Western Political Thought Midterm: Part II, Question 1
Is Descartes’ idea of the role of the founder/legislator types similar to those put forth by Smith and Rousseau? Indeed, are Descartes’ and Rousseau’s ideas of founders indistinguishable?
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The sovereign’s role within a government of a state has been debated for hundreds of years. From this debate has sprouted several forms of thinking, which have been expressed in different types of governments, such as a democracy, aristocracy, or a monarchy. The general role of the sovereign is to maintain the state of peace, by creating laws that enforce the principles of justice; however, the amount of power which the sovereign is endowed differs depending on the school of thought. Upon comparing René Descartes’ Discourse on Method and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Basic Political Writings, it is evident that their methodologies differ. Unlike Descartes’ view of the sovereign as the only and ultimate power whose laws represent the monarch’s private interests, Rousseau believes that because the sovereign is composed of individuals, that the general will is represented.
In Descartes’ Discourse on Method he explains his belief in a monarchy. He initially came to this realization after spending a day in solitude due to snow. He describes the most important conclusion that he arrived at on this day, “it occurred to me to consider that there is often not so much perfection in works composed of many pieces and made by the hands of various master craftsmen as there is in those works on which but a single individual has work” (7).
For, he notes that one man’s mind is more capable of designing an organized, stable method of governing than many men can. He cites buildings, cities and peoples as examples of that which would benefit from this approach. Thus, Descartes is supportive of a monarchy for he recognizes that, due to the one sovereign leader, all of the peoples will be working towards the same end. Accordingly, there will be little inconsistency of values between the people. Descartes explains that in such a society the citizens would form a covenant with the sovereign, promising to uphold and follow his every command and to never accuse the sovereign of wrong-doings. Although there can be no harm in a single architect designing a building or a city, one sovereign leader can, under certain circumstances, cause turmoil within that society. For a leader who creates all the rules, yet he, himself, is exempt from such rules, is easily tempted by corruption. Additionally, his rules become solely a representation of his individual wills. Thus, his laws would not be representative of the general will. On this, Descartes and Rousseau differ in opinion.
In Rousseau’s Basic Political Writings he emphasizes that different societies require different forms of government. Additionally, he recognizes that a monarch, who alone has the right to create and reform laws, endows the government with more vigour than any other method of government. Yet, Rousseau criticizes that, “there is none where the private will has greater sway and more easily dominates others” (183). Rousseau is concerned that although the people are working towards the same end, that goal is not representative of the general will or the general happiness, but only of the private will of the sovereign. He calculated that the ratio between the monarch and the population of the city is proportional to the government’s restrictions.
Thus, as the ratio of people to sovereign decreases the government’s strength is at its maximum and the liberty of the people is at a minimum. In such a circumstance, there is too great a distance between the prince, who is representative of the public, and the sovereign that the government lacks cohesiveness. Rousseau further rationalizes, “if it is difficult of a large state to be well governed, it is much harder still for it to be well governed by just one man” (184). Thus, Rousseau is pleading for the sovereign to be composed of not only one man but of many. Additionally, Rousseau believes this sovereign group should determine their actions upon the general will. Since the sovereign group is composed of many individuals each of their personal judgments is represented and thus the sovereign group represents the general will of all.
Although they differ on the role of the sovereign, their personal philosophies are not that incompatible. They each agree on a similar premise of government. As Adam Smith extrapolated in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, justice is a pillar of humanity upon which government should be based. He describes the leader that “is entrusted with the power not only of preserving the public peace by restraining injustice but of promoting the prosperity of the commonwealth” (81). Even so, Descartes is confident in the human ability to rationalize and therefore concludes that most sovereign leaders will develop a just code of laws; however, Rousseau is more aware of humankind’s weaknesses and fears the irreparable damage an oppressive monarch can incur on the peoples of his state. Thus he instead proposes a sovereign group composed of representatives of the general will.
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