Edmund Burke: A Practical Political Philosopher of the American Revolution

Last week, we looked at the Declaration of Independence, which was in many ways the fruit of the Enlightenment political philosophies of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and others. We saw how Locke, in particular, influenced the Declaration of Independence, which began the Revolutionary War. During the period leading up to and including the Revolutionary War, the British writer and political thinker Edmund Burke was a member of the British Parliament and opposed British colonial policy, which he saw as foolish and self-defeating. He based his opposition on practical, moral, and philosophical grounds, and in so doing crafted an important political philosophy that has continuing importance. [1]

Burke was born in Ireland in 1729. His father was an attorney. He was educated at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, and after a short time in London preparing for the bar, became a writer, like Rousseau whom we previously studied and with whom Burke was acquainted. In 1765, Burke became the Private Secretary to the Earl of Rockingham, then leader of the Whig party and was elected to the British Parliament. He served as a member of Parliament for twenty-nine years. During this time, he was especially concerned with the treatment of the American colonies by the British crown, the situation in Ireland (a Catholic nation controlled by Protestant Great Britain), and British policy in India. For all of his political career, Burke was a defender of religious freedom.

When the French Revolution turned radical and violent, Burke was appalled and near the end of his political career. In 1790, he published what has become his most famous work, Reflections on the Revolution in France. In 1794, after a split in the Whig party over the French Revolution, Burke retired from politics. Broken by the early death of his son, Burke died in 1797.

Basic Political Orientation

There has always been a division between admirers and detractors of Burke. Some view him as reactionary. Others view him as essentially a political pragmatist, often using moral arguments as a cover for utilitarian conclusions. Modern political conservatives frequently view him as the intellectual founder of their movement. Fans of Rousseau and of the French Revolution regarded his opposition to that event as unfortunate. Those who opposed religion found his defense of religion wrong-headed, though they often approved of his policies.

In my view, Burke is what we might call a “Classical-Organic” political thinker. Writing to one of his friends early in his career he recommended reading the classics as opposed to the writers of the Enlightenment, a view that underscores his rejection of the abstract theoretical substructure of their thought in favor of a more measured historically guided approach. [2] His political views were strongly impacted by his reading of history and the classics. In addition, his views on politics were impacted by the study of history and the organic growth of institutions and policies. His tendency was to work for organic modification.

In particular, Burke was suspicious of abstract and theoretical approaches to government, approaches characteristic of Enlightenment thinkers both in Britain and on the European continent. In this “Letter to the Sherrifs of the City of Bristol” (1777), he states:

Civil freedom, gentlemen, is not, as many have endeavored to persuade you, a thing that lies hid in the depth of abstruse science. It is a blessing and a benefit, not an abstract speculation; and all the just reasoning that can be upon it is of so coarse a texture, as perfectly to suit the ordinary capacities of those who are to enjoy, and of those who are to defend it. Far from any resemblance to those propositions in geometry and metaphysics, which admit no medium, but must be true or false in all their latitude; social and civil freedom, like all other things in common life, are variously mixed and modified, enjoyed in very different degrees, and shaped into an infinite diversity of forms, according to the temper and circumstances of every community. [3]

In this quote one clearly sees Burke’s rejection of false rationalism in favor of an organic adaptation of policy to the circumstances of a concrete people.

Burke and the American Revolution

I placed Burke in this spot in this series of blogs because of his opposition to the British policy during the American Revolution. His thought forms a bridge between the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the American Constitution (1789), both of which his life and career spanned. It is also appropriate because of his principled opposition to the conduct of the Crown and Government in connection with the Revolutionary War and its causes. History has proven him to be correct in his basic judgements.

Conflicting Duties of Parliament. Burke realized that Parliament was in a difficult situation with respect to the colonies. As the Parliament of Great Britain, it had a duty to act as best profited Great Britain and its citizens. The colonies were a part of an empire, and the natural course of events was to manage that empire for the benefit of the King and those who elected them to Parliament. On the other hand, the citizens of the colonies were also British subjects, and the conduct of Parliament and the King was sometimes not in the best interest of the citizens of British colonies. In particular, the American colonies were large and important, but had no direct representation in Parliament. This had the potential to lead to conflicts of interest and mistreatment of the colonies and their citizens.

Distance and Difference. Burke also recognized that any scheme for governance of the American colonies had to take account of the fact that the American people were accustomed to a high degree of freedom and certain to oppose heavy-handed rule from a Parliament 3,000 miles away. [4] It was simply not possible for the King or Parliament to rule South Carolina in the same way or same degree as it might Bedfordshire. Distance and the cost of government made it simply impossible. As Burke put it, “No contrivance can prevent the effect of this distance in weakening government.” [5]

By the mid-18th century, the American colonists were used to a high degree of freedom and independence from Great Britain. The colonies had legislatures, and those legislatures were accustomed to raise taxes for local government and had a significant degree of power over the inhabitants of their jurisdictions. As a matter of historical fact and precedent, the colonists had long enjoyed a large degree of freedom. The imposition of laws, and especially tax laws, by Parliament in far-away London was bound to cause problems in America.

Taxation without Representation. Historically, British colonies had always been taxed. However, during the years leading up to the American Revolution, these taxes became more and more burdensome as Britain sought to undergird the costs of their new empire. As to citizens of Great Britain, it had been a guaranteed right of the English since 1689 that they could not be taxed without the consent of Parliament. The fact that the colonists were being taxed without representation in parliament, was noticed by many thinkers, including Burke and Adam Smith, both of which thought that the colonists should not be taxed without some kind of representation, though the mechanism was a matter of dispute and discussion. [6]

The Whigs, during a short time in power repealed the Stamp Tax that was so much hated by the colonies. Unfortunately, once the Whig government fell, the tax was re-imposed. [7] By 1765, the phrase “Taxation without Representation is Tyranny” was heard, often repeated, and deeply believed in the colonies. [8] Burke agreed that that the colonists should have the historic rights of Englishmen to have some kind of say in the levying of their own taxes.

In his “Speech on Moving his Resolutions for Conciliation with the Colonies” of March 22, 1775, Burke remarked:

They took infinite pains to inculcate, as a fundamental principle, that in all monarchies the people must in effect themselves, mediately or immediately, possess the power of granting their own money, or no shadow of liberty could subsist. The colonies draw from you, as with their life-blood, these ideas and principles. Their love of liberty, as with you, fixed and attached on this specific point of taxing. Liberty might be safe, or might be endangered, in twenty other particulars, without their being much pleased or alarmed. Here they felt its pulse; and as they found that beat, they thought themselves sick or sound. [9]

Liberty is more than the right to do what one pleases. It has an economic character, and the right to control the kind and amount of taxes is one of the principle rights of a free people. Burke recognized that the colonies could not continue to be taxed without some say in the taxes they were required to pay.

