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Rousseau and the problem of war.

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posted on 19.11.2015, 08:56 by Christine Jane Carter
Rousseau accounts for the occurrence and persistence of war in terms of the gulf between nature and society, an opposition which provides the key to the understanding of his "system". Man, naturally independent and peaceably inclined, is drawn into conflict with his fellows as material changes force him into social relations and destroy natural equality. Out of this struggle, the state is born, in the desire of the few to secure and legitimate their domination over the many. Far from ending the state of war, the tyranny thus engendered shifts the focus of conflict from the individual to the body politic. Rousseau thus presents a philosophy of history which has a moral purpose: to enable man to judge of the evils of his condition, and to provide a standard of right by which he might work to change it. However, Rousseau is a realist, acutely aware of the complex processes which shape social and political institutions over time, and of the powerful interests which operate to maintain the status quo. Hence he cannot share the optimism of the rationalist Abbe de Saint-Pierre that princes may be persuaded to bring an end to the state of war in Europe by founding a confederation. Rousseau's view is that effective action must be preventive: an Emile may be raised in social isolation, a small state may perfect its republican constitution whilst shielding itself from the corrupting world of international politics. Equality and self-sufficiency are the only bases on which peace amongst men can be founded; the tragedy of Rousseau's vision is that this can never be universally realised. Whilst men are morally impelled to seek ways of meliorating conflict or of transcending it within the state, there is no final answer to the problem of war.


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Politics and International Relations

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University of Leicester

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