By BERNARD WALL Jean Jacques Rousseau was a Swiss Protestant by birth. When a young man he became converted to Catholicism. But his character impeded adherence to a fixed and firm belief and his will was undisciplined like a leaf in every wind. He led a wanderer's life, often in the direst poverty.
Rousseau has been called the father of modern political thought. But he is much more than that. No other writer perhaps summed up so plainly in his life and his work all the peculiar mixture of unrest and doubt, asceticism and luxury, romantic idealism and coarse desires, the yearning for an ideal state where all men would be happy and free and equal combined with difficulty in ordering his own life—those qualities which are the distinction of so many great modern writers of the first class. Though he lived in the second half of the eighteenth century, every page Rousseau wrote has an unmistakably modern tang.
Uncensored Confessions When he wrote his Confessions Rousseau tried to do something that no one had ever done before; which was to give a frank and complete portrait of the man Jean Jacques Rousseau down to the smallest detail of his mind's working, a record without reticence of his sordid as well as noble impulses.
The Confessions paved the way for much modern autobiographical literature.
Rousseau not only made articulate the feeling of the last half of the eighteenth century, the age of Voltaire, Diderot and D'Alembert, when society was beginning to crack, traditionalism had lost its intellectual roots, and even amongst the clergy there were many doubters; but he also provided for the coming age of the French Revolution what Carlyle called " the Fifth Gospel." The French materialist philosopher, Auguste Comte, said that Rousseau's most famous book, The Social Contract " raised more enthusiasm and faith than the Bible and the Koran."
Rousseau was to the French Revolution what Marx was to the Russian Revolution: each provided an inspired book.
No modern political thought is uninfluenced by the French Revolution. Its ideas influence our daily lives whatever our beliefs. And with the French Revolution modern Europe really begins.
Good Turned to Bad
Rousseau's idea of the state started out from his conception of the nature of man, a conception, however, almost exactly opposite to the Catholic conception of man.
Rousseau affirmed that man was naturally perfectible. Man was born good, like the " noble savage," but society corrupted him. "Man was born free, but he is everywhere in chains:" All men have a birthright to freedom and equality—Rousseau did not mean the social freedom and spiritual equality of Catholicism, but the freedom to follow one's instincts which were naturally good —and the problem of the Social Contract was to describe the form of government in which men could live with other men without sacrificing their complete freedom and natural instincts.
Rousseau, solves this difficulty by a fiction called the General Will. Society depends on a contract, that is, a free, freely chosen and reciprocal bond between the people who compose it.
This contract must be free because no man has 'by nature rights over his fellow men, and so the only way of establishing law lies in all accepting freely to be bound by the law which is the General Will.
" Each associate should make himself over with all his rights to the community."
" Each individual, in giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody: he gains the equivalent of all that he loses, plus greater strength to keep what he has."
This General Will is the basis of law and right, and it is not only the will of all the individuals that composes it but " what generalises the will . . . is the common interest which unites all."
The Beginning of Democracy
How is this General Will of the community going to be found out in' practice? Rousseau answers that it will be found out by free vote.
Is that to say, we may well ask, that in fact the will of the majority is the general will, and the minority is left in the cold?
Rousseau would reply that the minority, by freely accepting the state, and freely voting, has committed itself to abide by the decision of the majority as interpreters of the General Will. Moreover the majority vote is purified by each individual voter voting not for his own particular and immediate interest, but for the general good.
Because I have made a :free contract with the state—the Social Contract—I am now freer than I was before I made it, and the General Will is my will even though I have voted against its particular measures and been defeated by the majority.
Fettered by the State Because it is the free expression of the will of every individual composing it, Rousseau's state tends to have far greater powers over the individual in praCtice than any mere autocracy.
In practice it may turn out that f have no appeal against the state because it is said that I have made a free contract by residing in the state: bul that is, in fact, monstrously untrue.