Colonial Rights to Self-Government. By 1776, the colonies had a long history of self-government. They had state and local governments of varying duties, which governments had considerably more legitimacy in the eyes of the colonists (and considerably more impact on their day-to-day lives) than did a far-away government in London. There were legislatures, a judicial system, executive functions, and other duties performed at state and local levels. When in response to the Boston Tea Party and other revolutionary activities, the Crown attempted to impose direct rule, there was upheaval.

Burke recognized that, whatever might have been done at the beginning of colonial history, it was not possible to impose direct rule without a revolution. He recognized that the cost of such an endeavor would not only be more than the British treasury could endure, but it would be corrosive of the rights of all British citizens to deprive the colonists of their freedom. In this insight, we see the organic and moral basis of his political philosophy: Politics for Burke was a practical art of adapting to the facts of a particular moment in history within an inherited moral framework and tradition. In adapting to that moment, the past history of the situation and its organic development was important, and political morality placed limits on what a wise government might do. In politics, actions must conform to the character and circumstances of the people governed. [10]

Politics as Historical Wisdom

In “Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontent” (1770) he writes of a “retrospective wisdom,” meaning the study of history with a view towards practical application in public affairs. [11] In his speeches and writings, he often begins with an historical review of the events which created the present situation, seeking in history practical guidance in the resolution of current problems. He is always seeking a prudent and wise solution to political turmoil.

Burke’s respect for intellectual tradition and inherited wisdom results in his opposition to “abstract speculative political ideas” as a ground of policy, preferring to base policy on history, tradition and practical experience of the past. His rejection is directed towards the thought of Enlightenment thinkers, particularly Rousseau as to the French Revolution and Locke and Hobbes as to British law and policy.


Next week, I will continue looking at the thought of Burke. For this week, I would like to conclude with a few observations about the continued applicability of his thought to our situation in America today.

  1. Both of our political parties are inclined, when in power, to follow abstract ideas of policy without due consideration of the circumstances and history of a problem. This has led to many polity failures over the years. We desperately need a wiser, more organic, incremental view of government and the management of political change.
  2. Like the early British Empire, the late 20th and early 21st century United States of America often fails to calculate the importance of distance, the limits on power, the nature of other cultures, and the cost of military, economic, and other foreign adventures on our domestic freedoms. We cannot impose on other nations our social or economic institutions, nor should we generally try to do so.
  3. The role of morality and tradition in politics, a casualty of Enlightenment thinking, needs to be recovered. The notion that there are limits on what a wise and good government can and should do is one too often ignored today.

[1] The major readings on which this blog is based are found in Edmund Burke: Selected Writings and Speeches Peter J. Stanis, ed. (Washington, DC: Regency Publications, 1963). Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from this edition of Burke’s thought.

[2] Great Thinkers, Edmund Burke, Biography at https://thegreatthinkers.org/burke/biography/ (Downloaded April 27, 2017). In 1746, Burke wrote to a friend, “we are just on the verge of Darkness and one push drives us in … I would therefore advise more to your reading the writings of those who have gone before us than our Contemporaries …” Id.

[3] Selected Writings and Speeches, 243.

[4] Collected Works, prev. cited, at 189, 194.

[5] Id, at 193.

[6] Burkes ideas on this matter were highly complex and evolved during the years of discontent between Britain and the colonies. At times, there was talk of direct representation and some form of indirect representation.

[7] The Stamp Tax was imposed on every document or newspaper printed or used in the colonies. The tax ranged from one shilling a newspaper to ten pounds for a lawyer’s license, everything a colonist needed to was taxed. The income was directed to pay the cost of defending the colonies. The colonist particularly objected to the fact that violation of the taxes would be prosecuted by in Admiralty Courts and not by jury trials in which their fellow citizens would be their judges. History Central, https://www.historycentral.com/Revolt/stamptax.html (Downloaded April 28, 2021).

[8] The history of the use of this term is of itself interesting, for it had roots both in Great Britain and the colonies. The right of representation as to taxes was, as mentioned, felt to be a fundamental right of British subjects.

[9] Id, at 190. Burke’s argument at this point seems to be that, right or wrong, the issue of taxation without representation is one that the colonists were not likely to compromise because of their common views on the subject and the historic rights of British citizens.

[10] Id, at 211.

Compact Theory in Action: The Declaration of Independence

This week, we reach an important milestone in our look at political philosophy. This blog looks at a seminal document for the United States of America—our Declaration of Independence. The goal is to introduce the political thinking of Thomas Jefferson (and the members of the Continental Congress that enacted the Declaration), revealing how thinkers we have studied up to this point, and the way of thinking that emerged from the Enlightenment political philosophy, impacted the formation of our nation.

Brief History of American Colonization Prior to 1776

 The British began colonizing North America as early as 1606 with the foundation of Jamestown, Virginia by the London Company about 170 years before the Declaration of Independence was signed. The Spanish tried earlier (St. Augustine Florida in 1565) as had the British (Roanoke 1587). By 1776, the British had a large empire in North America extending from the Caribbean Sea to the Artic, an empire that included thirteen colonies in North America stretching from the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean to the Canadian Border along the Eastern coast of North America. At the time of the American Revolution, the colonies had a combined population of approximately 2,000,000.

Before, during, and after the French and Indian War (1754-1753), the circumstances that led to the American Revolution slowly developed. From their formation, the Thirteen Colonies developed a self-identity as Americans, in addition to seeing themselves as part of the British Empire.  The French and Indian War, which was fought in Europe as well as the United States, left Britain the dominant power in North America with a much-expanded land mass to administer and defend.  The French had lost their colonies in North America, resulting in bad feelings that would enable them to support the American revolutionaries. The British, therefore, watched carefully to thwart any attempt by France to regain control of territory in North America, especially in the French speaking areas of Canada.

The expansion of the British Empire increased the control the British government felt necessary over the colonies, a kind and degree of control that had not previously existed.  In addition, the British were not well-prepared for the responsibilities of administering their new empire, and developing the best strategy for colonial governance took time (and the American Revolution) to evolve. British desire to maintain direct control of the colonies, and especially over economic activity, ultimately resulted in the passage of the Intolerable Acts in1773, which restricted colonial self-government and was the proximate cause of the revolution.  As one author notes, by 1776, the Colonies had become accustomed to a large degree of self-government, and any attempt by the British to take away that self-government was bound to cause problems. [1]

The French, who were vastly outnumbered by the British and Colonial armies, had been supported by the Indians of North America during the French and Indian War (hence the name). In order to placate the tribes and diminish the potential for additional conflict, the Royal Proclamation of 1763 was issued, which restricted colonists from settling west of the Appalachian Mountains. The colonists were not happy at these restrictions—and violated the proclamation during the succeeding years.

