Youthfulness and Legislation: Rousseau on the Constituent Moment

AuthorShuhuai Ren
Published date01 March 2023
Date01 March 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2023, Vol. 76(1) 381392
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129221097138
Youthfulness and Legislation: Rousseau on
the Constituent Moment
Shuhuai Ren
In Of the Social Contract, Rousseau argued that, for successful political founding, the social spirit that is the product of the
institutionsmust precede over the institutions.Scholars have interpreted Rousseaus constituent momentas an unsolvable
paradox that haunts modern constitutional theory. This article seeks to challenge this view by taking seriously Rousseaus
claim that onlya young nation can receive laws.By reconstructing youthfulnessas a necessary pre-institutional conditionfor
legislation,I argue that successful constituentmoments can be identif‌ied withinRousseaus works, attentionto which shows
that his position is not paradoxical. Youthfulness nonetheless hinges on a tension between the innocence of a community
that shares a robustsocial bond, and the maturity evident in its dangerous desire for prosperity.Youthfulness is therefore a
moment ofcrisis and opportunity thatcalls for legislation to resolvethis tension. Rousseauillustrates two youthfulmoments
natural youth and restored youth both in the general human history set out in the Discourse on Inequality and in his
analysis of the particular cases of Corsica and Poland. By emphasizing youthfulness,this article calls for greater attention to
Rousseaus political sociology, which cannot be separated from his principles of political right.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the paradox of politics, the constituent moment
In Of the Social Contract, Book I, Chapter 6, Rousseau
depicts a constituent moment where a group of individuals
consent to relinquish their particular identities and obtain
a common identity by becoming citizens of a state.
doing so, individuals form a strong political union under
the supreme guidance of the general will(SC, I-6, 20/OC
3: 361). How is this transition from individuals to citizens
possible? How did Rousseau think that a well-ordered
state could be brought into being? This article investigates
Rousseaus constituent moment and attempts to answer
these questions.
Bonnie Honig famously turned to Rousseau in identi-
fying the constituent moment as the paradox of political
foundingthat haunts modern democratic theory (Honig
2007, 4). The paradox lies in Rousseaus statement that, in
founding a republic,the s ocial spirit that must be the work
of institutions would have to precede over the institutions
themselves(SC,II-7, 44/OC 3: 383). This is a chicken and
egg problem, as Honig argues [i]n order for there to be a
people well-formed enough for good law-making, there
must be good law for how else will the people be well-
formed?(Honig2007, 3). A people with social spirit must
consciously acknowledge the common good of the
community to sustain the general will. Yet since the
common good is revealed and presented only through the
law of a state, the paradox remains of how a people canbe
enlightened into the social spirit necessary for establishing
a well-orderedrepublic when there is not already lawand a
political regime in place. For Honig, Rousseaus intro-
duction of the lawgiver only exacerbates this dilemma, for
the lawgivers task of endowing people with the social
spirit seems lessa solution and more an impossible mission
that requires changing human nature. The lawgiversrole
signif‌ies the insurmountable gap between formal consti-
tutionalism and realist political founding.
Honig contends that this paradox is a problem not only
of Rousseau interpretation, but extends to modern liberal
constitutional theory in general. Many who have turned to
Rousseau to draw inspiration for modern liberal de-
mocracies have, perhaps usurpingly, sought to sidestep
this problem by either interpreting the lawgiver as a
Department of Political Economy, Kings College London, UK
Corresponding Author:
Shuhuai Ren, Department of Political Economy, Kings College London,
18 Tavistock Place, London WC1H 9RE, UK.

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