‘The Bond Among the Beings’

Rousseau ends The Social Contract by saying that he has yet to speak about the state’s foreign relations, international law, rights of war, commerce, and so on. In short, he can write an entire treatise on the ideal sovereign state without addressing these questions. This puts the matter too simply, of course. He does not go so far as Aristotle does, imagining a city with no foreign relations whatsoever – that would be a true Utopia, because it would never exist. But it serves to show the extent to which Rousseau thought the questions that we present-moderns take as primary – security, war, peace, external relations, markets, trade, THE ECONOMY – Rousseau thought to be secondary to the important question of the just and good regime.

Having said this, Rousseau gives a great deal of attention to the realities of a disparate natural, political, and social world in the often ignored or under-read third book of The Social Contract where he outlines very clearly what the art of the legislator would look like in practice. This method reaches its peak in Book IV Chapter IV when Rousseau discusses the ancient Roman example of Servius, and the reforms he instituted in Rome. And what do you find there? That Servius, the legislator whose exploits take up the longest chapter of the entire treatise, didn’t institute the “general will” but approximated it with reforms meant to sublimate “corporate wills” and upend the faulty “mythic” founding of Romulus and Numa (greek words for Force and Law). Neat facts almost always ignored by readers. In short, the “general will” is the new “city in speech” the new Kallipolis for us moderns. The Social Contract is not programmatic. One could go so far as to say that it is the most profound autobiography every written, with the tension between individual happiness and the happiness of the political community at the heart of the entire work (hence beginning with “je” and ending with “moi”).

But I’ve digressed a great deal.

The state of war is a fragmentary and unpublished work. Rousseau mentions working on this project in a letter to an editor, at the end of the teaching on Political Right in Émile, and as I’ve mentioned, at the end of The Social Contract. It even opens with the same self-referentiality: “I open the books on rights and ethics…” He compares reading the books of jurisconsults and moralists about the peace of civil society and the war of the natural condition to the peace of Odysseus’s companions in the cave of the Cyclops. That is, they are about to be eaten alive. Hardly peaceful. Here is how Rousseau defines the state of war:

Although these two words war and peace appear to be strictly correlative, the second has a much broader meaning, since it is possible to interrupt and to disturb peace in various ways without going as far as war. Repose, unity, concord, all the ideas of benevolence and mutual affection seem contained in this sweet word peace. It conveys to the should a fullness of sentiment that makes us love at once our own and other people’s existence, it represents the bond among the beings that unites them in the universal system, it has its full breadth only in the mind of God whom nothing that is can harm and who wants the preservation of all the beings he has created.

He goes on to demonstrate that the passions of society, amour-propre, and our relational judgments that will lead to war and the “steady, considered and manifest will to destroy one’s enemy”. This is not a natural passion. It is a social, artificial, one.

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