Rousseau and Fanon II

Yesterday I pointed to a link between Rousseau’s and Fanon’s ideas on revolutions. In looking at Kevin’s comment on the post, I realized that there is another link as well, particularly in the regenerating potential of violent revolution.

In The Social Contract (Book II, Ch. 8), Rousseau writes that a wise legislator (by which he means someone who frames the laws of a state) must understand the people for whom the laws are intended and that new laws can only be made in the young, malleable stage of a nation’s history, and not when a people is old and inflexible. He does believe in one exception, though:

Nonetheless, just as some illnesses shake up men’s minds and deprive them of the memory of the past, sometimes there are periods of violence during the lifetimes of states, when revolutions have the same effect on nations as certain medical crises  on individuals, and revulsion against the past acts like a loss of memory; the state is then, in the flames of civil war, reborn from its ashes, so to speak, and, escaping from the embrace of death, recovers its youthful strength. This happened to Sparta in the time of Lycurgus; to Rome after the Tarquins; and in our own times to Holland and Switzerland after their tyrants were expelled.

But such events are rare and exceptional, and the reasons for the exception always lies in the way in which a particular state is constituted (translated by Christopher Betts, Oxford World Classics edition, page 80).

You can see the full context (in a different translation, which I used to locate the elusive page in my book) here.

This depiction of the possibility of revolution must have been encouraging to the Jacobins, who attempted to make a new France through revolution. You can see Maximilien Robespierre’s bracing justification of the Terror here.

As I will explain in a future post, I don’t think that Rousseau wanted this kind of thing, but you can see how the French Revolutionaries would draw inspiration from his reasoning.


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