Finally, the British incurred a large debt during the French and Indian War, as well as the ongoing expenses of administering a larger empire. As a result, new tax measures were enacted, including the Sugar Act of 1764 and the Stamp Act of 1765. This increased tensions between Great Britain and her North American colonies. Discontentment reached a breaking point with the passage of the Tea Act of 1773, which led to the Boston Tea Party—a direct act of defiance. The British responded by increasing their military presence in North America. Two years later, at the Battle of Lexington and Concord, British soldiers fired on a band of colonists, and the hostilities that resulted in the American revolution began.

Events Leading to the Declaration of Independence

 During the spring of 1776, beginning with North Carolina, the legislatures of the Thirteen Colonies moved towards declaring independence from Great Britain. In May 1775, the Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia. Originally, many people hoped for a form of local rule that would enable the Thirteen colonies to remain British subjects. [2] This hope was dashed when King George III issued a proclamation of rebellion in August 1775. In February 1776, Parliament passed the Prohibitory Acts, instituting severe economic sanctions against the colonies. At the same time, the British government took other steps indicating an intent to put down a rebellion by force. A breaking point had been reached.

On June 11, 1776, the Continental Congress appointed a committee authorized to draft a declaration. This committee included John Adams (Massachusetts), Benjamin Franklin (Pennsylvania), Thomas Jefferson (Virginia), Robert Livingston (New York), and Roger Sherman (Connecticut). Thus, the largest and most powerful states as well as both states from the North and the South were included in the committee. In addition, Adams was probably the best-known lawyer in America at the time and Franklin its most famous citizen. Adams was originally offered the job of draftsman, but did not want to take on the responsibility and suggested Jefferson. He did agree to consult with Jefferson as the first draft was created for discussion and approval by the committee. [3] Congress debated and amended the draft over two days beginning in early July. By July 4, 1776, Second Continental Congress had agreed to a Declaration of Independence

Purpose of the Declaration

The Continental Congress was aware that, in the eyes of the British government (to which they were subject), the Declaration of Independence amounted to treason. Indeed, some of the founders were eventually captured and tried for this offense. [4] They were also aware that if they were to receive any recognition in the eyes of other nations, including France, the historical enemy of Britain, they would have to provide compelling reasons for their decision to renounce their status as colonies of Great Britain.

Role of Contract Theory in the Declaration of Independence

We have seen how the Contract Theory of Government, especially as framed by Locke, and the notion that a social covenant might be breached by a ruler justifying revolution, developed in both political philosophy and in the thinking of dominant Christian political leaders in the colonies during the late 17th and 18th Centuries. In the Declaration of Independence, we see the implications of Social Contract theory flowering as a source of action.

The Declaration of Independence is largely a statement of the theory and a list of offenses by which it is alleged that King George III had abrogated the social contract by breaching his duties as king. While Jefferson did not consciously quote from Locke in creating this list, he was familiar with his writings and some of the language of the Declaration of Independence is almost a verbatim quotation from Locke. [5] As one author puts it:

Locke says that, once a man enters into the compact by which he surrenders his natural rights to the protection of the body politic, he has not given up his right to return to “the liberty of the state of nature.” There are two happenings, the occurrence of either of which will ipso facto justify such a return: (1) where the government is dissolved by some calamity, or (2) where the government, “by some public acts, cuts him off from being any longer a member of it.” [6]

It was Jefferson’s goal in drafting the Declaration of Independence, and the Continental Congress’ goal in adopting it, to build a case that the public actions of King George III breached the Social Compact to such a degree that the bond of union with Great Britain had been broken beyond repair.

The Community Adopting the Declaration

The Declaration of Independence begins with the following words:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. [7]

Right at the beginning, it is important to note that the Declaration of Independence did not create the “people” who issued it. According to the authors, the “people” already existed in the form of the Thirteen Colonies bound together by bonds of culture, self-interest, language, history. It is this community that is issuing this declaration and stating their intent to be a free people.

If the Thirteen colonies had not already been bound together as a social community prior to the Declaration of Independence, they could never have found the unity necessary to unanimously adopt it or to prosecute the war that would be necessary to win the independence declared. This is consistent with the continuing observation of this blog: Community comes before a social contract; community is not created by contract, even if it is given form and content by such a contract.

This is an important point that current political and social leaders might ponder. It is not possible to bind together a nation as large as the United States of America—now fifty states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and other holdings consisting of 350,000,000 people of highly diverse racial, cultural, religious, and economic backgrounds without common values and a deep sense of community (what I have called “Political Love”). Our current national division is symptomatic of the failure of our leaders, political, social, educational, and economic to maintain a sound national unity of relationship founded on common life together. The radical individualism of the Enlightenment project has reached a point in which the necessary social bonds of mutual respect and love are unfortunately dissolving.

The Role of Natural Law in the Declaration of Independence

As indicated earlier, Thomas Jefferson was the principle author of the Declaration, and it is his voice that is most often heard in the document. [8] A student of Locke, as well as trained in the legal tradition of Natural Law thinking, Jefferson was a classic Natural Law thinker, but his natural law thinking had a distinctly Jeffersonian and American twist. Jefferson, unlike Hobbes and Rousseau, believed that natural law placed “rightful limitations” on what political magistrates might do. In particular, no magistrate could usurp rights which were rights of the people. [9] Political power, however extensive, was essentially limited by the natural rights of people to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. [10] A political regime which pushes beyond the fundamental limitations of their power can and should be replaced.

In the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress put it this way:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. [11]

We have a long way to go in these blogs, and the decline of Natural Law theory and its modern proponents will be examined in detail. At this point, however, I want to observe that American society is unlikely to exit its current decline, with its excessively Hobbesian, “winner take all,” power driven form of politics unless some form of “natural law” thinking can be restored. It seems to me that the fundamentally relational nature of the universe and of human beings, combined with the notion that the capacity to create and seek values inherent in human nature, does provide a basis for a kind of thinking about politics that places limitations on what governments can and should do and which can undergird the human desire for freedom and some right to determine their own political future.

The Rational for Independence

As indicated earlier, for legal as well as political reasons, the Continental Congress felt that it needed to set out as clearly and as persuasively as possible the reasons for their departure from rule by Great Britain. In the declaration, it is put this way:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.

The Continental Congress accepted that it was not proper to change a form of government for “light or transient causes,” that is for unimportant or temporary issues of governance. Instead the dissolving the current social and political bonds could only be justified by “a long train of abuses” which were insufferable and amounted to tyranny.

