The public sphere should be open to conflict.
In democracies around the world, anxious commentators exhort their fellow citizens to be more open-minded, more willing to engage in good-faith debate. In our era of hyperpolarisation, social-media echo chambers and populist demagogues, many have turned to civility as the missing ingredient in our public life.
So, how important is civility for democracy? According to one of the greatest theorists of the democratic public sphere, the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, not very. Habermas is deeply concerned with protecting our ability to solve problems through the use of reason. Yet he believes that democracy is best served when the public sphere is left open, anarchic and conflictual.
For Habermas, the function of public debate is not to find a reasonable common ground. Rather, the public sphere 'is a warning system', a set of 'sensors' that detect the new needs floating underneath the surface of a supposed political consensus. And if we worry too much about civility and the reasonable middle, we risk limiting the ability of the public sphere to detect new political claims. To get those claims on the agenda in the first place often requires uncivil and confrontational political tactics.
Habermas's vision of politics focuses on the power of a wild public sphere. His great fear, one he expresses already in his habilitation thesis in 1962, published in English as The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, is that large-scale, formal political and economic institutions are increasingly shutting themselves off from public criticism. Habermas traces the development of the idea of the critical public in 18th-century Europe, one that would hold state power accountable through the use of reason, and then its decline in an era of public-relations management focused on minimising the role of the public in political decision-making. While Habermas has been accused of romanticising the European Enlightenment, his goal was to draw attention to the stark gap between the ideals of the critical public and the reality of political and social domination.
Like other individuals associated with the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, Habermas has always been guided by the hope of creating an emancipated society – one where the use of political, social and economic power can be fully justified to those potentially affected. To this Frankfurt School ideal, Habermas adds an insight that goes back to Aristotle – that the central human capacity is language. The fact that we can understand one another, Habermas argues, means that we are committed to using reason to resolve disputes. In our day-to-day life, we have to continuously use language to organise our lives and make plans – instances of what Habermas in 1981 called 'communicative action'.
Habermas thinks this has radical consequences. In all these instances, we accept, just by entering into the continuous flow of communication, that the only thing that should count are reasons that everyone accepts. Habermas's critics point out that, in the real world, social differences in power affect whose voices are heard and whose ideas are recognised in all deliberation. But this point is not incompatible with Habermas's insights. From his early work, he has seen reasoning as a fundamentally social practice, one that must always include moral and political questions. Bringing to light these subtle forms of power and exclusion helps to realise the ideal of rational enquiry.
What follows politically from Habermas's theory of communication? Again, one possibility is to find some way to make people live up to an ideal of disinterested, civil deliberation. In the face of increasing polarisation and the potential breakdown of the rules of the game, we should search for some way to restore the underlying norms of mutual forbearance that ensure politics does not descend into civil war. But this is hardly the direction in which Habermas goes. It's not that he then prizes incivility in and of itself. Rather, Habermas worries that a public sphere shackled by excessive regard for the norms of deliberation and rational debate loses its essential function. And that function is to bring to light questions, issues, concerns and needs that are currently invisible to political leaders and the larger public. In Between Facts and Norms (1992), he argues that 'liberal misgivings about opening up an unrestricted spectrum of public issues and topics are not justified'. Rather, because of its 'anarchic structure', contestation in the public sphere can enable the perception of 'new problems' and help to overcome 'the millennia-old shackles of social stratification and exploitation'.
Confrontation, protest and incivility are all components of deliberative politics as Habermas understands it. These forms of conflict, of refusing existing norms and institutions, are what bring to light whether those institutions and norms can survive rational scrutiny. Habermas goes so far as to call the ability to withstand and even celebrate civil disobedience the 'litmus test' for the maturity of a constitutional democracy. Even as Habermas has a famously ambitious understanding of our capacity for the collaborative search for truth, his is an activist's view of politics. Consensus is not the highest good. Rather, the possibility of a society based on rational consensus becomes visible only in moments of dissensus, when the failure of existing norms is unmasked. Enlightenment comes about when social groups show that the dominant social organisation fails to take into consideration their legitimate claims and concerns. This is why Habermas is clear that he is interested, not in rational political communication as such, but 'the history of its repression and re-establishment'.
