CHAPTER 13: THE FRENCH EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY ARGUMENT

NO GREATER CONTRAST can be envisaged than that between Hume and Montesquieu. Hume breathes the spirit of his own age, while that Montesquieu was much read but little influential is scarcely surprising. For apart from Vico, whom he almost certainly had not read, the writers whom he most resembles are Durkheim and Weber. Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu (1689-1755) was an Anglophile French aristocrat who grasped in a moment of illumination, not dissimilar to that in which Descartes founded modern philosophy, the great truths that societies are not mere collections of individuals, and that social institutions are not means to the psychological ends of such individuals. In so doing, he broke both with the utilitarianism and with the individualism of his century. His consequent motive was a practical one; he wished to understand society in order to create an applied science of government by means of which the human condition might be improved.

What creates different forms of social life? “Men are governed by many factors: climate, religion, law, the precepts of government, the examples of the past, customs, manners; and from the combination of such influences there arises a general spirit.” The lawgiver must study the particular society for which he is legislating, because societies greatly differ. The totality of relationships which the lawgiver must take into account compose “the spirit of the laws,” the phrase which Montesquieu used as a title for his major book.

Montesquieu takes the isolated Hobbesian individual to be not only a myth, but a gratuitously misleading myth. If we look at the societies to which individuals belong, we discover that they exemplify quite different types of system. What ends an individual has, what needs, what values, will depend upon the nature of the social system to which he belongs. But social institutions and the whole framework of legal, customary, and moral rules are devices not to secure ends external to themselves, but native to the psychology of the individual-rather, such institutions and rules supply the necessary background against which alone the ends and needs of the individual can be intelligible. This contention is close to that of Aristotle; and Montesquieu is in many ways an Aristotelian thinker. But he stresses explicitly, in a way that Aristotle never does, the social milieu in which politics and morals have to be placed. He is the first moralist with a sociological perspective. (Vico precedes him as a sociologist, but is not in the same sense a moralist.)

The types of society enumerated by Montesquieu are three: despotic, monarchical, and republican. Each type has its own kind of health and its own characteristic ailments. Each is marked by a dominant ethos: despotisms by fear, monarchies by honor, republics by virtue. Montesquieu’s own moral preferences emerge in two ways: implicitly in his tone of voice, which betrays a modified admiration for republics, an approval of monarchy, and a genuine dislike of despotism; and explicitly in his repudiation of the attempt to state true moral precepts for all times and places. “When Montezuma insisted that the religion of the Spaniards was good for their country and the Mexican for his own, what he said was not absurd.”50 Each society has its own standards and its own forms of justification. But from this it does follow that every form of justification which attempts to provide norms of a supracultural kind is bound to fail; hence Montesquieu without inconsistency could attack a variety of moral views as ill-founded.

More than this, Montesquieu combined with his relativism a belief in certain eternal norms, and it perhaps seems more difficult at this point in the argument to acquit him of inconsistency. We have, according to Montesquieu, a concept of justice at least which we can formulate independently of any existing legal system and in the light of which we can criticize all such systems.

We can judge positive laws to be more or less just. How can Montesquieu believe both that every society has its own standards and that, nonetheless, there are eternal norms by means of which such standards can be criticized?

If we read Montesquieu as merely asserting that there are certain necessary conditions which any positive code of laws or rules must satisfy if it is to be called just, then he is not inconsistent in also asserting that what is held to be just must vary from society to society. For although the same necessary conditions must be satisfied in all societies, the satisfaction of these conditions may in no society be sufficient to characterize an action, policy, or rule as just. Thus Montesquieu might mean, for example, that in all societies it is necessary for the law to specify the same punishment for the same offense if it is to be characterized as just, but that what offenses are punished may vary indefinitely from society to society. But while perhaps this is part of what Montesquieu meant, he does in fact seem to go further than this; for he is willing to speak of a state of nature where human conduct would be governed simply by the rules of natural justice. And if the rules of natural justice are to be sufficient to govern conduct, then they must in fact have all the characteristics of a positive code- except that they are divinely enacted. But in that case, what becomes of relativism? What becomes of the thesis that every society must be judged in its own terms?

