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Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Rousseau$

John Plamenatz, Mark Philp, and Zbigniew Pelczynski

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780199645060

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199645060.001.0001

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The Community and the Citizen

The Community and the Citizen

(p.262) 17 The Community and the Citizen
Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Rousseau

Mark Philp

Z. A. Pelczynski

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Plamenatz examines Rousseau’s views on patriotism and on the requirements he imposes on community that now seem indefensible and illiberal but which arise from his view that social man must be brought to achieve moral freedom. He failed to see that patriotism can threaten individual freedom and was wrong to insist that citizens can achieve freedom only where they share the same ideals and standards.

Keywords:   Rousseau, patriotism, community, citizenship, freedom, nationalism, civil religion

i So far, in discussing Rousseau’s social philosophy, I have spoken of his concern for freedom, for equality, for popular government, and for man as the victim of society. In some ways, in some moods, Rousseau was very much an individualist. No one before him took as literally as he did the doctrine that the citizen is bound politically only by his own consent, a consent he gives by taking a direct part, on equal terms with others, in the making of the laws. In holding that social discipline is compatible with freedom only to the extent that the individual obeys social rules, not from mere respect for authority, but because he sees the point and the justice of them, Rousseau put forward an idea of freedom very like that of many liberals of the next century. He attacked forms of inequality which he found incompatible with freedom. He argued for a social and political order in which there is a rough equality of bargaining power, and no one can exploit the ignorance and the need of another.

His critics who accuse him of requiring from the citizen a total submission to the state are wide of the mark, for he requires no such submission except to the general will, and only laws made by a popular assembly of independent citizens are authentic expressions of that will.1 The citizen is not bound to obey unconditionally all governmental decisions, not even in a community where a popular assembly makes the laws, and he retains the right to urge even a popular assembly to change its mind by repealing a law it has made.

And yet Rousseau’s critics who accuse him of being illiberal do not accuse him falsely. There is an illiberal side to his philosophy. Not merely negatively by virtue of what he omits. It is not just that we cannot find in his writings an equivalent to certain principles put forward later by such champions of liberty as Benjamin Constant, Humboldt, and John Stuart Mill: that, for example, he does not argue as they do, for the liberty of the press or against laws and practices which restrict unduly the privacy of the individual.2 If mere failure to argue for or against such things made a political theorist illiberal, than we should have to say that Locke was illiberal. There is more to Rousseau’s illiberalism than just his not producing early versions of some of the familiar (p.263) themes of nineteenth-century liberalism. He also argues in support of practices which are, or could easily become, restrictions on freedom—and especially on the kind of freedom that he cared most about, moral freedom. Rousseau’s illiberalism goes deeper than does Locke’s. Or, at least, it is more striking, precisely because his idea of moral freedom, whether in the form he gave to it or in the form given to it later by Kant, has had a deep influence on liberal thought. Much more obviously than Locke, he seems to have failed to see some of the implications of his own conception of freedom, of his doctrine that freedom for social man can be achieved only in the shape of moral freedom.

ii Before we look more closely at what is illiberal in Rousseau’s political philosophy, let us look first at his idealization of patriotism, of devotion to the political community.

This high value placed on patriotism might seem odd in a man who preached that society corrupts man, and who in Emile described a system of what he called negative education designed to preserve a child from this corruption by insulating him from ordinary social contacts during his formative years, by withdrawing him from the community. True, Emile’s education is a form of what is today called ‘socialization’—though Rousseau sometimes speaks of it as if it were not. The boy is not in fact left to grow up in isolation, or in the jungle like Kipling’s Mowgli, but is brought up in a specially contrived social environment. Still, putting him into that environment is a withdrawal of him from the community at large, or rather from the influences and training that convention prescribes for a child, or a child of a certain class. Emile, as Rousseau puts it, is ‘natural man in the social condition’, and he calls him ‘a savage formed to live in towns’.3 Emile, when he is grown up, is in society but not of it; he is educated to deal justly and considerately with others but not to think and feel as they do, to share their standards and dispositions. He is a being apart, not because he is naturally superior to others, but because he has been brought up to think for himself and therefore has firmly held principles that he lives by.