Habermas's recent work has focused on the fate of European integration, of which he is a prominent defender. This activist current in his thought has receded as he has worried more and more about the lack of long-term political vision on the part of Europe's leaders. Yet he has also more recently come to recognise the dangerous failures of those institutions to produce their own legitimacy. The more those institutions, such as the European Union, insulate themselves from the unruly forces of the public sphere, the more they provide ammunition for whoever can claim to speak on behalf of a suppressed public opinion. Large-scale political institutions, from the European Union to the modern administrative state, approach politics as a set of management problems, best solved without extensive input from a potentially recalcitrant public.
Democracy, according to Habermas, requires a vibrant political sphere and political institutions that are able to respond to and incorporate the energy that arises from debate, protest, confrontation and politics. Perhaps it's not citizens who have become unreasonable. Rather, their leaders have too long refused to listen, instead treating the public as nothing more than a periodic reservoir of votes, an obstacle to be managed on the path to smooth, technocratic governance.
For some philosophers, hope is a second-rate way of relating to reality.
While its use in the Barack Obama presidential campaign has become iconic, appeal to hope was not limited to the United States: the Leftist Greek Syriza party relied on the slogan 'hope is on the way', for example, and many other European parties embraced similar rallying cries. Since then, however, we rarely hear or see 'hope' in the public sphere.
Even in its heyday, the rhetoric of hope wasn't universally popular. When in 2010 the former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin rhetorically asked: 'How's that hopey, changey stuff working out for ya?' she tapped into a widespread skepticism that views hope as unrealistic, even delusional. Palin's skepticism (many will be surprised to hear) has long been at work in the philosophical tradition. From Plato to René Descartes, many philosophers have argued that hope is weaker than expectation and confidence since it requires belief merely in the possibility of an event, not evidence that it is likely to occur.
For these philosophers, hope is a second-rate way of relating to reality, appropriate only when a person lacks the requisite knowledge to form 'proper' expectations. The radical Enlightenment philosopher Baruch Spinoza gives voice to this opinion when he writes that hope indicates 'a lack of knowledge and a weakness of mind' and that 'the more we endeavour to live by the guidance of reason, the more we endeavour to be independent of hope'. According to this view, hope is particularly unsuitable as a guide to political action. Citizens should base their decisions on rational expectations about what governments can achieve, rather than letting themselves be motivated by mere hope.
This skepticism should be taken seriously and can indeed point us toward a better understanding of the rise and fall of the rhetoric of hope. So is there space for hope in politics?
We need to be precise about what kind of hope we are talking about. If we are considering what individuals hope for, any policy that has consequences for people's lives will be tied to hope in some way – whether this is hope for that policy's success or hope for its failure. The generation of such hope isn't necessarily good or bad; it is simply a part of political life. But when political movements promise to deliver hope, they are clearly not speaking of hope in this generic sense. This particular rhetoric of hope refers to a more specific, morally attractive and distinctively political form of hope.
Political hope is distinguished by two features. Its object is political: it is hope for social justice. And its character is political: it is a collective attitude. While the significance of the first feature is perhaps obvious, the second feature explains why it makes sense to speak of hope's 'return' to politics. When political movements seek to rekindle hope, they are not acting on the assumption that individual people no longer hope for things – they are building on the idea that hope does not currently shape our collective orientation toward the future. The promise of a 'politics of hope' is thus the promise that hope for social justice will become part of the sphere of collective action, of politics itself.
Even so, the question remains whether political hope is really a good thing. If one of the tasks of government is to realise social justice, would it not be better for political movements to promote justified expectations rather than mere hope? Is the rhetoric of hope not a tacit admission that the movements in question lack strategies for inspiring confidence?