The Declaration of Independence then sets out a long list of offences, including abuses of administrative, executive, judicial, and legislative rights of the colonies, depriving the colonies of their fundamental rights of local rule. Additionally, there is listed a series of military actions, including making British military rule superior to local legislative powers, conducting maritime warfare against the colonies, and incited domestic uprisings. Finally, economically, the British government had passed taxes without the consent of those who would pay them and restricted trade in such a way as to harm the property and economic livelihood of the colonists.

Today in America, we hear much about the need for revolutions from groups on the right and left. On the right, questions about the legality of the last election have been raised and potential restrictions flowing from greater regulation of personal activity, are suggested by some as grounds for a revolution. On the left, one hears calls for revolutionary action on grounds from racism to economic inequality. In the midst of a revolutionary era, we might glean from the Declaration of Independence some principles and hope for the American future:

1.   First, isolated problems with elections or other governmental failings are not grounds for a change in the fundamental character of the government. These sorts of issues fit within the definition of “light or transient causes” mentioned in the Declaration.

2.     Second, unlike the situation facing the Thirteen Colonies in 1776, the American government, in its legislature, courts, and executive branch have shown great willingness to address grievances. We may not always like the way a particular Congress or administration addresses a problem, but they are have done so in the past. One of the complaints registered by the Continental Congress was that repeated attempts to reason with the British Government had yielded no response. [12] This is simply not the case today.

3.     Third, historically, as with slavery, racial injustice, and the economic inequality created by the industrial revolution, the American government has shown a remarkable ability to adapt and make changes, some fundamental, to respond to the needs of citizens. Thus, there is no “long train of abuses and usurpations” of which the Continental Congress complained. [13] In fact, history indicates that our democracy has eventually addressed even the most imbedded social problems.

There is no reason to believe that our system of government is fundamentally unable to adapt to the conflicts and inequalities of today, just as it has reacted and adapted to challenges of the past. The history of our national willingness to confront issues, legislate and change, even our constitutional provisions by amendment should be a source of hope, not despair.


The Second Continental Congress, and in particular the principle draftspersons of the Declaration of Independence, were well versed both in classical political philosophy and in the thinking of the most recent proponents of representative government. They were also practically moderate in their approach to what they knew would be considered treason by the British government. They began a revolution, but they were not revolutionaries. For the most part, they were practical politicians attempting to find a solution to a difficult problem, the nature of which bound thirteen colonies together in a way that would lead to the United States of America, the freedoms we enjoy, and the stable government that we have enjoyed for almost two and a half centuries.

Before closing, I want to mention on last element of the Declaration. The rights it believes all human beings enjoy are those given to them by their “Creator.” It closes with a reference to “the Supreme Judge of the World.” In other words, the writers and signers of the Declaration of Independence believed that they were the creatures bound by some kind of duties and obligations to the Creator. They were politicians acting in human history to impact human institutions, but they felt that they themselves were responsible to a Supreme Judge who had embedded in creation a moral order that impacted the political order. One reason why the American revolution avoided the excess of the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions has to do with the social consequences of Christian faith and the limits it placed on violence and injustice in the conduct of the Revolution and establishment of the new government. The Guillotine and Gulag were simply impossible under the conditions of Christian political morality present at the time of our founding.

This is not the place for an extensive look at the possible ways in which various religious groups have a common idea of justice as embedded in creation or can productively join in the political project we call “The United States of America”. It is enough to say that various groups do have such views and the potential to gather together in a society based upon more than law and force. Secular people do not have, nor are they willing to grant, a divine foundation for a social order. However, there are many secular voices devoted to the search for truth and a just society. The question is, “Can various religious and secular groups work together in the way the signers of the Declaration of Independence worked together to bring freedom to the New World?” I think that the answer can well be, “Yes.”

As a hint as to how this might be done, I want to return for a moment to the critical realist view that ideals are real in a noetic sense, and are progressively revealed or unfolded to those who seek those ideals as part of a community of inquiry and action. Religious and secular people are on a common quest for a just society. The completion of that task is never complete. It is always before us on one way or another. It transcends our immediate understandings and capacities—and it always will. Nevertheless, we have abundant reason to hope that over time we can improve the condition of our society.

As human history unfolds, we are all seeking this thing we call a “Just social order.” It is not required that we agree as to the precise contents of that order in order to work together in a democratic society. What is required is a willingness to dialogue, to hear all opinions, to debate, and then decide, with the knowledge that there will be another election and another time to revisit any decision if it turns out to be wrong. This requires a sense of community and mutual respect and love among differing people all too often lacking in our society today.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved


[1] Andrew C McLaughlin, Foundations of American Constitutionalism (Greenwich CN: Fawcett Books, 1961), 133.

[2] I do not have time to analyze this point further, but it is important to know that the American Revolution was not inevitable. Mistakes were made. One great mistake was a failure of the British to recognize that direct rule of 2,000,000 people thousands of miles away was an impossibility. Local rule in some form was necessary.

[3] There was at the time and still is today some controversy over how much influence was exerted by Adams and others over the final form of the document. It is clear that Jefferson was the primary draftsperson, but that others had a direct impact on the final form of the Declaration. In my view, what is singular is the unity of vision that the drafters and the Continental Congress exhibited in the document.

[4] See, Michael W Smith, “What happened to the signers of the Declaration of Independence? This is the Price They Paid” Posted on the Weekly Register Call at https://www.weeklyregistercall.com/2020/07/02/what-happened-to-the-signers-of-the-declaration-of-independence/ (Downloaded April 16, 2021).

[5] See, Kenneth D. Stern, “John Locke and the Declaration of Independence” 15 Cleveland State Law Review 19 (1966). This article sets out the arguments for and against the influence of Locke on Jefferson and others.

[6] Id, at 197.

[7] Declaration of Independence (US 1776).

[8] It is important to note that Adams did play an important role, as did the other members of the Committee of Five who prepared the draft submitted to the Continental Congress. Jefferson’s draft was modified by the original group, and then modified as the Continental Congress adopted it.

[9] Stern, at 190.

[10] I have combined here Locke’s thinking and Jefferson’s and Madison’s listing of the fundamental limitations natural law places on political power.

[11] Declaration of Independence (US 1776).

[12] Thus, the Declaration of Independence says, “In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.” In the case of our national government, there has been no such silence over the wrongs the left and right frequently cite to support the ineptitude and misguided actions of our government.

[13] Id.

 Rousseau 2: The Social Contract & General Will

The Rootless Wanderer

In writing these blogs, I try to give some idea of the nature of the person whose philosophy I am reviewing. Last week, I gave a longer introduction to Rousseau; this week, I want to make a few concluding remarks. As a philosopher, Jean-Jacque Rousseau is easy to admire; as a person he is not so easy to admire. He was a wounded and difficult person.

Rousseau never married, yet fathered five children by a common law wife, all of which children he abandoned to an orphanage. [1] He lived with this woman for many years, without bothering to marry her—something both his Catholic and Protestant faiths would prohibit. The fact that he abandoned his children, as he had been abandoned, speaks of the deep wounding of his childhood.

