Jean-Jacques Rousseau is one of those thinkers that is both admirable and terrible. His work is admirable in its depth and range of thought as well as in its lasting significance through its tremendous influence. At the same time, however, it is also terrible in that I believe it embodies the most destructive and false aspects of Enlightenment thought.
For this brief post on the first two books of his The Social Contract, my most recent reading in the Great Books of the Western World reading project, I will confine my comments to only one aspect of that thought, an aspect which I believe is at the heart of the trouble. This is that Rousseau believes that human nature can be changed through the imposition of laws upon individuals and societies. This idea of Rousseau is, of course, a central component of modern liberal thought. Ultimately, it seems to me to be what separates the modern conservative from the modern liberal. The modern conservative is someone who believes that human nature is immutable; the modern liberal is someone who believes that human nature is mutable.
For historical antecedents, the modern conservative might look to those many thinkers, which include most of the great thinkers before the Enlightenment, who believed that the purpose of government and law was to keep a check on the worst aspects of human nature and to encourage the better aspects. It is not that human nature can be changed by the laws, say these thinkers (Plato, for instance, and Aristotle, as well as Aquinas come immediately to mind); it is, rather, that the laws serve to help humans, both as individuals and as societies, control their nature(s).
The modern liberal, drawing largely upon thought since the Enlightenment, believes that government and law can and should mold human nature, even that human beings are creatures without a nature, as the existentialist, surely a modern liberal, might assert. Sadly, out of this belief in the mutability of human nature have arisen all of the many experiments in utopianism of the last several centuries, beginning with the French Revolution and culminating in the Holocaust and in the gulags of the Soviet Union. Each of these was, at its heart, an attempt to alter or to overcome human nature through the imposition of law and the power of government. And each proved itself to be a catastrophic failure.
These attempts at utopianism and at the molding of human nature into some desired form continue today, albeit largely in less genocidal forms. In the world of education, of which I am a denizen, one might point, for example, to the ubiquity of charter school management companies like UnCommon Schools, which present themselves as the Great White Hope which while finally bring about the much-desired perfect egalitarian society. Of course, their need to resort to underhanded manipulation of statistical data and their rote robotic approach to “instruction” (what a poor word for what used to be called “discipling” or just plain “teaching” and “mentoring”) betray the truth of their ineffectiveness and pitiful condescension. As it turns out, one cannot engineer human beings even if you get them while they’re young and mercilessly beat them into the desired shape.
I know that someone will accuse me here of the infamous argumentum ad Hitlerum. That is not, I must assert in my own defense, my intent, however. I do not mean to say that “liberals are like the Nazis because x.” On the contrary, I do not intend to make a political point at all. My intent is merely to discuss, with no doubt too much brevity, the historical development of a fascinating and quite influential, even if false and harmful, set of ideas.