- The Many Faces of Jean-Jacques Rousseau
A first-time reader of Jean-Jacques Rousseau could be forgiven for being baffled when perusing the ever-growing secondary literature on the citoyen de Genève. Among many others, the labels of "liberal," "totalitarian," "ancient," "modern," "Christian," "deist," "individualist," "communitarian," "existentialist," "Romantic," and "Enlightenment philosophe" have variously been attached to him. What seems to drive the political theorist David Lay Williams in his Rousseau's Platonic Enlightenment is the wish to refute the label of "modern" attached to Rousseau by Leo Strauss. Strauss argued for Rousseau's modernity partially by appealing to the latter's affinities with Thomas Hobbes. Contra Strauss, Williams insists that Rousseau's entire intellectual life was devoted to "correcting, amending or refuting the teachings of Hobbes" (1). Furthermore, Williams argues that Rousseau was committed to defending a forceful (even if "implicit") Platonism (116).
Williams's point is not that Rousseau's ties with Plato make the former solely an "ancient" figure; rather, Williams insists that we ought to refrain from painting the Enlightenment simply as an anti-Platonic moment in the history of ideas. Through a quick survey taking us from Ficino to Bernard Lamy, en passant par Descartes, Leibniz, Fénélon, and Malebranche (all of whom influenced Rousseau to a degree), Williams claims that Platonism was "a widespread mode of thinking in modern Europe" (28). As such, this book enters ongoing debates about the "real zeitgeist [sic] of the Enlightenment" (27).
Though some may contest Williams's labeling of Hobbes as a moral relativist (xvi) or his excessively comprehensive (hence diluted) definition of Platonism, many readers will appreciate the refreshing boldness with which Williams confronts us with a "choice" (a choice we have to make not only as interpreters but also as human beings more generally) between Plato and Hobbes (xxviii). The grand narrative lurking behind this book is that the history of thought can be roughly [End Page 320] summarized as a contest between two perspectives, Hobbesian materialism and Platonism, and, more importantly, that only Platonism is fit for guiding our ethical and political lives. Hobbesian materialism/positivism is unfit because it lacks a "stable, noncontingent substance" (xxvii), which makes it an inadequate basis for judging injustices great and small (from genocide in Sudan to student plagiarism [xxx]). Williams argues not only that politics without transcendent standards can be potentially tyrannical, but also that moral philosophy without such norms is less forceful—if not, in fact, impossible (274).
But let us take a step back to look more closely at the evidence provided in chapters 3–6 (the heart of the book) to support the thesis that Rousseau is a Platonist. Drawing most importantly on the "Profession of the Savoyard Vicar," chapter 3 locates Platonism in four main elements of Rousseau's thought: his belief in the existence of God, the idea of free will, the immateriality of the soul, and transcendent ideas. More specifically, Williams argues that Rousseau's justice is a clear transcendent standard and thus, contra Strauss, that it is not purely conventional (85–86). Chapter 4 develops this argument further, showing that this standard of justice is prior to the general will and thus serves as an ideal "by which to judge all norms" (93). In chapter 5, Williams attempts to draw out a number of similarities between Rousseau and Plato all the while acknowledging their different views regarding sociopolitical institutions. Chapter 6 argues that there is an often overlooked notion of "checks and balances" in Rousseau, an observation used by Williams to challenge the "totalitarian" interpretation of Rousseau. The last two chapters (on Kant and on Marx and Foucault, respectively) seem at first glance to take us away from Platonism, but they in fact tie in well with Williams's...