home | politics

Augustus to Rousseau: authoritarianism and democracy

Rule by aristocrats included ancient Rome. These Romans devised a separation of powers: a Senate, a couple of Consuls (chief executives) to keep check on each other) and a judiciary. Then with rebellion by commoners, Tribunes were added. Law was also associated with the priesthood, headed by the Pontifex Maximus. And there was the police: the armed Praetorian Guard. This was the Roman Republic, which fell apart with factions fighting each other. A civil war was won by Julius Caesar's nephew who thought that democracy led to chaos. The power of the Senate declined, and military leaders became what were called emperors. Some emperors passed power to their sons — rule by rule of family dynasties, which existed before Rome as well as after, in Asia as well as the West. And, combined with religious dogma, the monarchies claimed their rule to be the will of the gods or (among the Chinese) the Mandate of Heaven.

With family dynasties holding power, marriages between members of different kingdoms became part of the power game. While democracy was thought to be a crazy idea that produced chaos, questions of birth produced succession problems, wars between family factions wars against growing powers. Europe had its Hundred Years' War. England had its civil wars, including the War of the Roses. In the 1500s there was Henry VIII's marriages, his wanting a male heir and a lot of power struggles. And in 1701 the War of Spanish Succession erupted.

Meanwhile, in the 1600s, Thomas Hobbes, the English philosopher, supported monarchical authority. He believed that without it people would feel free to plunder, to rape and murder in an endless war. Hobbes thought a king should be like a good father to his people. He ignored the devine favor argument (while claiming he wasn't an atheist) and described the king's relationship with his subjects as contractual, an agreement about duties: the king protecting his subjects and the people free to do whatever his laws did not explicitly forbid.

A couple of generations after Hobbes came the English philosopher John Locke stayed with monarchical rule and government by social contract. He didn't like absolute power in the hands of a monarchy, and he had a more optimistic view of humanity than had Hobbes. He favored electing representatives to a legislative body (parliament) and a monarch's powers limited by constitutional law (constitutional monarchy). He favored a judicial branch of government independent of the powers of the monarch or legislators – an independent judiciary making decisions based on the nation's constitution.

Locke believed that with representative government and a constitution people could live together peacefully. The bigotry and brutalities that had contributed to Europe's recent religious wars had annoyed him. He believed that churches should be voluntary associations rather than appendages of higher authority associated with the state (as was the Anglican Church). He held that for a modern society to function well it had to be unified not by a single religion but by allowing religious diversity. And a part of Locke's optimism was his belief in education, in people improving themselves and their circumstances.

Locke died a famous man in 1704, at the age of 72. His ideas would be adopted by those who made the American revolution.

In 1712 in Switzerland, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born. He grew up as a social outsider and at times a vagrant. He had contempt for the educated elite. He spoke of humanity having been corrupted by the arts and sciences. Physics, he said, had risen from vain curiosity. The study of ethics he described as having its source in human pride. He was for rule by the people (democracy), rule by people joining together to make laws that expressed a "General Will." He leaned toward populism.

He believed more in the emotions of the unlearned than in reason of intellectuals. He wrote about people born free but finding themselves in chains. He was religious and a romantic, writing that liberty was to be found in the hearts of free men. He saw morality and virtue as a product of faith and hope. He wanted to create a natural religion that rises from instinct, a religion that returns people to nature, with no intermediary priesthood between people and their god.

He died in 1778 but was the most popular philosopher among the Jacobins, the most radical and ruthless group that formed at the beginning of the French (1789), a group to be associated with the terror that tore that revolution apart.

But Rousseau believed in a personal god, in divine providence and the immortality of the soul. He saw morality and virtue as rising from the faith and hope of religious people. He differed with most Christians in his belief that it was not Original Sin that troubled humanity. He wanted to create a natural religion that rises from instinct, a religion that returns people to nature, with no intermediary priesthood between people and their god. He claimed that Jesus Christ was not the Redeemer but was a model for the recovery of one's nature.

Rousseau in attitude was similar to men who would be a part of Hitler's movement. As Eduardo Marqués Collado reminds us on Quroa:

The Nazis were never about “science and reason turning evil”. They were staunchly anti-enlightenment, pro-romanticism, pro “communal emotion above everything” (volksgeist) and pro irrationality movement. They were all about the triumph of “the force of will” over the force of reason.

to the top | home

Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.