There is no clear answer in Montesquieu. He just is inconsistent. Sometimes he seems committed to the view that there is no standpoint outside or beyond that of a given society. Sometimes -more interestingly still-he seems to make political liberty his criterion for judging a society. His three basic types of society are despotism, republicanism, and monarchy. In a despotic state the only law is the fiat of the ruler; hence there is no legal tradition and no established framework. The principle of government is fear, fear of the consequences of disobedience. The part that an established legal framework might play in guiding conduct is taken by religion or custom. In a republican state the motive for obedience to the law is the sense of civic virtue. A republican government has to take positive steps to educate its citizens into such a sense, and the demands made upon the citizens will be high. Less so in a monarchy, where the appeal is to the sense of honor and to the rewards of position. A monarchy is a hierarchical society, and the values of its subjects are the values of rank and status. It is clear that this part of Montesquieu’s theory is relativistic. The questions, Which is the most honorable course of action? and, Which is the most expedient and least dangerous course of action? appear as rival interpretations of the question, Which is the best course of action? and there is no room for the question, Which is the best motive, fear, virtue, or honor? Each is best adapted to its own type of society.

Montesquieu’s relativism stands in sharp contrast to the absolutist ethics of most writers of the French Enlightenment. But these did not, of course, agree among themselves. Helvétius perhaps stands at one extreme, Diderot at another. Claude-Adrien Helvétius (1751-71) caused such scandal with his psychological materialism that he was forced to retire from the French royal service. Reasoning, as well as perception, according to Helvétius, consists solely in a chain of sensations. Of sensations, some are painful, some pleasant, some neutral. Everyone desires his own pleasure and nothing else. Everything else which men appear to desire they desire only as a means to their pleasure. Some men are pained by the pain of others and pleased by the pleasure of others. They exhibit what we call benevolence. Moral words are used to pick out types of sensibility which are universally approved as useful and pleasing. Apparent disputes and disagreements over moral questions would all be removed if confusion over the definition of moral words were removed. Such confusions can only be removed by free discussion. Where is free discussion possible? Only in England; scarcely at all in France.

At this point in the argument we encounter one of the most characteristic paradoxes of the Enlightenment. On the one hand, Helvétius espouses a completely determinist psychology. On the other, he believes in almost limitless possibilities of transforming human nature, if only political despotism and ecclesiastical obscurantism did not prevent a radical reform of the educational system. For by conditioning the child at a sufficiently early age we can bring him to take pleasure in benevolence and altruism. When Helvétius first describes benevolence he makes it appear as if it is just a fact that some men do take pleasure in pleasing others; now he writes as if everyone ought to take such pleasure. Covertly, the agent’s own pleasure has ceased to be the sole criterion of right action.

The complexity of the thought of Denis Diderot (1713-84), coeditor with d’Alembert of the Encyclopédie, is alone enough to put him at the opposite pole of the Enlightenment from Helvétius. Diderot, like Montesquieu, believes in eternal moral laws; like Montesquieu, he is also well aware of moral variations between societies. In his Supplement to Bougainville’s “Voyage” he compares Polynesian institutions with European, and the comparison is greatly to the advantage of the former. But his conclusion is not that we should straightway replace Catholicism and monogamy by their Polynesian alternatives, for this kind of drastic innovation would disrupt society and multiply unhappiness. What he does insist upon is the gradual replacement of institutions in which impulse and desire are frustrated by institutions which allow them expression. But almost alone among the writers of the Enlightenment, Diderot can always see numerous sides to every question. In Rameau’s Nephew he presents a dialogue with the nephew of the composer, who represents all those impulses upon which respectable society necessarily frowns, but by which in more or less disguised forms it is then victimized. In so doing, Diderot takes an enormous step forward. Both Plato and the Christians put certain basic human desires under a ban as evil; but what happens to them then? If they are not allowed a legitimate outlet, is not this equivalent to prescribing an illegitimate outlet for them? And if this is so, isn’t the evil created by the would-be good? Diderot’s argument is inconclusive. But it challenges the Christian, and especially the Protestant, view of man at its most vulnerable point.

