Intros to European Philosophy: Rousseau


Previously Read: Not that I recall

Key texts: The Social Contract

Overall impression: The concept of the social contract seems to be wielded much as Kant spoke glowingly of the categorical imperative or Comte (to an amazing extent) waxed about positivism.   Or, he spoke glowingly of an idea I did n’t understand, similar to your professor’s pet philosophy term which does n’t explain what (s)he tells you it does.  Perhaps you ‘re surprised to hear me fret over misunderstanding him, but I ‘m leaning towards he did n’t understand (few of us do) what his ideas sounded like to others.

Still I admire some of his social insights piecemeal while unsure of what the social contract truly would look like in practice.


“Aristotle was right; but he took the effect for the cause. Nothing can be more certain than that every man born in slavery is born for slavery. Slaves lose everything in their chains, even the desire of escaping from them: they love their servitude, as the comrades of Ulysses loved their brutish condition. If then there are slaves by nature, it is because there have been slaves against nature. Force made the first slaves, and their cowardice perpetuated the condition. (European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche, ed. M. Beardsley, p. 323)”

Wow. Blaming slaves for lacking the will to shake off their chains is… Wow. Stating that it is easier for the disempowered to accept their disempowerment (because they could always change their state) ignores the fact that subversive power is necessary both to establish and maintain the institution.  Having just finished 1984 again, I must say that dehumanization is a difficult process and one whose effects we should refrain from laying on the abused.

Far more sensible is:

“War is constituted by a relation between things and not between persons; and, as the state of war cannot arise out of simple personal relations, but only out of real relations, private war, or war of man with man, can exist neither in the state of nature, where there is no constant property, nor in the social state, where everything is under the authority of laws. (European Philosophers, p. 326)”

As he applies this to deny the supposed right of a state to execute its war captives (and then mercifully enslave them or ‘killing his enemy usefully’), I appreciate this. It may be I misunderstand his idea of socialization of slavery’s scope, but at least he denies this ‘right of the state’ to enslave. “Individuals are enemies only accidentally” sums this up well (accidental in the Aristotelian sense) (ibidem, p. 326).

Now that I ‘ve gone and invoked Orwell, I wonder what Rousseau would have had to say about modern warfare in the nuclear age.  It seems so unimaginable; the gulf between those who could imagine a society without war and our annihilationist age of fear which serves to justify perpetual war without relation.

“[T]ruth is no road to fortune, and the people dispenses neither ambassadorships, nor professorships, nor pensions. (p. 338)”

Love it.  That ‘s easily a favorite quote from European Philosophers as a whole.

  • Also, I enjoyed this footnote attributed to the Marquis d’Argenson: “Every interest has different principles. The agreement of two particular interests is formed by opposition to a third. (ibidem)”  ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’ much as Oceania is alternately friend to Eastasia or Eurasia based not on some overriding relation but on anti-relation to the other.  Theology too is defensively targeted to defend principles from external and internal opposition (Cf. Ghazali).


And a moment of hubris:

“All my ideas are consistent, but I cannot expound them all at once. (p. 343)”

Sorry, that kind of genius is reserved for the world from whence it comes. Genius is a term given from the outside, a recognition, it is not to be bestowed on oneself when one is unable to communicate adequately. If we must accept all of your precepts pre-simultaneously, we shall reserve our energies for better pursuits.

“The question ‘What absolutely is the best government?’ is unanswerable as well as indeterminate; or rather, there are as many good answers as there are possible combinations in the absolute and relative situations of all nations. (p. 357)”

You’ll have to forgive him, clearly he didn’t feel the impending approach of God’s penultimate kingdom come to earth that is enjoyed in our country (which kingdom?). We must forgive the poor Frenchman who did not see our most glorious day.

