The impossibility of reason

This book presents an overview of Jean–Jacques Rousseau's work from a political science perspective. Was Rousseau — the great theorist of the French Revolution—really a conservative? The text argues that the author of ‘The Social Contract’ was a constitutionalist much closer to Madison, Montesquieu, and Locke than to revolutionaries. Outlining his profound opposition to Godless materialism and revolutionary change, this book finds parallels between Rousseau and Burke, as well as showing that Rousseau developed the first modern theory of nationalism. It presents an integrated political analysis of Rousseau's educational, ethical, religious and political writings.

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This introductory chapter sets out the purpose of the book, which is to re-open a dialogue with the classics. It attempts not only to see the masters in context—as has become popular among modern thinkers—but rather to seek inspiration from the great minds to deal with contemporary political problems. Rousseau—and indeed any other classic—is politically relevant only if he reveals timeless insights. If a classic cannot inspire he is nothing, and is better confined to the dustbin of failed political doctrines. This book is based on the premise that Rousseau speaks through the ages. It seeks to show that Rousseau, while he may not have the answers to contemporary problems, at the very least provides new angles and perspectives on the debate.

in The political philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau
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The life and times of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

This chapter presents an overview of Rousseau's life and times. More than any other writer Rousseau's philosophy has been associated with his life. There is something to be said for this interpretation. Without an understanding of his life it is difficult to appreciate why he wrote the works he wrote, and what he sought to accomplish. Yet his biographers have often presented an incomplete account of his life, one based only on his own autobiographical writings. The chapter challenges this tendency by using Rousseau's letters and eyewitness accounts by comtempories as well as his autobiographical writings to paint a more nuanced picture of the Swiss philosopher. It also presents the range of Rousseau's genius, which included operas, plays, novels, as well as political, economic, botanical, and theological writings. Rousseau's work is related to the geniuses who were inspired by his writings, such as Goethe, Kant, and John F. Kennedy.

in The political philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

This chapter outlines the major philosophical problem for Rousseau: the burden of modernity. It gives an account of Rousseau's place in the emerging world of modernity, and his opposition to secularism and scientism. It shows how his general philosophical—and theological—opposition to modernity underpinned his moral philosophy. Unlike liberal or utilitarian thinkers, Rousseau sought to base his moral judgements on emotions and sensibility, not on rational calculations. It is shown how this made him overcome the poverty of ethical theory that has characterised modernity—and how Rousseau invented post-modernism (with a pre-modern face). The chapter also contains a section on Rousseau's economic philosophy, in which it is shown that he—like Adam Smith—succeeded in transcending the economic theories of mercantilists and physiocrats. An analysis of the relationship between Rousseau and Burke is also presented. Often seen as adversaries, the chapter shows that Rousseau and Burke, in fact, were in agreement on the majority of issues, including opposition to revolutionary change, reverence for religion, and a preference for gradual reform.

in The political philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Rousseau as a constitutionalist

Often presented as a proto-totalitarian, Rousseau has traditionally been seen as an opponent of constitutionalism, checks and balances, and the separation of powers. Following a brief overview of the history of constitutionalism (from Moses to the French Revolution), this chapter compares Rousseau's political writings with the writings of constitutionalists like James Madison and Baron de Montesquieu. It shows that Rousseau shared the view that checks and balances are necessary for preventing the corruption of power and that he advocated a system of the separation of powers (and spoke highly of the British constitution. Yet, contrary to the other constitutionalists, Rousseau was a democrat. Whereas Montesquieu and Madison wanted the elites to check the elites (through the introduction of second chambers and constitutional courts), Rousseau emphasised that the executive ought to be checked by the people. He thus anticipated the political system that was instated by the American populists (including Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson). However, unlike other constitutionalists, Rousseau did not believe that institutions themselves would be sufficient for creating a good polity. He ceaselessly emphasised that political education was necessary for creating a good society.

in The political philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Rousseau’s and nationalism

Previously unrecognised by scholars of nationalism, Rousseau was, in fact, the founder of the modern doctrine of nationalism. This chapter shows how Rousseau succeeded in developing a case for social cohesion and the necessity of having a common culture in a society. In developing a case for nationalism as a ‘civic profession of faith’ he continued—and redeveloped—a doctrine begun by Machiavelli, which was later to be further elaborated by Alexis de Tocqueville and present-day theorists and practitioners of social capital, like the political scientist Robert Putnam and the English politician David Blunkett. It is argued that Rousseau accomplished the feat of developing a new doctrine of civic religion (i.e., nationalism) and that he succeeded in combining a defence for this doctrine with a new place for Christianity (which was consistent with the original apolitical teachings of Christ). The chapter also presents an account of Rousseau's thinking on international politics, including something as timely as an account of his opposition against the establishment of a European superstate.

in The political philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

This chapter presents some conclusions and shows that there was an internal coherence in Rousseau's thought. As befits a classical thinker, Rousseau's contribution to Western philosophy was rich in detail and even broader in scope. Like other critics of modernity, his philosophy was a showdown with a society marred by Godless materialism, absurd social inequalities, and unnatural inter-human relations. Men, argued Rousseau, would not be set free if left to himself. Liberty, as understood by Rousseau, could only be acquired once man had reconciled his natural, spiritual, and social sides of himself with the requirements of living in an advanced civilisation. He further argued that men could only be free when—or if—they recognised the imperatives of living in a family, in a republic and in harmony with a universe created by God.

in The political philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau
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In the beginning was song

This chapter presents an account of Rousseau's philosophy of music. Music was Rousseau's main passion, and this passion spilled over into his political writings in more ways than one. The whole tenor of his prose had a musical aura about it. His works were composed rather than written—which, perhaps, explains his eloquence. Readers of Rousseau's work in the original French have been struck by the rhythmical patterns. This musical quality was not unintended. Through the melodious tone he wanted to prove a philosophical point. Musicheld the key to restoring our original emotions, that natural ‘goodness of man’, which manifested itself in the natural compassion with suffering, weak, and unfortunate individuals. It is, perhaps, indicative that Rousseau—the thinker of natural goodness of man and a composer—never tired of stressing that music and song was man's first impulse.

in The political philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau