The Age of Enlightenment brought a new era of political consciousness to Europe. No longer would the destiny of the Western world be limited to the clergy and their bewildered notions of Divine Command Theory – instead, rational intellectualism sought to reform political communities. New concepts of statehood and secular governance had arisen throughout the Enlightenment, as the epoch of theocratic empires was beginning to end, and modern political theories based on rational logic took the spotlight. A wide array of educated elites produced hundreds of dogmatic texts, letters, rebuttals, and hypotheses either in search for a more ideal society or in critique of political status quo. These new ideas were published and distributed on wide scales, influencing urban societies, mobilizing new movements and swaying public discourse over issues of rightful authority.
The French Revolution, in particular, represented an epicenter of ideological revolutions in history, as popular effort pursued drastic political change. In a short period, the French managed to overthrow their long-standing monarchy, deviate from their feudal society, and minimize the authority of religious bodies. But the revolution was not a bed of roses, as several republics and administrative orders arose thereafter, lasting only short periods before French society looked to new rulers and political formulas. Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Edmund Burke, two renowned Enlightenment theorists, were both writing in the 18th century – Rousseau’s philosophy became a major influence to the French Revolution, while Burke’s work intellectually rebuked the revolt whilst it was in its infancy stages. Without exploring the legitimacy or lack thereof of this revolution or others, it is important to establish that Rousseau and Burke’s theories were divergent on some fundamental questions of governance. This paper looks into one of James Madison’s key doctrines on the ideal purpose and boundaries of government, and establishes that the works of Rousseau and Burke, while in some ways agreeing with Madison’s expression, would respond fundamentally contrarily from each other.
The quote of interest is the following: “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed, and in the next place oblige it to control itself”. We can further divide this expression into three main ideas: 1) a government “administered by men over men”; which is to acknowledge that in a secular system, neither God nor a divinely appointed sovereign is believed to be leading the political unit, 2) “control the governed”; meaning, to rule over the people in an adequate fashion, and 3)“control itself”; or to put necessary restrictions and divisions on the power of the ruling body in protection of its citizens. Both Rousseau and Burke discuss the above essential points in their respective works, and thus, this paper is organized to reflect their responses to these ideas. Rousseau agrees with the notion that a regime governs by the will of men rather than that of God.
While past societies in Christendom and elsewhere ruled on the basis of scripture or the wits of a divinely-guided figure, Rousseau’s Social Contract recognizes that laws should only come by the consent of the people. He brings up the example of Roman decimvir commissioners, who would not pass their own laws, but instead, would proclaim “Nothing we propose… can become law without your consent. Romans, be yourselves the authors of the laws that should bring about your happiness” (Rousseau, pp. 164). An ideal republic for Rousseau forms its own laws by direct means rather than through a religious intermediate. While some may see Rousseau’s Legislator as a quasi or even pseudo religious figure; “an extraordinary man” coming with “superior intelligence”, the Legislator has dominion over men and the establishment of society, but not its laws, as that would “perpetuate his injustices” (Rousseau, pp. 162-163). In other words, executive and legislative powers cannot be combined into one person without corruption emerging, and hence, the power to create laws “belongs to the people” (Rousseau, pp. 173). Rousseau does not believe in the rule of deific legatees (Rousseau, pp. 76), and instead proposes a new civil religion. This civil religion would be simple enough to inclusively bind the masses of a secular political community together, as the unit would be centred on their own social contract and qualities of a constructive society.