Compare this with what Rousseau says in the Considerations on the Government of Poland about the education to be given to children in a regenerate Poland. ‘A child,’ he says, ‘should on first opening its eyes see its fatherland, and thereafter till its death should see it alone. Every true republican sucked in love of the fatherland with his mother’s milk.’4 The law should prescribe ‘the matter, the order and the form’ of children’s studies. Polish children should have only Poles for teachers. There should be scholarships for the sons of poor men, and organized games to train children to act together and to compete with one another. Parents whose children are educated at home should bring their children to these games, so as to accustom them to ‘discipline, equality, fraternity, competition, and to live in the sight of their fellow-citizens and to desire public approval’. A college of magistrates of the highest rank should control the entire system of public education.

(p.264) In his Project of a Constitution for Corsica Rousseau says: ‘To awaken a people to activity, you must give them large hopes, desire for great things, and great and positive motives for action…Those who decide what a people shall believe control their actions. People strive for things in proportion to the value they put on them; to point out to them what they should value is to tell them what they should do’.5

These sentiments, taken from two works in which Rousseau gives practical advice for the reconstruction of a social and political order, in which he acts the part of a legislator, seem far removed in spirit from the plan of education set out in Emile. Emile is taught to think for himself; or, better still, is drawn into situations in which he has perforce to think for himself, and he acquires his principles in the process of dealing as best he can with the problems that face him, whereas what Rousseau appears to have in mind in the passages I have quoted from his later works is more akin to training people to have the standards and loyalties which the trainer or educator thinks they ought to have.

Yet there is really no question of Rousseau’s changing his mind as he grew older. Emile appeared in 1762, the same year as the Social Contract, the Project for Corsica was written in 1765, and the Considerations on Poland in the last months of 1771 and the first of 1772. In both the Project and the Considerations, Rousseau remains true to his ideal of popular government: the Corsicans, a primitive and still uncorrupt people, are to have from the beginning legislative assemblies, and the Poles, more civilized, more unequal, and more corrupt, are to move by stages towards having them. In the Considerations, just as much as in the Project, Rousseau’s clear intention is to apply principles formulated in the Social Contract to the circumstances of a particular people. Thus, if there is here a contradiction or a gap in Rousseau’s thought, it is not between his ideas at one period and another; it is rather between different aspects of his thought, between ideas that he held simultaneously.

The sentence in the Considerations about the true republican sucking in love of the fatherland with his mother’s milk ends with the words: ‘that is to say, [love] of the laws and of liberty’.6 In one way or another, there is a great deal said about liberty in the Considerations. Rousseau, though he agrees that the Poles must put an end to the anarchy which makes them a prey to their neighbours, warns them that ‘repose’ and liberty are incompatible; and the context suggests that liberty thrives on conflict. He also tells the Poles that the laws of liberty are more austere than is the yoke of tyrants, and that liberty is too heavy a burden for peoples weakened by servitude. Liberty, he implies, is for strong peoples; that is to say, not for the passive and the patient under the yoke, but for patriots active in the defence of their institutions and their laws.7 He warns the Poles that they can only achieve freedom with difficulty and by stages, since most of them are still serfs, but he never speaks of freedom as if it were (p.265) burdensome to a free people. To them, presumably, it is a way of life; they bear willingly the obligations and sacrifices it imposes on them. Freedom is precious to people who have experienced it; who have acquired their ideas about it, not from books, but from life.

In the eyes of Rousseau, patriotism and liberty are intimately connected. To the liberal today the connection seems less close than it did to him; for the liberal sees in patriotism a threat to freedom as well as a support of it. This difference of opinion (or should I say of emphasis?) between Rousseau and the modern liberal is due, I suspect, partly to their having different conceptions of freedom, or rather different beliefs about the conditions in which it flourishes.

