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Essay Jean-Jacques Rousseau's The State of War

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "The State of War"

Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "The State of War" elegantly raises a model for confederative peace among the states of Europe, and then succinctly explains its impossibility. Rousseau very systematically lays out the benefits of such a "perpetual peace" through arguments based only in a realism of pure self-interest, and then very elegantly and powerfully turns the inertia of the self-interest machinery against the same to explain why it can never come to be. However, this final step may be a bit too far; in his academic zeal for the simple, I will argue that he has overlooked the real, or at least ignored the possible. His conclusion may be appealingly reasoned, but it is still insupportable.

The perpetual peace that Rousseau treats is that proposed by the Abbé de Saint-Pierre, a fact that doesn't become clear until the latter end of the piece. Rousseau tells us that the Abbé has, over time, advanced a fair number of plans for peace and prosperity, all to the ridicule of contemporary thinkers (125). That Rousseau takes up this one plan, in particular, may simply be masturbatory: as a writer, Rousseau was not averse to cutting his teeth on the works of others that he found to be disagreeable, as evidenced by his disdainful treatment of Hobbes (112). However, before criticizing Rousseau's work or speculating as to why he carried it out, it serves first to understand it properly.

From his figurative window, Rousseau sees a Europe ravaged by conflicts resulting from supposedly peaceable and civilized institutions (111). He posits that the essentially problematic flaw, the cause of conflict, is a contradiction in modes of relating: while individuals live within a framework of enforced norms ("l...


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...time onward, the concept of the enlightened despot had currency, calling for rulers governing with the betterment of the people's lot in mind. The idea of a centralized, authority-wielding confederation government is not terribly foreign to the notion of an autocratic, authoritarian, but enlightened despot, after all. This is but one of the conflicting ideas ranged against Rousseau's rather pessimistically realist conclusion; others are certainly possible.

In conclusion, Rousseau very convincingly points out the strengths of a confederation of states for ensuring peace, but overstates the case in discussing obstacles to the formation of such a union. He presents an elegant and appealing, but overly simple, explanation of the impossibility, giving no consideration to any other possibilities, including the historical example of the enlightened despot mentioned above.


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