E. Belfort Bax

Jean Jacques Rousseau

(July 1912)

Rousseau, British Socialist, Vol.I, No.7, 15 July 1912, pp.289-293.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The 18th century was one of great activity in all directions, and was prolific in writers who may be regarded as protagonists of 19th century thought. But of the writers of the 18th century there are two who above all others were instrumental in moulding its thought and forming its public opinion and who, in popular estimation, pre-eminently represent their century on its intellectual side. These two outstanding personalities are François Marie Arouet de Voltaire and Jean Jacques Rousseau. The latter was many years the younger of the two, having been born in 1712, the present year being thus the two-hundredth anniversary of his birth, while Voltaire was born in 1694. Rousseau came of a French family established in Geneva, where his father was a watchmaker. His mother dying at childbirth and his father practically deserting him while still young, he was educated and apprenticed through his maternal uncle. Running away from his master he commenced that wandering career so graphically described in his Confessions.

Of his writings, his prize essay A Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, published in 1749, was the one that laid the foundation of his fame. The somewhat artificial attack upon Civilisation and intellectual culture caught on at once and made him a hero in the mid-eighteenth century. It was followed by an essay on The Origin of Inequality, in which the fundamental positions of his great work The Social Contract were first laid dawn. The Contrat Social itself, which formed the Bible of the French Revolution, the “Gospel of Jean Jacques,” according to Carlyle, was published at Amsterdam in 1762. More immediately successful, and of more profit to the author was his celebrated novel, Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloise, and Emile, a work in which his theories of education and his sentimental deism (in an excursus called The Confession o£ a Savoyard Vicar) were propounded. But his great historical title to fame undoubtedly rests with his Contrat Social. In his Essay on Inequality, Rousseau traces all injustice and all inequality to a departure from a state of nature. All distinctions of governors and governed of rich and poor, of master and servant, are a violation of nature, which created all men equal. It is on the basis of this inequality that all the miseries, the tyrannies, and the slaveries of civilised society grow up. Pursuing this line of thought, which he lead originally started in his prize essay on The Origin of the Arts and Sciences, in the Contrat Social, Rousseau proceeds to discuss the basis of the Social State as we know it. In order to remedy the present state of affair it is necessary to find out the manner and the occasion of the change from natural equality to social inequality. This he finds to have been in the recognition at certain stage of the weakness of individual action and the advantage of combined action in the protection and the furtherance of the individual and his interests. Hence arose the Social Contract, or the Social Pact which was nothing else but an agreement among primitive men to become members, each in his own interest of an organised society. The fundamental problem, of which the Social Contract gives the solution, is, in the words of Rousseau, “to found a formal association which defends and protects with all the common force the person and the goods of each associate, in such wise that each, uniting himself to all, obeys nevertheless himself only and remains as free as he vas before.” Only so long as the latter condition is observed is the Social Contract valid. The moment in any given society the conditions of the Contract are violated, be it by never so little, the Contract is rendered null and void, and each individual regains his original right of independence and freedom of action. The tacit, if not avowed, conditions of the Social Contract are that each puts his own person and force at the control of the, general will, provided that the general will recognises the integrity of his personal rights. The collective association based on the Social Pact, once in being, has a common life and a common will outside the lives and wills of its constituent members. In ancient times this common life was called the city, now it is called the republic or the body Politic, which again is called state when it is passive and sovereign when it is active. Considered as the collective body of its members, it is termed the people; these members as individually partaking of the common sovereignty are termed citizens and as being submitted to the law subjects. On the basis of the foregoing notions Rousseau builds up his theory of the rights of man and of the citizen, of the sovereignty of the people, of the liberty of the individual, etc., the whole forming the groundwork of the French Revolution on its intellectual side. Throughout the Revolutionary period we find the ideas of Rousseau, especially as embodied in the Contrat Social, repeated, applied, and appealed to as axiomatic and indisputable truths in thousands of speeches, pamphlets, and newspaper articles, not alone in Paris, but throughout the length and breadth of France. Never before has any book acquired within the space of one generation such a stupendous influence over mankind as the Contrat Social of Jean Jacques Rousseau.

The theory, however, was not original to Rousseau as regards its fundamental conception of the basis of organised society being a contract entered into by mankind “once upon a time,” since this had previously been, enunciated by other writers, notably by Thomas Hobbes in the previous century, who made it the basis of his doctrine of absolute monarchy. According to Hobbes the contract having once been made, involving the autocracy of the king, is inviolable and unalterable: for Rousseau and the other revolutionary writers of the 18th century the people were sovereign, and any encroachment on this sovereignty on the part of the rulers of mankind for the time being, of itself renders the compact null and void.

The whole theory is, of course, unhistorical, unanthropological, and generally absurd, judged from the standpoint of our present knowledge. There never was on land or sea such a compact as that supposed. We now recognise social or super-organic life to be a growth, equally with the organic life which has preceded it in the order of natural evolution. There are salient differences, of course, differences in kind, if you will as well as in degree. There is the purposive psychological element in human nature which is apparently absent in the earlier forms of nature, and this element of conscious moulding and adaptation tends to assert itself more and more in the higher stages of social evolution. But at the period when the fabled Social Contract was supposed to have been made, that is in the earlier stages of social life, the element of conscious determination in the moulding of human affairs was, for practical purposes, as good as wholly absent, Social development was determined by tribal custom and naive primitive habits of thought. Man was then led by inherited tendency and not by reasoned conviction; by group-instinct based on tribal necessities and not by the conscious determination of individual wills. All this, of course, was veiled from the mind of the 18th century For the latter there was no such thing as evolution. So far as the essential of things human were concerned, “as things were in the beginning they are and ever shall be,” was its motto. Man was always the same and society was always the same to all intents and purposes, save in matters of detail. Everything was regarded from the juridical point of view – i.e., from that of consciously-made law and its formulae. Moses and Lycurgus were law-givers and moralists like Pitt and Dr. Johnson. The thinker of the 18th century was for the most part content to postulate as facts what it thought ought to have been the origins of things and to argue from them as such. Reeking little of economic history, knowing less of comparative anthropology and mythology, all its ancient history consisting of an uncritical recapitulation of the statements of classical historians, its outlook was at once limited and distorted.

Rousseau was a typical child of his century. With a perfectly sincere pity and concern for the lot of the disinherited he sought the solution of the social problem of his day along lines of thought with which it was familiar, and which, indeed, were the only ones possible to him. His great historical importance consists in his having voiced the sentiments and sentimentalism of millions throughout France, and, indeed, throughout Europe. Like all men of first-rate importance in history, his greatness is due as much or more to the fact of his arriving at the moment when the times were ripe for him than for any inherent intellectual or moral qualities in his personality. There are other obscure writers of the 18th century who had more glimpses of truths subsequently recognised as such, and hence more originality than Rousseau, but they are forgotten, and Rousseau lines and will live in the memory of mankind to all time.

Rousseau laid the intellectual foundation of the French Revolution, or, at least, he was the chief figurehead of those who laid it. But he died in 1776, thirteen years before the opening of the great drama in which he was so pre-eminently the guiding spirit and from which the modern era of history may fairly be dated.


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