Modern Political Thought Essay Sample
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Modern Political Thought Essay Sample
* JJ Rousseau Born in Geneva in 1712. Mother died in childbirth, raised by father and relatives. He was apprenticed in his early teens but ran away when he was 16. He fell under the influence of the of his protector Mme de Warens, a catholic proselytiser who gave him free run of her home and library in return for his becoming her lover. During his time with her he immersed himself in study – becoming a self made intellectual – a writer, composer and music critic, novelist, botanist and political philosopher.
Rousseau left for Paris in 1742 where he became familiar with many of the chief thinkers of the French Enlightenment. In 1750 he entered a competition from the Academy of Dijon and won with his Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, in which he famously argues that the spread of science and literature was morally corrupting. It was society and its ways that posed a threat to man, not a solution to his base and corrupt nature.
* The Discourse on Inequality (1755): for and against the Enlightenment: society is the cause of inequalities and war amongst men; but man is capable of self-improvement, and of compassion towards others. In the Social Contract, published in 1762, he sets out to describe which kind of political society would enable us to remain free, equal, to live in peace and to express our compassion for others- the kind of society, in short, that best fits our nature as human beings.
JJR Published Emile in 1762 in the same year as the Social Contract. These were condemned and he fled Paris seeking refuge in Switzerland, Prussia and England. He became increasingly paranoid and difficult to like. He was also ill and in considerable discomfort which didn’t help. He had a great falling out with Hume, who was one of his benefactors. He died in 1778.
Critique of the State of Nature
Unlike Hobbes, Locke, Grotius and Pufendorf, Rousseau is at once on of Social Contract Theory’s greatest critics as well as one of its most significant exponents.
All the ‘natural’ features of state of nature theories presuppose social institutions, passions and interests that have their origin in the subsequent development of civil and political society.
If we are serious about nature we need to look at it free from the accretions of society. Rousseau looks beyond all sociability to find natural man – this is the true state of nature. His argument draws on emerging evolutionary theories and anthropological theories about the origin of human nature. His view is profoundly un-Christian.
1. Not only is he denying that our nature is given once and for all – all men have a similar nature created by God, a view the contract theorists build upon.
2. He also denies that human nature is corrupt or fallen as both state of nature arguments assume and as Christian ideas of the fall assume. In fact JJR is suggesting that SofN theories only derive their plausibility from ideas like ‘The Fall’ which are then read back onto the evidence.
3. Though this draws on ideas of social evolution in identifying primitive social forms – Rousseau’s theory is not progressive. In fact he shares one feature of contemporary Darwinian theories which is their neutrality. Change is not progress – such teleological views are rooted in Christian ideas of providence with redemption as the goal. Secularised views of this teleology give us a belief in progress – but progress as Rousseau tells us, is not progress it is just change.
In nature, men are of limited sociability because it is not needed, they have limited uncomplex wants , food, sex, shelter, and the avoidance of pain. They live in an environment where these are easily supplied. So no social division of labour and no need for cooperation. Cultivation and agriculture need explanation when man has all he needs by nature. JJR challenges two important features of the traditional contract view
a. Contrary to Hobbes no main fears violent death in nature ‘Now savage man, being destitute of every species of enlightenment, can have no passions save those of the latter kind: his desires never go beyond physical wants. The only goods he recognises in the universe are food, a female, and sleep: the only evils are pain and hunger. I say pain and not death: for no animal can know what it is to die: the knowledge of death and its terrors being one of the first acquisitions made by man in departing from an animal state.’
b. Contrary to Locke, because of natural abundance there is no reason to cultivate the earth. After all if one plants a field what good reason is there for someone else not t despoil what is common. Remember private property is a social practice and Locke is guilty of attributing this social institution back into the pre social state in order to account for political authority.
But how do we get to society if the natural condition is so benign. ‘The Poets tell us it was gold and silver, but for the philosophers, it was iron and corn which first civilised men and ruined humanity’.