On representation:

“As soon as public service ceases to be the chief business of the citizens and they would rather serve with their money than with their persons, the State is not far from its fall. When it is necessary to march out to war, they pay troops and stay at home: when it is necessary to meet in council, they name deputies and stay at home. By reason of idleness and money, they end by having soldiers to enslave their country and representatives to sell it… In any case, the moment a people allows itself to be represented, it is no longer free: it no longer exists. (pp. 358 & 360-361)”

Reinforced Prohibitions: Foucault and Pre-tensions in Speaking

Foucault opens his 1970 lecture at the Collège de France, entitled L’ordre du discours, translated by Rupert Swyer as The Discourse on Language, by noting his own desire to participate in a discourse without beginnings, for such would surely be the safer prospect.

A good many people, I imagine, harbour a similar desire to be freed from the obligation to begin, a similar desire to find themselves, right from the outside, on the other side of discourse, without having to stand outside it, pondering its particular, fearsome, and even devilish features…

Inclination speaks out: ‘I don’t want to have to enter this risky world of discourse; I want nothing to do with it insofar as it is decisive and final; I would like to feel it all around me, calm and transparent, profound, infinitely open, with others responding to my expectations, and truth emerging, one by one.’

~Discourse, pp. 215-216 (published as an Appendix to The Archaeology of Knowledge (1972) by Pantheon Books, New York)

Similarly any time I begin to deliver a speech or lecture, I find it most difficult to make a beginning – to step into discourse for fear of speaking out unwittingly.  I should like far better to immediately have my terms understood with the proximal definitions I have accepted, at least within the space of my own participation in that discourse.  But such is not the case; our entrance into discourse is rightly the cause of considerable anxiety, and Foucault hones in on those items in society, operable by language, which are experienced as ‘rules of exclusion’.  The first of these is encased simply in the right afforded by or excluded from society to speak of a particular subject:

[T]hese prohibitions interrelate, reinforce and complement each other, forming a complex web, continually subject to modification.  I will note simply that the areas where this web is most tightly woven today, where the danger spots are most numerous, are those dealing with politics and sexuality.  It is as though discussion, far from being a transparent, neutral element, allowing us to disarm sexuality and to pacify politics, were one of those privileged areas in which they exercised some of their more awesome powers.

~ibidem, p. 216

Seriously.  I have been taught implicitly by society not to allow my mis-takes to cross either of these arenas.  I far prefer to note another’s gaffe, rather than to venture a full-blooded response.  Better to make our remarks quickly of the slip-tongued and move along quickly.  My treatment, therefore, shall be short.

Recall his embodiment of inclination through whom Foucault describes the desire to speak with no voice; to communicate purely on a plain of ideas where such ideas are not perceived to be final.  It has particularly occurred to me what place death is afforded in the nature of discourse.  To speak or to publish is to release hold of; as our thoughts, fed by and bred in discourse, enter the arena they are given a chance to speak or silenced on the basis of whether they are pronounced ‘within the true’ (p. 224).  So, if one is to communicate, one must step into the realm of discourse, in which being within the true is something of a moving series of dispersions; shifting in the discursive formations continues even as the systems of exclusion are modified.

Taking the tightly woven points of contact with sexuality and politics, my instinct is to refuse to treat of either subject.  If you doubt the verity of what Foucault is saying on other points, that is well enough but even a mild transgression against another’s political or sexual framework is enough to incur the wrath of exclusion; either active in the form of entering a closed discourse (where neither speaker can establish any means by which to communicate their stances with the other) or in the more active exclusion of being summarily ignored.  I so rarely treat of either subject because, like Foucault’s ‘inclination’ I would wish to speak without closing myself into one of these closed discursive loops or incurring the wrath of one in such loops whose language does not extend away from the center of such discourses.

In this address, late in 1970, he surmised that we “are a very long way from having constituted a unitary, regular discourse concerning sexuality; it may be that we never will, and that we are not even travelling in that direction. (pp. 233-234)”  Though a more generic project, the same could be said of political discourse; and therefore I find myself resisting all urges to enter such conversations because the outcomes are largely decided before a beginning can be made.  Instead I limit myself to observing those particular problems which catch my attention and wish that I had to make no beginning at all.


