Friday, October 07, 2011

Rousseau, Islam, Voltaire and the Democrats

I had dinner with an old friend a couple of days ago.  During dinner he brought up the the Constitution, the logjam in Congress and made the comment that we should consider suspending the vote for awhile just to get things straightened out.  Not permanently mind you, just for a couple of years, then we would go back to voting.  I asked him if he really wanted to hear my answer.  He made the mistake of answering in the affirmative.

Here is my answer:

The debate going on in Congress and in the Presidential election is a debate of political philosophy that dates back to the approximately 200 years that encompassed the Age of Reason and the French Enlightenment.  On the Left Rousseau is the main culprit. 

Rousseau's concept of a new Social Contract and the General Will have been the guiding lights of the political Left since early to mid 19th century.  Dr. Edward W. Younkins has produced an excellent discussion of these two topics in his paper ""ROUSSEAU'S "GENERAL WILL" AND WELL-ORDERED SOCIETY" at Le Quebecois Libre.  Dr. Younkins describes Rousseau's Social Contract as follows:

          Rousseau ... says that we should seek unanimous agreement with respect to a new social contract that eliminates the problem of dependence on one another while permitting each person to obey only himself and to remain as free as before. ... He calls for a total merger in which each individual gives up his right to control his life in exchange for an equal voice in setting the ground rules of society. Rousseau appeals to people to surrender their individual rights to a new moral and collective body with one will.
          The public person formed by social contract, the republic, has a will he calls the "general will." What it wills is the true interest of what everyone wants whether they realize it or not. When you are forced to obey it, you really are obeying yourself, the true and free you.

In essence Rousseau makes the argument that the ability to commit to a community, including the willingness to be forcibly held to that commitment even if later desirous of abrogating it, is the true meaning of freedom and the essence of free will. 

Sound familiar? 

In Islam, a word meaning "submission", true freedom is achieved by giving up oneself and one's freedom to God and becoming a part of Dar al Islam, the world community of Islam, including submission to Sharia law which mandates death for apostasy, if one should wish to rescind his accepting of the faith.
          According to Rousseau's theory of social contract, people leave an anarchic state of nature by voluntarily transferring their personal rights to the community in return for security of life and property. ... By giving up their rights, they actually create a new entity in the form of a public person that would be directed by a general will. When people join the community, they are voluntarily agreeing to comply with the general will of the community.
In Islamic Jihad infidels are given three choices, accept the faith and live as part of the community of Islam, Dar al Islam, or; pay the Jizyah or tax which will allow the infidel to live but without full rights of citizenship, or; die by the sword.  In Islam, if an infidel is not part of Dar al Islam he is by definition dwelling in Dar al Harb or the World of War,  similar to Rousseau's anarchic view of civil society polluted by ambition, greed, inequality of talent and ability and cursed by the concept of private property.

The key to making all this work, both Islam and Rousseau's Social Contract, is absolute and final assignment of all rights to the community, Dar al Islam or the General Will.  Rousseau's concept of the General Will as described by Youngkin is as follows:
          The idea of the general will is at the heart of Rousseau's philosophy. The general will is not the will of the majority. Rather, it is the will of the political organism that he sees as an entity with a life of its own. The general will is an additional will, somehow distinct from and other than any individual will or group of individual wills. The general will is, by some means, endowed with goodness and wisdom surpassing the beneficence and wisdom of any person or collection of persons. Society is coordinated and unified by the general will.

          Rousseau believed that this general will actually exist and that it demands the unqualified obedience of every individual. He held that there is only one general will and, consequently, only one supreme good and a single overriding goal toward which a community must aim. The general will is always a force of the good and the just. It is independent, totally sovereign, infallible, and inviolable.
          The result is that all powers, persons, and their rights are under the control and direction of the entire community. This means that no one can do anything without the consent of all. Everyone is totally dependent on everybody for all aspects of their lives. Such universal dependency eliminates the possibility of independent individual achievement. In addition, when the individual joins society in order to escape death or starvation, he can be a sacrificial victim ready to give up his life for others. Life is a gift made conditional by the state.
 Rousseau's General Will is significant in that it bears the philosophical seeds of totalitarianism as practiced in statist and Islamic societies.  It is the basic building block of Progressivism, Communism, Fascism, Socialism and Statism.  It is the idea of a community that is vastly more important than any individual and has power over all aspects of the individual's life, including the right to life itself.

