“Every man has the right to risk his own life in order to preserve it. Has it ever been said that a man who throws himself out the window to escape from a fire is guilty of suicide?” Jean-Jacques Rousseau
By Alex P. Vidal
THE strongest is never strong enough to be always the master, unless he transforms strength into right, and obedience into duty.
This was the emphasis made by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in The Social Contract.
Rousseau stressed, “Hence, the right of the strongest, which, though to all seeming meant ironically, is really laid down as a fundamental principle.
“But are we never to have an explanation of this phrase? Force is a physical power, and I fail to see what moral effect it can have. To yield to force is an act of necessity, not of will—at the most, an act of prudence. In what sense can it be a duty?”
Eighteenth century society found its severest critic in Rousseau, who spent much of his career in intimate contact with the leaders of the French Enlightenment.
But rather than sharing their ideas, he rejected them, vehemently and violently, according to John Louis Beatty and Oliver A. Johnson of the Heritage of Western Civilization.
To Rousseau, the major evils of contemporary society were political absolutism, over-intellectualism, and general artificiality.
“Nor were these evils separable; on the contrary, each fed on the others,” wrote Beatty and Johnson. “Hence, Rousseau could not agree with reformers who looked to reason to lead the way to liberty and equality. Society was rotten to the core, he contended; hence, no solution short of total regeneration could cure its ills.”
In the Social Contract (1762), Rousseau’s most famous work, he attacked the problem of political despotism.
Beginning with the provocative charge, “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chain,” Rousseau proposes a new social order in which freedom and equality will be the possession of all.
How such a social order can be achieved in practice is the basic problem that he tries to solve in the book.
How can we live under a government that, of necessity, exercises authority over us, and yet remain free men?
The issue, with which Rousseau wrestles so earnestly in The Social Contract, still remains one of the fundamental political problems facing the Western world.
In his other works Rousseau attacked with vigor and eloquence almost every facet of his society.
Perhaps his most sweeping condemnation of the Enlightenment is his early work, the Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, in which he offered up this prayer: “Almighty God! Thou who holdest in Thy hand the minds of men, deliver us from the fatal arts and sciences of our forefathers; give us back ignorance, innocence, and poverty which alone can make us happy and are precious in Thy sight.”
The opposition between this prayer and the ideals of the Enlightenment is obvious.
To appreciate the extent of Rousseau’s influence, we have only to realize that within about 50 years romanticism, a movement of which he was the chief prophet, was to sweep over Europe.
In the right of the strongest, Rousseau exploded:
“Suppose for a moment that this so-called ‘right’ exists. I maintain that the sole result is a mass of inexplicable nonsense. For, if force creates right, the effect changes with the cause: every force that is greater than the first succeeds to its right.
“As soon as it is possible to disobey with impunity, disobedience is legitimate; and, the strongest being always in the right, the only thing that matters is to act so as to become the strongest.
“But what kind of right is that which perishes where force fails? If we must obey perforce, there is no need to obey because we ought; and if we are not forced to obey, we are under no obligation to do so. Clearly, the word ‘right’ adds nothing to force: in this connection, it means absolutely nothing.
“Obey the powers that be. If this means yield to force, it is a good precept, but superfluous. I can answer for its never being violated. All power comes from God, I admit; but so does all sickness: does that mean that we are forbidden to call in the doctors? A brigand surprises me at the edge of a wood: must I not merely surrender my purse on compulsion; but, even if I could withhold it, am I in conscience bound to give it up? For certainly the pistol he holds is also a power.
“Let us then admit that force does not create right, and that we are obligated to obey only legitimate powers. In that case, my original question recurs.”