The French Revolution (Belloc)/Chapter 2

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What words we use, and in what order we put them, is the whole matter of style; and a man desiring to influence his fellow men has therefore not one, but two co-related instruments at his disposal. He cannot use one without the other. The weakness of the one will ruin the other. These two instruments are his idea and his style.

However powerful, native, sympathetic to his hearers’ mood or cogently provable by reference to new things may be a man’s idea, he cannot persuade his fellow men to it if he have not words that express it. And he will persuade them more and more in proportion as his words are well chosen and in the right order, such order being determined by the genius of the language whence they are drawn.

Whether the idea of which Rousseau made himself the exponent in his famous tract be true or false, need not further concern us in this little book. We all know that the difficult attempt to realise political freedom has attracted various communities of men at various times and repelled others. What English readers rarely hear is that the triumph of Rousseau depended not only on the first element in persuasion, which is vision, but also upon the second of the two co-related instruments by which a man may influence his fellows—to wit, style. It was his choice of French words and the order in which he arranged them, that gave him his enormous ascendancy over the generation which was young when he was old.

I have alluded to his famous tract, the Contrat Social, and here a second point concerning it may be introduced. This book which gave a text for the Revolution, the document to which its political theory could refer, was by no means (as foreign observers have sometimes imagined) the whole body of writing for which Rousseau was responsible. To imagine that is to make the very common error of confusing a man with his books.

Rousseau wrote on many things: his character was of an exalted, nervous and diseased sort. Its excessive sensibility degenerated with advancing years into something not distinguishable from mania. He wrote upon education, and the glory of his style carried conviction both where he was right and where the short experience of a hundred years has proved him to have been wholly wrong. He wrote upon love, and half the lessons to be drawn from his writing will be condemned by the sane. He wrote upon botany at vast length; he wrote also upon music—with what success in either department I am incompetent to determine. He wrote upon human inequality: and though the sentences were beautiful and the sentiment just, the analysis was very insufficient and the historical conception bad. He wrote upon a project for perpetual peace, which was rubbish; and he wrote upon the government of Poland an essay which was a perfect masterpiece.

But when a great writer writes, each of his great writings has a life of its own, and it was not any of these other writings of Rousseau, on love or botany, which were the text of the Revolution. The text of the Revolution was his Contrat Social.

Now it is not too much to say that never in the history of political theory has a political theory been put forward so lucidly, so convincingly, so tersely or so accurately as in this short and wonderful book. The modern publisher in this country would be ashamed to print it: not for its views (which would now seem commonplace), nor for its excellence, which would ensure it a failure, but for its brevity. It is as short as a gospel, and would cover but a hundred pages of one of our serious reviews. A modern publisher in this city would not know what price to set upon such a work, and the modern reader in this country would be puzzled to understand how a great thing could be got within so narrow a compass. A debate in Parliament or the libretto of a long pantomime is of greater volume.

Nevertheless, if it be closely read the Contrat Social will be discovered to say all that can be said of the moral basis of democracy. Our ignorance of the historical basis of the State is presumed in the very opening lines of it. The logical priority of the family to the State is the next statement. The ridiculous and shameful argument that strength is the basis of authority—which has never had standing save among the uninstructed or the superficial—is contemptuously dismissed in a very simple proof which forms the third chapter, and that chapter is not a page of a book in length. It is with the fifth chapter that the powerful argument begins, and the logical precedence of human association to any particular form of government is the foundation stone of that analysis. It is this indeed which gives its title to the book: the moral authority of men in community arises from conscious association; or, as an exact phraseology would have it, a “social contract.” All the business of democracy as based upon the only moral authority in a State follows from this first principle, and is developed in Rousseau’s extraordinary achievement which, much more than any other writing not religious, has affected the destiny of mankind.