Rousseau mistrusted the ‘humanitarian’ or ‘cosmopolitan’, who ‘loves’ mankind but has no strong attachment to the people he belongs to by birth or education. He looked upon this all-embracing ‘love’ as an affectation, or as an excuse for neglecting the obvious duties to people close to oneself. Genuine concern for others begins in narrow circles, and is only gradually extended.8 But Rousseau, though he favoured patriotism, was opposed to national self-aggrandisement: he condemned all attempts to expand the frontiers of one’s country at the expense of its neighbours. He advised the Poles to shorten their frontiers so as to include only Poles inside them, and to give up trying to be a Great Power.9

No doubt, for Rousseau, as for everyone, patriotism is love of one’s country or people, attachment to its traditions and culture. But for him it is also, and above all, attachment to the laws and institutions of the political community one belongs to. When he thinks of it in this way, he has in mind, not any laws and institutions, but the laws and institutions of a people who feel themselves responsible both collectively and individually, for the independence and well-being of the community. Patriotism, in this sense, is less the attribute of the subject than of the citizen; it is virtue, as Machiavelli or Montesquieu thought of it.10 It is essentially a republican sentiment: the attachment of equals to the community they belong to and serve. Just as patriotism helps to maintain freedom, so freedom helps to maintain patriotism. For patriotism, in this sense, is not loyalty to a king or a political superior, or attachment to the traditions and mores of one’s people merely because they serve to distinguish it from other people’s; it is the devotion of the equal and the free to the community in which they are free and equal.

Rousseau tells the Poles that the great inequalities of wealth among them are an obstacle to the reforms needed to make patriotism the ‘dominant passion’; by which he means the dominant political passion. Not only in the Considerations but in his other (p.266) writings, he exaggerates the extent to which inequalities of wealth or status weaken devotion to the community and the citizen’s readiness to make sacrifices for its sake. The very rich, he thought, lack patriotism; they are loyal to their class rather than to their country.11 As for the poor, they have too small a stake in the country to care much for it. Rousseau did not want a strict equality of wealth, but he wanted inequality in this respect limited so as to preserve political equality, the kind that matters most because without it the citizen will not act independently, on his own judgement, when he carries out his duties to the community.

As I shall try to show later, Rousseau failed to see that patriotism, even the republican kind, can be a threat to moral freedom. There is a ‘contradiction’ between two important aspects of his thought, or at least a failure to reconcile them. But there is also, as he insisted, a close connection between patriotism—which for Rousseau always includes public spirit—and freedom. Patriotism, as the word is often used today, is no doubt compatible with political apathy, or even with uncritical devotion to a leader or party; but as Rousseau used it, it emphatically is not.

Even in Emile, the work in which, more than in any other, he insists on independence of mind and on the need to withstand the corrupting influences of conventional ways of thinking and feeling, Rousseau says: ‘Good social institutions are the ones best suited to make a man unnatural, to deprive him of self-sufficiency (existence absolue) and to make him dependent, to carry his self over into the community, so that he no longer looks upon himself as a unit but as part of a unit, and has the feelings of someone who belongs to a larger whole (et ne soit plus sensible que dans le tout)’.12 The educated man, the moral being, necessarily lacks self-sufficiency; he has wants which not only cannot be satisfied without the help of others but which arise out of his feelings for them and theirs for him. If he is to be morally free, he must, of course, have independence of mind; but he must also, so Rousseau assumes, be ‘morally at home’ in his community, must have much the same standards and ideals as the bulk of his fellow-citizens.

Emile, because he lives in a corrupt society, is educated without benefit of good social institutions; and yet his education, so Rousseau gives us to understand, is such that he would be at home in a community having such institutions. But, unfortunately, Rousseau does not explain what is involved in ‘carrying the self over into the community’. If we interpret him as meaning ‘identifying oneself with the community’ or ‘feeling at home in it’, we are no closer to understanding him, for these expressions, though more familiar to us, are as vague as the ones he uses.

It is a mistake to assume, as Rousseau does, that the citizen can achieve moral freedom only in a community whose citizens share the same ideals and standards. It sounds plausible, no doubt, if only because he would be seriously thwarted if his aspirations came into conflict with socially enforced rules. But Rousseau goes further (p.267) even then this: he also takes it for granted that in a community of equals who think for themselves, everyone will in fact have much the same standards as everyone else, will have a ‘constant will’ in keeping with the general will. He assumes both that to be free a man must be ‘morally at home’ in his community, and that he will be at home in it, at one with it, if it is so organized that he and his fellow citizens have the independence of mind which is a condition of moral freedom. But this is to assume far too much.

