War and slavery.
Perhaps two of the darkest words in the english language, but words that come up quite frequently nonetheless. Both have been discussed, or eluded to, in practically every reading that has been assigned in class, probably due to their importance in politics and civil society. But what hasn’t come up in every reading was Rousseau’s take on these two.
Rousseau takes care to strictly define war and who is envolved. According to him, war is not “a relationship between one man and another, but a relationship between one state and another”. Rousseau uses this fact to say that an individual need only worry about his life and possessions if he is actually fighting in the war, but as soon as that person lays down their arms and surrenders they can no longer be harmed.
If this doesn’t seem like a giant leap in the civilness of war to you, history can help. When the Mytileans revolted against the Athenian Empire they were quickly defeated… so far so civil (or as civil as war can be). But upon surrender, Athens decreed that all the men on the island be put to death and all the women and children be sold as slaves… “Alright, that was just one bad judgement” you might say, but think of the firebombing of Japan during WWII. If you’ve seen “The Fog of War”, the fact that we (the United States) killed over 500,000 civilians through firebombing, and then another couple hundred thousand with the atomic bombs should’ve stuck out. If he was still alive, I think Rousseau would’ve had a thing or two to say to the U.S. government at the very notion of bombing civilian cities.
Although many examples can be drawn from wars after Rousseau’s time suggesting that we didn’t learn anything, I think we did. My proof is the Geneva Conventions. All four conventions, held at various points from 1864 to 1949, were aimed at humanitarian goals with respect to war. They created the Red Cross, protected prisoners of war, and civilians. Out of all of them, the last convention is really what shows that we are at least attempting to move towards a Rousseau-ean idea of war. It specifically prohibited any violent or humiliating act towards a soldier that has laid down their arms and defines the status and treatment of protected people (civilians). Armies were no longer allowed to collectively punish, meaning that an individual or group could not be harmed in person or possession because of something they didn’t do.
In case you’re wondering how slavery applies to this post, the legal definition is “A civil relationship in which one person has absolute power over the life, fortune, and liberty of another.” Under this definition, Nazi Concentration Camps were a form of slavery, and that’s just one example; forcing captured soldiers and citizens to work is nothing new. The Geneva Conventions also aimed to ensure that this treatment of soldiers and citizens would be illegal and out of practice. According to Rousseau,
“the right of slavery is null, not simply because it is illegitimate, but because it is absurd and meaningless.”
Even in war when there is a right to kill, it cannot be substituted for a right to slavery.
Rousseau’s notion of war and slavery was idealistic and ahead of his time. So much so, that even after more than 200 years, we still haven’t achieved it. If the his ideas of war were truths of how the world operated, it would be a much better place. I think that the one chapter discussing slavery holds more in it than volumes upon volumes of some texts could ever hope.