At an early age, he lied about a theft he had committed, condemning the woman he falsely blamed to protect himself to a terrible future. Although he regretted his action, he took no steps to undo his deceit. He was in frequent conflict with friends and foes alike. Both Voltaire and Edmund Burke, two very different men, found Rousseau a difficult person. The trauma of his childhood and youth left an indelible mark on his character. In any case, he is a complex human being.

As indicated last week, Rousseau was a Genevan, and signed his most important works, “Jean-Jacque Rousseau, Citizen of Geneva.” Yet, he was never really at home in Geneva or anywhere else. He gave up his citizenship twice during his lifetime. His life was one of physical and intellectual wandering. His later years were marked by mental illness, conflict with others, and financial and other difficulties. In the end, his life was a public success, but a personal failure. He was a wanderer, physically, intellectually, and morally, all his life. Nevertheless, the more one reads him, the greater his status as a thinker becomes, even if, like me, one is not fully attracted to his philosophy.

The Social Contract

Inequality and the Social Contract. Like Hobbes and Locke, Rousseau bases his political philosophy on the notion of a social contract that establishes a polity. Hobbes, as we have seen, based his notion of a social contract on the need to avoid the “endless war of everyone against everyone else.” Locke bases his theory of the social contract upon the social nature of the human person. Rousseau bases his theory on the inequality of human persons and the need of those in power, and at the peak of existing social structures, to secure their position. [2] This is the part of Rousseau’s philosophy most directly responsible for modern revolutionary theory.

For Rousseau, the creation of private property and privilege was bound to lead to wars, social tension, and social evils. Those with status easily saw this as a threat and reacted by proposing a social contract. Thus, he says:

“With this end in mind, after having shown his neighbors the horror of a situation that armed them all against each other and made their possessions as burdensome as their needs, and in which no one could find safety in either poverty or wealth, he easily invented specious reasons to lead them to his goal. ‘Let us unite,’ he says to them, ‘in order to protect the weak from the oppressions, restrain the ambitious, and assure everyone of possessing what belongs to them.’[3]

The result of this artifice, was an institutionalization of the power of those with property and position. In other words, for Rousseau the beginning of political society was a deception, a crime, and a mistake. Obviously, it is hard to create a coherently optimistic view of human society if, in the end, human society is, and always has been, a mistake and con by the powerful against the weak.

In this series, I try to maintain a sympathetic dialogue with the writers of the past, recognizing that in every social situation, good people have tried to improve society as best they knew how. The recent tendency to critique past thinkers and actors because they did not create a perfect world is one of the things these blogs are intended to critique and change: There is no perfect society, and no thinker is capable of providing an unblemished blueprint for one. In this case, one can appreciate the great inequality that plagued French society of Rousseau’s day (and indeed our own). Nevertheless, it is difficult to see Rousseau’s analysis as completely satisfactory.

Likely as not, human society was in the first instance created by any form of compact, but imposed by the strong or simply evolved as an extension of the human family as larger groups emerged. History is a long, tragic story of the human race’s search for justice and a just social order. No group of people has ever been able to endure without a political organization, and some organization is generally better than none at all. In this argument, Rousseau the literary provocateur has overstated his case.

One of the implications of Rousseau’s notion of the unfortunate beginning of society is a kind of revolutionary hopelessness. If human society was a mistake from the inception, then it is hard to see a way forward that does not include the destruction of human society. In this respect, he was a forerunner of what has emerged in the Cancel Culture movement and the infinite number of groups that critique Western Society and its roots.

The Free Individual. Rousseau begins his “On the Social Contract” with one of the most famous lines in philosophical history: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” [4] As catchy is the phrase may be, it is one of the least accurate in literary and philosophical history. Rousseau might easily and more accurately on his own analysis have said, The human race was born in slavery, but every so often achieves some degree of freedom.” Historically, it would have been more accurate and would point more clearly to the precarious nature of freedom, which is created and maintained only with great difficulty.

One characteristic that Rousseau, Locke and Hobbes have in common is the atomistic reliance on the individual abstracted from preexisting social ties as the foundation of society. This is, of course, also historically inaccurate. In my view, it is also philosophically the wrong place to begin. Because human beings emerge from a society (families, schools, etc.) we must see individuals and human social structure as “emergent phenomenon” and dependent upon the societies from which they emerge. To paraphrase Rousseau: Human beings are born in society, and develop individuality and secure freedom only as they interact with the persons in that society.” When the members of a society grant individuals the ability to develop themselves, such people find a unique personhood that is to be cherished by that society to the extent possible.

As indicated throughout this series of blogs, there has never been a “state of nature” separate from some form of social institutions, from the crudest family of savages to the most complex modern societies. Throughout human history, most societies have lacked significant institutional or personal freedom. We, in the modern West, are a unique development, and one that needs to be preserved. To attempt to continue to fit political philosophy into the structure of social contract theory, as useful as it has been, is to force facts to fit a theory instead of creating a theory that fits the facts.

The General Will

The Subjective Move. Rousseau is the originator of the notion of a “General Will” expressed by the voters in a democratic society. Many people think of it as his foundational achievement as a social and political philosopher. If the idea of a Social Contract provides a vehicle to construct a society of atomized individuals, the General Will as a political idea is an answer to the question the mechanism that can form a society based on the Social Contract.

While ancient writers focused on ideas like “The General Good” or “Public Peace” (transcendent public goods built into the nature of human society), Rousseau develops a notion of a “General Will” of the people. Right at the beginning one sees the individualistic and power-focused nature of modernity. The General Will is not something outside of the human person society seeks, it is something inside of the human condition to be imposed. As a “General Will” of the people, it has embedded within it a lack of limitations. This movement is the foundation of the modern tendency towards tyranny on a large scale. [5] A more humble place to start might be to consider that General Will and General Good as something we are seeking as a polity, but which our human finitude and self-centeredness makes impossible to fully achieve.

Freedom and the General Will. Rousseau was aware of the problem with an unrestricted General Will and tries as best he can to find a reasonable way in which freedom can be protected. He recognizes that the basic problem of the General Will is to provide for a social cohesion while maintaining some idea of personal freedom. [6] The problem is that the social contract as conceived of by at least Hobbes and Rousseau, requires that the individual grants all personal rights (“whole and entire” to freedom and property to the state, and receives back in return his or her rights to share in the public good. [7] This results in a union of persons, “as perfect as possible.” [8]

At this point it is important to highlight another weakness in the modern project for social organization: having reduced human society to atomized units (individuals) who are united not by social bonds of love but by “contract,” the union is one of force imposed by power—the power of the majority. The idea of balance of powers and limited government are the inevitable result of this movement, since the power is by its very nature absolute and susceptible of abuse.

