One week from today, June 28, 2012, will be the 300th anniversary of the birth of one of the 18th century’s most famous and complex figures, Geneva-born Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). A unique and genuinely radical thinker, who bridged 18th-century Rationalism and 19th-century Romanticism, Rousseau was the author (most famously for students of political theory) of A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1754) and The Social Contract (1762), but also of an idiosyncratic treatise on education Emile (1762), his autobiographical Confessions (1769, published posthumously in 1782), and Reveries of a Solitary Walker (written at the end of his life and also published posthumously in 1782).
Although in time I took quite a liking to Rousseau’s Confessions and enjoyed reading Reveries of a Solitary Walker (both books that I still own, among the few remaining remnants of my youthful academic aspirations), it was, of course, Rousseau the political philosopher whom I first encountered and first seriously engaged with. Rightly or wrongly, Rousseau was often teamed up with Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, the 17th-century English social contract theorists, to constitute a sort of trinity of early modern political theory. A more expansive syllabus might continue with Edmund Burke and 19th-century Restoration-era reactionary theorists, and romantic radicals; but for the most part “modern” political theory meant the social contract tradition of Hobbes and Locke with at least a nod to Rousseau. Whereas Locke leads to Liberalism, Rousseau led elsewhere. Thus, when we studied “Radical Political Thought,” we began with Rousseau. Indeed, Rousseau’s richness may rest in precisely how he highlights the strengths and weaknesses of both those directions in modern thought.
In The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx wondered “what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labor?” Indeed! A little less than a century earlier, in The Social Contract, Rousseau had taken it for granted that different climates would determine different forms of government. Prior to the advent of modern capitalism and its incredibly immense increase in productive capacity and output, Rousseau’s assumption of inherent - and ineradicable - limitations on human freedom and artifice must have seemed more like self-evident common sense. Unable to anticipate (and evaluate) capitalist modernity’s material accomplishments, Rousseau still thought he had seen enough of what “progress” had to offer, however. His most extreme such statement (perhaps also his most famous one) was his rejection of Aristotle’s view (Politics I, ii) that the first one to have constructed a city was humanity’s greatest benefactor. Of course, considering the biblical view that it was the murderer Cain who first founded a city (Genesis 4:17) Rousseau’s de-mystification of the virtues of civilization in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality actually tapped into other deeply rooted understandings – understandings which modernity (especially liberal modernity) has usually tried to repress, and which radical theorists of all sorts have struggled to recover. That Rousseau remains equally famous for an alternative, totalitarian utopia (The Social Contract) – in effect, a de-Christianized, re-paganized neo-Geneva, modeled on republican Rome – just confirms the complexity and depth of his radicalism, the recognition of the insolubly problematic character of human nature, once imagined as abandoned to itself without a supernatural end and destiny.