Social Science History Six essays for budding theorists By Andrew Roberts essay four: can theory redesign society?

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Social Science History - Six essays for budding theorists

By Andrew Roberts


Rousseau, the French Revolution, Women and Slaves.

¶1 The French Revolution of 1789 sets itself apart from every revolution that had gone before by being a revolution centred on theories. At its centre was a Declaration of the Rights of Man, drawn up by the French Parliament, that focused the minds of the people on what the theorists thought were the basic principles of good government. The declaration of ideas enabled the revolution to spread out of the parliament into the minds of the people, and explains why historians have never been able to agree on when the revolution ended or what its boundaries were. Where, asked Carlyle, did the French revolution take place? Was it in the French parliament or in the streets and fields of France?. “In general, may we not say that the French revolution lies in the heart and head of everyFrench man?” (Carlyle, T. 1837/1839 Book 6, chapter 1, p.172). His figures show that he included every French woman, but he could have given them a separate mention, women were in the forefront of the revolution in France. He could have added that it spread from France to the slave plantations of the West Indies. He might even have said that it fired the minds of women and men generally, for the revolution there has been so persistent that it is still going on.
¶2 This essay first looks at the way that ideas generated by the theorists John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau were applied in the French revolution in 1789. It then looks at how these same ideas applied to two large sections of society that were caught up in the revolution: women and slaves. It has five parts:

Explaining a little about the French revolution

The revolution and general political theory

The revolution and theories of slavery

The revolution and theories of gender

The development of the revolution with respect to slavery and gender

¶3 French Absolutism The States General of France was the equivalent of parliament in England. In England the parliament had waged war on the king and, in 1649, executed him. In France the King did not call parliament together—the States General did not meet once between 1614 and 1789. When reading about this period of French history you will come across references to the parliaments of regions, like the parliament of Paris. These are not parliament in the English sense. They are courts of law that were often in conflict with the king.
¶4 The idea of a monarch ruling without a consultative body of the people (Parliament or States General) to approve laws and thus limit the monarch's power, was one aspect of what the philosopher theorists meant by “absolutism”. France was an absolutist monarchy, whilst England and Scotland were constitutional monarchies. The power of their kings and queens was limited by law-making assemblies of the people. They were not, however, democracies. Most of the members of the English parliament were there by heredity right, and those who were elected were only elected by a small number of the people.
¶5 In the seventeenth century France was proud of being absolutist. The English, on the other hand, called absolutism the French disease. (The “French disease” was also the English name for the venereal disease, syphilis. In France they called syphilis the “English disease”).
¶6 The Sun King, Louis 14. England had theorists of absolutism, like Robert Filmer and Thomas Hobbes, and theorists of constitutional monarchy, like John Locke. In January 1649, when Charles 1st of England was beheaded, Hobbes was in France for his safety. The king of France was a boy—too young to rule. On September 7th 1651 Hobbes watched from his window a ceremonial procession that marked the point where the king became old enough to govern (Evelyn, J. 1818 volume 1, p.268). This king, Louis 14, was to make France very powerful by concentrating power in his own hands. From 1661, when he threw his chief minister into prison, until his death in 1715, the king ruled personally. "L'etat c'est moi" (I am the state), he said. Louis 14 gave absolutism new meanings. He established a system that meant the French aristocracy were preoccupied with the social activities of his court, and deprived of any real power. From the time of Louis 14, French absolutism meant that power was concentrated in the king. In England much power lay with the local government, dominated by the local aristocracy. In France it was concentrated in Versailles, the town outside Paris where the king had a magnificent palace. The French king ruled through a centralised bureaucracy, an organisation of officials loyal to him. He did not share power with a nobility.
¶7 Louis 16 goes bust. The system of absolutism that Louis 14 established was expensive. The state apparatus had to absorb the nobility in expensive social activities. The money to pay for the finery and the power of the French state all came from taxes on the ordinary people, the nobility and clergy paid no taxes. In the late eighteenth century, this system went bust—and precipitated a revolution. The immediate origin of the French revolution was the recalling of the States General for the first time in 175 years. The reason for that was financial. France entered the war of independence on America's side in 1778. The king, Louis 16, called the French Parliament (States General) together because the war had cost too much. He hoped that it would enable him to raise new taxes. The Parliament met in May 1789. It had three parts: the first estate (clergy), second estate (nobles) and third estate (others). The three estates sat apart, but the third estate argued that there should be only one assembly. Their arguments were set out in a pamphlet by Abbé Sieyès which argued that the Third Estate was the whole nation. The third estate renamed itself the National Assembly. On June 20th they resolved to go on meeting (even if the king dissolved them) "until the constitution of the realm is established" On June 27th they won: the king ordered the first and second estates to join the third. His power was now limited by a parliament. France had become a constitutional monarchy.
¶8 The Declaration of the Rights of Man was published by the National Assembly, or parliament, of France in August 1789. It is a set of abstract philosophical principles addressed, not just to the citizens of France, but to "man" in general (See English translation in the extracts). To the German philosopher Hegel it was evidence that philosophy had entered into history. “The consciousness of the spiritual is now the essential basis of the political fabric and philosophy has thereby become dominant”. He agreed with those writers who said that “the French revolution resulted from philosophy”. Philosophy, he said, could now be described as "world wisdom". It is not just truth—but truth exhibited in the affairs of the world (Hegel, F./History).
¶9 The Enlightenment Another German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, saw the revolution as the evidence that the human race has grown up and is now able to think for itself. It was evidence of “enlightenment”. In an article called What is Enlightenment? in 1784 Kant wrote: “Enlightenment is the liberation of man from his self-caused state of minority, which is the incapacity of using one's understanding without the direction of another” (Kant, I. 1784). He went on to say that Enlightenment is not just understanding, but the will to understand by one's own efforts rather than by the guidance of another. We can think of it as being a process of creating our own theories about the world, rather than simply accepting the stories we are told. What could lead you to do that? Hegel suggested that we are stimulated to make our own theories when the stories we are told contradict one another, or contradict our experiences. This a useful point to bear in mind when you come across apparent contradictions in a writer. The contradictions may be the most valuable part of their theory, because they stimulate you to think for yourself. Rousseau may have been the most influential story teller, or theory maker, of the eighteenth century. On first reading, however, he appears riddled with contradictions. Maybe one of the reasons for his influence is that his apparent contradictions shocked his readers into thinking for themselves.
¶10 The Enlightenment has become a term used to indicate the period in the history of ideas when Rousseau was writing. But it has been used flexibly to refer to different periods in different countries. The English Enlightenment includes Hobbes and Locke and is thought to have happened in the 17th century, during and after the English Civil War. The Scottish Enlightenment took place in the 18th century and included Hume and Adam Smith. The French Enlightenment, which we are thinking about now, included Rousseau, Voltaire and Diderot. Thinkers like these provided the intellectual climate for the French Revolution in 1789. The German Enlightenment includes Kant and Hegel, and is partly a reflection on the French Revolution. (Runes 1960 and Sumerscale 1965 under Enlightenment)
¶11 The Philosopher's Parliament The National Assembly became the philosophers's parliament. It was like an enthusiastic college seminar where everyone was discussing ideas and wanted to draw a blueprint for a new society based on those ideas. If we read the first lines of the Declaration of the Rights of Man we see that the Assembly wanted to make the world accord with reason: "The representatives of the French people, sitting in the National Assembly considering that ignorance (etc) ofthe rights of man are the sole causes of public misfortune and the corruption of governmentsset out in a solemn declaration the naturaland sacred rights of man, this declaration, constantly before all members of the civic body, will constantly remind them of their rights and duties, in order that acts of legislative and executive power can be frequently compared with the purpose of every political institution. 1. Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions can only be founded on communal utility."
¶12 Slavery If “men are born and remain free and equal in rights” what can we say about slavery? This issue arose very early in the philosopher's parliament. In July 1789 a delegation from French San Domingo (Haiti) claimed 18 seats in the Parliament, based on the population of San Domingo. The National Assembly's most powerful orator, the Marquis of Mirabeau, attacked the claim because blacks (slave and free) were counted in the population, but had no say in the election of representatives:
“Have not the best minds denied the very utility of colonies? And even admitting their utility, is that any reason for a right to representation? These people wish a representation in proportion to the number of inhabitants. But have the negroes or the free people of colour taken part in the elections? The free coloured are landowners and taxpayers, — nevertheless they have had no vote. And as for the slaves, either they are, or they are not, men. If they be men, let the colonists free them and make them voters and eligible as deputies; if they be not men, — have we, in apportioning deputies according to the population of France, taken into consideration the number of our horses and mules?” (Stoddard, T.L. 1914 pp 78-79; James, C.L.R. 1938/1980 p.60)
¶13 San Domingo was only allowed six deputies. This episode established colonial representation, but at the same time made the issue of slavery an issue for the revolution: “thenceforth the history of liberty in France and of slave emancipation in San Domingo is one and indivisible”. (James, C.L.R. 1938/1980 p.60)