In Rousseau’s view, the act of giving one’s self to the whole amounts to giving one’s self to no one. [9] Thus, Rousseau says:

“Finally, in giving himself to all, each person gives himself to no one.  And, since there is no associate over whom he does not acquire the same right that he would grant others over himself, he gains the equivalent of everything he loses, along with a greater amount of force to preserve what he has. If, therefore, one eliminates from the social contract everything which is not essential to one once finds that it is reduceable to the following terms. Each of us places his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will; and as once, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole. “ [10]

A close analysis of the foregoing quotation shows the difficulty with Rousseau’s project. It is not coherent to say that people can both give themselves to an idealized “whole” and not give oneself to anyone. It assumes that the “whole” will have the same interests as the “one” and respect the rights and humanity of the one, which human experience shows to be unlikely. The experience of humanity with dictatorships of left and right, from the French revolution to contemporary societies, shows that this is not the case.

In every totalitarian, communistic or oligarchic state, whoever is in control has abused those who are part of the “indivisible whole” they lead. The problem is easily identified by the use of terms like “force and power.” Force and power do not give space for personal freedom, love and respect for the human individual does. Secondly, a sovereign of unlimited power, is almost certainly going to abuse that power, unless human nature changes dramatically from what the unvaried experience of the human race throughout history shows to be likely.

In my view, all this intellectual confusion flows from a mechanical view of nature, of human nature and human society combined with an inaccurate view of human nature. The way out is not a better social compact theory (a view that will be finally defended when, if ever, these blogs reach Rawls and contemporary society), but a merger of social contract theory into a more organic and human view of society that sees human relationship and human sociability as the fundamental foundation of society, upon which any “social compact” rests.

Secondly, as I think Rousseau would agree, the notion of a “General Will” is simply incoherent in modern, large, bureaucratic nation states. His theory was formed with small, socially bonded, racially homogenous, religiously Christian, Geneva in mind. Modern multi-cultural societies are much too complex for any such notion to be a useful guide to political life and leadership. The General Will is too easily seen as the “Will of the Majority,” something easily manipulated by revolutionaries and oligarchs in every age. Despite Rousseau’s attempts to distinguish the two, political parties and politicians are inclined to view themselves and their policy preferences as embodying the General Will, which is one of the causes of so much of the policy incoherence of our society.

Calvin and Rousseau

Before concluding, I want to reflect on Calvin in the light of Rousseau. The historical counterpoint of Calvin and Rousseau is important in order to apprehend the difficulty of attempts of some to create a “Christian America” on a Calvinist basis. By the time of Rousseau, only 200 years after Calvin, intellectuals in Europe had reacted against the narrow confines of the intellectual system that Calvin and his followers created. The modern secular world was in the process of emerging, with its materialism, blind faith in human progress, and rejection of tradition and traditional religious faith. Attempts to create a “Christian America” are likely to experience a similar fate even if they were successful (which I think highly unlikely). In fact, we may be experiencing such a reaction today in the United States.  One of Newton’s laws of physics states that “Every action is likely to provoke an equal opposite reaction.” In my experience, this is true in families, the church, local and national politics, and life in general. Even if a “Christian America” could be created or recreated (depending on your view), it would be reacted against within a short time and forgotten in only a slightly longer period of time. The best course for Christians, and followers of Calvin (which I have been most of my adult life), is to focus upon serving with wisdom and love the society we are in and that society that is emerging, remembering that “the Son of man came to serve, not to be served” (Mark 20:28), and that Christians are called to “take up their crosses” and follow their master (Matthew 16:24).


In these two short blogs, I have been only able to scratch the surface of the depth of Rousseau’s thought. As mentioned before, I think of Rousseau as less of a modern thinker as a kind of late Renaissance thinker trying to defend ideals of classical society in the face of the theories of Locke and especially Hobbes. I think that he would be appalled by the use of his ideas by French and modern revolutionaries. A true and just appraisal of this thought would require much time and a much better mind than I possess. For the purposes of this series of blogs, it is important to see his notion of the General Will and the Social Compact as both continuous with Hobbes and Locke and exploratory of the implications and difficulties in their work.

I cannot be sure, but I think that Rousseau would agree with most of what I have said in this blog. If I am correct in my basic analysis of Rousseau as fundamentally a classic and Renaissance thinker, reacting against the excesses of the Enlightenment, then he  too would see where the Enlightenment project has led, the dead end it has reached, and the need for a more human and organic political theory—one that incorporates notions of social contract and the necessity of governments to seek to serve the will and desires of those they lead, while avoiding the focus on will and power to which the Enlightenment project was so susceptible.

Finally, I may return to Rousseau. In Part 3 of the Social Contract he much modifies the more extreme implications of what he earlier says. In addition, my time in this blog as not allowed me to talk about his ideas on the subject of war and of political economy, which I would like to explore sometime in the future.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, at Britannica.com,  https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jean-Jacques-Rousseau, downloaded March 24, 2021 which I have relied upon for some of this biography.

[2] “Discourse on Inequality” in Jean-Jacque Rousseau: The Basic Writings 2nd ed. Trans and Edited by Donald A. Cross (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Press), 78.  All citations in this blog are from this edition of Rousseau’s work.

[3] Id, at 79.

[4] “On the Social Contract” in Jean-Jacque Rousseau: The Basic Writings 2nd ed. Trans and Edited by Donald A. Cross (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Press), 136.

[5] I am not entirely happy with this statement of the situation. Certainly, there is an objective aspect to the General Will, if such a think exists. It is, however, dependent upon the subjective wills of the people rather than being something rationally and ideally objective as, for example, Plato and the classic tradition would have thought. In any case, the notion of a General Will of the people has led, and is inclined to lead, to over-reaching by people in power who may consider that they are the embodiment of the General Will.

[6] On the Social Contract, 164.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id. I have underlined force and power. The italics are in the original.

Rousseau 1: The Romantic Turn

Jean-Jacque Rousseau, a native of Geneva Switzerland, spent a large portion of his adult life in France and deeply influenced French thinking and European and American thinkers generally. He is often referred to as the “Philosopher of the French Revolution,” which many scholars feel results from a misreading of his work by French revolutionaries. It is possible that even revolutionaries today misread his work and intentions. Rousseau seems to me to be a bridge between the Classical, Renaissance Heritage of Western Culture and the Modern World. Although he writes during the Enlightenment (1685-1815), in my view he is not fully an Enlightenment thinker. His work is often a critique of the Enlightenment optimism concerning the powers of human reason. As such, Rousseau is the intellectual father of the Romantic Movement. He rejects the over-estimation of the powers of human reason and the myth of progress characteristic of the Enlightenment and of Western Culture for the past several hundred years. His influence continues to this day, for we live in a politically romantic age, with all of its irrational revolutionary potential, given legitimacy in part by his work.

