelled him to recast all the opening stages of his theory. But that, as we have seen, would have been nothing but a gain. The state of nature and the Contract, which accord so ill with the general tenor of his argument, would have been swept away. So would the miraculous intervention of the Lawgiver. And the idea of progress—of the gradual moralisation of barbarous and unjust customs, the gradual refinement of brute force into Right, of the antisocial into the social temper—would have taken their place. Unfortunately, the idea of progress was wholly alien to his mind. The nearest approach he made to it was the corresponding, but wofully different, idea of retrogression and decay. Of all the defects in his theory, this was the most deep-reaching and the most fatal.
It may be objected that to admit force as the original title to possession, and consequently (in the sense just indicated) to Property, though well enough in regard to the members of the State itself, affords no protection whatever against other States and their members; that it still leaves another State free, in case of a victorious war, to confiscate the goods of the conquered for the benefit of the conquerors. The latter, it may be said, are, on Rousseau’s own shewing, in regard to the citizens of other communities still in the state of nature. They stand therefore on a footing the very opposite of that which finds place between any one member of the community and his fellows. They are untouched by the moralising process which goes on within the bounds of the community itself. They are entitled to transfer to themselves the property of their enemies by the same force which originally created it.
Now, if one community were really, as Rousseau commonly argues, in the state of nature with regard to others, this consequence would undoubtedly follow. In fact, however, the same process which slowly converts force into Right within the bounds of the State is also, but still more slowly, at work between one State and another. The ‘rights’ of States, like the ‘rights’ of individuals, are being gradually curtailed. What was permitted at the time of the Thirty Years’ War, or even the wars of the Revolution, is no longer possible or conceivable. Public opinion—the opinion of Europe at any rate—would put on the pillory any nation that attempted it. And this is admitted by Rousseau himself in a passage of the first draft of the Contrat social—a passage which, in the final version, was unfortunately suppressed. ‘Everything which visibly contributes to the greater good of the community, but which the laws have not specifically prescribed, constitutes acts of “civility” and beneficence; and the habit which disposes us to perform such acts, even to our own prejudice, is what we call force or virtue. Extend this maxim to the “general society,” the first idea of which is derived from the State. Protected by the society of which we are members, or by that in which we live , we find that our natural repugnance to do harm is no longer checked by our fear of suffering it. Accordingly we are inclined at once by nature, habit and reason to deal with other men almost as with our fellow-citizens; and from this disposition, reduced to act, spring the rules of natural, or rational, Right. This differs from “natural right,” in the strict sense, which is founded on nothing stronger than sentiment—true in itself, but extremely vague and often stifled by selfishness .’ If this does not mean that there is such a thing—or rather, that there has come to be such a thing—as international Right, it means nothing. And if there is, it is clear that the States which recognise such a Right are no longer in the state of nature to one another.
So much for Rousseau’s doctrine of Property, as it affects the central ideas of the Contrat social. It remains to add a few words on its narrower aspects. He brushes aside all individualist founda-tions of Property; in particular, the argument from Formation, so carefully elaborated by the Roman Jurists. He recognises from the first—and recognises more unequivocally than Kant was to do a generation later—that Property is only possible in and through the State. To him, as we have seen, Property is the creation of the State; and it rests with the State to make any regulations for its tenure that the ‘general will’ may approve; subject, of course, to the limitation that all such provisions must be general in their scope, that none of them shall be directed either to the advantage, or the prejudice, of particular classes or particular individuals. It follows from this that any arguments against Socialism, which may rest upon the supposed rights of the individual, are thrown to the winds; that, so far as principle goes, Rousseau is ready to accept it, the moment it may be proved to be for the interest of the community at large.
There is a passage of Émile which states this in so many words. After reverting once more—but this time as a mere hypothesis—to the doctrine that the ‘State itself is founded on the right of Property,’ ‘This right,’ he adds, ‘is inviolable and sacred for the State, so long as it remains private and individual. But directly it is considered as a right common to all the citizens, it is subordinated to the general will, and the general will can annul it. The sovereign has no right to touch the possessions either of one individual, or of several. But it has every right to appropriate the possessions of all. It did so at Sparta in the time of Lycurgus. On the other hand, the abolition of debts by Solon’—seeing that it was in the nature of class legislation—‘was an act of wrong .’
A yet franker avowal of socialist principles is to be found in the Projet de Constitution pour la Corse: ‘Far from desiring the State to be poor, I should wish, on the contrary, to see all property in its hands, and no individual admitted to any share of the common stock, save in proportion to his services.... My desire is not abso-lutely to destroy private property—for that is impossible—but to keep it within the narrowest bounds: to give it a standard, a rule, a curb to restrain it, direct it, subdue it and keep it always subordinate to the public good. In a word, I desire that the property of the State should be as large, as strong, and that of the individual as small, as weak, as possible .’
