Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, April 13, 2015

BURKE: Reflections of the Revolution (Burke and Rousseau)

Which is more important to modern Americans, freedom or equality?  Reading the Great Books gives us real diversity of opinion about government.  They have something substantial to add to the discussion about the best way to live together in society.  By comparing alternative theories we get a better understanding of our options in forming a civilized social order.  Jean Jacques Rosseau serves as a good contrast to Edmund Burke.  Rousseau lays out his own idea for a civilized social order in the form of a “social contract.”  What do we lose and what do we gain living under Rousseau’s social contract?  “What man loses by the social contract is his natural freedom and an unlimited right to everything that tempts him and that he can get; what he gains is civil freedom and the proprietorship of everything he possesses.”  (The Social Contract GB Series 1)  This sounds good but Burke remains suspicious; the devil is in the details.  What exactly does Rousseau mean by civil freedom and proprietorship?  Burke smells a rat and it doesn’t take long until he finds one.  Here’s the red flag and danger Burke suspected was lurking all along in Rousseau’s philosophy of government.  In Rousseau’s own words we find that “rather than destroying natural equality, the fundamental social contract on the contrary substitutes a moral and legitimate equality for whatever physical inequality nature may have placed between men, and that although they may be unequal in force or in genius, they all become equal through convention and by right.” 

This is just what Burke suspected.  Rousseau isn’t interested in civil freedom and private property rights.  What Rousseau really wants is equality.  And for Rousseau the purpose of government is to help provide the material needs of its citizens.  Burke is having none of that.  Burke sees Rousseau’s “social contract” as a philosophical con game designed to cover up a political power grab by the state over its citizens.  Burke counters that “Society is indeed a contract…but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee…”  In Burke’s view the purpose of government is not limited to the physical well being of its citizens.  Instead, government “is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection…it is a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”  For Rousseau the idea of government is to respond to the needs of today’s problems.  For Burke the idea of government is to solve problems too.  But the most important function of government is to conserve the cultural heritage handed down to us from our ancestors and in turn to pass it on to our own children and grandchildren.  That’s why Burke thinks Rousseau’s ideas are so dangerous.  Rousseau views society as a laboratory for a grand social experiment.  Concerning Rousseau and men who think like him Burke says “They must take it for granted that we attend much to their reason, but not at all to their authority.”  Burke is listening.  He understands what Rousseau is saying.  But he doesn’t like it and trusts more in the lessons of history than in some new-fangled, untested theory of government.  Rousseau prefers equality over freedom.  Burke thinks freedom is more important than equality.  Americans want both but here’s our political dilemma.  Equality requires trimming individual freedoms “for whatever physical inequality nature may have placed between men.”  Freedom is the willingness to accept a certain amount of natural inequality among citizens.  We want both; so American government is a delicate and constant balancing act between the two alternatives expressed by Rousseau and Burke. 


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