Rousseau’s collectivism and statism

[This excerpt is from Chapter 4 of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault. Previous post: Rousseau’s Counter-Enlightenment.]

Rousseau’s collectivism and statism

Once the corruption is totally swept away, the project of building a moral society can commence. Naturally, the good edifice to be raised must start from a good foundation. The primitive state of nature was good, but unfortunately we cannot return to it. Reason, once awakened, cannot be dulled entirely. But neither can we tolerate anything that would lead us back to contemporary advanced civilization. Fortunately, history provides us with good models, for looking back upon most tribal cultures we find that their societies, maintaining a middle position between the indolence of our primitive state and the petulant activity of our egocentrism, must have been the happiest and most durable epoch. The more one reflects on it, the more one finds that this state was the least subject to upheavals and the best for man.[19]

The best we can do, accordingly, is to try to recreate in modern form a society on that model.

The re-creation must begin from a proper understanding of human nature. Contrary to the claims of the Enlightenment philosophes, man is naturally a passional animal, not a rational one.[20] Man’s deepest passions should set the direction of his life, and reason should always give way before them.

Passions are an appropriate foundation for society, since one of the deepest desires is to believe in religion, and, Rousseau believes, religion is essential to social stability. That desire to believe can and must override all Enlightenment objections. “I believe therefore that the world is governed by a powerful and wise will. I see it or, rather, I sense it.”[21] Rousseau’s feeling that God exists, however, did not provide him with much detailed information about the nature of God. God “is hidden equally from my senses and from my understanding,” so his feeling gave him only the sense that a powerful, intelligent, and good being created the world. The arguments of the philosophers about God not only did not clarify matters, they made things worse: “The more I think about it,” Rousseau wrote, “the more I am confused.”[22] So he resolved to ignore the philosophers—“suffused with the sense of my inadequacy, I shall never reason about the nature of God”[23]—and to let his feelings guide his religious beliefs, holding that feelings are a more reliable guide than reason. “I took another guide, and I said to myself, ‘Let us consult the inner light; it will lead me astray less than they lead me astray.’“[24] Rousseau’s inner light revealed to him an unshakeable feeling that God’s existence is the basis for all explanations, and that feeling was to him immune to revision and counter-argument: “One may very well argue with me about this; but I sense it, and this sentiment that speaks to me is stronger than the reason combating it.”[25]

This feeling was not to be merely one of Rousseau’s personal whims. At the foundation of all civil societies, Rousseau argued, one finds a religious sanction for what its leaders do. The society’s founding leaders may not always genuinely believe in the religious sanctions they invoke, but their invoking them is nonetheless essential. If the people believe that their leaders are acting out the will of the gods, they will obey more freely and “bear with docility the yoke of the public good.”[26] Enlightenment reason, by contrast, leads to disbelief; disbelief leads to disobedience; and disobedience leads to anarchy. This is a further reason why, according to Rousseau, “the state of reflection is a state contrary to nature and the man who meditates is a depraved animal.”[27] Reason, accordingly, is destructive to society, and should be limited and replaced with natural passion.[28]

So important is religion to a society, wrote Rousseau in The Social Contract, that the state cannot be indifferent to religious matters. It cannot pursue a policy of toleration for disbelievers, or even view religion as a matter of individual conscience. It absolutely must, therefore, reject the Enlightenment’s dangerous notions of religious toleration and the separation of church and state. Further: so fundamentally important is religion that the ultimate penalty is appropriate for disbelievers:

rousseau-jj-50x60“While the state can compel no one to believe it can banish not for impiety, but as an antisocial being, incapable of truly loving the laws and justice, and of sacrificing, if needed, his life to his duty. If, after having publicly recognized these dogmas, a person acts as if he does not believe them, he should be put to death.”[29]

A society properly founded on natural passion and religion will override the self-centered individualism that reason leads to, making it possible for individuals to form a new, collectivized social organism. When individuals come together to form the new society, “the individual particularity of each contracting party is surrendered to a new moral and collective body which has its own self, life, body, and will.” The will of each individual is no longer that individual’s own, but becomes common or general, and under the direction of the spokesmen for the whole. In moral society, one “coalesces with all, [and] in this each of us puts in common his person and his whole power under the supreme direction of society’s leaders.”[30]