In Emile Rousseau does not enquire how Emile should be educated to be ‘morally at home’ in his community, for that community is corrupt; he explains only how he is to be educated to acquire independence of mind in a corrupt society. He merely takes it for granted that a child so educated would be at home in a self-governing community of equals. On the other hand, in the Considerations on Poland, where he has more to say about public education than in any other of his works, he does not enquire how education should be organized to produce independence of mind; he confines himself to giving advice about how Polish children should be trained to love their country.13 No doubt, he assumes that their country is eventually to become a self-governing community of equals, but the education he prescribes is an education for patriotism rather than for freedom. In Emile we have a long treatise on the private education of a child in a corrupt society, and in the Considerations a short chapter on the public education of children in a society to be gradually reconstructed until it is no longer corrupt. What, unfortunately, we do not have in any of Rousseau’s works is even the sketch of a system of education designed to bring children up to be both patriotic and of independent mind; or, in other words, to be worthy citizens of a self-governing community of equals.

If we look at what Rousseau says about public education in the Considerations, we will find nothing which, in strict logic, is inconsistent with teaching children to think for themselves. Organized games intended to encourage a team spirit and a spirit of competition, and ceremonies designed to enhance patriotic sentiments, do not preclude a child’s acquiring independence of mind. But in themselves they are not enough to ensure that he does acquire it. Whether or not they do promote this independence depends on what they are combined with, on the other ingredients of the system of education of which they are a part. Of these other ingredients we learn nothing from Rousseau. History records that methods not unlike those described in the Considerations have sometimes been used to produce zealous and unquestioning obedience to irresponsible leaders and blind hostility to whatever those leaders choose to attack. That Hitler and Mussolini would have endorsed the greater part of what Rousseau says about public education in the fourth chapter of the Considerations is not, I admit, conclusive evidence (p.268) that what he advocated there is necessarily a threat to freedom. But it could be, and has been, a threat; and Rousseau says too little about it to reassure us.

iii Quite deliberately, I have spoken of Rousseau’s idealization of patriotism and have refrained from calling him a nationalist or an apologist for nationalism. Though he has been treated as one of the earliest exponents of nationalism, and even as the earliest, I must confess that I do not see him as one.14 There is little trace in his writings of concern for national identity as such, for the preservation of practices and modes of feeling and thinking which are valued above all because they distinguish one people from another. This concern for national or cultural identity for its own sake, which I take to be the heart of nationalism, seems to me much stronger in Herder than in Rousseau. It is, surely, Herder who has the better claim to be considered the father of nationalism; for it was he who thought it important that every people should preserve the language and the culture which make them a part of humanity separate from the rest. He saw in the variety of national cultures an enrichment of mankind. A people who neglect the cultural inheritance peculiar to them, who take up foreign ways without drinking deep at native sources, weaken themselves culturally and spiritually, become less creative and more imitative, and therefore have less to give to the world. Herder, unlike many later nationalists, was not a political nationalist. He did not advocate the union of the Germans in one state. But he was a cultural nationalist, and the political nationalism of a later age was an extension of his creed: it was the doctrine that a people sharing a distinctive culture of their own should unite politically the better to preserve and develop it.15

Rousseau—so it seems to me—was neither a cultural nor a political nationalist. He knew that the Poles did not want to divide their country up into a number of small states, and so he proposed that they should set up a federal system. If they had wanted to break up their country into smaller states, he would presumably not have objected; or, if he had objected, would have done so on the ground that they needed to stick together to prevent their powerful and greedy neighbours from swallowing them up, piecemeal. If Prussia, Austria, and Russia had broken up into smaller states, it would have been entirely in the spirit of his philosophy that Poland should do so too.