While I desire that we should be able to exercise discourse freely, the very nature of speaking out requires that we speak by means of form; and the forms provided are discursive, and therefore limiting.  I do not possess the energy to engage in the necessary discourse about our discourse because in uttering such a desire, my energies are soon spent in defining everything I am not trying to say.  In such cases, it is far more prudent to choose to be misunderstood so that another is unsure of precisely from which discursive practice my thoughts originate.  When this is achieved, the result is to nudge the respondent unwittingly toward the discourse about discourse; that which might yet prove productive if only we might step a little away from our current definitions.  Misunderstanding therefore may serve as a tool in discourse, not to escape it, but to step to the periphery while evading the defense mechanisms inherent therein and thus lean towards that conversation really worth being had, particularly about subjects so central to our cultures as sexuality and politics.

Dis-course – The Defender of Peace

Discourse II:

On the Canonic Scriptures, the Commands, Counsels, and Examples of Christ and of the Saints and Approved Doctors Who Expounded the Evangelic Law, Whereby It Is Clearly Demonstrated That the Roman or Any Other Bishop or Priest, or Clergyman, Can by Virtue of the Words of Scripture Claim or Ascribe to Himself No Coercive Rulership or Contentious Jurisdiction, Let Alone the Supreme Jurisdiction over Any Clergyman or Layman; and That, by Christ’s Counsel and Example, They Ought To Refuse Such Rulership, Especially in Communities of the Faithful, if It is Offered to Them or Bestowed on Them by Someone Having the Authority To Do So; and Again, That All Bishops, and Generally All Persons Now Called Clergymen, Must Be Subject to the Coercive Judgment or Rulership of Him Who Governs by the Authority of the Human Legislator, Especially Where this Legislator Is Christian

(Title of Chapter IV, Marsilius of Padua [ca. 1275 – ca. 1342 A.D.], italics mine)

I ‘ll admit it; I can’t resist a provocative title – especially not when it ‘s stood the test of time.  When it comes to 14th century disputes, speaking against the Church’s power has to vault to the top.  Speaking against the power of individual clergy to use coercive authority is plain daring, but what else is to be expected from an Italian who supported the Holy Roman Empire’s independence from Papal jurisdiction.

Having mentioned my own fascinations, this work clearly lends itself to those who debate the proper relation of church and state.  Having shown that the law is only good where it is applicable to the citizenry and enforced by the necessary coercive authority in Discourse I of Defensor pacis (or ‘The Defender of the Peace’) Marsilius proceeds to inquire “what power and authority, to be exercised in this world, Christ wanted to bestow and in fact (de facto) did bestow on them (St. Peter, the apostles and their successors – the bishops or priests)… (Discourse II, Ch. IV, Par. 2)” because Christ was certainly able to bestow to them whatever powers he saw fit.

If Christ had taken up temporal rule, it would have set the precedent for his followers (and therefore the Church) to go and do likewise.  Instead, he “wanted to and did exclude himself, his apostles and disciples, and their successors, the bishops or priests, from all such coercive authority or worldly rule, both by his example and by his words of counsel or command (ibid, Par. 3, italics mine)” and his followers did and taught the same.

The clearest example offered of Christ’s example to his followers is found in John 18 where Christ is questioned by Pontius Pilate, the symbol of Roman rule in Jerusalem.  As Jesus expounds for Pilate, “If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would certainly fight.”  An earthly kingdom needs to be defended, but Jesus submits his person to wrongful conviction.  The most extreme measures available for one wielding coercive authority are executed upon him when he by rights could take up such authority.  But he did n’t.

