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Rousseau: The State of War

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

French writers on war and peace

Jean-Jacques Rousseau on peace and war

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau
From The State of War
Translated by Charles Edwyn Vaughan

j_j_rouseau_pd

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I hear a hideous noise. What a tumult and what cries! I draw near; before me lies a scene of murder, ten thousand slaughtered, the dead piled in heaps, the dying trampled under foot by horses, on every side the image of death and the throes of death. And that is the fruit of your peaceful institutions! Indignation and pity rise from the very bottom of my heart. Yes, heartless philosopher! come and read us your book on a field of battle!

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These examples suffice to give some notion of the various means by which a hostile State may be weakened and which the usages of war seem to justify as methods of injuring the enemy. With regard to the treaties presupposed by some of these means, what are such forms of peace at bottom but a continuation of the war, now waged with all the more cruelty that the enemy has no longer the right of self-defence?…

Add to all this such plain proofs of ill-will as to refuse to another Power its recognised titles, to reject its just claims, to treat its rights with contempt, to deny free trade to its subjects, to incite other powers to attack it: in a word, the breach of international law to its prejudice, under any pretext whatsoever.

I must beg my readers to remember that I am not asking what makes war profitable to him who wages it, but what makes it legitimate. To be just almost always entails some sacrifice. But does that entitle a man to be unjust?

If there never was and never could be such a thing as a war between individuals, who then are those between whom war takes place and who alone can truly be called enemies? I answer that they are public persons. And what is a ‘public person’? I answer that it is that moral creation called a Sovereign, which owes its existence to a social compact and all the decisions of which go by the name of ‘laws.’ Applying here the distinctions made above, we are entitled to say, when considering the results of war, that it is the Sovereign which causes the injury and the State which suffers it. And if war is possible only between such ‘moral beings’ it follows that the belligerents have no quarrel with individual enemies and can wage war without destroying a single life. This, however, requires explanation.

What then is it to make war upon a sovereign Power? It is to attack the social convention and all that is involved in it; for it is that which constitutes the essence of the State. And if the social compact could be dissolved at a single stroke, that instant the war would be at an end. At that one stroke, and without the loss of a single life, the State would be killed.

I open the books on Right and on ethics; I listen to the professors and jurists; and, my mind full of their seductive doctrines, I admire the peace and justice established by the civil order; I bless the wisdom of our political institutions and, knowing myself a citizen, cease to lament I am a man. Thoroughly instructed as to my duties and my happiness, I close the book, step out of the lecture room, and look around me. I see wretched nations groaning beneath a yoke of iron. I see mankind ground down by a handful of oppressors. I see a famished mob, worn down by sufferings and famine, while the rich drink the blood and tears of their victims at their ease. I see on every side the strong armed with the terrible powers of the Law against the weak.

And all this is done quietly and without resistance. It is the peace of Ulysses and his comrades, imprisoned in the cave of the Cyclops and waiting their turn to be devoured. We must groan and be silent. Let us for ever draw a veil over sights so terrible. I lift my eyes and look to the horizon. I see fire and flame, the fields laid waste, the towns put to sack. Monsters! where are you dragging those hapless wretches? I hear a hideous noise. What a tumult and what cries! I draw near; before me lies a scene of murder, ten thousand slaughtered, the dead piled in heaps, the dying trampled under foot by horses, on every side the image of death and the throes of death. And that is the fruit of your peaceful institutions! Indignation and pity rise from the very bottom of my heart. Yes, heartless philosopher! come and read us your book on a field of battle!

What soul of man but would be moved at these woeful sights? But in our days it is forbidden to be a man, or to plead the cause of humanity. Justice and truth are commanded to give way before the interest of the powerful: that is the rule of the world. No pension, no office, no chair in the Academy is in the gift of the people. Why then should the people be protected? High-souled princes! I speak in the name of the literary profession. Oppress the people with a clear conscience! It is to you only that we look for advancement. To us the people is good for nothing.

How can a voice so weak as mine make itself heard through the din of corrupt applause? Alas! I must hold my peace, though the cry of my heart would fain break the cruel silence. And without entering into hateful details, which would be taken for satire just because they are the truth, I will confine myself to testing the institutions of man by their first principles; to correcting, if so it may be, the false notions which the self-interest of writers strives to spread among us; at least, to making it impossible that injustice and violence should impudently usurp the names of Right and justice.

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  1. Felicity Arbuthnot
    December 7, 2011 at 9:13 am

    “But in our days it is forbidden to be a man, or to plead the cause of humanity. ” Just one line, but the resonance in near every one, is deafening.

    Collector’s pieces all for those in a state of desperate, screaming, caring, concern and terror for our fellow being – and indeed with the threats to ran and Syria and damage already done, to our very delicate, beautiful planet.

    Thank you, again.

    Felicity A.

    • richardrozoff
      December 7, 2011 at 2:17 pm

      Rousseau lived in the age of absolute monarchy, under the rule of Louis XV, during which his contemporary Voltaire lived in exile in fear of being executed.
      What is the excuse of today’s silent ones, in the era of the worldwide web?

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