1 could not reside anywhere else, or outside a state, and all I want is to have my essential human rights respected. It is this last that Rousseau's state cannot do. It is liable to explain away the grossest tyrannies and interferences in my essential rights by telling me that these interferences are by my own, i.e., the general, will.
Rousseau's theory would 'work in prac" tice if people were as good and disinterested and intelligent as he thought they were. But actually men are often jealous, acquisitive, ignorant and fickle, and consequently they may turn the immense new powers given to the state through the doctrine of the general will, into a means for one faction of the population tyrannising over the rest.
It is something more than a coincidence that Robespierre claimed to be a true disciple of Rousseau. It often happens that the more idealistic one is about human nature the more one is tempted to inter-fere with individual men because they do not live up to the ideal, and it is common to sacrifice the love for individual men for the sake of a love for " humanity."
Under the Wrong Flag
Rousseau has served as the basis for• justifying all those unfree and sectarian laws in France which tyrannise over individual groups, but especially over religious groups, in the name of " liberty, equality and fraternity."
Rousseau taught that no organisations were to be allowed to mediate between the absolute yet all-free state and the individual, and anything which militated against the " unity and sociability " of the citizens was to be removed. Extreme measures must be used against the intolerant sects to force them to be free. All religion must be brought under state control, and for the good of the state a " purely civil profession of faith " should be instituted, which only contains the beliefs necessary for social life.
Now this is precisely the theory of official education in France. The fact is that the French Republic is not only a system of government, it also has a whole philosophy behind it—it could almost be called a religious system—which is as distinctive in its way as Fascism is.
The whole educational system in France works to create a certain type of outlook and character on which the ideals of liberalism can be built, and in fact there is little difference in the methods it employs to foist this system on the French' youth than those employed in the effort to create a united German consciousness in Germany. Rousseau's conception of liberty is essentially intolerant,
It was perfectly in keeping with his theory that the religious orders should be banished from France, above all banished from having any influence over the young. The majority of educated Frenchmen are so sectarian owing to the conditioning they have undergone at school and the universities, that they cannot believe that a Catholic can also be a deeply intelligent man.
It was the French Revolution, with Rousseau's democratic ideals, which brought in the modern idea of " the citizen in arms "—i.e., universal conscription even in peacetime, which the non-democratic state of Louis XIV would never have been strong enough to enforce.
To take a more startling example. if ever ideas such as compulsory eugenics came into being in England, they would surely come in the name of liberty and progress. The majority might vote or them, through ignorance or the influence of demagogues—creatures whose existence Rousseau never really envisaged owing to his belief in man's natural goodness--hut this would not prevent their being a gross imposition on the minority which objected.
Rousseau is one of the first and greatest modern representatives of the false conception of human nature which derives its falseness from the denial of original sin, and he helped immensely to spread that half-unconscious prejudice, which grew like a snowball through the nineteenth century, that as soon as good -institutions had taken the place of our evil ones what we call crime and sin would largely cease to exist.
Other Utopias Other utopias. such as that of Karl Marx or William Morris, superseded Rousseau's utopia; but the creators of these utopias stood on Rousseau's shoulders and had the idea of man's perfectibility on earth deeply embedded in them. The majority of agnostic liberal writers share it to-day, as well
as socialists and comrrtunists. It is the malady of modern agnostic and " enlightened " man. It comes out week by week in the editorials of the New Statesman and Nation, and in things like the Left Book Club.
Obviously the doctrinaire democratic idea of the state, what is called " the mysticism of democracy," is thoroughly anti-Catholic, as is any attempt to describe democracy as the only just form of government, The Church does not teach that there is a " right to vote"; moreover, she holds that the decision of the majority as decided by vote may be misguided and wrong.
Democracy may provide a good working form of government, but beyond this Catholicism has nothing to say.
It is worth remembering that all the great modern states, whatever their political form, claim to rule according to the general will (which has been substituted for the old idea of the general good. though it is supposed to be synonymous with it)--sa claim which such different personalities as Blum and Hitler have in common.