For the study of the great writers and thinkers of the past, historical imagination is the first necessity.
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Without mentally referring to the environment in which they lived, we cannot hope to penetrate below the inessential and temporary to the absolute and permanent value of their thought. Theory, no less than action, is subject to these necessities; the form in which men cast their speculations, no less than the ways in which they behave, are the result of the habits of thought and action which they find around them.
Great men make, indeed, individual contributions to the knowledge of their times; but they can never transcend the age in which they live. The questions they try to answer will always be those their contemporaries are asking; their statement of fundamental problems will always be relative to the traditional statements that have been handed down to them. They will be most the children of their age, when they are rising most above it. Rousseau has suffered as much as any one from critics without a sense of history.
He has been cried up and cried down by democrats and oppressors with an equal lack of understanding and imagination.
His name, a hundred and fifty years after the publication of the Social Contract, is still a controversial watchword and a party cry. He is accepted as one of the greatest writers France has produced; but even now men are inclined, as political bias prompts them, to accept or reject his political doctrines as a whole, without sifting them or attempting to understand and discriminate. He is still revered or hated as the author who, above all others, inspired the French Revolution.
At the present day, his works possess a double significance. They are important historically, alike as giving us an insight Edition: current; Page: [ viii ] into the mind of the eighteenth century, and for the actual influence they have had on the course of events in Europe. Certainly no other writer of the time has exercised such an influence as his.
He may fairly be called the parent of the romantic movement in art, letters and life; he affected profoundly the German romantics and Goethe himself; he set the fashion of a new introspection which has permeated nineteenth century literature; he began modern educational theory; and, above all, in political thought he represents the passage from a traditional theory rooted in the Middle Ages to the modern philosophy of the State. He is, in fact, the great forerunner of German and English Idealism.
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The statesmen of the French Revolution, from Robespierre downwards, were throughout profoundly affected by the study of his works. Though they seem often to have misunderstood him, they had on the whole studied him with the attention he demands. In the nineteenth century, men continued to appeal to Rousseau, without, as a rule, knowing him well or penetrating deeply into his meaning. The Social Contract, then, may be regarded either as a document of the French Revolution, or as one of the greatest books dealing with political philosophy.
It is in that capacity also that it will be treated in this introduction. Taking it in this aspect, we have no less need of historical insight than if we came to it as historians pure and simple. To understand Edition: current; Page: [ ix ] its value we must grasp its limitations; when the questions it answers seem unnaturally put, we must not conclude that they are meaningless; we must see if the answer still holds when the question is put in a more up-to-date form.
First, then, we must always remember that Rousseau is writing in the eighteenth century, and for the most part in France. Neither the French monarchy nor the Genevese aristocracy loved outspoken criticism, and Rousseau had always to be very careful what he said.
The Social Contract and Discourses
This may seem a curious statement to make about a man who suffered continual persecution on account of his subversive doctrines; but, although Rousseau was one of the most daring writers of his time, he was forced continually to moderate his language and, as a rule, to confine himself to generalisation instead of attacking particular abuses.
This is in many ways its great strength; but where it is excessively so, the accident of time is to blame. In the eighteenth century it was, broadly speaking, safe to generalise and unsafe to particularise. Scepticism and discontent were the prevailing temper of the intellectual classes, and a short-sighted despotism held that, as long as they were confined to these, they would do little harm.
Subversive doctrines were only regarded as dangerous when they were so put as to appeal to the masses; philosophy was regarded as impotent. The spirit of the age favoured such methods, and it was therefore natural for Rousseau to pursue them.
But his general remarks had such a way of bearing very obvious particular applications, and were so obviously inspired by a particular attitude towards the government of his day, that even philosophy became in his hands unsafe, and he was attacked for what men read between the lines of his works.
It is owing to this faculty of giving his generalisations content and actuality that Rousseau has become the father of modern political philosophy. He uses the method of his time only to transcend it; out of the abstract and general he creates the concrete and universal. So many critics have spent so much wasted time in proving that Rousseau was not original only because they began by identifying originality with isolation: they studied first the Social Contract by itself, out of relation to earlier works, and then, having discovered that these earlier works resembled it, decided that everything it had to say was borrowed.
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No mere innovator could have exercised such an influence or hit on so much truth. Theory makes no great leaps; it proceeds to new concepts by the adjustment and renovation of old ones. Just as theological writers on politics, from Hooker to Bossuet, make use of Biblical terminology and ideas; just as more modern writers, from Hegel to Herbert Spencer, make use of the concept of evolution, Rousseau uses the ideas and terms of the Social Contract theory.
We should feel, throughout his work, his struggle to free himself from what is lifeless and outworn in that theory, while he develops out of it fruitful conceptions that go beyond its scope. In this volume are contained the most important of his political works. Of these the Social Contract, by far the most significant, is the latest in date. It represents the maturity of his thought, while the other works only illustrate his development.
In the following year, this work, having been awarded the prize by the Academy, was published by its author. Refutations of his work were issued by professors, scribblers, outraged theologians and even by the King of Poland. Rousseau endeavoured to answer them all, and in the course of argument his thought developed.
From to the publication of the Social Contract and Emile in he gradually evolved his views: in those twelve years he made his unique contribution to political thought. The Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, the earliest of the works reproduced in this volume, is not in itself of very great importance. Rousseau has given his opinion of it in the Confessions.
But whatever gifts a man may be born with, he cannot learn the art of writing in a moment. The first Discourse neither is, nor attempts to be, a reasoned or a balanced production.
