Notes on Voltaire vs. Rousseau on Political Theory (with Burke sneaking in...)

  • Man in the State of Nature
    • Hobbes vs. Locke vs. Voltaire
    • Rational Self-Interest yet Violent Instincts:
    • The Biglugs: 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend'
  • The Social Contract
    • Natural Rights: life, liberty and property enumerated in a constituion
    • Overthrow artificial aristocracy of blood and replace it with a meritocracy
  • Political Franchise (the right to vote and hold office)
    • limited to those who possess the education  to control instinct
    • limited to those with a stake in the economy: property holders who pay taxes
  • Constitutional Government
    • Divided Government (executive, legislative and judicial branches)
    • Each branch of governmemt possesses checks and balances which protect against tyranny

Rousseau from Enlightenment Political Thought: Study Guide
Rousseau: On the Social Contract
Review: Rousseau on The Lisbon Earthquake
  • Man in the State of Nature
    • "Natural Man" - the Noble Savage
    • Connected to nature humans are stronger, healthier, more compassionate, and naturally communal (see "The Original Affluent Society" Stone Age Hunter Gatherers from notes on Yuval Harari's Sapiens)
    • We respond to the first promptings of our heart and, therefore, are more compassionate and willing to sacrifice for others.
    • We existed first in extended families: tribes held together by deep feelings for each other.
    • The optimal state is similar to the Greek City-State: a direct democracy in which all citizens  participate and voluntarily set aside private interests for the common good.
    • "Civilized Man" is in contrast separated from nature, envious, greedy and debauched.
  • Private Property:
    • The root of all evil in society
    • The cause of ambition, jealousy, rivalry, and sickness.
    • The cause of the class system and tyranny
  • Social Contract:
    • Each citizen surrenders all rights to the community and submits to authority.
    • Each citizen agrees to be ruled by the General Will of the people, not a majority, not a unanimous vote, but instead, the plainly visible truth recognized by common sense, reason and compassion ('right reason' in accord with natural law).
    • People who refuse to obey the general will can be forced to be free.
    • In practice, though, this system  functions like a political rally where the charismatic speaker who can guide the general will practices totalitarian power.

Edmund Burke. Reflections on the Revolution in France, excerpt, 1791 (Primary)
Edmund Burke (1729-1797): Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1791, short excerpts (Primary)
Edmund Burke more short excerpts from Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1791
On Burke: "Reactionary Prophet" Christopher Hitchens Atlantic Monthly April 2004
  • Man in the State of Nature
    • Burke rejects the importance of beginnings. A nation and its government take shape over time. Human society is way too complicated to get to the bottom of. We are carried forward on a wave of history which we only dimly understand.
    • The experience of generations has shaped our institutions, not abstract universal rights.
    • Institutions like the church, the monarchy and the aristocracy have proven their value through the test of time. They should be respected far more than the notions of any reform minded intellectual.
    • “{Traditions] have served us over centuries. They have evolved in a glacial way.”  (Reflections on the Revolution in France)
  • The Rights of Man
    • There are no human rights or natural rights, only the rights of Englishmen or Frenchmen. 
    • Rights are inherited. They’re not the product of reason or any contrived theoretical formulation. 
    • “You will observe that from Revolution Society to the Magna Carta it has been the uniform policy of our constitution to claim and assert our liberties as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to posterity — as an estate specially belonging to the people of this kingdom, without any reference whatever to any other more general or prior right. By this means our constitution preserves a unity in so great a diversity of its parts. We have an inheritable crown, an inheritable peerage, and a House of Commons and a people inheriting privileges, franchises, and liberties from a long line of ancestors.” (Reflections on the Revolution in France)
    • Individual liberties are not nearly as powerful as the restraints of habit and custom that grow from group identity and loyalty. 
    • “Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants. Men have a right that these wants should be provided for by this wisdom. Among these wants is to be reckoned the want out of civil society, of a sufficient restraint upon their passions."  (Reflections on the Revolution in France)
    • “Society requires not only that the passions of individuals should be subjected, but that even in the mass and body, as well as in the individuals, the inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection. This can only be done by a power out of themselves, and not, in the exercise of its function, subject to that will and to those passions which it is its office to bridle and subdue. In this sense the restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights.” (Reflections on the Revolution in France)
    • The people have a voice, but a means exists to subject the public will to prudent leadership.
  • Social Contract 
    • “Society is indeed a contract. Subordinate contracts for objects of mere occasional interest may be dissolved at pleasure (if I make an agreement with you to do something we can agree to dissolve our agreement) — but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico or tobacco, or some other such low concern to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties. It is to be looked on with other reverence (the “it” here is the state): because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature: it is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection.” (Reflections on the Revolution in France)
    • “As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are yet to be born.”  (Reflections on the Revolution in France)
    • There is a pre-disposed order to things which begins with the family.
    • The nation is not a mere locality but the ancient tribal order into which we are born.
    • People join a society not through choice but through birth into a family, station and nation which all exert inescapable demands on him. (Like a parent's obligation to his child, we have obligations to the state.)
    • Society's leaders should be drawn from a class with the leisure and wealth to devote their lives to government service.
    • Leaders should respond to the densely complicated facts of any existing political landscape, not to the pursuit of abstract ideals demanding rash reforms. 
    • Leaders exercise prudent restraint in their choices.
    • Equality should not be the goal of politics. Social peace, prosperity and stability are more important for everyone.
    • We should respond to the demands of our station in life, no matter how humble, with patriotism and gratitude..