- Rousseau's Platonic Enlightenment
David Lay Williams has provided us with a carefully researched and capably argued study of the influence of Platonism on the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau—the most thorough and systematic study to date. Yet this book is much more than just a study of Rousseau or his relationship to Plato and Platonism: of the eight chapters, the first two are devoted to the context that was set for Rousseau's intellectual development by Hobbes, Locke, and a variety of modern Platonists and materialists, and the last two trace Rousseau's influence on the thought of Kant, Marx, and Foucault. This broad approach allows Williams to demonstrate both Rousseau's originality and the way in which he drew on previous thinkers and traditions. His main thesis is that "Platonism" pervades Rousseau's thought—indeed, that Rousseau is "among the greatest and most consistent Platonists of the modern era" (94)—and that this fact helps to link together many of the seemingly disparate and contradictory elements of his writings. In particular, Williams maintains that Rousseau sided with Plato and against Hobbes and the philosophes in his rejection of materialism, moral relativism, and political positivism and his commitment to eternal, transcendent ideas as the ultimate authority for moral and political life.
According to Williams's narrative, both Hobbes and Locke sought in vain (albeit in different ways) to persuasively combine a purely empiricist view of the world with the idea of eternal, immutable laws of nature, which left modern philosophy at a kind of roadblock. Modern Platonists such as Cudworth, Descartes, Leibniz, Malebranche, and Fénelon responded to this apparent impasse by embracing transcendent moral standards and discarding pure empiricism, whereas eighteenth century materialists such as La Mettrie, Helvétius, d'Holbach, and Diderot did the opposite. It was left to Rousseau to combat the burgeoning materialism of eighteenth-century France by returning to the doctrines of the modern Platonists—the belief in God, free will, the soul, and transcendent ideas—and putting them on [End Page 473] what he saw as the firmest possible foundation, the conscience or "inner sentiment" that is engraved in the human heart. Williams argues that justice, understood in a transcendent, metaphysical sense, is prior to the general will in Rousseau's political thought, and thus that his politics are inseparable from his metaphysics. He stresses, however, that Rousseau's conception of justice, though transcendent and universal, was also indeterminate, and thus that particular circumstances can and should be taken into account in determining the proper laws or institutions for a given nation (120–1). This conception of justice, Williams contends, enables Rousseau to combine the flexibility or contextual sensitivity of Hobbes and the materialists with the transcendent norms of Locke and the Platonists while avoiding their respective pitfalls, moral relativism, and rigid determinacy (122–7).
Williams's situating of Rousseau in the context of Platonism and materialism allows him to perceive anew the aims of some of his writings and to bring some underappreciated themes of his thought to the fore. For instance, he convincingly shows that the Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar in Emile is at least as much an attack on the morality (or lack thereof) implicit in the materialist outlook of the philosophes as it is on Christianity (chapter 3). He also argues that, contrary to the still widespread view that Rousseau was a kind of precursor to totalitarianism, he actually had a fairly developed theory of checks and balances, as evidenced especially in the Government of Poland, and that this theory was motivated by his (Platonic) commitment to a transcendent notion of justice (chapter 6). In what is perhaps the most original and insightful chapter of the book (chapter 5), Williams explores in detail the metaphor of the chain in Rousseau's writings, which turns out to be surprisingly persistent and significant: in the First Discourse, the arts and sciences are said to spread garlands of flowers over the "iron chains" of civilized society (137); in the Second Discourse, the poor "run...