The sphere of politics has particular features, unique to it, that impose limitations on what we can rationally expect. One such limitation is what the American moral philosopher John Rawls in 1993 described as the insurmountable pluralism of 'comprehensive doctrines'. In modern societies, people disagree about what is ultimately valuable, and these disagreements often cannot be resolved by reasonable argument. Such pluralism makes it unreasonable to expect that we will ever arrive at a final consensus on these matters. To the extent that governments should not pursue ends that cannot be justified to all citizens, the most we can rationally expect from politics is the pursuit of those principles of justice on which all reasonable people can agree, such as basic human rights, non-discrimination, and democratic decision-making. Thus, we cannot rationally expect governments that respect our plurality to pursue more demanding ideals of justice – for example, via ambitious redistributive policies that are not justifiable relative to all, even the most individualistic, conceptions of the good.
This limitation stands in tension with another of Rawls's claims. He also argued, in 1971, that the most important social good is self-respect. In a liberal society, the citizens' self-respect is based on the knowledge that there is a public commitment to justice – on the understanding that other citizens view them as deserving fair treatment. However, if we can expect agreement on only a narrow set of ideals, that expectation will make a relatively small contribution to our self-respect. Compared with possible consensus on more demanding ideals of justice, this expectation will do relatively little to make us view other citizens as being deeply committed to justice.
Fortunately, we need not limit ourselves to what we can expect. Even though we are not justified in expecting more than limited agreement on justice, we can still collectively hope that, in the future, consensus on more demanding ideals of justice will emerge. When citizens collectively entertain this hope, this expresses a shared understanding that each member of society deserves to be included in an ambitious project of justice, even if we disagree about what that project should be. This knowledge can contribute to self-respect and is thus a desirable social good in its own right. In the absence of consensus, political hope is a necessary part of social justice itself.
So it is rational, perhaps even necessary, to recruit the notion of hope for the purposes of justice. And this is why the rhetoric of hope has all but disappeared. We can seriously employ the rhetoric of hope only when we believe that citizens can be brought to develop a shared commitment to exploring ambitious projects of social justice, even when they disagree about their content. This belief has become increasingly implausible in light of recent developments that reveal how divided Western democracies really are. A sizable minority in Europe and the US has made it clear, in response to the rhetoric of hope, that it disagrees not only about the meaning of justice but also with the very idea that our current vocabulary of social justice ought to be extended. One can, of course, still individually hope that those who hold this view will be convinced to change it. As things stand, however, this is not a hope that they are able to share.
This Idea was made possible through the support of a grant to Aeon magazine from Templeton Religion Trust. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Templeton Religion Trust.
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The opening lines of Smartmatic's $2.7 billion lawsuit against Fox News lay bare the culture of denial in the US.
- Smartmatic, an election technology company, has filed a $2.7-billion-dollar defamation suit against Fox News for making false claims about its voting machines during Fox's dishonest campaign against the 2020 US presidential election results.
- The lawsuit opens with three powerful statements of fact: A scientific truth, a mathematical proof, and an objective political fact: More people voted for Joe Biden than for Donald Trump.
- We owe the Smartmatic lawyers a debt of gratitude for so cleanly demonstrating what this ongoing election battle is all about. What is at stake is not a political ideology. It's a fight to acknowledge the shared reality we all live in.
"The Earth is round. Two plus two equals four. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the 2020 election for President and Vice President of the United States."
So begins the 2.7-billion-dollar legal suit filed by Smartmatic, an election technology company, against Fox News. The suit, filed two weeks ago, argues that Fox News, its hosts, and others defamed the company by making false claims about their voting machines to back up other false claims that the US election had been stolen. There is much about this suit which, like our times, is remarkable. For readers of 13.8, however, those three opening sentences are what matter. Linking those three statements of fact is more than just rhetorical flourish. Instead, they reveal a unity of ideals lying at the heart of modern scientific and democratic societies. They are the keys to living in a richly diverse and yet peacefully shared reality. Those ideals are now at risk.
So, to understand exactly what's at stake in these remarkable times, and what the suit proposes, let's unpack each of these statements and what they point to separately.
The "Big Lie" about the 2020 elections was the most egregious attempt to deny that there are shared facts about a shared world.
The first statement of fact the Smartmatic lawyers drawn upon is a scientific truth about the physical world. Specifically, it relates to geology and planetary science. Earth, a planet, takes a spherical configuration. The truth of that statement has been demonstrated by direct observation for many millennia. For example, when ships sail away from a harbor, they not only appear to get smaller as they grow more distant, but their masts are also seen to sink below the horizon. The fact that there is a "below the horizon" means the planet is not flat. In the modern era we have sent cameras far enough from Earth to get direct image-based evidence for the sphericity of our home world.
