In this essay I plan to examine how Rousseau argues that the exercise of force cannot provide a legitimate basis for social order. I will discuss what Rousseau meant by the terms legitimate; exercise of force and social order, and then present his arguments and his proposed alternate solution. I will also look at the formal and pictorial means David employed to explore conflict between duty to the family and duty to the state in his painting The Lictors Returning to Brutus the Bodies of his sons1. As a conclusion I will identify areas of shared concern between Rousseau’s argument in the Social Contract and David’s Brutus.
In 1762 Rousseau’s book “The Social Contract” was published. It discussed Rousseau’s concerns with ‘men’ being constrained by what he considered an illegitimate authority such as the authority that a king possesses. Much of the Social Contract is Rousseau’s argument of how such an authority becomes legitimate. By legitimate, Rousseau means having the “right” to do something; he believed that a king should not have more right than anyone else. He said that to be legitimate authority must come from all people in the state and not just from one person, that nobody has a natural authority over anyone else as everyone is free and equal.
He follows this by saying, only the right to command others gives any authority legitimacy, this right can only come from a social order, a system where all members of society, can enter a contract which allows them unity, equality and freedom. Rousseau argues that the exercise of force is to have more power, not more authority. Through the use of thought experiments he defends this statement by saying that when authority is taken by force, that authority will not keep hold of the power that has been gained, because there will always be opponents who are stronger.
Such power cannot be maintained permanently as someone could always usurp the power, and fear is not a legitimate way to make people obey as it is then just subjegation. He argues that no authority is legitimate when claimed by the exercise of force; ‘To give in to force is an act of necessity, not will. ‘2’ If someone is forced to obey they have not been given the freedom of choice. Why should somebody obey just because they are forced, and who made it right that they should obey, after all ‘might does not equal right’. Rousseau says ‘let us admit that force does not create right and that we are obliged to obey only legitimate powers’ 4 Rousseau then concerns himself with how a legitimate social order can be created if everyone is free and equal. A social order must have some laws for everyone to live together, but if a person follows laws, how can they be free? Rousseau’s alternative was to create a social order that could be maintained, a contract by which each person followed the one direction of the “general will”.
The general will of a group concerns that which is in the best interests of the group taken as a whole rather than as a collection of individuals’5. Legitimacy vanishes as everyone agrees and supports the decisions of the general will. Rousseau’s arguments are persuasive regarding the illegitimacy of an authority when taken by force, but then contradicts himself when he claims that exercising force is acceptable to coerce people to agree with the general will, as then you are only forcing them to be free.
Minorities are not then given the freedom that Rousseau says every man has a right to, as they have not been given a choice and are just disparaged by saying they are not acting according to reason, as every ‘reasonable’ person would choose the general will. During the French Revolution in 1789 the “Declaration of the rights of man and the citizen” were drawn up which had many of the same arguments as Rousseau’s Social Contract. It was also the year that David finished his painting The Lictors Returning to Brutus the Bodies of his sons.
I will now look at the formal and pictorial means David employed to explore conflict between duty to the family and duty to the state in his painting. The painting has a very structured staged feel with theatrical lighting; he uses a linear style of painting using fine lines and lots of detail and uses a contrasting tonal range to keep within the dramatic style. David manages the pictorial space well, creating depth by using lines along the tiled floor, constructing the viewer’s perspective on the threshold of the painting. David sets out the conflict between duty to the family and duty to the state by balancing his composition in two halves.
On the left we see Brutus, in shadow, in the foreground and above him his sons bodies are being returned to him. Brutus sacrifices his sons who were involved in a royalist conspiracy. Brutus fulfils his duty to the state by signing the death warrant for his sons but show signs of being uncomfortable with this action with his feet uncomfortably clenched and the warrant screwed up in his fist. He does not weep or look at his sons and he also offers no solace to the rest of his family; perhaps his passion has been subjugated by reason or perhaps he is just sitting in disbelief that he has done this terrible deed.
David has also painted the stretcher bearing ‘a son’ directly above Brutus possibly to symbolise the weight of the action resting on Brutus’s shoulders, which appear to be sloping down. Bright colours, the use of light and the point of perspective all angle the viewer to the group of women on the right hand side of the painting. David has painted the anguish of these woman, showing them to be distraught in several ways; by Brutus’s wife reaching out to her sons, by one of his daughters covering her face so she can’t see and another daughter in a faint being supported by her mother.
One woman has been depicted as so ajitated that she has had to cover the whole of her face and the viewer is just left with her dejected form. The fact that Brutus and his family are not grieving together suggests how fulfilling a duty to the state will cause conflict within the family; the way his wife is reacting shows an active disagreement with her husband for his actions, she is not supporting him in his decision by being by his side. Rousseau and David share concerns of society under a sovereigns rule.
Rousseau claims that monarchs are an illegitimate authority and David’s Brutus has his sons executed due to their involvement with royalty. As Rousseau states in the Social Contract and David shows in his painting of Brutus they also both want ‘men’ to fulfill their duties, by obeying the law or general will that has been created and that force is an acceptable if it is for the general will of the people (even if it means sacrificing your own family).
To support this concept we see in David’s painting Brutus putting aside his particular will, and acting according to the general will. From other sources we know David’s political views after he painted Brutus lay with the revolutionaries so it is quite possible that whilst he was painting Brutus he had sympathies with the statements in the ‘Declaration of the rights of man and the citizen’, which was derived from Rousseau’s the Social Contract and was therefore influenced by Rousseau’s ideals.