¶14 Constitutional Government Perhaps you think of the French Revolution as the guillotine cutting of the head of the king to make way for a Republic. But this did not happen until four years after the revolution started. At first the revolutionaries attempted to replace the absolutist monarchy of France with a constitutional monarchy. A constitutional monarchy is one where the monarch's powers are governed by a constitution or laws.
¶15 A constitutional monarchy corresponds more to Locke's ideas of government than to those of Hobbes. The important points are that the monarch's actions are governed by laws and that the laws embody the general principles by which the nation chooses to govern itself.
¶16 Rousseau Jean Jacques Rousseau was born, in 1712, in the protestant republic of Geneva, Switzerland. Later he moved to France and to Paris. In Paris he met Voltaire and Diderot and was commissioned to write articles (at first on music) for Diderot's Encyclopédie. The seventeen volumes of this encyclopedia were the foundation stones of the enlightenment in France. The first appeared annually from 1751 to 1757, then they were banned. The final volumes appeared altogether in 1765. Rousseau and Diderot were close friends until Rousseau left Paris in 1756. After this, they fell out.
¶17 In 1750 a prize winning essay, called A Discourse on the Arts and the Sciences, made Rousseau famous because he argued that civilisation had not improved the human condition. His replies to the many refutations that were published, developed his ideas further, as did his A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (Rousseau 1755(I)) and an article for the l'Encyclopédie on Political Economy (Rousseau 1755(I)).
¶18 In 1756 Rousseau left Paris and, over the next few years, worked on Julie, a novel published in 1761; Emile, a treatise on education, and The Social Contract. These were published in 1762. His controversial views on religion led him to flee France and in 1766 and 1767 he lived in England under the protection of David Hume and began to write his autobiographical Confessions (published 1782). The last part of his life was spent in France, in poverty, with periods of insanity. He died in 1778, eleven years before the French Revolution.
¶19 Rousseau and the General Will Like Locke and Hobbes, whose works he read, Rousseau is a state of nature theorist. This means he starts his argument with individuals wandering about in a state of nature and then brings them together to show how society is created through their "social contract". One of the differences between Rousseau's theory and Locke's theory is that Rousseau believes that reason comes into being with society. Like most other state of nature theorists, Rousseau shows how society is created through a "social contract". However, he sees human beings as totally transformed by the passage from nature to society. “The passage from the state of nature to the civil state produces a very remarkable change in man, by substituting justice for instinct in his conduct, and giving his actions the morality they had formerly lacked”. “The voice of duty takes the place of physical impulses andmanis forcedto consult his reason before listening to his inclinations” (Rousseau 1762(SC) pp 195-196). Reason, morality, imagination, memory and language are a consequence of society. This miraculous transformation comes about through the formation of the general will, and it distinguishes Rousseau's theory from most earlier state of nature theories.
¶20 The general will is the will of all when we are not thinking about our own selfish interests but about the general interest. Rousseau calls selfish interests “particular” interests.
¶21 Rousseau's General Will, and Locke on voting The general will is not the victory of the majority over a minority. It is not the result of a vote. It is something that involves the will of every member who is part of it. Rousseau argues that such a general will is fundamental to every society and to every relation between human beings that treats the other person as a person rather than an object. We can approach what he means by looking at what happens when people take a vote. Look at what Locke says about the will of society in the following quotation and note the points I have put in italics: “when any number of men have, by the consent of every individual, made a community, they have thereby made that community one body, with a power to act as one body, which is only by the will and determination of the majority”. (Locke's 2nd Treatise paragraph 96)
¶22 For Locke the society's will is the will of the majority expressed through the legislature as law. We can imagine Rousseau accepting this in one sense, but pointing out (as he does) that: “The law of majority voting is itself something established by convention, and presupposes unanimity on one occasion at least”.(Rousseau 1762(SC) p.190) Locke has acknowledged this in the first phrase in italics above: by the consent of every individual. It is this unanimous agreement that we need to look at according to Rousseau. It is this that makes the minority feel that they are bound by the majority decision and willing to follow it. There is a sense in which we feel the general will as our own even if we voted (or would have voted) for something different. We identify with the society that is making the decision. So Rousseau perceives us as having within us two wills: our own individual will and a general will that is our concern for the interest of society.

