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The State of War

The State of War

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Published by: jj on Sep 20, 2010
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09/20/2010

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The State of War

by Jean-Jacques Rousseau If it were true that this unlimited and ungovernable greed would be developed in every man to the degree our sophist supposes, it would still not produce that state of universal war of each against all, the hideous picture of which Hobbes dares to draw. This unchecked desire to appropriate everything for oneself is incompatible with that of destroying all one's fellows; and the conqueror, who, having killed everyone, would have the misfortune to remain alone in the world, would enjoy nothing of it for the very reason that he did possess everything. What is wealth itself good for, if not to be communicated? What use will possession of the whole universe be to him, if he is the only inhabitant of it? What? Will his stomach devour all the fruits of the earth? Who will bring him all the products of every region? Who will tell him about his rule over the vast solitudes which he will not inhabit? What will he do with his treasures? Who will consume his provisions? In whose eyes will he display his power? I understand. Instead of massacring everyone he will put them all in chains, so that at least he has slaves. That immediately changes the nature of the question; and since it is no longer a matter of destruction, the state of war is abolished . . . Man is naturally peaceful and fearful; at the slightest danger his first instinct is to flee; he only becomes warlike through force of habit and experience. However, self-interest, prejudices, revenge, all the passions which can make him brave perils and death, are far from him in the state of nature. It is only when he has made society with some man that he decides to attack another; he only becomes a soldier after he has been a citizen . . . There is therefore no general war of man against man; and the human race was not formed solely to destroy itself . . . If natural law was only written in human reason it would be little capable of directing most of our actions, but it is rather engraved in the heart of man in ineffaceable characters and there it speaks to him more strongly than all the precepts of philosophers. There it cries out to him that he is not allowed to sacrifice the life of his fellow-man for the preservation of his own, and it makes him horrified to spill human blood without [being carried away by] anger, even when he sees himself obliged to do so . . . There can have been fights and murders, but never, or very rarely, long hostilities or wars . . . There is no war between men; there is only war between states . . . Man has a period of strength and greatness fixed by nature, which he cannot pass. However he thinks of it, he finds all his faculties limited. His life is short, his years are finite. His stomach does not grow with his wealth; his passions increase in vain; his pleasures have their measure; his heart is like all the rest; his capacity for enjoyment is always the same. In vain does he have an

elevated idea of himself, he always remains small. The state on the other hand, being an artificial body, has no determined measure; it has no definite size suitable to it, it can always increase; it feels itself to be weak when there are stronger states than itself. Its security and its preservation demand that it makes itself more powerful than all its neighbours. It can only augment, nourish and exercise its strength at their expense . . . The inequality of men has limits set down by the hands of nature, but that of societies can grow constantly, until one alone absorbs all the others . . . People have worked hard to reverse the true ideas of things. Everything leads natural man to rest; to eat and sleep are the only needs he knows; and only hunger overcomes his laziness. Out of this he has been made into a madman, always ready to torment his fellows by passions which he does not know. These passions do not exist there; on the contrary, they are aroused in the midst of society by everything which can inflame them. Thousands of writers have dared to say that the body politic is without passions and it has no reason to be, except reason itself. As if we did not see the opposite: that the essence of society consists in the activity of its members and that a state without movement would be a dead body . . . I open the books on right and morality, I listen to the scholars and jurists, and moved by their persuasive words I deplore the miseries of nature. I admire the peace and justice established by the civil order, I bless the wisdom of public institutions and console myself for being a man by seeing myself as a citizen. Well instructed in my duties and my happiness I close the book, leave the classroom and look around me. I see wretched peoples groaning beneath a yoke of iron, the human race crushed by a handful of oppressors; a starving crowd, overwhelmed by hunger and suffering, their blood and their tears being drunk by the rich, and everywhere the strong armed against the weak by the terrible power of the laws . . . I raise my eyes and look in the distance. I see fire and flames, the countryside deserted, towns ransacked ... I hear a terrifying noise. What a tumult! What cries! I approach them. I see a scene of murder, ten thousand men slaughtered, the dead piled up in heaps, the dying trampled underfoot by horse, everywhere the image of death and agony. This then is the outcome of these peaceful institutions! What man is there whose very entrails would not be moved by these sad sights? But it is no longer permitted to be a man and plead the cause of humanity. Justice and truth must give way before the interest of the most powerful; that is the rule . . . Who could have imagined without trembling the mad system of the natural war of each against all? What strange animal is it who would think his good attached to the destruction of his whole species! And how could anyone imagine that such a monstrous and detestable species could last more than two generations? This is where the desire, or rather the fury, to establish

despotism and passive obedience have led one of the finest geniuses 1 who has lived . . . I have already said, and I cannot repeat too often, that the mistake of Hobbes and the philosophers is to confuse natural man with men whom they have in front of them, and to transpose into one system a being who can only survive in another. Man wishes his well-being and all that can contribute to it. That is indisputable. But this well-being of man is naturally limited to physical need; when he has a healthy soul and his body does not suffer, what does he lack to be happy according to his constitution? He who has nothing desires few things. He who commands no one has little ambition. But superfluity awakens greed; the more you get, the more you want. He who has much wants everything . . . This is the course of nature, this is the development of the passions. A superficial philosopher observes souls refashioned a hundred times, fermented in society, and believes he has observed men. But to know man well you have to be able to unravel the natural gradations of his feelings. It is not among the inhabitants of a great city that we must look for the first features of nature in their imprint on the human heart. So this analytic method produces only horrors and mysteries, where the wisest understand the least . . . They only know what they see and they have never seen nature. They know very well what is a bourgeois of London or Paris, but they will never know what is a man.

1 Although Rousseau disagreed radically with Hobbes' view of man, and detested his defence of absolutism,
he admired his ability. It is probable that he owed some elements of his own concept of sovereignty and of the artificial nature of political society to his reading of Hobbes

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