The second statement of fact relates to mathematics. There are rules for summing two integers. Those rules are known and can be applied such that everyone agreeing to those rules can agree on the result of such a summation. Also, the rules are associated with basic statements of logic. These include holding that fact can't be both true and false at the same time. So, to deny the rules and results of math would mean to deny the possibility of reason.
The third statement of fact is where things get interesting. It concerns the outcome of counting votes. Like imaging Earth from space, or carrying out a mathematical proof, the outcome of counting votes will lead to an objective fact. Either Joe Biden got more votes than his opponent or he did not.
But the reality of votes is not the same as the reality of planets or math. That is why the construction of the Smartmatic suit is so revealing. Planets are just given to us by the universe. We find ourselves on one whether we like it or not. Likewise, mathematical proofs don't care how you are feeling about life that day. They always give the same result. But votes don't have to exist the way planets and math does. Votes emerge from an idea about self-governance.
Voting is a creation of the human mind to solve a very human problem: How do we all get along? How do different people with different concepts, ideas, and feelings all live together without resorting to beatings every time they disagree on something?
Voting is a democratic mechanism that helps us "get along." Here, former vice president Mike Pence and house speaker Nancy Pelosi preside over a joint session of Congress to certify the 2020 electoral college results.
Credit: Erin Schaff / POOL / AFP via Getty Images
This "how to get along" question is an old, old problem for humans, and we have tried many approaches including kings, dictators, and tyrants. Voting was a pretty radical idea when it was first tried out in ancient Greece. But by the time it was proposed in places like the nascent United States, it had taken on an entirely new character. Proposals for democracy in the 18th century emerged from the constellation of ideas we now call the Enlightenment. More than anything else, Enlightenment-era thinkers believed they had found a path toward a better world. It was a path laid down by reason and by science.
For Enlightenment thinkers, "knowledge, innovation, freedom, and social advancement go together," writes Timothy Ferris Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin saw their new nation as an "experiment" in self-rule. John Adams thought that the data gained from the experiment could be combined with reason to produce a "science of government." Science as both metaphor and reality were so important to the framers of the US Constitution that they put the patent system into the document's very first article.
The framers of American democracy wanted a political system that would reflect the order and transparency they found in the natural world through science. And in science, such order and transparency occur because there are clear mechanisms for establishing facts. Even more important there are, indeed, facts to be found. There is a shared reality we all inhabit regardless of religion or disposition or party affiliation. In this way, the number of votes cast in an election is an objective fact. By establishing the system for self-governance and agreeing to its rules, a tally of votes cast for a candidate is a reality of our shared civic space.
What denial, in all its modern forms, wants is to destroy that civic space. It hopes to break the agreement about shared reality. But, in doing so, it also destroys the capacity for science, our most powerful tool for understanding the world.
American teacher John Thomas Scopes (second from left) standing in the courtroom during his trial for teaching Darwin's Theory of Evolution in his high school science class. Dayton, Tennessee, 1925.
Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
I've been writing about science denial for some time now. It began a century ago in arguments over evolution. After the famous Scopes Monkey trial, it seemed that battle was over. It was climate change, however, that mainstreamed denial in the modern era. Through climate denial we first began to see people in positions of power make blatantly false claims about the shared reality revealed by science. It was, more than anything, a rejection of the possibility of knowing anything, of having expertise. Then, over the last five years, denial exploded beyond claims of science to touch all domains of public life including the most basic facts about the world (i.e., which inauguration was attended by more people). The "Big Lie" about the 2020 elections was the most egregious attempt to deny that there are shared facts about a shared world.
By explicitly linking facts about the physical, mathematical, and civic worlds, the Smartmatic suit explicitly rejects that denial. While it's impossible to know what will happen to their legal case, we owe the Smartmatic lawyers a debt of gratitude for so cleanly demonstrating what this ongoing battle is all about. What is at stake is not a political ideology. It's not about Democrats or Republicans. Instead, what lies before us is an effort to reestablish the core beliefs that underpin the continuing global experiment in democracy and science.There is a world we share, and we can know something about it. We can agree on what we know and, most importantly, we can use that knowledge to make things better for everyone.
