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Practicality and Deception of Rousseau’s Legislator

November 5, 2010

Rousseau dedicates Chapter VII of Book II in The Social Contract to the “legislator”. He previously explains that the establishment of laws is a sticky situation considering one would need to sit down with every person in a body politic and create laws that had everyone’s best interests in mind. Thus, there needs to be a legislator who creates these laws. Now this legislator is an “extraordinary” person. According to Rousseau, he is not considered part of the state, is a genius, selfless, and unbiased. Rousseau in fact, compares the legislator to a god. This is arguably sensible considering the immense importance and critical job that the legislator has. Not only is he the one who will write the nation’s constitution, but he must also be convincing enough by some means to make the general public consent to or believe in those laws. The former part of his job is simple enough as long as this said legislator is truly a master of intellect, reason, and social understanding. The latter part of his job, however, is framed in a more ambiguous way. Rousseau explains that a way for the legislator to get the people to consent to his laws would be to associate them with God or a divine power. It is unclear if Rousseau means to say that these laws should actually be delivered by God(s) through for instance, a Moses type figure or if more simply, the legislator should use the story of a higher power’s involvement as a ploy to get people to accept the laws.

I first want to briefly consider if Roseau is trying to promote political trickery as a means to an end and then more importantly, consider the utility and consequence of such. We have to breakdown some of the critical language in the text in order to decide if this is the case. Roseau does say that “a man who uses crude methods (i.e. engraving stone tablets or buying an oracle) may assemble a troupe of lunatics, but he will never found and empire and his extravagant work will soon die with him” (444). However, he also recognizes the “great and powerful genius which presides over the establishments that endure” which includes Judaism and Islam. Both sets of Jewish and Islamic law have been established and followed by many for centuries (444). However, again, Rousseau is ambiguous. Who is to say that Moses did not carve the tablets himself? (I do not mean to question any religious beliefs here, but merely provide a hypothetical question to a concept Rousseau does not deeply explain.) Rousseau goes onto further say that it should not be assumed that “politics and religion have a common object among us” but rather, are important related instruments in the development of a nation (444). This ultimately brings up more questions. Does Rousseau mean to say that religion should be used as a deceptive tool? Or are laws actually supposed to somehow be divinely inspired? It is hard to say.

Let’s consider for a moment, a legislator does use such deceit to establish these laws that are for all intents and purposes, fair, and looking out for everyone’s best interest. Would this be so wrong? Don’t the ends justify the means? Of course, I do not mean liken Rousseau to Machiavelli as I do not think Rousseau was looking to make such a point. But if we did consider accepting this assertion, one has to wonder about the possibilities. In doing something like this, the legislator is no longer appealing to people’s reason, but to their shared belief in something greater then themselves. The legislator cannot, according to Rousseau use “force or reasoning” so if the introduction of laws were given under this guise, they are either going to be outright accepted or outright rejected (443). While religion may not play a huge role in politics, such a concept would most likely be accepted by many people seeing as religion does have a considerable role in many people’s lives. So- is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Keeping with these hypothetical notions, the legislator, like I earlier said is a genius, selfless, unbiased, and has a great understanding of the people for which he was writing the laws for. If he were all these things, is it permissible and morally sound for a nation to be founded upon an outright lie? This got me thinking about different representations of such ideas in literature and film. The most pertinent example I could think of was from the movie Watchmen (2009). [SPOILER ALERT] In the film, Dr. Manhattan, a man who has developed godlike powers and also possesses impeccable knowledge, stops the Cold War and creates peace on earth by making men believe that his awesome power will destroy everyone should they not be at peace. He then leaves the planet; with the implication of never returning (although the general public thinks he is continuing to watch them). While this is certainly in a very different context and has very different conditions, it provides an alternate  and convincing understanding of what great significance and consequence a small lie could have. Alternatively, if this legislator did not truly have all of those outstanding qualities previously mentioned, such action could be catastrophic with an introduction of laws that are completely mangled and wrong for a said society.


A Legislator?


At the end of the day, there would be no way for anyone to ever know if a perfect legislator exists. While I would not bet against the human race in that evolution could or perhaps even has brought such a person into existence, their credibility would be tested and could never be verified even in this day and age of modern technology. Nonetheless, I really think that the concept of “le legislature” or in some translations, the “law giver” is very interesting. I realize that some of the points I raised are very speculative, hypothetical, and also disregard some of Rousseau’s latter points made in his book. Nonetheless, I think sometimes, isolating specific ideas and infusing them with speculation and hypotheticals are a beneficial way to look at some of these political discourses, especially when we try to make sense of them in the context of modern times.


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