Jean Jacques Rousseau's The State Of War

1096 words - 4 pages

Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "The State of War"

Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "The State of War" elegantly raises a model for confederative peace among the states of Europe, and then succinctly explains its impossibility. Rousseau very systematically lays out the benefits of such a "perpetual peace" through arguments based only in a realism of pure self-interest, and then very elegantly and powerfully turns the inertia of the self-interest machinery against the same to explain why it can never come to be. However, this final step may be a bit too far; in his academic zeal for the simple, I will argue that he has overlooked the real, or at least ignored the possible. His conclusion may be appealingly reasoned, but it is still insupportable.

The perpetual peace that Rousseau treats is that proposed by the Abbé de Saint-Pierre, a fact that doesn't become clear until the latter end of the piece. Rousseau tells us that the Abbé has, over time, advanced a fair number of plans for peace and prosperity, all to the ridicule of contemporary thinkers (125). That Rousseau takes up this one plan, in particular, may simply be masturbatory: as a writer, Rousseau was not averse to cutting his teeth on the works of others that he found to be disagreeable, as evidenced by his disdainful treatment of Hobbes (112). However, before criticizing Rousseau's work or speculating as to why he carried it out, it serves first to understand it properly.

From his figurative window, Rousseau sees a Europe ravaged by conflicts resulting from supposedly peaceable and civilized institutions (111). He posits that the essentially problematic flaw, the cause of conflict, is a contradiction in modes of relating: while individuals live within a framework of enforced norms ("laws"), states exist in an anarchic and unregulated structure with no central authority ­ a state of nature (112). While refuting the possibility that this international state of nature is a Hobbesian war of all against all [which would tend to the destruction of the species, an aim he finds both logically and religiously untenable (114)], he certainly acknowledges that conflicts occur even among actors whom we would call naturally virtuous ­ those seeking peace (112).

This contradiction is problematic because the boundaries between the civil and the natural, the domestic and the international, overlap at times (112). For instance, war on the outside invariably affects the civic order on the inside. Because of this contradiction, we are forced to bear the burdens of supporting both orders separately, thus negating the advantages brought by either. We are subject to the vagaries of the international system when it affects civil life, and yet as individuals our hands are tied and we are unable to enjoy natural freedom ourselves because we are also subject to the authority, at times oppressive, of the civil domestic structures (which, as we have seen, fail to protect us from all international affects) (112). Even a state...

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