The philosopher who praised a simple life and inspired the worst of the French Revolution.
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a Swiss Enlightenment philosopher with some radical ideas.
- He argued passionately for democracy, equality, liberty, and supporting the common good by any means necessary.
- While his ideas may be utopian (or dystopian), they are thought-provoking and can inform modern discourse.
Modern political debates often ask how much democracy we should have and what should, and should not, be subject to a vote. Whenever we discuss these issues, we stumble on the famously tricky philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who argued nearly three hundred years ago for democracy, equality, and the greater good.
Born in Geneva in 1712, Rousseau wrote his first major essay while living in Paris in 1750. He went on to write several major works on politics, education, music, and even botany. However, his controversial ideas made him many enemies, and he was forced to flee France, Switzerland, and Prussia in turn. He died in France in 1778 after many years of wandering and being fairly convinced of a vast conspiracy against him.
His ideas on education, toleration, state sovereignty, democracy, liberty, and equality have proven extremely influential. Here, we'll dive into some of his big ideas and take a look at attempts to put them into practice.
The State of Nature
Like other philosophers at the time, Rousseau was very concerned with what the world was like before the creation of societies. This was very important for political philosophers because it could be used to explain the motivation for creating and supporting a state.
If you, like the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, thought that a life in the "state of nature" was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short," you're probably in favor of anything that keeps the state of nature at bay, no matter how tyrannical or brutal. This is why Hobbes supported a ruler with absolute power, typically a monarch.
Rousseau, however, went the other way. He suggested that the state of nature wasn't all that bad, proposing that the people in it were self-sufficient, fairly solitary by choice, sympathetic to others, and peaceful. With nothing to fight over, they don't fight much. Since morality hasn't been invented yet, they are innocent and incapable of being malicious.
Importantly, people in the state of nature are free in that they can follow their own will all the time, and equal — the various sources of inequality haven't been invented yet.
He argues that it is only when we move into society that human nature becomes corrupted, and many of the vices and evils we know all too well can flourish. He thought that many of the problems society claims to solve, like protection from theft, can only be problems after society, and thus the notion of private property, already exists.
Beyond this, he asks us if the things society provides us are really beneficial in the first place.
In his first significant work, "Discourse on the Arts and Sciences," Rousseau argues that art and science haven't improved most people's moral fiber — a shocking position to hold in Enlightenment-era France. Instead, he suggests that they arose from vices such as vanity and only serve to continue the degradation of morals. Given how many civilizations seem to have reached decadent heights before being brought down by their barbarous neighbors, he questions how desirable they are for other purposes as well.
Private property, another concept made possible by society, earned Rousseau's ire as an institution that encouraged greed and egotism. He expresses how terrible he supposes the invention of private property was in this striking paragraph from the "Discourse On The Origin And The Foundation Of The Inequality Among Mankind":
"The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody!"
The Social Contract
Now, you might be wondering why, if the state of nature is so pleasant and people in it so moral and decent, anybody would ever create a society or join up with one. Rousseau suggests this is a natural evolution caused by the need for individuals to cooperate. Eventually, people will figure out things like agriculture and industry, which require working with your neighbors or creating rules for living near them.
In fear of worst-case scenarios, Rousseau thought that people agreed to societies dedicated to protecting them from threats, real or imagined, that then took away their freedom and protected the inequalities that further led everybody, including the rulers, into vice. He saw this as a cure nearly so bad as the disease, leading him to lament that "Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains."
His alternative is to create a social contract that will allow all members of the society to be as free as they were in the state of nature, that is, to enable them to follow their own will all the time while still living in a society. It will remove the unnatural inequalities that degrade both the rich and the poor. It will ensure that everyone is equal before the law that they create.
To achieve this, he formulates one of the more radically democratic systems of government ever to achieve widespread consideration.
