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JEAN-JACQUES ROUSSEAU AND TOTALITARIANISM
Born in Geneva, Switzerland in 1712, Jean-Jacques Rousseau authored a series of philosophical essays between 1754 and his death in 1778, that had a decisive impact on political events in Europe and the world at large. Rousseau's theories about the "general will" inspired the political views of Maximilien Robespierre and other luminaries of the French Revolution, as well as of leading American revolutionaries like Thomas Jefferson. Contradictions abound in Rousseau's writings, however, as notions of liberty are described in connection with a vaguely defined "general will". The deterioration of the French Revolution into state-sanctioned bloodshed and terror demonstrated that the "general will" could be cited to justify either preserving liberty or enforcing oppression.
The select list of quotes below illustrates some of the more complex aspects of Rousseau's political ideology. It is not a comprehensive collection, but rather a sample of the most important ideas propounded by Rousseau in his writings.
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"The total alienation of each associate [from society], together with all his rights, to the whole community; for, in the first place, as each gives himself absolutely, the conditions are the same for all; and, this being so, no one has any interest in making them burdensome to others.
Moreover, the alienation being without reserve, the union is as perfect as it can be, and no associate has anything more to demand: for, if the individuals retained certain rights, as there would be no common superior to decide between them and the public, each, being on one point his own judge, would ask to be so on all; the state of nature would thus continue, and the association would necessarily become inoperative or tyrannical.
Finally, each man, in giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody; and as there is no associate over whom he does not acquire the same right as he yields others over himself, he gains an equivalent for everything he loses, and an increase of force for the preservation of what he has.
If then we discard from the social compact what is not of its essence, we shall find that it reduces itself to the following terms:
'Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole'."
"As soon as this multitude (i.e., the people) is so united in one body, it is impossible to offend against one of the members without attacking the body, and still more to offend against the body without the members resenting it. Duty and interest therefore equally oblige the two contracting parties to give each other help; and the same men should seek to combine, in their double capacity, all the advantages dependent upon that capacity.
... In order then that the social compact may not be an empty formula, it tacitly includes the undertaking, which alone can give force to the rest, that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free; for this is the condition which, by giving each citizen to his country, secures him against all personal dependence. In this lies the key to the working of the political machine; this alone legitimizes civil undertakings, which, without it, would be absurd, tyrannical, and liable to the most frightful abuses.
"The social compact sets up among the citizens an equality of such a kind, that they all bind themselves to observe the same conditions and should therefore all enjoy the same rights. Thus, from the very nature of the compact, every act of Sovereignty, i.e., every authentic act of the general will, binds or favours all the citizens equally; so that the Sovereign (i.e. the people) recognizes only the body of the nation, and draws no distinctions between those of whom it is made up."
"What man loses by the social contract is his natural liberty and an unlimited right to everything he tries to get and succeeds in getting; what he gains is civil liberty and the proprietorship of all he possesses. If we are to avoid mistake in weighing one against the other, we must clearly distinguish natural liberty, which is bounded only by the strength of the individual, from civil liberty, which is limited by the general will; and possession, which is merely the effect of force or the right of the first occupier, from property, which can be founded only on a positive title."
"The State, in relation to its members, is master of all their goods by the social contract, which, within the State, is the basis of all rights."
"This does not mean that the commands of the rulers cannot pass for general wills, so long as the Sovereign (i.e. the people), being free to oppose them, offers no opposition. In such a case, universal silence is taken to imply the consent of the people."
"If the general will is to be able to express itself, that there should be no partial society (i.e. groupings of men with common, but narrow, interests) within the State, and that each citizen should think only his own thoughts ... But if there are partial societies, it is best to have as many as possible and to prevent them from being unequal ... These precautions are the only ones that can guarantee that the general will shall be always enlightened, and that the people shall in no way deceive itself."
"If the State is a moral person whose life is in the union of its members, and if the most important of its cares is the care for its own preservation, it must have a universal and compelling force, in order to move and dispose each part as may be most advantageous to the whole. As nature gives each man absolute power over all his members, the social compact gives the body politic absolute power over all its members also; and it is this power which, under the direction of the general will, bears, as I have said, the name of Sovereignty."
"When the whole people decrees for the whole people, it is considering only itself; and if a relation is then formed, it is between two aspects of the entire object, without there being any division of the whole. In that case the matter about which the decree is made is, like the decreeing will, general. This act is what I call a law."
"If we take the term in the strict sense, there never has been a real democracy, and there never will be. It is against the natural order for the many to govern and the few to be governed. It is unimaginable that the people should remain continually assembled to devote their time to public affairs, and it is clear that they cannot set up commissions for that purpose without the form of administration being changed.
