Saturday, May 31, 2008

Rousseau's Wake-Up Call

If it weren't for the fact that our political wars have emptied the words 'liberal' and 'conservative' of meaning, I might have been tempted to call myself a Burkean conservative on the strength of my last posting. Well,that's what I am I guess, which means that there is one thing I most definitely am not: romantic. (Big surprise)

Rousseau began The Social Contract (1762) with one of the greatest manifestos and battle-cries of all time: "Man is born free but is everywhere in chains." He thereby he gave the word 'radical' a meaning that it has retained--with diminishing clarity and intensity to be sure--ever since.

"Wake up from the nightmares of history," Rousseau was saying, in effect; "identify your oppressors, claim your birth-right, build a new polity, with justice for all, on the ruins of the old regime in which privileges, initially seized by the Church and the landlords, have been allowed over the centuries to harden into rights. Since no right is ever peacefully relinquished, blood will have to be shed." Of course he didn't actually say any of this; these words and ideas are entailed, merely, by what he does say.

Rousseau did not invent the idea that government originates in a contract, freely entered into, according to which a people relinquish certain rights in exchange for peace and security. Hard-headed philosophers, like Locke and Hobbes, had come up with this idea as a way of providing a secular explanation of the origin of government and political authority--their point being that God had had nothing to do with it.

The contractual theory of the origin of government is, obviously, unhistorical; it is a logical construct, with no basis in history. Now Locke and Hobbes were not the least bit romantic--romanticism had not yet been invented--by romantics, of course. So it is amusing (if nothing else) to notice that the idea of an escape from history which is so characteristically romantic, is deeply rooted in the very materialism of Enlightenment science and philosophy that later romantic poets and philosophers reacted violently against.

1 comment:

  1. Ha ! Subtle, nimble, lucid, ironic. Good show, Dr Lewis. You have a regular Maistrian sense of paradoxical logical brilliance.