Early Biography

Rousseau was born in June 1712. His mother died when he was young, and his father deserted the family, abandoning his child. As an orphan with little or no prospects, he was apprenticed to an engraver and mistreated by his master. He fled Geneva at age 16. In this second phase of his life, he converted to Catholicism, forfeiting his citizenship in Geneva, a Protestant city. He drifted around the neighborhood of France and Italy, was a servant, and then returned to Switzerland, where he became the lover of a wealthy woman.

Around age thirty, Rousseau arrived in Paris, becoming one of the young intellectuals (called “Philosophes”) who were the center of the intellectual life of the city. Around thirty-seven, he had an inspiration that modern progress was a corrupting influence over people rather than a help. Out of this experience he wrote his First Discourse, in which he argues against the theory of human progress and for a theory that civilization has been corrupting on the human race. This idealization of primitive man is the first important characteristic of his writing.

Return to Geneva and Its Place in His Writing

In 1754, Rousseau returned to Geneva after a long absence, “reconverted” to the Calvinist faith of his mother, and began another phase of his life and work. Geneva was an essential part of his life and works, despite the fact that, in faith and practice, Rousseau drifted from an orthodox Calvinism for which the city was known. Although he lived outside of Geneva most of his life, his most important works bear the inscription “Jean-Jacque Rousseau, Citizen of Geneva.” This connection with Geneva is important for understanding his thought.

Geneva marks the place he called home, and a place he idolized. He published his Discourse on Inequality in1754, which many believe to be his finest work. In the beginning of his “Discourse on Inequality,” which he dedicates to The Republic of Geneva, he says the following:

If I had had to choose my birthplace, I would have chosen a society of a size limited by the extent of human capacity, that is limited by the possibility of being well governed, and where, with each being equipped perform his task, no one would have been forced to delegate to others the functions with which he is charged; a state where, with   all private individuals being known to one another, neither the obscure maneuvers of vice nor the modesty of virtue could be hidden from the notice and the judgment of the public, and where the pleasant habit of seeing and knowing one another turned love of homeland into love of citizens rather than into the laws of the land. [1]

This aspect of Rousseau’s character and thought is important. A part of his romanticism was a love of the organic and small. He could see that large, impersonal governments, far from local communities might be less human and less effective. This is a part of this thought continued in the late modern era through works like Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. [2] This ideal of a more personal and organic society is a part of the New Agrarian movement in America and the movement of people to smaller cities. In larger communities, it manifests itself as a concern for neighborhoods as essential to metropolitan health.

Final Paris Period

In 1762, Rousseau returned to Paris to recover his friendships there and find a place where he could continue to work. However, he was now alienated both from his fellow philosophes, and their belief in Enlightenment, the inevitability of human progress, and attacks on religion. Although not himself fully-orthodox, he felt the attacks on religion were harmful to society, particularly to Geneva, because of attacks on Calvinism by intellectuals. Unable to feel at home, he left Paris, living on the estate of a wealthy friend. During this phase, he completed The Social Contract, (1763), which I will look at next.

Final Years and Mental Illness

Alienating his former supporters, he fled again into exile, renounced his citizenship in Geneva, and spent the rest of his life moving around, living for a time in England, but never finding the place of where he could find a home. He degenerated into mental illness from which he suffered the reminder of his life. During his final period, he wrote his Confessions, named after St. Augustine’s work of the same name, and other autobiographical works. His literary output is overwhelming: essays, books, novels, articles and the like.

He died in July of 1778, at the age of sixty-four.

Rousseau and Religious Faith

Rousseau conducted a life-time spiritual pilgrimage, that led from his parent’s Protestantism, to Roman Catholicism, back to Protestantism, to flirting with a form of Deism, to a quasi-unitarianism, back to some kind of orthodoxy, and perhaps at the end of his life to a kind of Romantic Pietism. What can be said for certain is that Rousseau should not be read as anti-religious or anti-Christian. In fact, his break with his fellow Parisian intellectuals was partially based on his rejection of this feature of Enlightenment thought. Rousseau respects religion, has faith in God, and seeks in his life and work to be some kind of Christian.

In the end, Rousseau was impacted by the skepticism of his age, but unwilling to sever his ties with Christian faith. His Romanticism led him to a kind of intuitive faith, one based upon an intuition or feeling of the divine. In this way, he is the forerunner of Friedrich Schleiermacher and a version of Christianity based upon feeling. [3] In this sense, Rousseau is a sympathetic figure for post-modern people seeking to form a faith under the conditions of our culture, which stands at the end of the culture the Enlightenment created.

Rousseau and the Myth of Progress

Unlike the majority of Enlightenment thinkers, Rousseau is critical of the idea of human progress, and especially the inevitability of human progress based on human reason. Rousseau believes civilization is as much the cause of the human problem as it is the solution. In his “Discourse on the Science and the Arts, he says:

Almighty God, you who hold minds in your hands, deliver us from the enlightenment and deadly arts of our fathers and give us back to ignorance, innocence, and poverty—the only goods that can bring about our happiness and that are precious in your sight.” [4]

For Rousseau, all the supposed progress of the sciences and arts has added little to actual human happiness, but instead corrupted morals, and the purity of the original human condition. [5]

One sees in Rousseau the inevitable reaction against the excessive idealization of mind and human reason that is fundamental to the Enlightenment view of human nature. Rousseau sees the need to appreciate the intuitive and pre-rational aspects of human life. In so doing, however, he often overstates his case. This series of blogs, which adopts a view I call “Sophio-Agapic” is inclined to see the need to avoid the modern separation of mind and matter, of the intellect and emotion and adopt a position intentionally different from that promoted by the severance of mind and matter in modern thought.

Rousseau and Human Nature

This leads us directly to Rousseau’s theory of human nature. If there is any single doctrine (other than double predestination) for which Calvinism is known, it may be its strong, Augustinian Doctrine of the Fall. Rousseau is often cited for the reverse view: that human beings are basically “good.” While this simplistic summary is partially correct, it ignores the complexity of Rousseau’s analysis of human nature. It might be better to say that according to Rousseau human beings are by nature morally neutral, but that the impact of heredity, family life, human history, culture, and the like infect all human beings with what religious people call sin. Human civilization is the history of the infection of the human character with the defects Christians call “sin.”

This view has something in common with a more orthodox Calvinist view that sees human beings as made in the image of God, but captured by sin from birth. Both Calvin and Rousseau tend to miss the impact of human finitude and anxiety concerning the future that impacts human selfishness. This kind of analysis of sin awaited the 19th and 20thCenturies to come to full bloom.