If the evil in human nature can be traced to specific causes, what becomes of the dogma of original sin? If the specific causes of evil include the propagation of dogmas such as the dogma of original sin, what becomes of the whole theological enterprise? This is the question posed most systematically by Rousseau. Rousseau however cannot be discussed simply as one among others with the writers of the Enlightenment, partly because he deliberately set himself against the whole trend of the Enlightenment, and partly because he exists as a moral philosopher on an incomparably higher level than any other writer of the eighteenth century except for Hume and Kant. We can bring out Rousseau’s importance best by considering the different attitude to liberty taken by the typical writers of the Enlightenment and by Rousseau. For Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Helvétius alike the ideals of political liberty are incarnated in the English Revolution of 1688. Freedom means freedom for Whig lords and also for intellectuals like themselves. But for those whom Voltaire called “the rabble” obedience is still the order of the day. Thus on the only point on which the writers of the Enlightenment were predisposed to be moral innovators they adopted a position which was essentially arbitrary, which accepted the status quo as a whole, while questioning it in part, especially where it affected their own interests. No wonder that these would-be radicals so eagerly sought and accepted relationships with royal patrons, Diderot with Catherine of Russia, Voltaire with Frederick of Prussia. On moral questions in general, the Enlightenment critique of society is simply that men behave irrationally; and the recipe for social improvement is that henceforward men should behave rationally. But to the questions of why men are irrational, and what they would have to do to become rational, few answers are given beyond the panaceas of free discussion and education. It is with relief that one turns from this mediocrity to the passion of Rousseau.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau has been variously credited with the rise of romanticism, the decline of the West, and more plausibly, the French revolution. Thomas Carlyle is said-possibly apocryphally-to have once been dining with a businessman who tired of Carlyle’s loquacity and turned to him with the reproach, “Ideas, Mr. Carlyle, ideas, nothing but ideas!” Carlyle replied, “There was once a man called Rousseau who wrote a book containing nothing but ideas. The second edition was bound in the skins of those who laughed at the first.” What then was so influential in what Rousseau had to say?

The simple, central, powerful concept in Rousseau is that of a human nature which is overlaid and distorted by existing social and political institutions, but whose authentic wants and needs provide us with a basis for morals and a measure of the corruption of social institutions. His concept of human nature is far more sophisticated than that of other writers who have appealed to an original human nature; for Rousseau does not deny that human nature has a history, that it can be and is often transformed, so that new desires and motives appear. The history of man begins in the state of nature, but Rousseau’s view of the state of nature is quite unlike that of Hobbes. First, it is not presocial. Man’s natural, unreflective impulses are not those of self-aggrandizement; natural man is moved by self-love, but self-love is not inconsistent with feelings of sympathy and compassion. Even some animals, Rousseau noted, go to the aid of others. Second, human wants are limited by the natural environment. Rousseau is well aware of what Hobbes seems not to know, that human desires are elicited by being presented with objects of desire; and natural man is presented with few desirable objects. “The only goods he acknowledges in the world are food, a woman, and sleep; the only ills he fears are pain and hunger.” Third, like Hobbes, Rousseau believes that in a state of nature certain moral distinctions are not yet made; since there is as yet no property, there is no use for the concepts of justice and injustice. But it does not follow from this for Rousseau that no moral predicates as yet have application. Natural man, following his impulses of need and occasional sympathy, is good and not evil. The Christian doctrine of original sin is as false as the Hobbesian doctrine of nature.

After the state of nature comes social life. Experience of the advantages of cooperative enterprise, the institution of property, skills in agriculture and working metals-all these lead into complex forms of social organization, although there are as yet no political institutions. The institution of property and the growth of wealth lead to inequality, oppression, enslavement, and consequent theft and other crimes. Because it is now possible to speak of what is rightly mine or thine, the concepts of justice and injustice come to have application. But the development of moral distinctions parallels a growth in moral depravity. The ills born of this depravity lead to a strong desire for political and legal institutions. These institutions are born of a social contract.