Weber contrast

¶23 Reason and the General Will One interpretation of Rousseau is that the general will is what separates us from other animals. It is not just the perception of what is in the general interest, it is also the form of reasoning that separates humans from animals. I will point to the parts of Rousseau's writings on which this interpretation is based. I will start at the end, with a passage from The Social Contract, already quoted in part, in which Rousseau summarises the miraculous change that takes place when human beings pass from the state of nature to the state of society:
“The passage from the state of nature to the civil state produces a very remarkable change in man, by substituting justice for instinct in his conduct, and giving his actions the morality they had formerly lacked. Then only, when the voice of duty takes the place of physical impulses and right of appetite, does man, who so far had considered only himself, find that he is forced to act on different principles, and to consult his reason before listening to his inclinations. Although, in this state, he deprives himself of some advantages which he got from nature, he gains in return others so great, his faculties are so stimulated and developed, his ideas so extended, his feelings so ennobled, and his whole soul so uplifted, that, did not abuses of this new condition often degrade him below that which he left, he would be bound to bless continually the happy moment which took him from it for ever, and, instead of a stupid and unimaginative animal, made him an intelligent being and a man”. (Rousseau 1762(SC) pp 195-196).
¶24 In an earlier draft (Rousseau 1759) of The Social Contract Rousseau had quoted, with approval (but without acknowledgement), the two following passages from an article by his friend Diderot that had appeared in the same volume of the l'Encyclopédie as the article in which Rousseau first used the idea of the General Will.
“the human race alone has the right to decide, for its only passion is for the greatest possible well-being of all men. It is to the general will that the individual must address himself to know how far he must be a man, a citizen, a subject, a father and a child, and when it is fitting for him to live and when to die”. (Rousseau 1759 p.174)
“the general will is, in each individual, a pure act of the understanding which reasons, when the passions are silent, about what a man can ask of his fellows and what his fellows have a right to ask of him”. (Rousseau 1759 p.174)
¶25 In an essay published the same year as l'Encyclopédie articles, Rousseau analyzed reasoning in animals and humans. He argued that, in nature, animals and people respond to things as particulars, not as generalities and that the faculty to think in general terms is only acquired through society. Thinking in general terms, and thinking in terms of the general interest of all are thus associated. The words are remarkably similar, although the concepts are different. Humans have two wills: their particular (selfish) will and their general will. Animals think in terms of particulars, humans think in general concepts.
“When a monkey goes from one nut to another, are we to conceive that he entertains any general idea of that kind of fruit, and compares its archetype with the two individual nuts? Assuredly he does not; but the sight of one of these nuts recalls to his memory the sensations which he received from the other, and his eyes, being modified after a certain manner, give information to the palate of the modification it is about to receive.” (Rousseau 1755(I) p.67)
¶26 It was the same for humans in the state of nature: “Every object at first received a particular name without regard to genus or species, which these primitive originators were not in a position to distinguish; every individual presented itself to their minds in isolation, as they are in the picture of nature. If one oak was called A, another was called B; for the primitive idea of two things is that they are not the same, and it often takes a long time for what they had in common to be seen; so that, the narrower the limits of their knowledge of things, the more copious their dictionary must have been” (Rousseau 1755(I) pp 67-68)
¶27 Thinking in general terms is only possible, Rousseau argues, when one uses words rather than images. “Every general idea is purely intellectual; if the imagination meddles with it ever so little, the idea immediately becomes particular. If you endeavour to trace in your mind the image of a tree in general, you never attain to your end. In spite of all you can do, you will have to see it as great or little, bare or leafy, light or dark, and were you capable of seeing nothing in it but what is common to all trees, it would no longer be like a tree at all.” (Rousseau 1755(I) p.68)
¶28 Rousseau considers it must have taken an enormous length of time for human beings to move from naming individual objects to classifying them as general concepts; from calling each particular tree by a name, to having a word and a concept for all trees (See Rousseau 1755(I) p.68-70). This process was accelerated by people being pushed together by circumstances, thus encouraging the development of language. In two passages Rousseau writes first of how such early societies encouraged the development of language (and consequently general concepts) and then of how they brought into being a concern for public esteem (and consequently, we might infer, the general will).
“We can here see a little better how the use of speech became established, and insensibly improved in each family, and we may form a conjecture also concerning the manner in which various causes may have extended and accelerated the progress of language, by making it more and more necessary.It is readily seen that among men thus collected and compelled to live together, a common idiom must have arisen much more easily than among those who still wandered through the forests of the continent.” (Rousseau 1755(I) p.89)
“They accustomed themselves to assemble before their huts round a large tree; singing and dancing, the true offspring of love and leisure, became the amusement, or rather the occupation, of men and women thus assembled together with nothing else to do. Each one began to consider the rest, and to wish to be considered in turn; and thus a value came to be attached to public esteem.” (Rousseau 1755(I) p.90)
¶29 Provocative though these passages are, it is not clear, to me at least, how Rousseau related the acquirement of the human capacity to reason in general terms with the general will that governs human morality. Both, however, come into being when we become social, and it appears that Rousseau thought of them as related.
¶30 Different ways of viewing the birth of the general will We can view the passage from nature to society as something that took place in the evolution of human beings, or as an imaginary coming together of individual human beings: or as an intellectual construct created to illustrate the importance of society; or as the process which each of us goes through: being born (in a state of nature) and becoming, through education, a social being.
¶31 However we think of it, in society, man "deprives himself of some advantages which he got from nature", but gains others: “his faculties arestimulated and developed, his ideasextended, his feelingsennobled, and his whole souluplifted instead of a stupid and unimaginative animal [he becomes] an intelligent being and a man” Society enriches us. Or it would do if "abuses of this new condition" did not often degrade us below the condition we left (Rousseau 1762(SC) pp 195-196). I will look briefly now to the source of this corruption that Rousseau saw eating away at the root of society, and to his remedy for it
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