In the new society, the leadership expresses the “general will” and enacts policies that are best for the whole, thus enabling all individuals to achieve their true interests and their true freedom. The requirements of the “general will” absolutely override all other considerations, so a “citizen should render to the state all the services he can as soon as the sovereign demands them.”[31]

Yet there is something about human nature, corrupted as it is now by reason and individualism, that militates and always will militate against the general will. Individuals rarely see their individual wills as being in harmony with the general will; consequently “the private will acts constantly against the general will.”[32] And so to counteract these socially destructive individualistic tendencies, the state is justified in using compulsion: “whoever refuses to obey the general will will be forced to do so by the entire body; this means merely that he will be forced to be free.”[33] The power of the general will over the individual will is total. “The state … ought to have a universal compulsory force to move and arrange each part in the manner best suited to the whole.”[34] And if the leaders of the state say to the citizen, “‘it is expedient for the state that you should die,’ he should die.”[35]

We thus find in Rousseau an explicitly Counter-Enlightenment set of themes, attacking the Enlightenment’s themes of reason, the arts and sciences, and ethical and political individualism and liberalism. Rousseau was a contemporary of the American revolutionaries of the 1770s, and there is an instructive contrast between the Lockean themes of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness in the Americans’ Declaration of Independence and Rousseau’s social contract oath for his projected constitution for Corsica: “I join myself—body, goods, will and all my powers—to the Corsican nation, granting to her the full ownership of me—myself and all that depends upon me.”[36]

Lockean Enlightenment politics and Rousseauian Counter-Enlightenment politics will lead to opposite practical applications.


[19] Rousseau 1755, 50.

[20] Rousseau 1755, 14.

[21] Rousseau 1762a, 276.

[22] Rousseau 1762a, 277.

[23] Rousseau 1762a, 277.

[24] Rousseau 1762a, 269.

[25] Rousseau 1762a, 280.

[26] Rousseau 1762b, 2:7.

[27] Rousseau 1755, 22.

[28] Rousseau extended the limiting of reason to limiting its tools of expression: “Considering the awful disorders printing has already caused in Europe, and judging the future by the progress that this evil makes day by day, one can easily predict that sovereigns will not delay in taking as many pains to banish this terrible art from their States as they once took to establish it” (1749, 61). And following the examples of Cato the Elder and Fabricius, Rousseau urged: “hasten to tear down these amphitheatres, break these marble statues, burn these paintings, chase out these slaves who subjugate you and whose fatal arts corrupt you” (1749, 46).

[29] Rousseau 1762b, 4:8.

[30] Rousseau 1762b, 1:6.

[31] Rousseau 1762b, 2:4.

[32] Rousseau 1762b, 3:10.

[33] Rousseau 1762b, 1:7.

[34] Rousseau 1762b, 2:4.

[35] Rousseau 1762b, 2:5.

[36] Rousseau 1765, 297, 350. See also 1762b, 1.9.

[This is an excerpt from Stephen Hicks’s Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Scholargy Publishing, 2004, 2011). The full book is available in hardcover or e-book at See also the Explaining Postmodernism page.]

3 thoughts on “Rousseau’s collectivism and statism

  • Pingback:Stephen Hicks, Ph.D. » Rousseau’s Counter-Enlightenment

  • January 6, 2010 at 2:46 pm

    From her works, it is apparent Ayn Rand admired the courageous pebble-droppers, the nails standing above the boardwalk that ruling elite might trip over, who challenged the established and accepted way things were done. It was the creative, imaginative individuals who followed a dream, a vision of some better way of living that she wrote about, not the socialist taker who envied the creative few even when enjoying the benefits of the pebble-dropper’s efforts. This was her focus. All other ingredients haters add to the interpretation of Ayn Rand’s ideas are simply mud to cloud the water. Whether she was atheist or Jewish, anti-Christian or self-centered means nothing. She believed she was OK and others, as individuals, were potentially OK as well, but herds were led by the few who would limit individuals and take from those who have to share with those who have not, and they and their leaders were not OK. Those who violently oppose Rand are the ones who want to retain the Old World ideals of a few elite ruling the many, as is being reintroduced to America by the Obama forces.

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