As with some earlier contract theorists, Rousseau did not believe that he was recounting history. He says explicitly that he is concerned with an area of inquiry where facts are not available; he is therefore contructing a hypothesis to explain the present state of man and society, but this hypothesis cannot rise to the level of historical fact. His account is, in fact, in the form of a functional explanation which exhibits certain features of social life as serving certain ends. In the case of political institutions he wishes to draw a contrast between the ends which they might serve (and which in the narrative of the contract they were originally introduced to serve) and the ends which they actually do serve. The state, according to Rousseau was originally introduced as a law-making and law-enforcing agency which by providing impartial justice would rectify the disorders arising from social inequality. It might be made to serve these ends again, but it has in fact been made into an instrument of despotism and inequality. In the state of society before the contract, the need was for leaders who would undertake to prevent the abuse of power; in fact those leaders have established, and used laws to establish, a state of affairs where the powerful and the propertied were able not only to oppress the poor but to invoke legitimate authority to back up their oppression.

This is the account of the origin of inequality which Rousseau gave in an essay in a prize competition run by the Académie de Dijon, which did not win the prize but was published in 1758. He was at that time already forty-six years old; four years later he published Du Contrat Social and Emile, and as a result had to leave France. While in exile he took refuge with Hume, who behaved with generosity toward a guest of impossible temperament. Rousseau was the worst kind of paranoid and hypochondriac, the type who does in fact suffer persecution and is in fact constantly ill, and who therefore is able to justify to himself the irrationalities with which he alienates his friends. But his tortured sensibility and his labored introspection bore fruit not only in a better description of human emotion than any other eighteenth-century writer offers us but also in a subtler analysis.

From Hobbes onward the psychological problem had been posed, Why should men do other than act to their own immediate advantage? The solutions in both French and English writers tend to fall into two groups. Either it is suggested that there is an independent source of altruism in human nature, or it is suggested that altruism is merely disguised self-love. The first type of solution depends upon an a-priori psychology tailored to fit the problem; the second, as we have already seen in discussing Hobbes, is palpably false.

It is Rousseau who sees his way to a dissolution rather than a solution of the problem by discerning that the notions of self-interest and selfishness have not the elementary and simple character that both Hobbes and his successors assigned to them. This is for two reasons, both of which are found in Rousseau. The first is that the man who is able to consider the alternatives of consulting his own interest or of consulting that of others must (even though he chooses to consult his own interests) be already involved sympathetically with others to at least some extent in order for their interest to appear to present him with an alternative. The newborn baby is not selfish, for it confronts no alternatives of altruism and selfishness. Even the psychopath is not selfish. Neither psychopath nor infant has developed to the point at which selfishness is possible. The second reason is that in the pursuit of most characteristically human goals it is impossible to separate out a part that is the consulting of my own interest and a part that is devoted to the needs of others. Hobbes pictures men as social beings only contingently, through the accident of social contact. Hume, in the Enquiry at least, pictures them as having a spring of sympathy for others independent of their aims for themselves. Rousseau sees that what men aim at for themselves is a certain kind of life lived in a certain type of relationship with others. True self-love, our primitive passion, provides the notion of a reciprocal relationship of the self to others and so a basis for an appreciation of justice. Gradually the more complex virtues are evolved as the simpler moral feelings are educated. The moral simplicities of the heart are a safe guide.

When, however, we consult these simplicities we discover a sharp contrast between what they enjoin and what is enjoined by the morality which existing institutions have produced. The reform of those institutions is therefore the precondition of systematic moral reform. Civilization continually produces new desires and needs, and these new goals are above all acquisitive, concerned with property and with power. Men become selfish through the multiplication of private interests in an acquisitive society. The task of the social reformer, therefore, is to construct institutions in which the primitive regard for the needs of others will be restored in the form of a regard for the common good. Men have to learn how in advanced communities they can act not as private individuals, as men, but rather as citizens.