To be sure, Rousseau did think it important that citizens of the same state should have the same values, and that they should be proud of their community. He recognized that in practice they would not take this pride in it unless they cared for its traditions and in general for whatever was distinctive about it. But to him all this mattered only because of its political and moral effects, and not because the preservation of a distinct national or cultural identity is in itself desirable. It mattered because it enhanced the feeling among citizens that they belonged to the same political community, and was therefore a condition of equality and freedom. What Rousseau believed (p.269) in was more like the patriotism of the Spartans or Romans, or of his own Genevan compatriots or of Machiavelli’s Florentines before they were corrupted than it was like the cultural nationalism of Herder or the political nationalism of Mazzini. Calvin’s Geneva, as idealized by Rousseau, was not established to preserve a national identity; it was established to make possible a new or at least regenerate way of life, a return of Christianity to its true nature, a reign of virtue. Calvin, the ‘legislator’ of Geneva, was as much a foreigner there as Rousseau would have been in Corsica, if the had gone there to help put his advice into practice.16

iv The most strikingly illiberal part of the Social Contract is the chapter on Civil Religion.17 It goes against Rousseau’s own idea of moral freedom much more than does the often quoted sentence from the seventh chapter of Book I, which says that ‘whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be constrained to do so by the whole community, which means only that he will be forced to be free.’18 It is, of course, absurd to speak of a man being literally forced to be free; but it is not absurd, nor even a threat to freedom, to suggest that he can rightfully be punished for disobeying a law made by an assembly in which he takes part on equal terms with others, on the ground that, by taking part in it, he commits himself to this obedience and so by his own act makes himself liable to punishment if he disobeys. This may not be an adequate account of the grounds of political obligation, but there is nothing, as far as I can see, pernicious about it, nothing dangerous to freedom. More pernicious, more dangerous, is the assertion in the same chapter, that ‘the sovereign, merely by virtue of being what it is, is always as it ought to be’, even though the sovereign (for Rousseau) is not any person or body having supreme legislative authority but only an assembly of all the citizens taking part as equals in reaching collective decisions.19 To attribute infallibility, or even invariable concern for justice, to any assembly, no matter how constituted, can be dangerous to freedom.

But this cryptic utterance, which stands in need of interpretation if sense is to be made of it, is not as cruelly illiberal as one of the proposals he makes in the course of his argument for what he calls a civil religion. He begins the argument by saying: ‘There is a purely civil profession of faith whose articles should be fixed by the sovereign, not exactly as religious dogmas but as sentiments of sociability without which it is impossible to be a good citizen or a loyal subject. Without being able to oblige anyone to believe them, [the sovereign] may banish from the state whoever does not believe them; it can banish him, not as impious, but as unfit for society (insociable).’20 These necessary articles of faith affirm the existence of an intelligent, benevolent, and (p.270) provident God, a life to come in which the just are made happy and the wicked punished, and the sanctity of the social contract and the laws. These, we are told, are the positive dogmas. There is only one that is negative, against intolerance: whoever holds that there is no salvation outside the Church must be driven out of the state—presumably on the ground that he cannot feel as he ought towards fellow-citizens whom he believes to be damned.

No liberal would agree that there should be a religious creed that citizens should subscribe to on pain of punishment. But there is much worse to follow. For Rousseau goes on to say in the same paragraph: ‘Anyone who, having acknowledged these dogmas then behaves as if he did not believe them, should be punished with death; he has committed the greatest of crimes, he has lied before the law.’ This last proposal, if we stop to consider its implications (which perhaps Rousseau did not do) is atrocious. Atrocious and absurd. What sort of behaviour is to count as evidence of disbelief in these dogmas? Is the mere expression of opinions inconsistent with them enough? Or must it be behaviour of a kind that sincere belief in the dogmas is supposed to discourage?

