“It would be difficult to find anywhere in the history of politics a more powerful and potentially revolutionary doctrine than Rousseau’s theory of the General Will. Power is freedom and freedom is power,” Robert Nisbet argued in his magnum opus, 1953’s Quest for Community.
True freedom consists in the willing subordination of the individual to the whole of the State. If this is not forthcoming, compulsion is necessary; but this merely means that the individual “will be forced to be free.” There is no necessity, once the right State is created, for carving out autonomous spheres of right and liberty for individuals and associations. Because the individual is himself a member of the larger association, despotism is impossible. By accepting the power of the State one is but participating in the General Will. Not without reason has the theory of the General Will been called a theory of permanent revolution.
In private correspondence, Nisbet took his own views even further, claiming Rousseau to have been “the real demon in the modern mind” and “the most malevolent genius of the whole modern era.” Had Rousseau not existed, the famous sociologist continued, there would have been no Lenin, no Stalin, and no Hitler.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau has long been the bête noire of the conservative movement and for good reasons. In his own works—but especially in his Rousseau and Romanticism—Irving Babbitt offered a criticism comparable to that of Nisbet, but a full generation earlier. Russell Kirk, Eric Voegelin, and William F. Buckley had no love for Rousseau either.
Conservative criticism of Rousseau, though, began over two centuries ago, with Edmund Burke’s public attack on him in 1791, correctly identifying him as the touchstone of the French Revolution.
Every body knows that there is a great dispute amongst their leaders, which of them is the best resemblance to Rousseau. In truth, they all resemble him. His blood they transfuse into their minds and into their manners. Him they study; him they meditate; him they turn over in all the time they can spare from the laborious mischief of the day, or the debauches of the night. Rousseau is their canon of holy writ; in his life he is their canon of Polycletus; he is their standard figure of perfection. To this man and this writer, as a pattern to authors and to Frenchmen, the founderies of Paris are now running for statues, with the kettles of their poor and the bells of their churches.
Rousseau, as a talented but arrogant sentimentalist, appealed to the worst aspects of human desire, Burke lamented. He had made a false virtue of his eccentricities, a degree of madness in Burke’s eyes. For a myriad of reasons, Burke feared, Rousseau “was impelled to publish a mad Confession of his mad faults, and to attempt a new sort of glory, from bringing hardily to light the obscure and vulgar vices which we know may sometimes be blended with eminent talents. He has not observed on the nature of vanity, who does not know that it is omnivorous.” Thus, Rousseau and his teachings had become a form of disease, desired by those unwilling to practice real restraint, real proportionality, and real justice. In short, Rousseau employed Christian terminology, but he undermined Christianity itself. After all, Burke rightly concluded, “True humility, the basis of the Christian system, is the low, but deep and firm foundation of all real virtue.” Unlike Rousseau’s virtue—again, a sort of self-centered justification of faults, attempting to turn them into attractions—Christian morality is “very painful in the practice, and little imposing in the appearance.”
Rousseau, it appeared, could speak endlessly about benevolence and good will toward humanity as a whole while hating those individual persons actually closest to him.
It is that new-invented virtue which your masters canonize, that led their moral hero constantly to exhaust the stores of his powerful rhetoric in the expression of universal benevolence; whilst his heart was incapable of harbouring one spark of common parental affection. Benevolence to the whole species, and want of feeling for every individual with whom the professors come in contact, form the character of the new philosophy. Setting up for an unsocial independence, this their hero of vanity refuses the just price of common labour, as well as the tribute which opulence owes to genius, and which, when paid, honours the giver and the receiver; and then he pleads his beggary as an excuse for his crimes. He melts with tenderness for those only who touch him by the remotest relation, and then, without one natural pang, casts away, as a sort of offal and excrement, the spawn of his disgustful amours, and sends his children to the hospital of foundlings.
While Burke’s attacks on Rousseau might seem excessively personal—and, to some degree, they most certainly were—Rousseau’s political philosophy, to be sure, mimicked his own failures as a father and as a person, while also calling upon the work of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Bizarrely, Rousseau combined the authoritarianism of Hobbes with the libertarianism of Locke, thus only freeing man from his own follies and transferring all responsibilities to the collective.
To attenuate the chaos inevitable in a state of nature, Rousseau claimed, men must “act in concert,” solidifying into a collective whole. A social compact, then, improperly implemented, will collectivize without freeing. “To find a form of association that will defend and protect the person and goods of each associate with the full common force and by the means of which each, uniting with all, nevertheless obey only himself and remain as free as before,” serves as the central paradox for a social compact. As a solution, Rousseau continued, man must break ties with all subsidiarity associations and subdivisions—that is, from his spouse, his children, his school, his business, his faith, his fraternal order, etc.—becoming fully a citizen of the whole. In other words, the only association that will function properly, is the association of the whole, each man utterly equal to every other man before the group as a whole. A true social compact must demand “the total alienation of each associate with all of his rights to the whole community.” If so constructed, he claimed, “each gives himself entirely, the condition is equal for all, and since the condition is equal for all, no one has any interest in making it burdensome to the rest.” Even if one individual did want to claim more for himself than for his fellows, he would fail as he has no practical or theoretical basis to a claim. Only the claim of equality works, each exactly the same as each. The claim to equality can, additionally, only be enforced by the whole, as creating a superior or representative would deny the equality. As a collective, if one loses, all lose. If one gains, all gain. “If, then, one sets aside everything that is not of the essence of the social compact”—such as family, school, church, and corporation—“one finds that it can be reduced to the following terms; Each of us puts his person and his full power in common under the supreme direction of the general will; and in a body we receive each member as an individual part of the whole.”
Burke, Babbitt, and Nisbet had just cause in their demonization of Rousseau. His democratic-collectivist thought has shaped not just the murderous tyrants of the last century but also their less vicious counterparts within the modern left. The left of today speaks only of groups, races, sexes, and collectives. Like Rousseau, the modern left loves humanity but thinks next to nothing of the human.
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The featured image is “The Snake Charmer” (1907) by Henri Rousseau (1844-1910), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.