Rousseau and Burke

I assigned Rousseau’s The Social Contract this summer for my modern Western Civ course. One (or maybe more) students used an online translation instead of getting the book, and in checking the version that he used, I came across this part (Book III, Chapter 9), where Rousseau considers what kind of government is best:

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.

But if it is asked by what sign we may know that a given people is well or ill governed, that is another matter, and the question, being one of fact, admits of an answer.

It is not, however, answered, because everyone wants to answer it in his own way. Subjects extol public tranquillity, citizens individual liberty; the one class prefers security of possessions, the other that of person; the one regards as the best government that which is most severe, the other maintains that the mildest is the best; the one wants crimes punished, the other wants them prevented; the one wants the State to be feared by its neighbours, the other prefers that it should be ignored; the one is content if money circulates, the other demands that the people shall have bread. Even if an agreement were come to on these and similar points, should we have got any further? As moral qualities do not admit of exact measurement, agreement about the mark does not mean agreement about the valuation.

For my part, I am continually astonished that a mark so simple is not recognised, or that men are of so bad faith as not to admit it. What is the end of political association? The preservation and prosperity of its members. And what is the surest mark of their preservation and prosperity? Their numbers and population. Seek then nowhere else this mark that is in dispute. The rest being equal, the government under which, without external aids, without naturalisation or colonies, the citizens increase and multiply most, is beyond question the best. The government under which a people wanes and diminishes is the worst. Calculators, it is left for you to count, to measure, to compare.

His reference to “calculators” (the Oxford World Classics translation by Christopher Betts, which I assigned for class, says “mathematicians”) reminded me of a section that I have read in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolutions in France (I need to read the whole thing sometime). Here’s an excerpt:

It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, then the dauphiness, at Versailles, and surely never lighted on this orb, which shehardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above thehorizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in— glittering like the morning star, full of life and splendor and joy. Oh! what a revolution! and what a heart must I have to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall! Little did I dream when she added titles of veneration to those of enthusiastic, distant, respectful love, that she should ever be obliged to carry the sharp antidote against disgrace concealed in that bosom; little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honor and of cavaliers. I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone.

That of sophisters, economists; and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom. The unbought grace of life, the cheap defense of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise, is gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity,which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil by losing all its grossness.

I don’t know if Burke was referring specifically to Rousseau, but he seems to have had thinkers like Rousseau in mind.



  1. Population is the surest measure of good government?! It’s ironic if Rousseau is placed in the “calculator” camp since he theorizes out of thin air and passes the buck on the actual calculation. “Sophister” is right.

    It’s also interesting how many of the political wants he lists are actually compatible with one another. And that the subjectivity of valuation does directly suggest a principle for government, namely localization through liberty.

    Burke’s prose is wonderful, even poetic, though he suspiciously conflates and subtly elevates human loyalty above other virtues. It’s easy to feel drawn and buoyed by his selective imagery.

    But it now occurs to me that I have been off-topic — that identifying these connections between historical figures is its own reward, like a jigsaw puzzle of insights into the past, rather than debating the validity of their arguments for belief and practice today or tomorrow.

    The web of the past is fascinating in itself. Thanks for sharing your insights, Scott!

  2. Rousseau’s whole argument in The Social Contract struck me that way. It’s very much out of thin air, with little in the way of data. He does base a lot of his reasoning on the ancient sources that formed the basis of education in these days, but his principles seem very much like they were constructed in a laboratory rather than in the real world. I think that he does believe in localization in the sense that he thinks that states should be small; the city-state seems to be his ideal. But liberty can only be granted in the context of communal concerns.

    Burke idealizes monarchical France in many ways, from the small part of his argument that I’ve read. But his lyricism really is something.

    I’m glad you’re enjoying fitting some of the pieces together. It’s been fun seeing them fit together and also sharing how they do.

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