Youthfulness and Rousseau’s Anti-Pluralist Realism about Political Pluralism

AuthorAntong Liu
Published date01 September 2022
Date01 September 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
© 2021 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129211017230
Jean-Jacques Rousseau claims the following in the Social
Contract (SC) on the conditions of successful
A thousand nations on earth have been brilliant which could
never have tolerated good laws, and even those which could
have tolerated them could have done so only for a very brief
period in the course of their entire lifetime. Peoples, like
men, are docile only in their youth, with age they grow
incorrigible. (72 [3:385])1
This claim signals the vital role of “youth” in determining
the prospect of legislation: Peoples cannot preserve their
integrity without good laws, but good laws will not be
accepted by peoples not “in their youth.” Successful leg-
islation depends on this youthful moment.
Rousseau is undoubtedly interested in images of youth-
ful individuals, such as the one in Emile, but the above
passage is noteworthy for its focus on youthful societies or
peoples. He also states in the Second Discourse (SD) that
the pre-agricultural time during which savages live
together is “the genuine youth of the world” (167 [3:171]),
and in Considerations on the Government of Poland
(Poland) that, despite numerous unfavorable conditions,
legislation remains possible for the Polish people who
“still displays all the fire of youth” (178 [3:954]). Although
Rousseau scholars seldom deny that youth is a meaningful
concept, the implications of the youth of a people are
rarely appreciated. For some, such an “organic metaphor”
betrays Rousseau’s totalitarian tendency (Berlin 2002,
179). For more sympathetic interpreters, Rousseau’s “per-
sonifications” are intended as tools for “Everyman” to
diagnose his personal psychological diseases that society
inflicts on him (Shklar 1969, 165–167), not as ways for us
to understand society. Unsurprisingly, then, the relation-
ship of the youth of a people to legislation has been noted
only in passing (Gildin 1983, 74; Masters 1968, 369–370;
Schaeffer 2010, 381–382; Villa 2017, 25), and some con-
clude that, since legislation must take place when a people
is in its youth, a time period that has gone forever, the
failure of legislation is “all but inevitable” (Shklar 1969,
159) and “testif[ies] to the depth of Rousseau’s rejection
of contemporary society” (Ellenburg 1976, 235).
1017230PRQXXX10.1177/10659129211017230Political Research QuarterlyLiu
1Brown University, Providence, RI, USA
Corresponding Author:
Antong Liu, Political Theory Project, Brown University, 25 George
St., Providence, RI 02906, USA.
Youthfulness and Rousseau’s
Anti-Pluralist Realism about
Political Pluralism
Antong Liu1
Rousseau’s attitude toward political pluralism is receiving renewed attention. Against the traditional portrayal of the
utopian, anti-pluralist Rousseau, scholars today either explore how his theory of peoplehood supports an agonistic and
pluralist vision of democracy or defend his realist willingness to accommodate the plurality of factions within a polity.
Challenging both interpretations, I explore the oft-ignored relationship between legislation and what I call youthfulness
in Rousseau’s work. The youthfulness of a people is the subconscious and unsophisticated national bond among its
members. It is an outcome of their spontaneous interactions rather than an artificial creation. Unlike other conditions
of legislation, which only determine how legislation should be carried out, youthfulness is the essential precondition for
successful legislation. It determines if legislation can be carried out and thus sets limit to the Legislator’s creativity. This
relationship between youthfulness and legislation reveals Rousseau’s anti-pluralist realism. It not only confirms that
inevitable political pluralism need not undermine the unity of a society, but also questions our capability of sustaining
the peoplehood of a society whose members refuse to recognize one another as compatriots.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, youthfulness, legislation, the Legislator, political pluralism
2022, Vol. 75(3) 607–619

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