- Rousseau’s Rejuvenation of Political Philosophy: A New Introduction by Nelson Lund
Anyone with more than passing familiarity of Rousseau’s oeuvre knows it to be a real mare’s nest of interpretive difficulties. Like the Platonic dialogues, Rousseau’s writings—with their dramatic ironies and sphinxlike allusiveness—urge the issue of whether the author of, say, the Social Contract may be said to hold some set of positions consistent with those held by the author of the Emile. Both Plato and Rousseau, Nelson Lund observes, regard their dramatic presentation as intrinsic to their pedagogy, and “both treat political philosophy as a means of protecting political life and the life of philosophy from threats that each poses to the other.” Lund’s book sets out, in this light, to unlock Rousseau’s pedagogy to general readers and to reconstruct the core of his response to the “diminished and popularized” scientific rationalism of the Enlightenment. The interpretive difficulties notwithstanding, Lund handles his subject with considerable accuracy and insight.
The book falls into three parts. The two chapters after the introduction deal with Rousseau’s treatments of anthropological origins, as they are set out in the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality and the Essay on the Origin of Languages. Chapter 2 spells out Rousseau’s criticisms of modern European civilization. Lund aims to ratify Rousseau’s endorsement of the goods of precivilized society (the “happiest epoch”) by documenting its compatibility with more recent accounts of tribal life. Lund dwells especially on the writings of Elizabeth Marshall Thomas as a way of fleshing out Rousseau’s prehistory. Chapter 3 then corroborates some of his insights on linguistic development as plausible and consistent with available scientific evidence.
The second set of chapters deals primarily with Rousseau’s thinking on civic education and the discipline of eros. Chapter 4 focuses on the Letter to d’Alembert’s criticisms of poetry—in particular on its argument that the theater corrupts mores. Since “love well depicted . . . usurps the place that virtue ought to have,” the imagination is warped by a hypertrophic sentimentality that makes the two sexes at once dissatisfied with their traditional roles and less capable of being satisfied by their new ones. Chapter 5 sketches out Rousseau’s alternative to Locke’s Thoughts concerning Education in the Emile. The main themes of Emile’s “quasi-Stoic” upbringing are cannily explored and at length—especially the formation of self-mastery, the sublimation of sexual desire into the theological vision of “natural religion” in the Profession of Faith, and the tutor’s management of Emile’s quest for a wife. They are interspersed with auxiliary discussions of Locke, Plato, Fénelon, and connected writings of Rousseau.
The final chapter scrutinizes some of Rousseau’s arguments for direct democracy in the Social Contract, with reference to recent American politics. Here is the most interesting material in the book. Lund concentrates in particular on some of the structural problems that Rousseau notes as endemic to representative institutions: in particular, that such institutions acquire a “will of their own.” They become [End Page 608] motivated rather more by their desire to keep themselves in power than by their original mandate to represent the will of the people. Lund (a professor of law) identifies this tendency with the Supreme Court’s Term Limits decision—“an exceptionally vivid example of judicial disregard for what Rousseau regarded as the core principles of political right.” He concludes by noting that something akin to Rousseau’s “Tribunate,” a governing body that is periodically suspended and reconstituted with new members, might serve to ameliorate the “deep hostility” that the Supreme Court has shown toward institutions of direct democracy.
The book’s greatest virtue consists rather more in Lund’s detailed, fine-grained textual observations than in some novel conception of Rousseau’s overall project. Lund’s sustained attempt to shore up Rousseau’s anthropological conjectures with the latest scientific discoveries struck this reader as misleading: not because Lund is wrong, but because he thereby gives the impression that...