Those on the conservative end of the political spectrum often depict Rousseau as a pre-Jacobin Jacobin, a radical egalitarian who would gladly see the streets run red with blood to establish a state where all distinctions among men are abolished. It is easy to succumb to this impression, particularly if one’s knowledge of Rousseau is restricted to the few lines of his that are most often brought forward as evidence of his radicalism.
“Man was born free, but everywhere he is in chains.” Who has not heard this famous line from the Social Contract? And what could it mean, except that Rousseau must be calling for a revolution to break the shackles that bind men? Yet Rousseau was not an apostle of revolution, as was Marx. The Social Contract does not end with a call to arms, as does the Communist Manifesto. In fact, to see that Rousseau was not calling for a rebellion, one has only to read and reflect upon the words that follow his famous assertion that “Man was born free, but everywhere he is in chains.” “How did this change come about, I do not know; what can make it legitimate, I believe I can answer that question.” Rousseau wants to make the chains that bind men legitimate ones; he does not propose to take them off or to “liberate” man. One can see already that, contrary to the popular caricature, Rousseau is no simple revolutionary.
What, then, are the chains that bind all men, and why does he want to make them legitimate rather than simply removing them? To answer these questions one must consult the Social Contract in its entirety. One must first grasp what Rousseau is trying to accomplish in this seminal work.
As it turns out, the chains that bind all men represent civil society itself. Man, according to Rousseau, originally lived as a solitary being. In this first or natural state, man provided for all of his needs through his own efforts. He was, therefore, independent or free; that is, independent or free of other men. Thus, as Rousseau put it, man was “born free.” Yet, for some reason, man has changed. Now he lives only in civil societies. Now he can no longer get along without his fellow man. Because he now stands in need of other men, he is no longer free. He is “everywhere in chains”; i.e., everywhere man lives in civil society.
Still, not every civil society is just or legitimate. In fact, according to Rousseau, few, if any, are. Rousseau, however, proposes to reveal what conditions a society must fulfill in order to be just or legitimate. He calls these conditions “the principles of political right.” In fact, the full title of Rousseau’s work is On the Social Contract, or the Principles of Political Right. Only by fulfilling the conditions of political right can a civil society be truly just or legitimate. To this extent Rousseau can claim, in revealing the principles of political right, to have made “men’s chains” legitimate, or at least to have shown how they could become legitimate.
This much having been explained, however, there still remains a great deal to unravel in the Social Contract. Among the many difficulties the reader encounters in deciphering this text, one in particular stands out. It is the tendency of the work toward abstraction. Rousseau, for instance, introduces the reader to the “general will,” which is distinct from any particular will or the will of the majority or even the will of all. He then proceeds to assert that “the general will cannot err.” But how can this be? What can he possibly mean? It is upon passages like these that one wishes for a reputable commentator to step in and shed a bit of light. Hilail Gildin’s new book on Social Contract serves the purpose nicely.
The subtitle of Gildin’s book, The Design of the Argument, refers to Gildin’s thesis that there is a certain order or pattern in the presentation of ideas in the Social Contract: Rousseau intends the careful reader to grasp this order. By attention to this order, one sees what Rousseau is attempting to do in the Social Contract, an enterprise whose end, Gildin argues, is not at first apparent.
It would seem at first glance, for example, that Rousseau simply denies the political relevance of human inequality. While recognizing that differences do exist among men, Rousseau does not think that such differences are sufficiently great to justify the rule by the superior as such over the rest. For this argument to be valid, the rulers would have to be as superior to other men as men are to beasts or as gods are to men. But Rousseau denies that this is the case. He thus rejects all claims to political authority based upon one man’s superiority to another.
Or so it seems at first. Later in the work, Rousseau turns to a discussion of the great men who are the founders of political societies. In this discussion he indicates that such founders so exceed their fellow men in wisdom that they are like gods compared to them. In contrast to his earlier text, Rousseau here recognizes that profoundly great differences do exist among men and that these differences do indeed have great political significance. Thus the thoughtful reader, who reflects back upon the earlier argument, begins to suspect that Rousseau’s thoughts on inequality are not as simple as they would first appear. Only through such close scrutiny, Gildin claims, is Rousseau’s intended teaching fully revealed.
For the Rousseau student who is struggling with the subtleties of the Social Contract, Gildin’s book is invaluable. Gildin cautiously walks the reader through Rousseau’s text, if not line by line, at least section by section. Along the way Gildin explores all the great themes of the book, such as the general will, the sovereignty of the people, the legislator, the various forms of government, civil religion, and so on. He attempts to show not only the essential unity of Rousseau’s book but its profundity as well.
Gildin’s commentary is clearly the fruit of prolonged meditation on Rousseau, and many of its arguments must be mulled over and weighed carefully before assent can be given. Nonetheless, even students who are just beginning the study of Rousseau can benefit from the book’s clear exposition of certain fundamental points. Gildin, for instance, explains at some length what Rousseau means in declaring his intention to combine justice and utility in his political teaching. Again, he explains the closely related proposal “to take men as they are.” These are both important propositions which Rousseau lays down at the beginning of his work. Without being alerted to their meaning and significance, one can easily miss the point. They are instrumental in explaining an insufficiently recognized fact about the teaching of the Social Contract, and one that may come as a shock to those who are familiar with only the prevailing caricature of Rousseau. To wit, Rousseau condemns democracy as an unworkable form of government!
Democracy is a government fit for angels, Rousseau proclaims, but not for men. In place of democracy, Rousseau actually proposes a certain form of aristocracy as the best form of government. Lest this be misunderstood, one must point out that the aristocracy Rousseau envisions is nonetheless based upon the sovereignty of the people. All legitimate governments, Rousseau contends, must be based upon the sovereignty of the people. Yet what manner of aristocracy can be based upon the sovereignty of the people?
The explanation of this paradox is that the government and the sovereign are, according to Rousseau, two distinctly different things. In fact the people, acting as sovereign, can choose any form of government they see fit, even a monarchy. But in this sense “the government” is only the executor of the people’s will, not their master. And institutional constraints must be placed upon the government to ensure that it remains so. What these constraints might be, and how Rousseau intends them to operate are admirably explained in Gilden’s book.
All of Rousseau’s works reflect the richness of his reading and his own direct observations. The reader of his works is constantly charmed by them, but just as frequently puzzled. As a result, he is motivated to understand them better and, through them, the world they purport to explain. In this endeavor, Gildin’s book makes a particularly useful contribution.