Neither alternative makes sense. Even if it were true that people who do not hold certain religious beliefs are more likely than others to behave in ways that endanger the social order, we could never be sure that someone who behaved in one of these ways did not in fact hold these beliefs. If we punish him, we ought surely to do so for the dangerous behaviour of which we know him to be guilty, and not for disbelieving what he professes to believe, a belief which can ordinarily be imputed to him only on the weakest evidence. If the penalty for the bad behaviour were less than death, it would be monstrous to put him to death on the ground that his behaviour laid him open to the suspicion of not believing what he professed to believe. And if the behaviour were so bad as to deserve death, why not punish him with death on account if it, without enquiring into his beliefs or disbeliefs? On the other hand, if he does no more than reject beliefs he once held, or express opinions inconsistent with them, why punish him for changing his mind, or for inconsistencies of which he may not even be aware? And if, in general, he behaves well, why not take this good behaviour as evidence that he can be relied upon to be just and law-abiding despite his disbelief? In La Nouvelle Héloise Rousseau describes Wolmar, who marries the heroine of the novel, as a virtuous atheist.21 Clearly, he did not believe that no atheist can be a good citizen but merely that atheists are less likely than believers to be good citizens. He believed that people without faith in a benevolent God are more prone to despair and cynicism than they would be with it, and therefore more liable to harm others and themselves: a questionable belief, though one still widely held in his day. But, even if the belief were true, it could not justify the proposals made in the last chapter of the Social Contract.

(p.271) Nothing as atrocious and absurd as these proposals is to be found in the writings of Hobbes. Hobbes distinguished between propagating beliefs held to be propitious to order and requiring people to hold these beliefs. The sovereign should provide for the teaching of such beliefs and should forbid their being challenged, but he cannot in fact compel anyone to hold them and ought not to make the attempt. Nothing as unreasonable, and as destructive of the mutual trust on which order depends, as punishing people with death for not believing what they profess to believe, ever crossed the mind of Hobbes.22 Nor, of course, the mind of Locke, when in his Letter Concerning Toleration he argued that atheists and Catholics should not be tolerated. He wanted them excluded from toleration because he believed them to be unreliable citizens, but he did not advocate putting them to death for ‘lying before the law’.23 Even the religious persecutors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries stopped short of wanting people punished for insincerity or for the peculiar offence of ‘lying before the law’; their aim rather was to prevent sincere believers in what they (the persecutors) held to be false and pernicious doctrines from corrupting the faithful.

v The last chapter of the Social Contract is more than just inconsistent with Rousseau’s idea of moral freedom. We do not need to accept that idea to object to his doctrine of civil religion as both cruel and dangerous. We could sustain the objection even if we agreed with Hobbes about the nature and functions of political authority and of religious beliefs. Nothing else as objectionable as this doctrine is to be found in Rousseau’s writings. Nevertheless, even without it, there is an illiberal side to his philosophy.

There is, first, the failure to reconcile the idea of moral freedom with the assumption that in the self-governing community of equals, citizens will have the same values, the same ideas about what is ultimately desirable. Rousseau assumes that this will be so without explaining why it should be.

Why should we assume that men who think for themselves and do not take their opinions on trust will agree about what is ultimately desirable, and will disagree only about the best means of achieving it? That there will be a general will which is the constant of each of them? To be sure, unless men had some standards in common, they could hardly live together peaceably in the same community, or at least not without some of them having a sense of being oppressed. But, surely, the believer in moral freedom, rather than assume (or prescribe) complete agreement between all citizens about the proper ends of law and public policy, should enquire how far they need to agree about them to be able to form a community together in which moral freedom is (p.272) maintained. He should enquire how far they need to agree, and how far they can afford to disagree. But this Rousseau never does.

He does not, of course, assume that the citizens in his self-governing community of equals will have precisely the same wants and preferences, that they will have the same personal ambitions; for these will vary with their occupations and social roles, and with their temperaments. But he does assume that they will have the same conception of justice and the same ideas about what ends are worthy of pursuit. That they might have to settle for methods of reaching collective decisions which seem to them just, without always, or even very often, agreeing that the decisions themselves were just or otherwise beneficial, seems not to have occurred to him.

What is lacking above all in the philosophy of Rousseau, the champion of moral freedom, is the idea that men who put a high value on independence of mind should respect the right of others to live by principles which they themselves reject, to pursue ends which by their standards are unworthy. Tolerance in this sense meant nothing to Rousseau. Yet the lack of it must be dangerous to moral freedom, unless it is true that men who think for themselves, who come by their principles by reflecting critically on their own experience (which is what Emile’s tutor encourages him to do) do in fact share the same values. But there is no good reason for believing that they do.

