Two of the most influential political philosophers of the 18th century were Edmund Burke and Jean-Jacque Rousseau. That is not to say that the two men shared the same philosophical views, however; in fact, it could be argued that they were on the opposite sides of the political spectrum, with Burke on the right and Rousseau to the left. A classic example that showed the differing opinions among the two was the French Revolution. Burke was not in favor of the revolution because he maintained that it would disrupt the traditions of France that hold the country together. Rousseau, on the other hand, was a hero of the revolution because he championed liberty and the idea that the people should be in control on how they should be governed. It is amazing to think that two philosophers, having very different perspectives on politics, can both be influential during the same time period.
One of the core aspects of Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s philosophy was what man was like in the state of nature. In the Second Discourse, Rousseau explained that people were equal and free going back tens of thousands of years because there was no real societal organization to speak of. Since life was centralized on hunting and gathering food, people were, for the most part, equal in terms of societal stature. People were relatively free because no one had to answer to a higher authority, with the family structure being the only exception. Since people were free and equal, they were innocent and individualistic in nature. There were no outside forces that had a corruptive effect on people and there was no reason for groups of people to band together to form a society. According to Rousseau, the development of reason and private property rights ruined equality and freedom because they lead to the few dominating the many. As populations started to grow, there was a greater need for more societal hierarchy due to the complex nature of communities, thus less freedom and more inequality. Even though society today believes that reason is a positive thing, Rousseau insisted that progress brought the worst out in people. Rousseau was not necessarily arguing in favor of going back to the time of early humans per se. He knew that society was a point of no return, so he had to be somewhat practical. What he was arguing was to return to the roots of equality and freedom as much as practically possible.
The way to achieve that goal politically, Rousseau argued in the Social Contract for a political system that put most of the power in the hands of the people and not the elites. Rousseau was a contract theorist, which meant that he believed that government should only operate with the consent of the people that it is governing. What set him apart from the other contract theorists was that he coined the term “general will.” What Rousseau meant was that all men should sacrifice their own individual power in order to give way to what he called the general will. In other words, all men give up some of their freedom in order to what is best for the society as a whole. The thing that is not so clear is the mechanism in finding out what the general will is. For example, is it the compilation of the opinions of individuals or is it something that is even greater than public opinion, such as having to understand human nature? Being that there were conflicting issues that faced Rousseau’s political philosophy, he kept on falling back on the idea of radical democracy. Since Rousseau was so distrustful of political institutions in general, he felt that people should always have a seat at the table when it came to determining policy. With that being said, it would seem that Rousseau was not in favor of having a republican form of government. Instead, as noted before, he was more in favor of a radical democracy. For this reason, he was a hero of the French Revolution. The revolutionaries read Rousseau’s work and were inspired to take action against the monarchy, even though Rousseau was not even alive when the revolution started. Abiding by the slogan of “Liberty, equality, and fraternity!” during the duration of the revolution, the revolutionaries took the cue from Rousseau’s political philosophy.
The practicality question enters the conversation again, however, when talking about Rousseau’s radical democracy. Is it even possible for a country to function properly with every citizen participating? At what point would moving towards a representative government be too far for Rousseau? It would be interesting to find out the answers of these questions from Rousseau himself because he was more of a practical thinker than some people give him credit for. Rousseau’s political philosophy would seem to be paradoxical when you think about it, which is why the interpretation of his work is still being debating to this day.
Edmund Burke is widely regarded as the founder of the modern conservative ideology. Although he did not believe in adhering to abstract principles when governing, his body of work clearly showed that he valued tradition and stability above all else. Similar to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, nature played a significant role for Burke when developing his political philosophy. Burke wrote that there are two natures. The first nature refers to: the idea that people love their families and that family provides a certain amount of stability and continuity, and that people are more comfortable with what is familiar to them. Burke’s second nature refers to the acquired opinions that people accumulate throughout their lives, such as habits and customs. According to Burke, the second nature is what cements society because it provides the traditions that are passed down from generation to generation. As societies and times change, people should always hold on to the traditions that are passed down because they form the foundation of stability.