Accordingly, Rousseau believes that men must indeed rule over men by their consent, under a collective social tradition of citizenship rather than a customary religion. Although Burke ultimately agrees with the notion that men are to rule over men without divine intermediates, his response to this perception is different from that of Rousseau. Namely, the place of God, societal religious custom, and the progression of history plays an important role in his political theory. Burke discusses the role of “little platoons” (Burke, pp. 41); a social unit linking a citizen’s belonging to his country. In critique of the rebellion of France’s Third Estate, which represented the vast majority of the French population, Burke argues that deputation from the clergy and nobility would only bestow French leadership to the “worst designs of individuals in that class” (Burke, pp. 40). Burke attaches his “little platoons” idea to the clergy, identifying their institution not only as important to the social fabric of a society, but also a venue through which naturally talented people may ascend to the hierarchy of a community. Dismantlement of these traditional institutions would only lead to chaos through the deferment of power to those among the people who are unfit to receive it. While Burke recognizes the imminence of modernity and the ever-evolving natures of a culture and society, he believed that recent anomalies can still be disguised as ordinary religious customs to the masses if framed properly, as he cites an example involving a famed incongruent royal succession (Burke, pp. 16). Burke fully endorses having a God-fearing society, because, in conjunction with venerating the institutions of monarchy, parliament, magistrates, priesthood, and nobility are inseparable to the social makeup of his own country (Burke, pp. 75-76), which has “not yet been completely embowelled of our natural entrails” (Burke, pp. 75). Therefore, while Rousseau gives complete trust to the general populous to create laws for its self, Burke wishes to preserve antique institutions rooted in history in the governing of a political unit.
Next, Rousseau’s notion of controlling the governed is a progressive vision created as he reflects on the problems of modern political life. He notes that, sometime in history, social communities must have been molded by conditions that bequeathed the interdependence of humans. This eventually led to each nation’s submission to elders (seigneurs) and magistrates, as “preference was given to merit” of the state (Rousseau, pp. 76) to insure the longevity of that society. However, this resulted in the marginalization of the people’s happiness and well-being, and the forming of civil factions pugnacious to each other. The “blood of citizens was sacrificed to the alleged happiness of the state” and the people at this point were “incapable of breaking their chains” (Rousseau, pp. 76). Rousseau argues that these were the precepts to the modern inequalities that are to be reversed in an ideal republic. Otherwise, under the current system, the people would further be violently divided against each other, and we would see “the defenders of the homeland sooner or later become its enemies, holding a dagger over their citizens, and there would come a time when we would hear them say to the oppressor of their country: ‘If you order me to plunge my sword into my brother’s breast or my father’s throat, and into my pregnant wife’s entrails, I will do so, even though my right hand is unwilling’ (pp. Rousseau 79). These words represent the willingness of these factions to destroy their past, present, and future for the sake of the despot. Rather, Rousseau proposes a new system whose “rule of administration in the civil order” would take “men as they are and laws as they might be” (Rousseau, pp. 141). This order would hence govern the authentic natural citizens that all humans can become, and insure the upright purpose of laws; which are established for the protection of its people, and not simply for the comfort of a tyrant. Through “perfectibility” (Rousseau, pp. 59) mankind can acquire second-natures via interaction with his environment. In this case, natural men can develop “social virtues” that those outside modern society do not have (Rousseau, pp. 59).
Lastly, although Rousseau did not believe property was a fundamental human right like Locke, he still believed property was a sacred right citizens possess, as long as it corresponds with the general will. Under an ideal state, “men all become equal by convention and by right”, as opposed to failed governments, where the poor are suppressed and the rich are preferred (Rousseau, pp. 153). Burke, however, is more fearful of the masses and what modernity may drive them to do if traditional hierarchies and customs are destroyed. Particularly, Burke is fearful of the fever of unregulated liberty that has been unleashed among the French Revolutionaries. To this end, he points that the complete liberty of a society is harmful – the French had a government under its monarch, but by its dismantlement, the people’s unrestrained freedom may erupt in chaos. Burke conjures the example of an uncontrolled maniac, “Can I now congratulate the same nation upon its freedom? Is it because liberty in the abstract may be classed among the blessings of mankind, that I am seriously to facilitate a madman, who has escaped from the protecting restraint and wholesome darkness of his cell, on his restoration to the enjoyment of light and liberty” (Burke, pp. 7) Just as a mental holding may restrain a madman from his liberties, a just government must indemnify its hold on the people; otherwise, anarchy may arise.
