Jose Merquior
Rousseau and Weber

Plato held that contact with the body stains the sould; Rousseau, who significantly cites the Platonic myth of the soul's fall from purity in the preface of the Discourse on Inequality, replaces 'body' by 'society.' The 'great principle' of all his writings, said he at the outset of Emile ou de l'education, was just this: that nature made man good and happy, yet society depraved him and made him wretched.

Rousseau's real concern was not so much the assertion of man's congenital goodness as the denial of his intrinsic perversity. As such, it amounted, as is well known, to a rejection of Hobbes's view of the human condition. Not that eighteenth-century social theory waited for Rousseau to refute the gloomy anthropology of Leviathan: the first book of The Spirit of the Laws (an influential work, like Hobbes's, with which Rousseau was more than conversant) already discarded the idea of man's natural aggressiveness and endeavoured to show that it was a social, rather than human, phenomenon.

But Rousseau went far beyond Montesquieu's sober qualifications. Using his outstanding rhetorical skill, he built an impressive array of sweeping indictment of civilization, accusing the whole course of history of having betrayed justice and happiness. As he saw it, equality among men had been destroyed by the very pristine forms of the division of labour and private property. Since time immemorial, mastery of nature had been paid for with the bitter seeds of disquiet and oppression.

'It was iron and corn which first civilized men, and ruined humanity.' What was until so recently-until the coming of rabid conservationism-celebrated as 'the neolithic revolution'-Rousseau cursed as the original sin. So, the same man who removed the problem of evil from religion into politics also drew a powerful interpretation of history as a kind of lay Fall.

Rousseau was no crude primitivist. The idea of the 'noble savage' living in an utterly blissful 'state of nature' was a fable convenue of his time, but he took pains to warn that natural man, although not a bad fellow, was not a full moral being. Morality, as language, presupposes for Rousseau life in society. Rousseau's Arcadia, his image of mankind's golden age, did not coincide, for that matter, with any natural state, but rather with 'the youth of the world', the first stage in the evolution of society. At any rate, as the preface to the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality peremptorily asserts, the state of nature is only a 'hypothesis,' a conceptual device, a foil and yardstick which enables us 'to form a proper judgment of our present state' and measure the extent of mankind's deprivation.

In this hypothetical Rousseauian state of nature man is neither moral nor immoral, but rather amoral (provided we cleanse the term of its original Wildean flippancy). It was Locke, and not Rousseau, who fancied that natural man lived in a perfect moral condition, and thought man capable of achieving humanity before entering social relationships. It was the Lockean Condillac who stressed that biological (as distinct from social) man already contains within himself all of his species' perfectibility. For Rousseau, perfectibility, besides not being, as the Enlightenment was inclined to believe, automatic, is indissolubly linked to sociability. Thus the Rousseauian politicization of the problem of theodicy goes hand in hand with a veritable socialization of the idea of morality.

He therefore regarded justice, as much as evil, as something essentially social. And that is why Rousseau, always keen on paradoxes, found himself facing a very big one: he had held society responsible for inequality and injustice, and yet he also stated that only by social means could man ever get rid of such evils. In short, he contended that society alone can undo what society did.

Rousseau in fact set out to wrestle with a thorny problem: how can civilized man recover the goodness and happiness of natural man, given that a return to the innocence and happiness of natural life is not only inconceivable but, from the viewpoint of morality, even undesirable, since only social man possesses, despite his present profligacy, the privilege of moral sense?

His solution was two-fold: it lay in the call of the inner voice, and in the reliance on the general will. The inner voice was a kind of higher instinct, an instinctive ethicity springing pure and uncorrupted from the heart of man. As stated by the Savoyard Vicar, whose celebrated 'profession of faith' is inbuilt in Emile, 'conscience is an innate principle of justice and virtue, whereby we judge our own or other men's actions good or evil.' Heeding the commandments of this spontaneous moral sense, man in society can overcome the faults of history. Such a concept looms as large in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality as in Emile, but it also plays a role, as will be seen, in his political writings.'The idea that man must be perfected by reason in accordance with his nature runs through all of Rousseau's work.'

Listening to his inner voice, man can reprieve himself from the wicked oppression of society. Nevertheless, men, as a whole, cannot. Societies, or at least some societies, can only be put right by acting in accordance with, a collective voice of reason, which is political and not just moral. It is this inner voice writ large, and politicized, that Rousseau calls, in the Social Contract, the 'general will.'

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.