The General Will
The key to Rousseau's social contract theory, and his biggest idea, is a take on the "general will." While he wasn't the first philosopher to talk about it, his conception of it is the most famous and consequential. He posits that any legitimate state must be based on the general will, which is the fundamental source of sovereignty. All laws and actions the state undertakes must be in line with it.
It is akin to the notion of popular sovereignty, with a few differences.
The general will is the will of the entire body politic, which exists independently of the will of any one member or any group of people that comprise it. It is also not just the sum of individual wills. Because an individual contributes to the general will as a citizen, the general will is, at least partly, their will. It is a universal, generally applied concept and, when done correctly, will be used to create laws that apply to everyone in the community equally.
In principle, a person can follow it and still be following their will, since they helped to forge it. In the ideal case, a person fully understands that the greater good is also in their interest and there is no friction between their interests and that of the community. This is how Rousseau supposes people can be as free in society as they are in nature. However, if the shift between being able to follow the individual will and the general will is one that is quite so easy to make is a point many philosophers have raised.
How we find what the general will even is creates another problem. There are generally two approaches to figuring it out, with a third splitting the difference. All of these interpretations are supported by Rousseau's writing — his style is famously contradictory even when it is working towards a clear point.
The first is a highly democratic model, featuring the citizenry discussing legislation at town hall meetings every time an issue comes up. While magistrates would exist to run the government day by day, they would be elected and duty-bound to follow the will of the people as determined by the debate and votes at these meetings. Minorities will exist, but their participation in the debate assures that they helped forge the general will and that the resulting laws will be good for them, too.
Going the other way, the general will could be a somewhat transcendental thing that just exists for every political group that only some well-educated people can grasp without the help of well-made social institutions.
Rousseau suggests that a "legislator," a person who knows what good laws and morals are, can help people understand what the general will is by either guiding discussion and putting the vague ideas of the people into politically actionable terms, or by assisting individuals to identify with the common cause that is the general will if they are incapable of doing it themselves. In that case, the magistrates would still follow the general will, but it wouldn't be quite as democratically determined.
The hybrid of the two is a procedural model, where citizen-legislators discuss issues and realize why the common good is also their own good when making law.
As an example, imagine a neighborhood association's members discussing what trees to plant. Some of them will realize that their preferred choice of tree is a poor choice when they learn that most of their neighbors are allergic to it. After further discussion, not only do they agree to the new option, they will also end up agreeing that the new choice is in their best interest. They'll be happier when their neighbors aren't grouchy from allergies. The voters want what the community wants because what they want has shifted.
The general will is also very expansive, and a government based on it can do many things that others couldn't justify. While this means a Rousseauan government can do many good things others can't, it also means that it can be uniquely oppressive. The general will could call for abolishing or redistributing private property, press censorship, or mandatory attendance at morality plays among a variety of other harsh mandates. In principle, it could even call for ending democracy if that is in the best interests of the whole.
Whatever it calls for, it does so on everybody equally and because they called for it.
What would living in a Rousseauan society look like?
On the bright side, since the general will has to be applied universally and generally, the society that forms along these lines will be very equal, with the law applying to all citizens in the same way. Major inequalities would be swept away, and there would likely be a significant democratic element to the government, depending on how the people decided to organize the state. It would probably be a small society, as Rousseau feared that a large country would not find the common cause he thought was so important.
The people themselves would share a common cause, be highly educated in how to carry out their various civic duties properly. They would enjoy being able to act freely within a sphere decided by the general will.
However, since the general will can be applied to nearly any facet of life, the people, or the legislator in some cases, may decide to create a very oppressive society devoid of things they don't like or think will lead to vice.
Individual rights only exist as far as the sovereign, the general will, thinks they should. While it is probable that the application of all laws equally means that everyone would have to choose to make it oppressive for themselves; that remains a risk that could come to pass. Democracy might also go out the window, and a monarch who follows the general will could be appointed.
Furthermore, Rousseau suggests that people can be "forced to be free," so even if your interests are quite different from those of the general will, you can be dragged along with it. Some later philosophers, such as Jacob Talmon and Isaiah Berlin, have thus suggested that a Rousseauan state would be a "totalitarian democracy" with the individual always being subject to the whims of the majority or whoever claims to speak for the general will.
