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  • Justice and the General Will:Affirming Rousseau's Ancient Orientation
  • David Lay Williams

There is much confusion about how to characterize the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His thought has at various times been related to such dissimilar thinkers as Plato and Hobbes. From Plato he is said to have acquired his affinities for community and civic virtue. And one does not have to look too hard to find his praise for the great sage of the Academy: "Plato only purified the heart of man."1 He was often eager to affiliate his ideas with those of antiquity. He yearned for modern society to rekindle the flames of a once-great civilization. "[W]hat keeps us [the moderns] from being men like them [the ancients]? Our prejudices, our base philosophy, and the passions of petty self-interest, concentrated together with egoism in all hearts by inept institutions in which genius never had any share."2 Despite his obvious admiration for the perceived greater ideas of the past, however, Rousseau also expressed some skepticism. James Miller has suggested that he held Plato's theory of the Forms to be unsustainable.3 Allan Bloom has likewise argued that Rousseau's "teaching is not . . . a revival of those of Plato. . . . If he admires the practice of antiquity, he does not accept the theory."4

This has led many to argue that Rousseau is best understood as student of Thomas Hobbes. Roger D. Masters, for example, has suggested that "Rousseau's principles of political right can . . . be best described as a reformulation [End Page 383] of Hobbes' conception of the social contract."5 Arthur Melzer also argues, "The purpose of the doctrine Rousseau elaborates in the Social Contract is essentially the same [as Hobbes']."6 This view is argued on the grounds that the General Will is a positive or arbitrary standard, functioning as the primary principle of Rousseau's constructive political program. Yet the vision of Rousseau as a Hobbesian or modernist also merits skepticism. While he employs a social contract, as does Hobbes, he explicitly rejects traditional forms of positivism. "What is good and conformable to order is so by the nature of things and independently of human conventions."7 Whatever one might say about such passages, it at least raises the possibility that Rousseau is no modernist in the Straussian sense of defining Justice as human agreement.

Much of what contributes to the conflicting interpretations of Rousseau can be attributed to different understandings of the relative priority and relationship of two central concepts in his writings. One of these is the well-discussed notion of the General Will. The dominant fashion is to read the General Will as a conventional substitute for natural law or transcendent Ideas. According to this reading, the General Will is grounded on nothing more than consent and functions as the first principle of all legitimate political societies. The other term central to Rousseau's program is the far less discussed but equally important concept of Justice. Little has been written on his understanding of Justice and, for that matter, he himself rarely discussed it explicitly. But it, too, could also be considered a primary principle. While it would be foolish to dismiss the importance of the General Will to Rousseau, it would be equally problematic to explore it independently of his Idea of Justice. The question in understanding his work is which of these two principles—the General Will or Justice—is primary or fundamental. If it is the General Will, a case can be made that the Straussians are right, and Rousseau is a positivist. If Justice is prior, on the other hand, then there is reason to believe that he was something much different.

I argue that the positivist reading of Rousseau is flawed. Indeed, my thesis is that he is among the greatest and most thorough Platonists of the modern era.8 His rejection of Hobbes is not merely rhetorical. In fact, it represents the [End Page 384] true impetus of his social contract. This contract is designed explicitly to counter Hobbesian positivism. In the same way that Plato responds to Protagoras' positivism with his theory of the Forms, Rousseau responds to Hobbes...


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pp. 383-411
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