Rousseau wrote about everything (music, education, nature, religion). These notes are just about his political thought, for which you have to go to the Origin of Inequality. This starts by consciously putting aside the facts and going for conjecture and hypotheticals. The particular thought experiment Rousseau describes is isolating man from society and seeing what you have left: a solitary animal sharing two instincts common to many animals: self-preservation (sustenance, procreation and indolence) and pity for the suffering of other creatures. This thought experiment quickly turns into conceptual history. Rousseau identifies man's nature by removing him from society, and then claims that this isolation is man's natural condition: a rather sneaky way of introducing the crucial, unsubstantiated (and mistaken) centre-piece of his theory.

What separates men from other animals is perfectability, or free will. Men can use their reason to replace immediate instincts with longer term objectives. We are not slaves of our passions. We can go beyond our natures. Rousseau relates this ability with our self-preservation instinct. Perfectability is the 'source of all our misfortunes' because as we become more rational about securing our survival, we increasingly move away from our pity instinct, which is the source of all our social virtues (although this is in tension with statements made elsewhere, see below). Where do these alternative longer term goals come from? Our imaginations. We desire things not immediately within our grasp, things we don't really need. This conceptual freedom (call it positive liberty) is a double-edged sword.

Perfectability is triggered by necessity and inspires reflection, prudence and innovation (we create bows, fishing rods and traps). Using these tools, we become aware of our superiority compared to other animals, and experience pride for the first time. Next, we notice that other humans use similar techniques. At this point, we associate loosely to achieve shared goals, but if our private interest changes, we immediately abandon the collective. Loyalty is weak.

Next phase: technological advance and natural disasters create tighter bonds between humans. We get huts, villages, language and family life. Dependence on tools for survival is the first yoke we impose on ourselves, originally our bodies were strong enough to provide us with everything we needed. Rousseau considers independence to be another kind of freedom (call it negative liberty). Splitting Rousseau's freedom into these two parts helps make sense of Rousseau's confusing ideas about political liberty.

Society means comparisons between individuals, and the creation of ideas of merit and beauty. Some become better then others, people start to have preferences. This creates feelings of vanity and shame, which in turn can strengthen into contempt and envy. But while such anti-social egoistic feelings are restrained by the pity impulse, we are at the golden age of human existence: midway on the journey from indolence and peace to competition and war. We are independent from other men, and our wills have not entirely quashed our benevolent instincts. Negative and positive liberties are in balance.

The next step is another advance in positive freedom, another reduction in negative freedom. Metallurgy and agriculture inaugurate the division of labour and property. We become dependent on other men, and natural inequalities (of age, strength, intelligence) start producing unequal outcomes. Those more able get more. Feelings of preference become more pronounced, men have to start appearing to be superior in order to survive. Ambition and emulation completely obscure natural qualities. Pity is forgotten. The contempt of the rich and the envy of the poor lead to incessant war.

This is halted by the social contract. The rich scam the poor into establishing property by law in exchange for peace. Where there is less inequality, the contract will produce more democratic forms of government. Rousseau's project is to make the contract and the law preserve liberty and virtue. Because if nothing prevents the acquisitiveness (the positive liberty) of the rich, revolutions and contracts will increasingly barter away the (negative) liberty of the many for peace, until there is only slavery left: a new state of nature with one all powerful tyrant -- a new equality were justice and morality are eliminated once more.

How to prevent this from happening? I'll avoid the plans in the Social Contract, which are confusing. Look at the Letter to Geneva which opens the Origin of Inequality. In that city-state, rulers and ruled have one interest, everyone knows each other, there is no conquering spirit, neither are conquerers attracted to it. The danger there is that the people don't trust their magistrates: the former need to recognize that obedience is in their true interest.

The constitutional proposals for Corsica and Poland help explain this attitude. Corsica is perfect for developing and maintaining independence: it just needs an autarkic agricultural economy. Division of labour and trade means dependence and subjection. Instead, citizen farmers should be happy in their mediocrity, fiercely disciplined, fit and healthy. As Rousseau puts it: better to make bad use of fields than bad use of men. The rejection of modern commercial values will deter conquest. Have people dispersed equally throughout the territory, which will avoid combination and faction: extreme decentralization with a few virtuous elected individuals in charge.

Rousseau's proposals for Poland is the best place to figure out what the general will (Rousseau's definition of 'virtue') really means: recognizing the community interest as your own interest. It is not the sum of private interests (which are irreconcilable), but creating a sense of common good to set against centrifugal private wills. What this ultimately means is patriotism. This can be encouraged by making the country's cultural life (dress, festivals, religion) more distinctive. Education (emphasizing the country's laws and history) is also crucial in making citizens feel uncomfortable anywhere outside the motherland. Patriotism, rather than guns or money, is enough for international security: Russia may swallow Poland up, but she will not be able to digest it. Poles will continue fighting Vietcong-style until they are free.

Rousseau rejects the idea of returning to that prehistoric golden age. Our pity instinct is too far gone for that to work. Patriotism replaces it by redirecting the modern feeling of vanity away from self-preservation and towards selfless activity. But patriotism and virtue can only thrive in enclosed environments where the community knows and can monitor each other. Emulation is given a patriotic mould. Public esteem is bought not with wealth or beauty but with duty to the common good. The regulating function of spectatorship is diluted in large countries, which have to rely on a Hobbesian Leviathan to avoid anarchy. True liberty (the balance between independence and perfectability) can only be found in small republics such as Geneva.

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