Further, we see that Christ often illustrated: “‘Like is the kingdom of heaven,’ etc., but very rarely did he speak of the earthly kingdom, and if he did, he taught that it should be spurned. (ibid, Par. 6)”  Where Christ had opportunities to exact judgment, he forgave.  The force of such argument is clear when Christ, in John 6, flees those who would install him as king by force and when, in Luke 12, he refuses to act as an arbiter of between disputants.  Clearly then exerting such carnal power was against his will.  If this is his example, how should it then be followed?

In his teachings to the disciples as well, Christ leads Peter in submitting to the authority of those placed over them in the famous line: “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  But Christ is the heir of David and is therefore rightful ruler by human bloodlines in addition to his divine lordship.  If any should be exempt from Caesar’s tax or from the temple tax, it should be the Lord.  Origen, in meditating upon Matthew 17, understands it to follow from Christ’s words,

“that while men sometimes appear who through injustice seize our earthly goods, the kings of this earth send men to exact from us what is theirs. And by his example the Lord prohibits the doing of any offense, even to such men, either so that they may no longer sin, or so that they may be saved.  For the son of God, who did no servile work, gave the tribute money, having the guise of a servant which he assumed for the sake of man. (ibid, Par. 10, as quoted)”

Marsilius then avers that the bishops and priests have constructed rights to powers not given them by Christ’s example or teaching, or the teachings of the apostles and their followers.  Therefore the graspings for power to be observed in the 14th century church leadership must be of their own inventions.  Jesus’ example is not merely to submit to the just proceedings and exercises of coercive authority by imperial rulers, but even to provide undue tribute – to submit to the unjust as well!  As the Apostle in 1 Corinthians 6 states, ‘why not rather be wronged than quarrel with one another?’

In the ultimate display, Christ submitted to unjust punishment by the emperor’s representative (even though he could have submitted himself and those who followed under ecclesial authority by choosing rather to be punished by the priests).  Although Christ points out that Pilate’s authority is merely the way political affairs happen to be (de facto) and not one of right (de juro),still he submits!  In Romans 13, Paul agrees that there is no power except from God.

As Chrysostom writes:

“The rulers of the world exist in order to lord it over their subjects, to cast them into slavery and to despoil them [namely, if they deserve it] and to use them even unto death for their own advantage and glory.  But the rulers of the church are appointedin order to serve their subjects and to minister to them whatever they have received from Christ, so that they neglect their own advantage and seek to benefit their subjects, and do not refuse to die for their salvation. (ibid, Par. 13, as quoted, italics mine)”

Therefore, as pertains to power, if church leaders would follow Christ’s example and teaching, they should put off the use of coercive force and serve those placed under their care, not using them to their own advantage or glory.  For my take, such an argument is particularly persuasive.  The opportunities for abuse in ministry abound.  Where the Church has fared best it has been subject to empire without exhibiting a controlling interest therein.  Stretching Marsilius’ teaching to its fullest extent: the use of coercive force even inside the church strikes against the teaching of Christ modeled by the apostles.

Taking as a case study the Mars Hill church discipline controversy, the potentials for abuse in church leadership are clearly demonstrated.  The Scriptures describe models for approaching one who has wronged you and for dealing with the unrepentant one who sins openly.  But, the role of church discipline is to bring the offending brother or sister to repentance, not to create an official record of wrongs or maintain a paper-trail so that the fruits of repentance are displayed for the benefit of church leadership.  If one comes to repentance, there is no further responsibility for the church other than to serve.  Recommending counseling, offering accountability, and offerings of help fit Chrysostom’s model in today’s context.  Enforcing one interpretation and requiring that another repent in the way which satisfies your church model is way off base.  I do n’t claim to know with all veracity what has occurred in this situation, but the example demonstrates how damaging the use of coercive force by church leadership can be in a specific context.

At best I can seek to follow in the manner I believe Christ laid out for us.  Marsilius may not have final say, but I think his teachings are relevant to our discussions today and I ‘m curious to hear how such a viewpoint is helpful or unhelpful.