A fuller acceptance of Socialism, as a principle, it would be difficult to find. And if, in the face of this declaration, Rousseau still refuses to range himself with the socialists, that is on grounds not of principle, but convenience; of expediency, not of right. ‘To destroy private property root and branch is,’ in his view, ‘impos-sible.’ The love of it is too deeply rooted in human nature; too closely bound up with the industry which lies at the core of all social energy and the more active of the qualities which go to make up individual worth. That, if he had been pressed on the point, is the ground on which he would have based his refusal. And it is the same treatise, that on Corsica, which entitles us to draw this conclusion. ‘Every Government which desires to throw the seeds of activity among its people must have taken pains to put within their reach objects capable of tempting them. Let labour offer great advantages to your citizens,...and you will not fail to make them laborious .’ The love of esteem is doubtless the first of these advantages, in his eyes. But the love of honourable gain is by no means excluded.
From the passage above quoted one further inference may be drawn. If, in spite of strong leanings in that direction, Rousseau is no socialist, still less is he a communist. If his dream—a dream by his own avowal impossible of attainment—is to see all property vested in the State, that is because he would wish to see it allotted, from time to time, ‘in proportion to services’ rendered to the State. And that is a principle as different from Communism as it is possible to conceive.
But, if it is neither expedient nor possible absolutely to destroy private property, must we conclude that nothing can be done to correct and regulate its inequalities? It is clear that Rousseau did not think so. On the contrary, he explicitly recognises this as one of the main duties of any Government. Having asserted that ‘the two chief ends of government are liberty and equality,’ ‘as for equality,’ he continues, ‘we must not understand by this term that the amounts of power and wealth are to be absolutely the same, but that...in regard to wealth no citizen shall be rich enough to buy another, and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself.... It is just because the force of circumstances is always tending to destroy equality, that the force of legislation ought always to tend towards maintaining it .’
He had already laid down the same principle in the Économie politique. And, if asked by what means this end is to be accomplished, he is ready with his answer. It is to be done not directly, but indirectly: ‘not by robbing the owner of his possessions, but by depriving him of the means of amassing them; not by building alms-houses for the poor, but by saving the citizen from becoming so .’ And if pressed to define more closely, he has two practical proposals to bring forward. The first is to set aside a large domain land, which shall serve the double purpose of saving the tax-payer and of reducing the amount of landed property open to the avarice of the rich . And the second is to throw the brunt of taxation on the rich rather than on the poor; it being very certain that, however heavily they may be taxed, the rich will always gain more from the benefits, and lose less by the burdens, of civil society than the poor . Translated into the language of current politics, these proposals mean, on the one hand, a progressive Income Tax; and on the other, a large, though not complete, nationalisation of the land, and perhaps also of the means of industry. Rousseau, it must again be said, was no socialist. But the germs, and some-thing more than the germs, of Socialism are clearly visible in his writings.
This brings us back to the point from which we started. Socialist, in the strict sense, Rousseau was not; but he was collectivist, heart and soul. So far from being the charter of individualism, the Contrat social is a defiant statement of the collectivist ideal. The state of nature and the Contract may be taken over from the individualists and, in particular, from Locke. But they are altered out of all knowledge in the taking. The former is reduced to a condition of pure animalism, from which it is man’s first interest to escape. The latter, so far from being an instrument of liberty for the individual, is one by which he makes total surrender of all the powers he has hitherto enjoyed. It is true that, whatever turn may be given to them, these conceptions still betray the source from which they are drawn. A taint of individualism still hangs about them, in whatever setting they are placed. Even this, however, disappears directly Rousseau gets fairly under way. It is only the first few chapters that are affected. Throughout the rest of the treatise, the only com-plaint to make is that he gives not too much, but too little, power to the individual; that, with the zeal of the new convert, he ruth-lessly burns the idol he had once inconsiderately adored. It is on this side, not on the other, that his theory is open to attack. And the task that lay before subsequent thinkers was not to overthrow his ‘individualism,’ but to bring his collectivism within bounds.
That, then, is the first, the signal service that Rousseau rendered to political philosophy. Other writers, Vico and Montesquieu, had assailed the individualist theory indirectly, and from the side of history . It was reserved for Rousseau to attack and vanquish it in its stronghold, as a speculative theory of Right. With unerring aim, he flies straight at the central idea of his antagonists, and proves it to be an assumption which there is nothing to support. The ‘individual,’ he argues, has no existence save in the imagination of the individualist. In himself, he is nothing but a ’stupid and limited animal’; it is only in and through the State that he becomes ‘a reasoning being and a man.’ It is to the State that he owes his moral and intellectual being, his self and all that constitutes his individuality. It is to the State therefore—as, under God, the author of all which makes his life of more value than the beast’s—that he owes reverence and love.