Despite the extensive reach that the Rousseauan state would have, he does argue that some limits on what a sovereign can do exist.
Most notably, he expressly states that people have the right to their religion alongside a civic faith that promotes solidarity, that pluralism is inevitable, and that a variety of religions can improve morals. He suggests that toleration should be held sacred. He does not extend this toleration to atheists, however, who he suggests be exiled.
This all sounds a bit unrealistic in any case. Did anybody try to run anything like this?
According to Professor Charles Anderson, the decision-making process of the Quakers during their meetings is very similar to, but not quite the same as, the hybrid model of the general will. The Quakers seek God's will through discussion and end up in agreement on what that is and the wisdom of following it. In practice, it may be as close to that model as anyone has ever gotten, even if it is a religious notion unrelated to Rousseau's philosophy.
On a larger scale, The French Revolution can be viewed as an attempt to apply Rousseau's ideas in a situation where they were never going to work. Famed revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre studied many philosophers, but Rousseau's ideas were the ones that most inspired him. It is said that he slept with his copy of "The Social Contract."
The revolutionaries' Cult of the Supreme Being, a state religion based around a single deistic goddess, is based on Rousseau's idea of civil religion. Both centered on the existence of a deity, an afterlife, and the need for virtue, patriotism, and social solidarity. Robespierre, like his favorite philosopher, thought such a belief system was vital in a republic.
Additionally, Robespierre strongly agreed with the idea that the general will was the basis for state legitimacy and that people could be "forced to be free" by any means necessary if they weren't going along with it. Those who were actively fighting it, namely royalists, could be done away with as a result. This is part of the reason why Rousseau's ideas often get blamed for The Terror.
On a more practical and mundane note, Rousseau was asked to submit ideas for the new constitution being written in Poland-Lithuania. His suggestions were conservative compared to his previous work, suggesting he grasped that his ideas could not be instituted in such a large state or that his previously hard-line stances had softened. Among his ideas that made it in were a federalized system of governance and a representative legislature. He encouraged the Poles to adopt a gradualist system of reform.
This may shed light on what he might have thought of his disciples leading the French Revolution, which occurred after his death.
As with most political philosophy, the real question may be how his big ideas are discussed in our society rather than on if anybody tried to follow his books to the letter. Other philosophers with great influence, like Kant, Marx, and Rawls, all sighted Rousseau as an influence.
Outside of academia, every time we discuss certain topics, like what it takes for a government to be legitimate, if modern society is good for us, or what we think should and should not be subject to a vote; we stumble across topics Rousseau considered and can benefit from his insights.
While a purely Rousseauan society probably isn't practical for many reasons, his writings continue to inform debate in our society, despite their often contradictory and confusing nature.
Even tyrants and despots offer wisdom worth heeding.
- Rome's famed emperors have seen a resurgence thanks to Stoicism, but many philosophies date back to the Empire.
- While the range of rulers vary from tyrannical despots to benevolent political forces, they all have something to say.
- These 10 quotes seem suited to our modern political situation in America and beyond right now.
While the Roman Empire lasted for roughly 300 years, the extended family of emperors took control of Europe for some time after. Thanks to a recent revival in Stoicism, the Romans of old are getting a new look—especially the premier Stoic, Marcus Aurelius.
These men were not all philosophy and peace, however. Many were brutal dictators. In fact, investigate the lineages of Roman leaders over the course of centuries and you'll see few died in old age of natural causes. They were more likely to be murdered by family members or competing politicians.
Wisdom is everywhere, however. A number of the rulers below remained in power for 30 or 40 years. Some chose to be benevolent instead of bloodthirsty.
The 10 quotes below are wise because we can understand and apply them today. Many parallels to the fall of Rome have been applied to modern America, for good reason. As the historian Edward Gibbon phrased it in his late 18th-century masterpiece, "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire": "The end comes when we no longer talk with ourselves. It is the end of genuine thinking and the beginning of the final loneliness."Let us turn the following thoughts over in our minds and weigh their value not for what they are, but, as Oswald Spengler wrote in "The Decline of the West," for what they appear to be now: "What concerns us is not what the historical facts which appear at this or that time are, per se, but what they signify, what they point to, by appearing."