No doubt, where men’s ideas about what is just or otherwise desirable differ greatly, it is not easy for them to agree about what rights should be secured to the individual to give him freedom without invading the freedom of others. There will always be some people who argue that rights are defined too narrowly and who complain that their freedom is unjustly restricted. Rousseau was not exactly wrong in holding that moral freedom is the greater, the more men share the same values; but his belief is true only if it is suitably qualified, only if it is stipulated that they prescribe the shared values to themselves—that is to say, that they consider them critically and accept them because they see the point of doing so. If they accept them uncritically, then they are not morally free, no matter how much they are of one mind, how little frustrated, how fully contented with their lot. Their contentment and agreement are in themselves no evidence that they are morally free.

The idea of moral freedom is not only sophisticated but modern.24 Rousseau’s two favourite peoples in the ancient world, the Spartans and the Romans of republican times, were without it, and Rousseau does not suggest otherwise. We should expect the idea to arise and to gain wide acceptance, not in a small community (even a self-governing one) in which social discipline is strong and men share the same values, but in a larger, more complex, and culturally less homogeneous society, in which men have, and are aware that they have, different and incompatible values. Some of them, frightened by this cultural diversity in which they see a threat to order, may look back with nostalgia to the past. Not perhaps to the past as it actually was but as they imagine (p.273) it to have been, when men were of one mind about the really important things. The lost harmony cannot, they may think, be restored except in a strongly disciplined society with a system of education which aims at restoring it. This response to cultural and moral diversity is as old as Plato. But there is another response different from the Platonic, a response which may be called liberal. It is possible to accept some such idea as Rousseau’s of moral freedom, and to look for forms of social discipline and education which promote it or at least are compatible with it.

Rousseau, instead of responding to cultural and moral diversity in one or other of these two ways, seems to have responded in both of them. He took up the idea of moral freedom and was the first to place it at the centre of his philosophy of man as a social and moral being, but he never fitted it into an appropriate political context. Instead, he dreamed of a small, tightly organized, culturally homogeneous community in which men would all share the same values and yet be morally free.

He did, of course, in Emile, describe in detail a type of education intended to produce a morally free person. But this was a highly expensive form of private education, since it called for one tutor for each child. He never described a system of public education for moral freedom. In the Social Contract he did try to show how social discipline might be reconciled with moral freedom, but the attempt was not wholly successful. He made assumptions which enabled him to avoid some crucial and difficult questions. For example, he assumed that when the people collectively make the laws, citizens will think for themselves (will have independence of mind) and will also agree about what the ends of law and policy should be. He assumed what needs to be proved: that in a community of equals everyone has the same ‘constant will’, the same ideas about the just and the desirable. For, if this cannot be proved, there is a problem to be solved which Rousseau never even faced: how is freedom to be established in a community in which men have widely different ideas about justice and about how men should live?

Contemplating Western society as it now is, we may be impressed by the prescience and perceptiveness of Rousseau’s attacks on it. It still has many of the defects he pointed to, and some of them have grown worse. He was the first to call seriously in question the peculiar modern faith in ‘progress’, the faith in which (until quite recently) the Western peoples’ belief in their own superiority was rooted.

He did not stop at attacking what he disliked: he also proposed an alternative. In the Social Contract he described in considerable detail a social and political order very different from the one he condemned. He had little hope that men corrupted by the established order would have either the will or the ability to follow his prescription for a just and free society, but he did not despair altogether. On the two occasions when he was asked for advice, first by the Corsicans and then by the Poles, the advice he gave was, on the whole, in keeping with the principles expounded in the Social Contract.

There is, I suggest, a more serious objection to him than that his ideal society is unrealizable. Unrealizable though an ideal may be, it can still provide us with a clearer conception than we might otherwise have of what we should aim at, even if it is out of (p.274) our power fully to achieve it. The more serious objection is that he failed to show conclusively that moral freedom would be achieved in his ideal society. This idea of freedom, whose most eloquent champion he was, in fact arose in the type of society he condemned. It arose along with the idea of progress which he rejected. We are therefore entitled to ask whether progress, even though it does not lead necessarily to this freedom and though it brings some great evils with it, is not after all a condition of its being achieved. If this idea of freedom is the product of a society in which science and man’s ability to control natural forces and his disposition to question all received beliefs and values are growing fast, is it not an idea which, if it is to be realized at all, must be realized in that type of society? But that type of society is not culturally and morally united, with everyone having much the same standards and ideals as everyone else. It is culturally and morally diverse, and if moral freedom is to be promoted within it, it must be so despite this diversity.


