Sunday, December 30, 2007

Rousseau part 1

Finished reading Rousseau's "Discourse on the Origin of Inequality". Am very impressed. This is one of the best written tracts justifying political revolution that I've seen, better than "Common Sense" by Thomas Paine, who is generally over rated. Many of the things that have been written about the longish paper don't make a lot of sense when you read it. First of all, the idea that Rousseau is praising a sort of "Noble Savage" doesn't really jibe with the first part of it, where he describes his idea of people living in a state of nature by asserting that things like love didn't exist back then. The idea that he advocates going back to a sort of Robinson Caruso scenario isn't right either because he points out what he considers his ideal stage of society to be and it's halfway between the original state of nature and developed society. If you take a lot of what he writes in the second section literally, especially towards the end and especially if you haven't read the first part (the thing is sometimes actually split into a "First discourse" and a "Second discourse" even though they're one paper), you could think that he was over idealizing this sort of state. He's really affectionate for it, to be sure, but some of the affection that he puts on it is a sarcastic dig at present society, which he contrasts with people living in a "savage" state. Irony and sarcasm is thick in it, like when after talking about the abuses of monarchs he quotes Louis XIV, infamous for being one of the biggest despots in European history, talking about how a King or lord is still bound by the law of the land.

I gather that what Rousseau is advocating isn't a return to nature but a popular subduing of political institutions as well as large concentrations of wealth, bringing the State under popular control and redistributing property and business/industrial wealth.

It's really strange because if you compare the Discourse with the Social Contract you'd think that they were written by two completely different people. Besides a difference in style, with the Discourse kind of flowing and the Social Contract being full of jargon, a lot of what Rousseau argues in the Social Contract seems to go against what he advocates in the Discourse. The Social Contract argues that people should give up all their rights to a legislator who will have total say in establishing a Constitution and Laws, it creates the idea of crimes against the social contract by people who don't believe in it, and it contains the infamous passage about "forcing people to be free" by coercing them to buy into the Social Contract.

Maybe "Le Contrat Social" will make more sense as the work of the same guy who wrote the Discourse if I reread it.

But check out the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. Available online for free.

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