Next week, we will look at Rousseau’s Social Contract Theory, and in so doing we will return to his theory of human nature, which impacts his political theology in a major way. Suffice it to say that Rousseau understands that it is nearly impossible at this late stage of history to know the precise nature of our first forbearers. Thus, he says:

“For it is no light undertaking to separate what is original from what is artificial in the present nature of man, and to have a proper understanding of a state that no longer exists, that perhaps never existed, that probably never will exist, and yet without which it is necessary to have accurate notions to judge properly our present state. [6]

In this brief sentence, there is illuminated, not just the defect in Rousseau’s idea of a basic State of Nature of human beings, but the defect of all such endeavors: We cannot know by human reason alone what the “State of Nature” might have been. The Bible gives Christians a revelation and interpretation of the nature of human beings older than almost any we possess, and it sees human beings as flawed.

Interpreters, theological and philosophical, have attempted endless explanations. In the end, we are left with the idea that human nature today is what it as always been: noble but inclined towards self-centered, self-interested, and self-destructive behavior damaging to the self and others. It seems to me that political philosophy cannot and should not begin with some supposed “state of nature” but with the human animal as we experience it day by day. Instead it must begin with the long history of human political organization as we can understand it. I will return to this again next week, for any “Social Compact” theory of government must either suggest a “State of Nature” or as in Rawls, some neutral state that allows the social compact to be instituted.

Rousseau and Human Society

Having briefly understood Rousseau’s view of human nature (basically good, but corrupted by civilization), we are in a position to understand and critique his idea of human society and origins of inequality. This is important for it informs his view of the Social Contract, for if he is wrong in his views of human nature and the human inequality, then his views on the Social Contract are suspect.

One might say that for Rousseau, human history and the evolution of human society is a mistake. Human beings once lived in a state of nature, without property or worries, in a state of perfect equality. This natural state did not endure, for “In becoming habituated to the ways of a society and a slave he becomes weak, fearful, and servile; his soft and effeminate lifestyle completes the enervation of both his strength and his courage.” [7]

The Discourse on Inequality begins with a long interpretation of human history based upon the idea that human beings in a state of nature were superior beasts, stronger and wiser than any of their natural enemies, existing in a state of perfect equality. One commentator says all that needs to be said:

In the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, dating from 1754, Rousseau gives a philosophy of history, resting on a condensed account of the development of the human race, and the whole essay is saturated with that passionate hatred of inequality which may not unfairly be regarded as the dominant feature of his character. It is almost unnecessary to say that for Rousseau’s history there is not the faintest shadow of a particle of evidence. [8]

Indeed, a reader cannot be but struck by the naïve understanding of Rousseau of the condition of primitive peoples.

According to Rousseau, the degeneration of the human race to its current state began with the institution of private property, which began the development of human society. The first person, who having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say, ‘This is mine,’ and having found people simple enough to believe him was the true founder of civil society.’” [9] Here we see the beginning of the modern communist and socialist movement. Rather than seeing private property as an engine of the development of human culture and civilization, it sees private property as a mistake to be corrected.

From this point, Rousseau constructs an “imaginary history” of the decline of the human race from its original equality to its present inequality. Human society bred an understanding of differences, of the difference between the strong and the weak, the intelligent and the not so intelligent, the talented and the not so talented. Human pride then took over and took advantage of the differences that were now seen among human beings until the current state of inequality took over. [10] Once this understanding of the differences among human beings was fully integrated into the human psyche and society, the result was certain. Thus, Rousseau says:

With things having reached this point, it is easy to imagine the rest. I will not stop to describe the successive invention of the arts, the progress of languages, the testing and use of talents, the inequality of fortunes, the use or abuse of wealth, now all the details that follow these and that everyone can easily supply. [11]

Political Consequences of Inequality

The result of the inevitable progress of civilization was an increase in inequality. This inequality is economic, social, legal and political. The growth of wealth enabled an increasing difference in economic circumstances. The growth of social institutions gave advantage to those with the intelligence and social skills to prosper. The growth of courts of law and the need for social arbitration increased the ability of the rich to get advantage over the poor. Inequality of power, allowed increasing distinctions between those in power and those out of power, with those with power increasing their social advantage.

Rousseau describes this process as follows:

Such was … the origin of a society and laws, which gave new fetters to the weak and new forces to the rich, irretrievably destroyed natural liberty, established forever the law of property and of inequality, changed adroit usurpation into an irrevocable right, and for the profit of a few ambitious men henceforth subjected the entire human race to labor, servitude, and misery. [12]

 Here one sees clearly the implications of Rousseau’s original decision to see human beings as originally equal, with inequality a development of society. This, however, seems to me to the opposite of the truth. A more likely and historically defensible opinion would be to see the original situation of the human race as one in which physical size, strength, and the like assured the rule of the “fittest,” with protection of the weak, the less intelligent, and others as a development of civilization—and particularly of Christian civilization, which rejected much of the pagan ethic.


Rousseau is complex. His dislike of inequality is visceral, perhaps a result of his early poverty and struggle to achieve financial security and social prominence. For this we can admire his views, and learn from them to ameliorate the worst consequences of inequality. However, his analysis makes human society not an achievement but a mistake, which is not the most logical conclusion to draw from human history. Instead of seeing human history as a long series of errors ending in bondage, it might be more accurate to see human history as a long journey from bondage to a precarious freedom. This will be the subject of the next blog.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] “Letter to the Republic of Geneva” in Jean-Jacque Rousseau: The Basic Writings 2nd ed. Trans and Edited by Donald A. Cross (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Press), 31.  All citations in this blog are from this edition of Rousseau’s work.

[2] E.F. Shumacher, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (Vancouver, BC: Hartley and Marks, 1973). There are many other aspects of modern and post-modern thought that are impacted by Rousseau. In many ways, he anticipates the postmodern critique of modernity, which is another reason that it is difficult to call him an “Enlightenment figure” without qualification.

[3] Schleiermacher developed a complex theology, including a political theology, in response to the Enlightenment critique of Christianity and was influenced by, and representative of, the Romantic movement. His theology continues to have impact in some circles, where his impact is as great as any historical thinker. His basic idea is that human beings are by nature religious, and have a religious intuition or feeling that is fundamental, a feeling of absolute dependency.

[4] Rousseau, Discourse on Science and the Arts, at 33.

[5] Id.

[6] Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, at 40.

[7] Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, at 51.

[8] Alexander Gray, Mises Daily Articles, “Rousseau’s Form of Socialism” (September 22, 2009), reprinted from The Socialist Tradition, Moses to Lenin London, ENG: Longmans, Green & Co., 1946), https://mises.org/library/rousseaus-form-socialism, downloaded April 3, 2021.

[9] Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, at 69.

[10] Id, at 70-76.

[11] Id, at 70-71.

[12] Id, at 79.