Rousseau & the Romantics

Romanticism began as a cultural movement in the late 18th century, but would soon become political and philosophical, largely due to Rousseau. It started in France among cultivated people who admired sensibility, which means a proneness to emotion and sympathy for the less well off. Ideally, said emotions should be direct, violent, and uninformed by reason. The Romantics valued beauty over usefulness, and were inspired by what was grand, remote and terrifying. Romanticism was above all a revolt against contemporary ethical and aesthetic standards, and against the intellectualism of the enlightenment. The enlightenment can be seen as an attempt to replace chaos and passion with order and reason, and Romanticism an attempt to bring it back. It is clear from reading Bertrand Russell that he is not a fan.

Feelings over Reason

In political terms, Romantics believe that people are naturally solitary, and that artificial institutions such as religion are required to force us to be social. Further, they agree with Locke that we naturally pursue short term over long term gains, and that government is required to force us to be prudent. For the romantic, society is a cage from which we are all consciously or subconsciously trying to escape. Those who can break free from society feel a sense of energy and power through their freedom, and through this power feel absolved of duty to society. Combined with a belief in feeling over reason as the source of knowledge, truth becomes whatever the individual feels it to be. In the 19th Century Romantics were often nationalists, believing that the nation had in a sense a soul, longing to be set free from the artificial boundaries of the state, and free from the constraints imposed by cooperation with other states. It is easy to see the seeds of populism in this belief system.

Rousseau was the first philosopher to advance arguments for the existence of God based on emotion rather than reason, and this style of argument has since become orthodox. Rousseau would write that the sight of a beautiful sunrise inspired in him adoration for God. This type of argument is unlikely to convince someone who feels differently, but difficult to refute because it is not based on reason. God’s laws are not to be deduced from high philosophy according to Rousseau, but can be found by searching one’s own feelings. Our feelings naturally guide us towards the common good, whereas reason leads us to self-interest. We need only follow our feelings to be virtuous and can dismiss conventional morality. Humankind in a state of nature (without society) are naturally good but are made bad by institutions. Russell is not impressed, noting there is no reason that knowledge based on feelings or emotions will be true, and refers to such arguments as ‘sentimental illogicality’.

The General Will

Russell has more time for Rousseau’s political philosophy, which contains mostly reason and little sentimentality. As with Hobbes and Locke, Rousseau uses a contract as the means in which the people confer legitimate authority on the sovereign. Rousseau aims to show how people can do this without giving up their freedom. As with Hobbes, the people must give up all of their individual freedom, so that they are all equal under the sovereign. The difference is that for Rousseau the sovereign is all of society as a collective, rather than the government or monarch. This means that the sovereign will always act in the interests of the people, because it is composed of all the people. The collective interests of the people are described as the ‘general will’. This is not simply the opinion of the majority. It is expressed as an almost theoretical outcome, whereby if everyone were fully informed then the ‘average’ opinion would be the general will. Everyone’s individual interests ultimately cancel each other out, so that we are only left with common interests. To use Russell’s analogy, all particles attract one another via a tiny gravitational force (individual interest), but these forces generally cancel out. Everything also experiences in common a gravitational attraction to the centre of the earth (common interests), and this remains the prevailing gravitational force, or in Rousseau’s terms the prevailing opinion of the general will. To give another analogy, if a buyer values an item at £5 and a seller at £10, the general will considers the value to be the average, i.e. £7.50. Neither party is fully satisfied, but this represents the best compromise of individual interests for everyone involved. Rousseau believed that when governments enforce the general will they are forcing people to be free. What he means is that we naturally follow our common interests when we are truly free, but modern society causes us to have individual interests. When the state enforces the general will, it is forcing us to act as we would if we were free. Therefore, we can give up our individual freedom whilst still being effectively free. I am not convinced by this argument.

Rousseau recognises that it will in practice be difficult for the government to discern the general will, in order to ensure it is reflected in policy. This is why he prefers a small state using direct democracy, in the style of Ancient Athens. He also recognises that this is not a practical system for a modern state, mainly because most people cannot dedicate all their time to public life. When combined with the other principles of Romanticism, this difficulty leaves Rousseau’s system exposed to the rise of an individual who claims that they alone can divine the general will of the people. The first disciple of Rousseau to rise to power was Robespierre during the terror of the French Revolution, and it can be argued that the dictatorships of Germany and Russia trace their roots back to Rousseau’s teachings.

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