JMC fellow Christopher Kelly was recently published in Acta Politologica. Acta Politologica “is a political science peer-reviewed journal published by the Institute of Political Studies at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University. The journal was established in 2009 and is published twice a year.” Learn more about the journal here.
Abstract: Rousseau has been criticized by modern republicanism proponents for failing to live up to the standard of republicanism that involves criticizing unjust laws. Rousseau’s version of republicanism regards a different issue as more urgent. Rousseau regards abusive administration of laws, or usurpation of sovereignty by the government, as a more urgent problem. As a result, he addresses issues of dissent, activism and resistance to government rather than protest about laws.
Sovereign versus Government: Rousseau’s Republicanism
It has never been easy to know what to make of Rousseau. Among his contemporaries,
conservative religious authorities could appreciate his attack on the theatre while being
horrified at his analysis of the political problems caused by Christianity. Intellectuals could
value his contributions to the Encyclopédie while being scandalized by his criticisms of intellectual life (Hulliung 1994). It was easy to regard him as a renegade or to dismiss him as a
dealer in paradoxes. Nevertheless, one thing none of his contemporaries had any question
about was his devotion to republicanism. His identification of himself as “Citizen of Geneva”
on the title page of almost all his works made his republicanism clear, especially to subjects
of monarchies. Upon awarding him the prize for the Discourse on the Sciences and the
Arts, the Academy of Dijon felt compelled to excuse itself by saying, “In honouring Monsieur
Rousseau’s work, the Academy does not pretend to have adopted his political maxims,
which do not accord with our customs” (Quoted at Rosenblatt 1997: 47–48). Even when
the Genevan government later censored the Social Contract, it was acknowledging that
Rousseau was an extreme republican rather than an anti-republican. It would be difficult to
identify an important thinker during the 18th century who was more closely identified with
republicanism than Rousseau was.
For some time, however, this seemingly incontestable point has been contested.
Certainly, one reason for this comes from events after Rousseau’s death in which the very
meaning of republicanism has been at issue. From World War I until well into the Cold War,
much of the debate about Rousseau in the English-speaking world was over whether he
should be considered a collectivist, a totalitarian, and an enemy to liberty or not (Brook
2016). Although the charges against him concerned the question of whether Rousseau can
be regarded as liberal (rather than whether he can be regarded as a republican), none of
them encourages the idea that he was the latter. This issue has largely been dropped within
Rousseau scholarship, although it remains alive among non-specialists. More recently,
scholars have turned more directly to the question of the precise nature of Rousseau’s
republicanism and whether he belongs to the tradition sometimes called neo-Roman republicanism. There is little question that Rousseau considered himself to be a supporter of
the Roman version of republicanism. He never wavered from his claim in the Dedicatory
Letter to the Second Discourse that the Romans were the “model of all free Peoples” (Rousseau 1992: 4). Nevertheless, again in the English-speaking world at least, those who do
treat this strand of republicanism, either from a historical perspective or a more theoretical
one, are either silent or ambivalent about Rousseau.
Christopher Kelly is a Professor of political science and the Director of Graduate Studies at Boston College. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Toronto. He is co-editor of the Collected Writings of Rousseau and the author of Rousseau’s Examplary Life (1987) and Rousseau as Author (2003). He teaches courses in political theory focussing on early and late modern political thought.
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