The argument between Rousseau and Voltaire over Rousseau's utopian views drew comment for centuries.  As described by blogger Rich Geib:
"Voltaire believed that through education and reason man could separate himself from the beasts while Rousseau thought that it was precisely all this which made men "unnatural" and corrupted. As Betrand Russell put it so eloquently: "It is not surprising that Rousseau and Voltaire ultimately quarreled; the marvel is that they did not quarrel sooner." Like many intellectuals, Rousseau was a great lover of mankind as a collective but singularly unable to appreciate or get along with any individual persons who he encountered in his life."
 When Rousseau sent Voltaire a copy of his work "The Social Contract", recently alluded to by Elizabeth Warren, Democratic Senatorial Candidate in Massachusetts, Voltaire answered in an acerbic style overflowing with sarcasm and ridicule.
"I have received your new book against the human race, and thank you for it. Never was such a cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid. One longs, in reading your book, to walk on all fours. But as I have lost that habit for more than sixty years, I feel unhappily the impossibility of resuming it. Nor can I embark in search of the savages of Canada, because the maladies to which I am condemned render a European surgeon necessary to me; because war is going on in those regions; and because the example of our actions has made the savages nearly as bad as ourselves."
Voltaire found Rousseau's basic premise, that Man in the natural state is good, a "noble savage", unspoiled, unselfish until ruined by contact with others in civil society where he became corrupted by competition and pursuit of property and possessions, to be counterintuitive and ridiculous. This debate, Rousseau's utopian vision versus Voltaire's practical objections as expressed above and in his competing vision of man's natural predation, the major theme of Candide, were arguments that occupied the philosophical world in the late 18th century. Out of these competing world views the political future of the world would be drawn.

Why is this significant today? 

Rousseau's tome, "The Social Contract" was first published in 1762, fourteen years before the Declaration of Independence and twenty six years before Delaware became the 9th state to ratify the Constitution.  The Founders were educated men for the most part and widely read.  They had access and considered ideas of Rousseau, Hume, Kant, Hobbes and Locke (and others) regarding the governance of Man.  The Founder's response to these arguments is in the first lines of the Declaration of Independence wherein the notion is expressed that the government exists at the pleasure of the People and is created of, by and for the People, not the reverse.  By 1776 Men had seen thousands of years of monarchies, dictatorships and tyrants and were well aware of the dangers inherent in the predatory nature of Man.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."
 In the same spirit, the Constitution was written, with its separation of powers, the House to represent small districts directly and its slow moving Senate to reign in the House's populist tendencies and both to check the Executive, and the Judiciary to adjudicate differences, is intentionally designed to limit the ability of Man the predator to seize power and impose its will.  The Constitution, according to President Obama, a compendium of negatives, is designed to protect the individual from a rapacious government hell bent on imposing its will.

Years ago my favorite professor made the comment to me that the true genius of the Constitution is that it makes it so messy and difficult to get anything done.  This characteristic, he said, is our greatest protection.  At the time, full of ideas of how to improve everything, I did not fully understand his meaning (he was also Albert Jay Nock's biographer) or his conservatism.  I now believe that this is, in fact, the true genius of the Constitution.  It makes it very difficult for any political entity to seize and retain control of the government outside the electoral system.

Modern Liberalism is the inheritor of the Progressive, Fascist, Socialist, Communist traditions as they are all utopian concepts derived directly or indirectly from Rousseau's concept of the General Will.  Reading about the General Will one wonders also if Rousseau had been exposed to Islamic concepts of submission to Islam. Rousseau's concept of "alienation" or assignment of individual rights to the collective, once, forever,  has been modified to fit collectivist models of government by everyone from Marx and Lenin (Communism) to Woodrow Wilson and John Kenneth Galbraith (modern Liberalism).

While it is true that in our "messy" constitutional system the trains might not run on time, as Mussolini's fascist state was credited with accomplishing, and legislation and Constitutional change are difficult to enact.  It is also true that in the frustrating, messy and difficult governmental system bequeathed to us by our political ancestors, the rights of the individual are protected as they have never been at any time or locale in world history and the result has been miraculous.

Fortunately, in their wisdom, the Founders made it amazingly difficult to amend the Constitution, safeguarding it from changing with the political winds.

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