Friday, July 20, 2012

Rousseau's Legislator

[ Originally written on May 27, 2007 ]
After reading again Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), it seemed to make sense to read again his great foe, Jean Jacques Rousseau, specifically Rousseau's The Social Contract (1762).  It has been more than 40 years since I first read Rousseau's work.  Out of the many paragraphs in that work which are worthy of comment, the following (taken from G.D.H. Dole's translation) particularly attracted my attention: 
" Wise men, if they try to speak their language to the common herd instead of its own, cannot possibly make themselves understood. There are a thousand kinds of ideas which it is impossible to translate into popular language. Conceptions that are too general and objects that are too remote are equally out of its range: each individual, having no taste for any other plan of government than that which suits his particular interest, finds it difficult to realise the advantages he might hope to draw from the continual privations good laws impose. For a young people to be able to relish sound principles of political theory and follow the fundamental rules of statecraft, the effect would have to become the cause; the social spirit, which should be created by these institutions, would have to preside over their very foundation; and men would have to be before law what they should become by means of law. The legislator therefore, being unable to appeal to either force or reason, must have recourse to an authority of a different order, capable of constraining without violence and persuading without convincing.
" This is what has, in all ages, compelled the fathers of nations to have recourse to divine intervention and credit the gods with their own wisdom, in order that the peoples, submitting to the laws of the State as to those of nature, and recognising the same power in the formation of the city as in that of man, might obey freely, and bear with docility the yoke of the public happiness.
" This sublime reason, far above the range of the common herd, is that whose decisions the legislator puts into the mouth of the immortals, in order to constrain by divine authority those whom human prudence could not move.
" But it is not anybody who can make the gods speak, or get himself believed when he proclaims himself their interpreter. The great soul of the legislator is the only miracle that can prove his mission. Any man may grave tablets of stone, or buy an oracle, or feign secret intercourse with some divinity, or train a bird to whisper in his ear, or find other vulgar ways of imposing on the people. He whose knowledge goes no further may perhaps gather round him a band of fools; but he will never found an empire, and his extravagances will quickly perish with him. Idle tricks form a passing tie; only wisdom can make it lasting. The Judaic law, which still subsists, and that of the child of Ishmael, which, for ten centuries, has ruled half the world, still proclaim the great men who laid them down; and, while the pride of philosophy or the blind spirit of faction sees in them no more than lucky impostures, the true political theorist admires, in the institutions they set up, the great and powerful genius which presides over things made to endure. "
What is intriguing about this passage is Rousseau's deprecating judgement of "the common herd."  Here he sounds, resonates, almost like Nietzsche, though, as an egalitarian, it is always supposed that Rousseau is the antipodes to Nietzsche.  One must suspect that Rousseau cannot be an egalitarian in any comprehensive sense. Still more questionable seems to be any idea that he sees unalloyed good in natural man; i.e., man before he encounters a lawgiver.  If Rousseau was not truly a believer in egalitarianism in the widest sense and not a believer in the inherent goodness of man, then he was obviously something other than his popular image,  the image lauded by his followers and execrated by his opponents (such as Irving Babbitt).
More intriguing still is Rousseau's concept of the legislator, the primal lawgiver,  who is obviously someone like Lycurgus or Moses or Muhammad, not an elective official serving in a parliament.  There is also the suggestion that the legislator, the primal lawgiver, begins with a conscious deception, an imposture, albeit a successful one.  There is something Machiavellian in this, Nietzschean even.  Rousseau's lawgiver is a figure of or approaching the magnitude of Carlyle's Hero if not Nietzsche's Uebermensch.  Perhaps Rousseau in his works is not always and everywhere the Rousseau of the popular image.  As Marx said, late in life, speaking of those among his followers who made use of his method in a hasty and slipshod manner, "I am not a Marxist."  

No comments:

Post a Comment