Is man naturally good? Why is he corrupt within civil society? And how can political art overcome this corruption? This book seeks to account for these aspects of Rousseau’s “system”. All his moral and political writings unfold from a few major intuitions drawn from his first feelings of injustice and refined while he progressively became the harshest critic of the rising science of political economy: commercial society is deeply corrupted, Europe is the land of domination and oppression, social inequalities prevent an authentic moral life and hinder a just political community. The evil of inequality permeates every aspect of social life and is fuelled by our desire for public esteem; the selfish bourgeois is always unhappy, whereas the least well-off are dying in misery and contempt. The only way out would be either to enter a well-ordered society (the Social Contract), or to find a way to educate a child alone in the countryside in order to protect him from social prejudices and moral perversion (Emile).
Interpreting Rousseau as a modern critic of modernity, this book clarifies Rousseau’s relationship with the main philosophers of his time. Rousseau is undoubtedly modern. Chapter 1 shows that he is fully part of the Enlightenment as far as he puts forward the claim that human nature is first and foremost a set of passions. Yet Rousseau is also a deep critic of modernity and of modern philosophy. In the field of ethics (Chapter 4 and 5), he argues that there is a dramatic contradiction in the materialist and atheist worldview and that we should always listen to the voice of nature. In the field of politics, he struggles both against the previous versions of social contract theories and against the new science of political economy (Chapter 2, 3 and 6). Rousseau also predicted that monarchic and aristocratic Europe would soon be destroyed by a political and social revolution. Yet he did not optimistically plan for the expansion of Republics all over the world. Chapter 7 on war and peace fleshes out the dangers which imperil the State, and examines the possibility of a European confederation. Finally, Rousseau’s intention is to highlight the background conditions of a legitimate State and of republican citizenship, but also to imagine how the individual who cannot live in the ancient city-state any more can still achieve virtue, freedom and happiness. Chapter 8 wonders how this statement is received by contemporary political philosophers (Rawls, Habermas, Honneth, Pettit…) and how we may account for his impressive legacy.
Céline Spector is Professor of Philosophy at Sorbonne University, Paris. Her new book, Rousseau, is now available from Polity.