(1) The prime case is J. L. Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (1952).

(2) Primarily, Benjamin Constant, ‘The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns (1819)’, in Biancamaria Fontana, ed., Constant: Political Writings (Cambridge, 1988); Wilhelm von Humbolt, Sphere and Duties of Government (1792); John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (London, 1859).

(3) Emile, III: Foxley, p. 167; Bloom, p. 205.

(4) Considerations on the Government of Poland: Vaughan II, pp. 437–9; Gourevitch II, p. 189; Watkins, p. 176.

(5) Project of a Constitution for Corsica: Vaughan II, p. 344; Watkins, p. 325.

(6) Considerations on the Government of Poland: Vaughan II, pp. 437–9; Gourevitch II, p. 189; Watkins, p. 176.

(7) Ibid. Vaughan II, pp. 426–7; Gourevitch II, pp. 178–9.

(8) Emile I: Foxley, p. 7; Bloom, p. 39: ‘Distrust those cosmopolitans who search out the remote duties in their books and neglect those that lie nearest. Such philosophers will love the Tartars to avoid loving their neighbour.’

(9) Considerations on the Government of Poland: Vaughan II, pp. 426, 431, 442–3; Gourevitch II, pp. 178, 183, 194; Watkins, pp. 160–1, 167, 182.

(10) In his Author’s Forward to Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu writes: ‘What I call virtue in a republic is love of the homeland, that is, love of equality. It is not a moral virtue or a Christian virtue; it is a political virtue.’

(11) Considerations…: Vaughan II, p. 436; Gourevitch II, p. 188; Watkins, pp. 174–5. Corsica: Vaughan II, p. 330; Watkins, p. 308: ‘Everyone should make a living, and no one should grow rich.’

(12) Emile I: Foxley, p. 7; Bloom, p. 40.

(13) Considerations… ch. 4. Emile also begins with the example of the Spartan mother awaiting news from a battle in which her five sons are fighting. When the messenger says they have been killed she replies: ‘ “Vile slave, Was that what I asked thee? We have won the victory.” She hastened to the temple to render thanks to the gods. That was a citizen.’ Foxley, p. 8; Bloom, p. 40.

(14) For a similar line of argument, seeMaurizio Viroli, For Love of Country (Oxford, 1995), pp. 78–94.

(15) For an account of Herder’s work and a comparison with Rousseau’s, see F. M. Barnard, Self-Direction and Political Legitimacy: Rousseau and Herder (Oxford, 1988).

(16) See Helena Rosenblatt, Rousseau and Geneva: From the First Discourse to the Social Contract 1749–1762 (Cambridge, 1997).

(17) Social Contract IV, 8.

(18) Social Contract I, 7(8): Vaughan II, p. 36; Cole, p. 177; Gourevitch II, p. 53.

(19) Social Contract I, 7(3–5): Vaughan II, p. 35; Cole, p. 177; Gourevitch II, p. 52.

(20) Social Contract IV, 8(32): Vaughan II, p. 132; Cole, p. 276; Gourevitch II, p. 150.

(21) See Maurice Cranston, The Noble Savage: Jean-Jacques Rousseau 1754–1762 (London, 1991), pp. 240–1.

(22) Leviathan, ch. 40.

(23) John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration, ed. J. Tully (Indianapolis, IN, 1983 [1689]), p. 46: ‘the business of Laws is not to provide for the Truth of Opinions, but for the Safety and Security of the Commonwealth, and every particular mans Goods and Person…if Truth makes not her way into the Understanding by her own Light she will be but the weaker for any borrowed force Violence can add to her.’

(24) See also Hilail Gildin, Rousseau’s Social Contract: The Design of the Argument (Chicago, 1983), ch. 6, esp. p. 190.