With the discovery of agriculture and metallurgy – inequality starts to emerge. Skill and abundance are possible and it is these which start to create society and the social division of labour.
We also create social institutions which corrupt out natures by being built on amour proper or egoistic self-love.
Our natural love of self (amour de soi) is merely concerned with our preservation – this does not put us into conflict one with another, and it is coupled with pity as a minimal concern for others not suffering pain. But with the growth of property as a result of metallurgy and agriculture we get the development of egoistic individualism which leads to the search for honour, prestige, power, status and privilege amour propre. This is the pride that we find in Hobbes’ state of nature. These are social creations from the acceptance of property, but they are also the source of corruption and conflict.
As such they cannot be part of the solution – thus building political relationships on these motives is merely to enshrine them in the political world we find ourselves in. The social contract is not the solution it is the problem – it takes socially conditioned conceptions of man and generalises these into maxims that underpin the state.
This links to Rousseau’s reflections on the Abbe St Pierre’s Plan for Perpetual Peace, through a federation of States.
St. Pierre offers a typically Enlightenment view of what is necessary to sustain the system of nations as a society of law, based on a federation of the ruling monarchs of Europe. Rousseau takes an apparently Hobbesian view of the folly of this proposal. It is all very well as an ideal but will collapse in practice because of its sources in man’s corrupted nature.
The Evil Contract
We then have the ‘Evil’ contract, this is an alternative story of the rise of government – and is an oblique attack on Pufendorf. JJR has explained the basis of the emergence of society from the growth of technology – agriculture and metallurgy. He begins a long line of philosophical hostility to the idea of technology as liberating. Instead it is seen as the source of tyranny in that it makes certain new social relations possible – this is an idea taken up by Marx in the way in which he sees the mode of production as the source of the relations of production. But the idea is also important to conservatives and increasingly to contemporary theorists of environmental liberation. It is corrupting and makes possible relations of domination. ( Conservatives and Jeffersonian republicans tend to draw a distinction between agriculture and industry where the latter is more suited to technology – Rousseau is more radical) yet all see technological innovations as profoundly unnatural.
What is the evil contract? Rousseau offers an account of how the few can come to dominate the subject many. How is it that those who must have least power come to dominate the majority. In particular how that which is common comes to be not only individuated into private property but into UNEQUAL private property. Pufendorf offers an account of how we consent to private property as a way of preserving ourselves and in so doing we create a state in which we are given the force and protection of private rights. This for Rousseau involves the institutionalisation of inequality and it does so for two reasons
1. Because there is no fair baseline for the agreement so that each is given an equally valuable fair share.
2. Secondly the institution once made is irrevocable and therefore enshrines the power of the technological elite. For Pufendorf it is an alienation contract – once and for all. Once the weak farmers and metallurgist dominate they become strong.
But why is this a contract? Because as Hobbes shows it can only be on the basis of an agreement or consent. If someone puts up a fence in the state of nature what is to stop us all taking it down? Nothing except superior force or the fact that we are duped into accepting it as beneficial. So agreement and consent to our own domination is essential for creating the state.
Why is it evil? Because it institutionalises inequality – something that does not exist in the natural condition. Inequality or power is a human creation. (as such it must be something we can unmake – hence the revolutionary consequences of JJR’s thesis)
This what makes him a theorist of historical reason? He sees nature as immanent in social practices, but still takes a conception of nature as a regulative ideal against which we can criticize those practices. So that we can talk of corruption because we can conceive of nature being other than it is.
We can be different, we reason and will can overcome the corrupting features of traditional property relations and the state. Historical reason provides us with a way of seeing both the conceptions of nature underpinning Hobbesian realism and the universalist conceptions of natural law in Pufendorf and Locke as historical creations. This creates a potential contradiction of the pessimism of The Discourses, because it does suggest the possibility of progress and development where they did are explicitly neutral on the idea of social progress and evolution.
How do we overcome the tyranny of interest? Through a renewed conception of political society based on the idea of a social contract – but a conversion contract that allows us to reconcile our natural freedom and independence with the existence of political rule.