Monday, June 20, 2011

Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift, I

In this first excerpt from Paul Rahe's book Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift,  which I wrote of here, Professor Rahe is talking about Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his book The Social Contract, specifically the four kinds of laws, the political, civil, criminal, and the fourth "most important kind", the unwritten laws "which is engraved neither in marble nor in bronze but in the hearts of the citizens", made up of ""mores, of customs, and... opinion."
Even in his discussion of this fourth species of law, Rousseau understates the magnitude of the challenge facing the lawgiver, for the importance he attributes to mores, customs, and opinions derives from the fact that, like Machiavelli, Hobbes, Hume, and Montesquieu, he denies that man is a political animal.  In consequence, he observes, the polity depends on artifice, and
a man who dares to undertake the institution of a people must sense that he is in a condition to change, so to speak, human nature; to transform each individual who by himself is a whole perfect and solitary, into part of a much greater whole from which each individual receives in a certain fashion his life and his being; to alter the contribution of man for the purpose of giving it added strength; to substitute an existence partial and moral for an existence physical and independent which we have all received from nature.  In a word, it is necessary that he remove from man the strengths belonging to him in order to give him strengths which are foreign to him and which he cannot use without the help of others.  The more that these natural strengths are dead and annihilated, the more those acquired are great and durable, the more the institution is solid and perfect.  Insofar as each Citizen is nothing, is able to do nothing except with all the others, and the strength acquired by the whole is equal or superior to the sum of the natural strength of all the individuals, one can say that the legislation is at the highest point of perfection that it can attain.
While we often praise a team as being an example of "The whole is greater than that sum of the parts", Rousseau takes this to an extreme which approaches blasphemy for the average American (and reaches it, for some of us).

Rousseau would seem here to be denying that the very individuality of the individual, that which distinguishes us from other social animals, has any value. 

Authoritarian dictators love this reasoning, of course.  "You are nothing without the state!"  It doesn't matter whether they say it in French, German, Italian, Russian, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, or with an accent from somewhere near the Loop, they'll try and convince one and all that the individual citizen's (subject's, peasant's, proletarian's) life only has meaning in the context of service to, and services from, the Motherland, the Fatherland, the Homeland.

Tall tree, short rope, some assembly required.

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