The detail of the political arrangements which Rousseau proposes is scarcely germane; what does matter is his conception of politics as the expression through institutions of a genuine common will, “the general will,” which he contrasts with “the will of all,” the sum, as it were, of individual wills. This is not, however, a matter of politics as distinct from morals. “Society has to be studied in the individual, and the individual in society; those who wish to separate politics from morals will never understand either.” What does this mean? Rousseau understood, as Kant was later to observe, that I cannot answer the question, What ought I to do? until I have answered the question, Who am I? But any answer to this question will specify, as Kant did not understand, my place is a nexus of social relationships, and it is within these and the possibilities which they make available that ends in the light of which actions may be criticized are discovered. But if I judge, as Rousseau did, that the social order to which I actually belong is corrupted and corrupting, I shall have to discover the ends for moral action not implicit in the forms of social activity which I already share with my fellow men, but in a form of social life which does not yet exist but which might be brought into existence. What authority has this not-yet-existent form of social life over me to provide me with norms? Rousseau’s answer is that it will be seen to be a just order by the uncorrupted heart. If, as he sometimes seems about to do, Rousseau went on to say that the heart is only uncorrupted in a just social order, then he would be involved in a logically vicious circularity. But in fact Rousseau, especially in the Vicaire savoyard, seems to insist that a true conscience is always accessible. If we consult it, we may still go astray intellectually, but not morally. That is why, when conscience is institutionalized in the form of deliberative assemblies whose regard for the common good and for the norms of justice render them voices of the general will, it remains true that “the general will is always right and promotes the public advantage; but it does not follow that the deliberations of the people are always equally right. Our will is always for our own good, but we do not always see what that good is; the people is never corrupted, but it is often deceived, and on such occasions only does it seem to will what is bad.”51

What is clearest in this passage is that Rousseau takes it for granted that there is a single common good, that the wants and needs of all the citizens do coincide in this good, that there are not irreconcilable social groupings within society. As to the nature of this common good we can at worst miscalculate. But why, then, do private interests multiply? Why is the common good disregarded? Rousseau’s brilliant, if primitive, sociological insight into the divisive nature of modern society is scarcely coherent with his assertions on other occasions of the power and universality of moral feeling. This dilemma of Rousseau’s is not peculiar to him. If I can purge society of corruption by appeal to universally valid moral principles to which either every heart or every mind or both must give testimony, then how can society ever have become corrupted in the first place? I avoid this dilemma only either by denying the possibility of abolishing the corruption of society, or by insisting that society is not homogeneous, that the moral principles to which I appeal express the wants and ends of some but not others, and that in appealing to those principles I can expect concurrence only from those whose wants and needs are of the relevant kind.

The latter way out was to be taken by Marx, who spoke approvingly of “Rousseau’s simple moral sense”; the former way, by the conservatives who reacted to the French Revolution. All human hearts, so their argument runs, are at once corrupted and yet aware of a law which judges them. The pure heart cannot be contrasted with the impure social order, for the impurity is in the social order only because it is in the heart first, and it is in all hearts. The doctrine of original sin, muted in Burke, loud in de Maistre, is conservatism’s reply to Rousseau. There is a recurring pattern in the history of the West from the eighteenth century onward in which every major failure in the human struggle for self-improvement and liberation is greeted as new evidence for the dogma of original sin. The tone changes: a Reinhold Niebuhr on the failure of the Russion Revolution is very different from a de Maistre on the failure of the French. But the dogmatic stock in trade is the same. It is one of Rousseau’s cardinal virtues to have asked for an explanation of specific evils in human life, and in so doing, to have opened the way for sociological hope to replace theological despair. Yet it remains true that Rousseau himself was a pessimist; the discovery of what conditions are an empirical prerequisite for social reform can itself lead to pessimism. And where Rousseau had specified the climatic, economic, and social preconditions of democracy he was forced to conclude that only one people in Europe were capable of it: the Corsicans.