For Burke, it is the social and political emergence of individualism that causes insurrection against government and destruction of traditional ties. Hence, modern ideologically-driven revolutions are a contagion that must be contained. Instead, Burke proposes that the traditional institutions are to be maintained: monarchy is only evil in the eyes of those who expect complete freedom, and the people should furthermore find their refuge in religion, laws and manners (Burke, pp. 12). After all, to go against these traditional institutions is to “wage war with heaven itself” (Burke, pp. 9). While modernity is an unstoppable force, Burke argues that aristocrats should embrace gradual changes, while disguising them in the nostalgic spirit of the past. To further elaborate, he brings up his allegory of the venerable castle, whose foundations although may be repaired every so often, the structure itself remains unchanged, “Your constitution, it is true, whilst you were out of possession, suffered waste and dilapidation; but you possessed in some parts the walls and in all the foundations of a noble and venerable castle. You might have repaired those walls; you might have built on those old foundations…” (Burke, pp. 31). Here, he compares a state’s constitution with a castle – their antiquity is to be preserved, even if their upkeep is on par. A people who destroys this are like “children who hack an aging parent to pieces” (Burke, pp. 84), who will only necessarily fall into pandemonium and, out of necessity, try to “renovate” or rejuvenate the old traditions into a modern, unauthentic form.
Moreover, Burke prefers the controlling and pacifying effect of organized religion, as it establishes a set hierarchy in place, organizes and guides meetings for the masses, and produces a binding heritage for the entirety of the nation. After all, “man is by his constitution a religious animal; that atheism is against” (Burke, pp. 80). Therefore, Burke believes men are to be ruled over by long-standing institutions of leadership and religion, with gradual unsuspected changes, because of their connection to a society’s social fabric. Madison’s third point obliges governments to restrain themselves through checks and balances. Rousseau, like Madison, is critical of factions, because of their tendency to interfere with the public good. In order to prevent the oppression of a minority faction by the consent of the majority, Rousseau establishes the concept of the general will in his Social Contract. The general will is the “constant will of all the members of the state”; meaning, it consists only of what all citizens agree to, such as the fundamental guarantees of liberty and protection (Rousseau, pp. 206). All laws on top of that must be validated through the general will: “When a law is proposed in the people’s assembly, what is asked of them is not precisely whether they approve or reject, but whether or not it conforms to the general will” (Rousseau, pp. 206) The purpose of this system is the insure the people’s basic integrities, as an ideal government should not have the power to pass legislation that restricts the freedoms or security of those in the state. Rousseau emphasizes his theoretical state’s willingness to “unite… in order to protect the weak from oppression, restrain the ambitious, and assure everyone of possessing what belongs to him” (Rousseau, pp. 69). Thus, the general will is the fundamental political association that transcends partisanship rather than the sum of particular wills.
Rousseau’s concept is consequently in full agreement with Madison, because while a government has power over its people and vice versa, there are sufficient checks and balances that restrain a state’s abuse of its people. Burke, however, puts forth the idea of a natural aristocracy. While a landed aristocrat is a noble who inherits his wealth and feudal property, a natural aristocrat is “of the commons”; who through their own talent, must rightfully be admitted to the nobility (Burke, pp. 121). One of France’s fundamental problems in Burke’s view is that these natural aristocrats were “not fully admitted to the rank and estimation … equally with that of other nobility”, meaning, the landed aristocrats (Burke, pp. 121). A system that suppresses talented individuals from ascending to their rightful place will only engender “the destruction of the old nobility” (Burke, pp. 122). Moreover, nobles, who are a part of the protecting force of tradition and custom in a society, are not to be deceived by the emerging market economy, as their antiquities and symbolic hierarchy is worth far more than any quick profit.
Therefore, Burke creates his own checks and balances on governance by advising the nobility to not hurdle the progress of natural aristocrats and to protect customary and traditional hierarchy – otherwise, the system is in threat of collapse. While Rousseau and Burke both call for men to rule over men, governments to rule over people, and regimes to restrain themselves, they fundamentally disagree on how this is to be brought about. The above points demonstrate that while Rousseau vouches for civil liberty, equality, and secular citizenship, Burke is largely a proponent of traditional societal structures, a realm of nostalgia, and religious observance. History has shown us that it had taken France decades to attain domestic stability after its revolution, but at the same time, liberal ideals have brought great economic and civil progress to societies around the world. These intellectual rationally-based arguments will continue to be presented and debated, because for now, it is impossible to establish whose theories will stand the test of time.