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Civic Virtues: Rights, Citizenship, and Republican Liberalism

By Richard Johnson Dagger | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 6
Citizenship and the General Will

Jean-Jacques Rousseau is not likely to be the first choice of anyone who canvasses the history of political thought in search of exemplars of republican liberalism. Rousseau's republican credentials are good enough, to be sure, as a number of recent studies attest. 1 The problem is that they may be too good to allow much hope of finding a significant strain of liberalism in his thought. Certainly his willingness to invoke a legislator who "should feel that he is capable of changing human nature," his call for a civil religion that requires "a purely civil profession of faith, the articles of which are for the sovereign to establish," and his declaration that people may "be forced to be free" seem to put him outside the bounds of most definitions of liberalism. 2

In the end, one may decide that other important political philosophers Montesquieuor Tocqueville, perhaps, or John Stuart Mill or T. H. Green -- are better exemplars of republican liberalism than Rousseau. Yet none of these thinkers combined a republican commitment to civic virtue with the analytical device of the social contract -- a device usually associated with liberalism. Rousseau did this, of course, and he did it in a way that is doubly valuable for the purposes of this book.

Rousseau's peculiar contractarian republicanism is valuable, first, because it suggests that republican ideals and liberal devices are not strictly incompatible. Quentin Skinner may be correct when he remarks that "the ideals of classical republicanism had largely been swallowed up by the rising tide of contractarian political thought" by the time of Montesquieu, at which point "the concept of individual rights attained that hegemony which it has never subsequently lost." 3 If contractarian thought did have this general effect, however, it was despite Rousseau's efforts. For Rousseau, the "rising tide of contractarian political thought" presented an opportunity to advance republican ideals, not engulf them. The idea of the social contract may have encouraged people to think of government as a guarantor of their individual rights and liberty, but Rousseau saw that the idea also offered a

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