At the most, it is only a rather brilliant but flimsy rhetorical effort, a sophistical improvisation, but not a serious contribution to thought.
He is merely using a single idea, putting it as strongly as he can, and neglecting all its limitations. Here we see him at the beginning of the long journey which was to lead on at last to the theory of the Social Contract.
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In appeared the Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of Inequality among Men, which is the second of the works given in this volume. With this essay, Rousseau had unsuccessfully competed in for a second prize offered by the Academy of Dijon, and he now issued it prefaced by a long Dedication to the Republic of Geneva. Thus half the Discourse on Inequality is occupied by an imaginary description of the state of nature, in which man is shown with ideas limited within the narrowest range, with little need of his fellows, and little care beyond provision for the necessities of the moment.
In one of the long notes appended to the Discourse, Rousseau further explains his position. He does not wish, he says, that modern corrupt society should return to a state of nature: corruption has gone too far for that; he only desires now that men should palliate, by wiser use of the fatal arts, the mistake of their introduction.
He recognises society as Edition: current; Page: [ xiii ] inevitable and is already feeling his way towards a justification of it. The second Discourse represents a second stage in his political thought: the opposition between the state of nature and the state of society is still presented in naked contrast; but the picture of the former has already filled out, and it only remains for Rousseau to take a nearer view of the fundamental implications of the state of society for his thought to reach maturity.
Rousseau is often blamed, by modern critics, for pursuing in the Discourses a method apparently that of history, but in reality wholly unhistorical. But it must be remembered that he himself lays no stress on the historical aspect of his work; he gives himself out as constructing a purely ideal picture, and not as depicting any actual stages in human history. The use of false historical concepts is characteristic of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and Rousseau is more to be congratulated on having escaped from giving them too much importance than criticised for employing them at all.
It would not, however, be safe to conclude from this that its date is really later. The Discourse on Inequality still has about it much of the rhetorical looseness of the prize essay; it aims not so much at close reasoning as at effective and popular presentation of a case. But, by reading between the lines, an attentive student can detect in it a great deal of the positive doctrine afterwards incorporated in the Social Contract.
Especially in the closing section, which lays down the plan of a general treatment of the fundamental questions of politics, we are already to some extent in the atmosphere of the later works. It is indeed almost certain that Rousseau never attempted to put into either of the first two Discourses any of the positive content of his political theory.
They were intended, not as final expositions of his point of view, but as partial and preliminary studies, in which his aim was far more destructive than constructive. It is clear that in first conceiving the plan of a work on Political Institutions, Rousseau cannot have meant to regard all society as in essence bad.
It need, therefore, cause no surprise that a work probably written before the Discourse on Inequality should contain the germs of the theory given in full in the Social Contract. He begins with a discussion of the fundamental nature of the State, and the possibility of reconciling its existence with human liberty, and goes on with an admirable short study of the principles of taxation.
He conceives the State as a body aiming at the well-being of all its members and subordinates all his views of taxation to that end.
He who has only necessaries should not be taxed at all; superfluities should be supertaxed; there should be heavy imposts on every sort of luxury. The first part of the article is still more interesting. Rousseau begins by demolishing the exaggerated parallel so often drawn between the State and the family; he shows that the State is not, and cannot be, patriarchal in nature, and goes on to lay down his view that its real being consists in the General Will of its members.
The essential features of the Social Contract are present in this Discourse almost as if they were commonplaces, certainly not as if they were new discoveries on which the author had just hit by some happy inspiration. The Social Contract finally appeared, along with Emile, in Henceforth, he was to write only controversial and confessional works; his theories were now developed, and, simultaneously, he gave to the world his views on the fundamental problems of politics and education.
The Social Contract contains practically the whole of his constructive political theory; it requires to be Edition: current; Page: [ xv ] read, for full understanding, in connection with his other works, especially Emile and the Letters on the Mount , but in the main it is self-contained and complete.
The title sufficiently defines its scope. Rousseau himself, in the fifth book of the Emile, has stated the difference clearly.
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His desire is to establish society on a basis of pure right, so as at once to disprove his attack on society generally and to reinforce his criticism of existing societies. Round this point centres the whole dispute about the methods proper to political theory. There are, broadly speaking, two schools of political theorists, if we set aside the psychologists. One school, by collecting facts, aims at reaching broad generalisations about what actually happens in human societies; the other tries to penetrate to the universal principles at the root of all human combination.
For the latter purpose facts may be useful, but in themselves they can prove nothing. The question is not one of fact, but one of right. Rousseau belongs esentially to this philosophical school. He is not, as his less philosophic critics seem to suppose, a purely abstract thinker generalising from imaginary historical instances; he is a concrete thinker trying to get beyond the inessential and changing to the permanent and invariable basis of human society.
Like Green, he is in search of the principle of political obligation, and beside this quest all others fall into their place as secondary and derivative. This is the fundamental problem of which the Social Contract provides the solution.
How, Rousseau asks, can the will of the State help being for me a merely external will, imposing itself upon my own? How can the existence of the State be reconciled with human freedom? How can man, who is born free, rightly come to be everywhere in chains?
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No-one could help understanding the central problem of the Social Contract immediately, were it not that its doctrines often seem to be strangely formulated.
Thus at the very outset we are faced with the great difficulty in appreciating Rousseau. Elsewhere Rousseau puts the point much as we might put it ourselves. It is clear that the position is not merely that of the Discourses.