... There is no government so subject to civil wars and intestine agitations as democratic or popular government, because there is none which has so strong and continual a tendency to change to another form, or which demands more vigilance and courage for its maintenance as it is.
Were there a people of gods, their government would be democratic. So perfect a government (i.e. democracy) is not for men."
"It is the best and most natural arrangement that the wisest should govern the many, when it is assured that they will govern for its profit, and not for their own. There is no need to multiply instruments, or get twenty thousand men to do what a hundred picked men can do even better.
... If this form of government carries with it a certain inequality of fortune, this is justifiable in order that as a rule the administration of public affairs may be entrusted to those who are most able to give them their whole time, but not, as Aristotle maintains, in order that the rich may always be put first. On the contrary, it is of importance that an opposite choice should occasionally teach the people that the deserts of men offer claims to pre-eminence more important than those of riches."
"Lycurgus ... imposed on them an iron yoke, the like of which no other people ever bore; but he attached them to and, so to speak, identified them with this yoke by making it the object of their constant preoccupation. He kept the fatherland constantly before their eyes in their laws, in their games, in their homes, in their loves, in their festivals; he never left them an instant for solitary relaxation. And out of this perpetual constraint, ennobled by its purpose, was born that ardent love of country which was always the strongest, or rather the sole, passion of the Spartans, and which turned them into beings above the level of humanity. It is true that Sparta was only a city: but by the mere strength of its institutions, this city gave laws to the whole of Greece, became its capital, and made the Persian Empire tremble. Sparta was the centre from which its legislation spread its influence in all directions."
I do not like those distinctions between schools and academies which result in giving different and separate education to the richer and to the poorer nobility. All, being equal under the constitution of the state, ought to be educated together and in the same fashion; and if it is impossible to set up an absolutely free system of public education, the cost must at least be set at a level the poor can afford to pay. Would it not be possible to provide in each school a certain number of free scholarships, that is to say, supported at state expense, of the sort known in France as bursaries? These scholarships, given to the children of poor gentlemen who have deserved well of the country, given not as an act of charity but as a reward for the merit of the father, would thus become honourable, and might produce a double advantage well worth considering. To accomplish this, nominations should not be arbitrary, but made by a form of selection of which I shall speak hereafter. Those who have been chosen would be called children of the state, and distinguished by some honorific insignia which would give them precedence over other children of their own age, including even the children of magnates.
In every school a gymnasium, or place for physical exercise, should be established for the children. This much-neglected provision is, in my opinion, the most important part of education, not only for the purpose of forming robust and healthy physiques, but even more for moral purposes, which are either neglected or else sought only through a mass of vain and pedantic precepts which are simply a waste of breath.
They should not be allowed to play alone as their fancy dictates, but all together and in public, so that there will always be a common goal toward which they all aspire, and which will excite competition and emulation. Parents who prefer domestic education, and have their children brought up under their own eyes, ought nevertheless to send them to these exercises. Their instruction may be domestic and private, but their games ought always to be public and common to all; for here it is not only a question of keeping them busy, of giving them a robust constitution, of making them agile and muscular, but also of accustoming them at an early age to rules, to equality, to fraternity, to competition, to living under the eyes of their fellow-citizens and to desiring public approbation."
"I sense the difficulty of the project of freeing your common people. I am afraid not merely of the badly understood self-interest, the self-conceit, and the prejudices of the masters; if these were surmounted, I should also fear the vices and the cowardice of the serfs. Liberty is a food easy to eat, but hard to digest; it takes very strong stomachs to stand it. I laugh at those debased peoples who, allowing themselves to be stirred up by rebels, dare to speak of liberty without having the slightest idea of its meaning, and who, with their hearts full of all the servile vices, imagine that, in order to be free, it is enough to be insubordinate.
... To free the common people of Poland would be a great and worthy enterprise, but bold, perilous, and not to be attempted lightly. Among the precautions to be taken, there is one which is indispensable and requires time; it is, before everything else, to make the serfs who are to be freed worthy of liberty and capable of enduring it ... whatever happens, remember that your serfs are men like you, that they have in themselves the capacity to become all that you are. Work first of all to develop that capacity, and do not free their bodies until after you have freed their souls. Without this preliminary, you may be sure that your enterprise will fail."
"I think that it would actually be better for Poland to have an elective crown whose powers were absolute than a hereditary crown whose powers were practically nil."
"As long as private citizens have the power to resist the force of the executive, they will think they have the right to do so; and as long as they wage petty wars against each other, how can the state live in peace?"
"The most inviolable law of nature is the law of the strongest. No laws, no constitution can be exempted from this law."