It is indeed astonishing to one who is well acquainted not only with the matter, but with the manner of the Contrat Social, to remark what criticisms have been passed upon it by those who either have not read the work or, having read it, did so with an imperfect knowledge of the meaning of French words. The two great counter arguments, the one theoretic the other practical, which democracy has to meet, stand luminously exposed in these pages, though in so short a treatise the author might have been excused from considering them. The theoretical argument against democracy is, of course, that man being prone to evil, something external to him and indifferent to his passions must be put up to govern him; the people will corrupt themselves, but a despot or an oligarchy, when it has satisfied its corrupt desires, still has a wide margin over which it may rule well because it is indifferent. You cannot bribe the despot or the oligarch beyond the limit of his desires, but a whole people can follow its own corrupt desires to the full, and they will infect all government.

The full practice of democracy, therefore, says Rousseau, is better suited to angels than to men.

As to the practical argument that men are not sufficiently conscious of the State to practise democracy, save in small communities, that plea also is recognised and stated better than any one else has stated it. For there is not in this book an apology for democracy as a method of government, but a statement of why and how democracy is right.

The silly confusion which regards a representative method as essentially democratic has never been more contemptuously dealt with, nor more thoroughly, than in the few words in which the Contrat Social dismisses it for ever; though it was left to our own time to discover, in the school of unpleasant experience, how right was Rousseau in this particular condemnation.

Exiguous as are the limits within which the great writer has finally decided the theory of democracy, he finds space for side issues which nowhere else but in this book had been orderly considered, and which, when once one has heard them mentioned, one sees to be of the most excellent wisdom: that the fundamental laws, or original and particular bonds, of a new democracy must come from a source external to itself; that to the nature of the people for whom one is legislating, however democratic the form of the State, we must conform the particulars of law; that a democracy cannot live without “tribunes”; that no utterly inflexible law can be permitted in the State—and hence the necessity for dictatorship in exceptional times; that no code can foresee future details—and so forth.

It would be a legitimate and entertaining task to challenge any man who had not read the Contrat Social (and this would include most academic writers upon the treatise) to challenge any such one, I say, to put down an argument against democratic theory which could not be found within those few pages, or to suggest a limitation of it which Rousseau had not touched on.

If proof were needed of what particular merits this pamphlet displayed, it would be sufficient to point out that in a time when the problem represented by religion was least comprehended, when the practice of religion was at its lowest, and when the meaning, almost, of religion had left men’s minds, Rousseau was capable of writing his final chapter.

That the great religious revival of the nineteenth century should have proved Rousseau’s view of religion in the State to be insufficient is in no way remarkable, for when Rousseau wrote, that revival was undreamt of; what is remarkable is that he should have allowed as he did for the religious sentiment, and above all, that he should have seen how impossible it is for a selection of Christian dogma to be accepted as a civic religion.

It is further amazing that at such a time a man could be found who should appreciate that for the State, to have unity, it must possess a religion, and Rousseau’s attempt to define that minimum or substratum of religion without which unity could not exist in the State unfortunately became the commonplace of the politicians, and particularly of the English politicians who succeeded him. Who might not think, for instance, that he was reading—though better expressed, of course, than a politician could put it—some “Liberal” politician at Westminster, if he were to come on such phrases as these with regard to what should be taught in the schools of the country?

“The doctrines taught by the State should be simple, few in number, expressed with precision and without explanation or commentary. The existence of a powerful God, beneficent, providential and good; the future life; the happiness of the good and the punishment of evil; the sanctity of the agreements which bind society together and of laws; while as for negative doctrines, one is sufficient, and that one is the wickedness of intolerance.”

Rousseau’s hundred pages are the direct source of the theory of the modern State; their lucidity and unmatched economy of diction; their rigid analysis, their epigrammatic judgment and wisdom—these are the reservoirs from whence modern democracy has flowed; what are now proved to be the errors of democracy are errors against which the Contrat Social warned men; the moral apology of democracy is the moral apology written by Rousseau; and if in this one point of religion he struck a more confused and a less determined note than in the rest, it must be remembered that in his time no other man understood what part religion played in human affairs; for in his days the few who studied religion and observed it could not connect it in any way with the political nature of man, and of those who counted in the intellect of Europe, by far the greater number thought political problems better solved if religion (which they had lost) were treated as negligible. They were wrong—and Rousseau, in his generalities upon the soul, was insufficient; both were beneath the height of a final theory of man, but Rousseau came much nearer to comprehension, even in this point of religion, than did any of his contemporaries.