But if Rousseau exalts the State, and exalts it unduly, at the expense of the individual, it must not be forgotten of what nature is the State that he has in mind. It is of the essence of his theory that the State is no power which imposes itself from without; that, on the contrary, it is more truly part of the individual than the individual himself. The change he wrought in the conception of the individual involves a corresponding change in the conception of the State. The bureaucratic machinery, which had slowly fastened itself on Europe, is thrown to the winds. Its place is taken by the idea of a free community, each member of which has as large a share in determining the ‘general will’ as any of his fellows; in which, so far as human frailty allows, the general will takes up into itself the will of all. It is the ideal of Rousseau—an ideal never, perhaps, wholly attainable—that the individual will, in the old and bad sense of the term, should lose itself in the general will; that, purged of all selfish interests, all should now have the right—a right hitherto reserved for one only—of saying, l’État, c’est moi. In other words, the only State he recognises as legitimate is the State of which the sovereign is the people. On this side he is no less original than in the assault on individualism with which the Contrat social opens. To his mind, indeed, the two things are inseparable. The one without the other would have seemed tyran-nical and absurd.
It is to the latter side of his theory that he would have appealed, if charged with inconsistency; if challenged to prove that his col-lectivist autocracy leaves room for the individual freedom of which, in his earlier writings, he was the champion and apostle. On the score of consistency, he is hardly to be acquitted. When all allowance has been made for the successive checks which he sets upon its powers, it remains true that the State of the Contrat social is virtually absolute; that the individual is but too likely to find himself helpless in its grasp. Yet, whatever the practical outcome of his later doctrine, his intention never varied. In the Contrat social it may be overlaid and obscured. But it is there, all the same. And his bitterest enemies must admit that, of all those who have pleaded the cause of individual freedom, he is the most passionate and inspired. Here, if anywhere, we must look for the root and secret of his influence. And the most precious gift he left the world was the ‘inextinguishable hatred of oppression’ which fired his own soul .
A free citizen in a free State—that, on the sum of the whole matter, is the ideal of Rousseau. But, on each side of the count, he gives to the term a meaning different from that which it has ordinarily borne. As regards the citizen, the freedom in question is not freedom from restraint. Rather, it is the release from bondage to his baser self; the willing acceptance of burdens for the sake of others, of that service to a larger whole in which alone his true self, his real freedom, is to be found. In other words, it is essentially a moral freedom; a freedom which brings with it at least as much of self-sacrifice as of ease. And this amounts to nothing short of a revolution in political theory; a reversion from the cramped and narrowing view of Locke and the individualists to the wider and more inspiring outlook of the Greek world and, above all, of its master spirit, Plato. Generations come and go; the deepest truths become faint in men’s minds, and we think at times that they are irrevocably forgotten. But it is idle to lose faith. No truth that men have once beaten out can ever, except by their own fault, be utterly torn from them. And few more signal instances of this are to be found than in the courage of the man who challenged the individualist creed at the moment of its triumph, and forced the world to reverse the verdict which seemed to have gone against him beyond all hope of appeal.
No less distinctive is the meaning which Rousseau gives to the freedom of the State. The two terms of the relation are manifestly in close correspondence with each other; a change in the one necessarily carries with it a change also in the other. To Rousseau, no doubt, as to other men, the freedom of the State means, in the first instance, its freedom from outward interference; its right to live its own life, to shape its destinies according to its own will. And in his hands, as we have seen, this leads straight to the doctrine of Federation; to the necessity of banding the small States together in defence of themselves against the large. But to him the freedom of the State means something more, and something higher, than this. It means not only the outward independence of the State, but also an ideal of citizenship which can be drawn only from within. It means an intensity of civic life, a consuming zeal for the welfare of the community and all its members, such as the modern world has seldom known. Of all the energies possible to man this, in his view, is the highest. And he reserves for it, with deliberate intention, the Roman name of ‘virtue ’. It is the power which lifts a man out of himself, which makes him capable of a heroism such as nothing else can inspire. Even in the humbler sense, virtue—the recognition of duty, the recognition also of a specific code of moral duties—is the creation of the State; and without this no State can hold together. But the virtue of which Rousseau is here speaking is a thing yet rarer and more exalted. It is to be found—or, if that be too strong, it is to be found as the ruling spirit—only in the fewest States: only in those which the world has recognised as the purest and the best. Yet it is the noblest gift which the State has to offer. And no State which is not, in some measure, leavened by this spirit, deserves the name of ‘free.’ Here again, to the State no less than to the individual, it is certain that freedom brings not ease but strife, not peace but the sword. The consequence is accepted by Rousseau. ‘The citizen must arm himself with courage and constancy. Every day of his life he must say in his inmost heart what the Polish Palatine exclaimed at the Diet: Malo periculosam libertatem quam quietum servitium—Rather the perils of freedom than slavery and peace .’ Few utterances bring us nearer to the heart of Rousseau’s theory, of his civic ideal, than this.