Another plank in Burke’s political philosophy is practicality. He did not believe that you can run a society based on abstract philosophy because it is not grounded in reality of the current situation. Rather, he was a pragmatist who looked at issues on their face value and tried to come up with solutions that fitted the time. That is not so say that he did not have any values, however. As noted before, he was a big believer in tradition and stability. Burke just argued that overarching philosophies cannot be applied the same in every circumstance because each circumstance has its own unique qualities.
Burke is famous for his criticism of the French Revolution in Reflections on the Revolution in France. He was against the revolution because he believed that it would have destroyed France’s great traditions and that the theory and practicality behind the revolution were not sustainable. Burke did not agree with the revolutionists’ belief that government is created to protect the natural rights of individuals. Instead, he insisted that government was there as a stabilizing force so that people could live comfortably. Also, Burke believed that culture and tradition are more worthy in being protected than natural rights of individuals because they are much more long-lasting.
Another problem that Burke had with the French Revolution was the idea that society can be formed from scratch. Burke asserted that societies cannot simply start over from scratch because he believed that leaders make prudent decisions based on the conditions that are in front of them. Installing a new political regime, in Burke’s point of view, is not all that practical. With that being said, Burke was not a contract theorist because contract theory provides that a new society can be created by man. Rather, he saw society as an invisible link that connected generations to each other, carrying with it the established customs and institutions. These lasting institutions should be protected and respected due to the fact that they survived, thus showing their adaptability to changing times.
It can certainly be argued that Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Edmund Burke had very different views when it came to their political philosophies. Rousseau was in favor of radical democracy and did not trust societal institutions, while Burke valued tradition and stability above everything else. However, there are commonalities that the two did share. One is that both of them believed that times change, so adhering to rigid ideologies was not the wisest thing to do. Rousseau admitted that early man practices were outdated, so he was not so stubborn to strictly stick to that belief system. He did believe that the themes of equality and freedom that was present during the days of early man were everlasting enough to still be applied to his present day. Burke also acknowledged that the world does not sit still. Even though he strongly believed that tradition and stability had to be protected, he knew that life moves on. The reason why he argued for the respect for traditions and institutions that have endured several generations is due to the fact that they showed their adaptability during changing times.
Related to the two men’s shared view of not sticking to a rigid ideology, Rousseau and Burke both had nuanced political philosophies; neither of their philosophies were black and white. Rousseau’s philosophy was so nuanced that it could be considered contradicting, as noted before. In the Social Contract, he famously said, “Man was born free and everywhere he is in chains.” But later on in the same work he argued for the general will and that sometimes men must be “forced to be free.” One could make the case that he was a libertarian, while another could equally claim that he was a totalitarian. Burke was nuanced to a lesser extent than Rousseau, but nuanced nonetheless. He knew that holding on to the past can only go so far, which is why he asserted that while times does go on, it is still important to carry on the traditions and culture that were passed on by previous generations.
An interesting thing to note about Burke is that he was in favor of the American Revolution. This goes to show that he was not against all revolutions, again showing his nuanced approach to politics. The reason why he supported the American Revolution is because the colonists were not creating a society from scratch. The colonists, descendants of England, were committed to English ideas and principles. The only difference was that they wanted to a free and independent nation. The French revolutionaries, on the other hand, were hell-bent on creating a whole new political paradigm.
As far as my opinion is concerned, I think that both Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Edmund Burke contributed significantly to the field of political philosophy. Even though they had different thoughts on how government should operate, both of them had valid points. I agree with Rousseau that people should have a say in the way that they should be governed because history has shown that democracies have been the most peaceful form of government and it seems to be the most fair system (at least so far). But I agree with Burke as far as remembering your society’s history and culture because you would not be where you are in life if it wasn’t for previous generations. I also concur with Burke that society should not change too quickly, as it might cause instability that might do more harm than good. It turns out that I am quite nuanced with my approach to political philosophy, just as Rousseau and Burke were.