A List of the Roman Emperors and their Deeds
If you want a rainbow, you have to deal with the rain. — Augustus
Who knew that Dolly Parton took cues from the very first Roman Emperor, who began his culture's run of global domination in 27 BCE? With wisdom like this, we can imagine how he inspired the Pax Romana. Eternal advice: You have to suffer life's tragedies in order to know its glory. Those shiny colors are only revealed after the mud is cleaned off.
The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane. — Marcus Aurelius
Being a rebel is common currency in the social media age, even if many modern rebellions are really signs of following a herd mentality. Marcus Aurelius was both Stoic and ruler, holding the seat of power from 161-180 CE. His wisdom fills books, yet this simple sentence says so much: don't slip so far down your conspiracy thinking that you lose the rope to pull yourself back up.
Because of a few, disasters come upon a whole people, and because of the evil deeds of one, many have to taste their fruits. — Basil I
Was this written over the last four years? Or the last 40 in trickle-down America? Basil I, aka The Macedonian, ruled the Byzantine Empire from 867-886. Born a Macedonian peasant, Basil is an example of rags to riches, dropping truth bombs along the way: a simple reminder of the interconnectedness of societies.
What we wish, we readily believe, and what we ourselves think, we imagine others think also. — Julius Caesar
Officially, Caesar was not an emperor. He led the charge in dissolving the Roman Republic so that the Empire could begin, however. Caesar's power move in becoming the first dictator perpetuo (dictator for life) inspires authoritarians around the world today; it also led to his assassination. Regardless, Caeser has been the subject of fascination for over two millennia, and though often viewed as a tyrant, he greatly expanded Rome's territory and influence. Given the above quote, you can say he imagined himself as a world ruler — and really believed it.
How absurd to try to make two men think alike on matters of religion, when I cannot make two timepieces agree. — Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor
This 16th-century Austrian ruler was at the tail end of Roman rule, yet his sentiment is perfectly timed for the social media age. We might enjoy universal time (and tech companies willing to supply digital clocks). We're certainly no closer on a consensus about topics of religion, politics, and, during an age in which everyone has a voice, much anything else.
Statue of Marcus Aurelius in Campidoglio, Rome, Italy.
Credit: Nicodape / Adobe Stock
Say not always what you know, but always know what you say. — Claudius
The first Roman emperor born outside of Italy, the son of Nero was inflicted with a limp and slight deafness at an early age, making him a bit of an outcast. These events might have tuned him into a level of empathic intelligence, as displayed in this quote—one which should be required reading for anyone signing up for a Twitter account today.
Our great mistake is to try to exact from each person virtues which he does not possess, and to neglect the cultivation of those which he has. — Hadrian
As with many emperors, Hadrian's rise to power and reign was filled with treachery and greed alongside vision and social reform. Well known for being a walking contradiction—compassionate one moment, murderous the next—Hadrian might have been doing a bit of self-reflection (or self-evasion) when speaking this quote. Either way, it's a powerful reminder not only to stay in one's lane but to own that lane completely.
Keep cool and you will command everyone. — Justinian I
Justinian the Great ruled over the Eastern Roman Empire from 527-565 CE. Known as the "Last Roman," he rose from peasantry to power and tried to instill many social reforms. Perhaps the sentiment above was his own guide for navigating the treacherous world of politics. Sadly, cooler heads don't seem to prevail in our current landscape. Maybe Justinian saw something we don't.
Hidden talent counts for nothing. — Nero
Let your light shine, says the debaucherous and tyrannical fifth Roman emperor. Five years into his reign he had his overbearing mother killed. Perhaps his talents were all centered in his dictatorship? Regardless, we'd do well to heed these five words. If you have something to offer the world, don't play small.
It is the duty of a good shepherd to shear his sheep, not to skin them. — Tiberius
The second Roman Emperor offers this timeless piece of advice: you need to prune plants to keep them from overgrowth, yet you can't cut back too much. This call to level-headedness is yet another piece of wisdom needed in today's social media climate. Hold people accountable for their actions while remembering the more you tear everything down, the harder it becomes to repair and rebuild.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."