The argument of the Contrat social is cast in an abstract mould which has too often blinded readers to its practical bearing and effect. A comparatively slight change would have done away with this objection. But it is a change which Rousseau could never have brought himself to make. Strike out the state of nature and the Contract from the opening pages of the treatise. Replace them by the idea of a gradual growth from barbarism to what may fairly be called the ‘civil state.’ Admit that the dis-cipline which slowly brought men to that state was, in its earlier stages, largely a discipline of force; that the history of man is the unfolding of a long drama in which this initial conquest is for ever repeating itself upon a higher, and yet a higher, plane; the element of force gradually diminishing, that of Right and of willing obedi-ence gradually increasing; until the ideal, dimly present from the first, at length works itself into clear consciousness; and one community after another is brought to recognise that it is the essence of Right not to stand still, but to advance; to be not a fixed standard, but an ideal for ever unrealised, because subject to endless development and growth. Make these changes in Rousseau’s argument, and its inconsistencies, its other inherent blemishes, will have largely disappeared. He would no longer have been hampered by the necessity of basing a collectivist structure upon a foundation of individualism. He would have been freed from the embarrassment of torturing the abstract man of his opening chapters into the creature of circumstances—the being determined by outward conditions, by national character, by historical accident—whom he brings before us at the close. But to have recast his argument in this fashion would have been to accept the idea of progress. And, as we have seen, the idea of progress was wholly alien to his way of thought.
‘A free citizen in a free State.’ Did Rousseau ever look forward into the future? did he ever dream of a time when Europe should at length cast off the spell of her enchantment, and his ideal be made good? It is difficult to say. He tells us himself, at the sad close of his life, that, except for the smaller States, he saw no hope on the horizon; that he ‘toiled solely for his own country and for the small States ordered, more or less closely, on her model .’ This, doubtless, was the prevailing temper of his mind; this was the hope that supported him through long years of labour and apparent defeat. But he would have been more than human if there had not been moments when his heart beat higher, and a wider prospect was flashed, if but for an instant, upon his view. Might not the large States also come at last to see the misery of their delusion? Might not France herself one day throw off the fetters she had forged for her own ruin? A cancelled sentence in one of his letters to Mirabeau would seem to shew that this was the case . But if it were so, the hope was no sooner lit than it was quenched. And had he lived to see France ’standing on the top of golden hours,’ there is no assurance that he would not have reckoned her freedom, like her long bondage, to be born under a curse. Bold even to recklessness in speculation, he was cautious, not to say timid, when it came to action. And he had a reasoned ‘horror of revolutions ’ which was but too likely to damp the fire of his zeal and, behind the golden dawn of brotherhood, to raise visions of the hatred and violence which might follow.
But if the moments of hope were few and brief, so also, one would fain trust, were those of utter discouragement and despair. The evidence is double-edged. In the same letter to Mirabeau, one of the very few passages which throw light upon the subject, he writes as follows: ‘According to my old ideas, the great problem of Politics, which I compare to the squaring of the circle in geometry,...is to find a form of Government which puts the Law above the individual.... If such a form is unhappily beyond our power to find—and I frankly admit that in my belief it is—then my conviction is that we must fly to the opposite extreme, set the individual at one bound as high as possible above the Law, and establish arbitrary despotism—the most arbitrary that can be devised. I should wish the despot to be God. In a word, I see no possible mean between the austerest democracy and the most complete Hobbism. For of all conditions, the conflict between the individual and the Law, which plunges the State into ceaseless civil war, is the very worst.—But Caligula, Nero, Tiberius! Good God! I roll myself in the dust and groan to think I am a man .’
The greater part of this passage is a bitter cry of disillusion-ment. The closing sentence, though gloomy enough, brings back some faint glimmering of light. And that, it is probable, was, at least in his closing years, the prevailing mood of Rousseau: a mood neither of settled doubt, nor yet of faith, in his own cause. One would have wished it had been otherwise; that his own life had been cheered by the hope with which he fired the heart of others. His theory was marred both by inconsistencies and extravagances. No attempt has been made in these pages either to hide them or make light of them. But there are two things which can never be forgotten. He gave men faith in their power to redress the wrongs of ages. And he held forth an ideal of civic life which has changed the face of Europe. Thanks to the Contrat social, the leaden rule of bureaucracy, hard though it be to break, is weakened and discredited. The ideal of a free people, united in one ‘corporate self’ and working out one ‘general will,’ is coming, slowly but none the less surely, to take its place. That is the debt which the world owes to Rousseau. That is the glory which nothing can take from him.