St Augustine and Rousseau had both justified legitimacy from the origins, aiming to inaugurate an unprecedented society where denizens or people can enjoy a prosperous life, albeit that they lived under different social backgrounds. This distinction contributes to fundamental disparities in their theories, which implies that they are making different arguments.
Hence, the purpose of this essay is to critically compare the metaphysical and political theories of St Augustine and Rousseau by disserting theoretic elements in their quotes, then to appraise the applicability of their theories in the modern society, which would be presented in form of a case study in China. It can be suggested that philosophy are largely influenced and restricted by certain historical contexts, yet throughout history, people never ceased to ponder over the origins and foundations of a society.
It could be presumed that once a person starts to doubt the legitimacy of a society, he would have the freedom and strength to break social shackles imposed upon him, which allows him to speculate from the very beginning. He could therefore think from the individual level to the broad perspective, other than apply social norms upon himself. In particular, under unstable social backgrounds, restless and discontented minds would reflect the society more intensively. St Augustine was a Christian philosopher in Roman Empire when it was sacked by Visigoths.
During this time, some early Christians were firmly convinced by the eschatological belief that the overthrow of Rome would be followed by the end of the world, therefore the relationship between Christianity and Roman authority urgently needed to be addressed (Mommsen, 1951). However, St Augustine rejected the prevalent eschatology and held a different perspective that even the “Golden city” like Rome, would eventually collapse for it is a city of Earth instead of the city of God, which exists permanently.
Therefore in his treatise The City of God, he said that “Justice removed, then, what are kingdoms but great bands of robbers? What are bands of robbers themselves but little kingdoms? ” Despite the misunderstanding that St Augustine compared the Roman Empire with bands of robbers, in fact, he was emphasising that the true legitimacy resides in the hand of God, manifesting itself in the city of God. Thus, all the rest territories and kingdoms are same for they are merely parodies of the city of God. In the middle 18th century, France was an agricultural monarchy with rigid social hierarchy.
The components of the lowest hierarchy were peasants, paupers and the burgeoning bourgeoisie, who were heavily exploited by the upper classes. Inevitably, it deepened social conflicts and foreshadowed the Enlightenment. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was one of the vanguards during the Enlightenment; he obtained his reputation primarily by his influential books Social Contract and The Second Discourse (Dent, 2005). In the latter, he stated that, “The first man who, having enclosed a piece of land, thought of saying “This is mine” and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society.
It could be suggested that he believed human are born with self preservation and compassion, however as his argument continued, the thriving amour propre drives people to sacrifice their natural freedom to a perverted civilisation, where a false social contract is imposed by enforcement. As Rousseau remarked, the philosophers who have examined the foundations of society have all felt the necessity of going back to the state of nature (Rousseau, 1964). Thus, in order to comprehend initial questions of Augustine and Rousseau, it would be sensible to start with their implications of the original state of human being.
For Augustine, the prior premise of human nature is that man is not self-existent but created by God (Bonner, 2007). In another word, human beings are created from nothing and dependent upon God for the continued existence. With the God-given goodness and free will, men have the ability to distinguish from virtue and evil, which is led by their divine love towards God (Garrett, 2002). However, Augustine disputed that the disobedience of human led to the original sin, which corrupted and degraded them, left with the misused free will towards materialistic satisfactions.
Nevertheless, there is only one way of redemption of the inherent sinfulness, which rests in the reciprocal love between God and humanity. Following that, the nature of freedom in his perspective is barely self-diminution for remaining aloof from the omnipotent God. On the other hand, to Rousseau, the prerequisites of human nature are self-preservation and compassion. Self-preservation, namely amour de soi, could be interpreted as the primitive passion of self-love which is anterior to any other feelings (Dent, 1992).
Meanwhile, compassion is well defined as “a natural repugnance at seeing any other human suffers pain or death” (Rousseau, 1964). Along with these two principles, he justified the natural right, namely the freedom of being an individual without other’s intervention. Rousseau was optimistic about human beings that man is intrinsically good and benign. In essence, it could be inferred that the question Augustine attempted to answer is that how to achieve harmony in accordance with God; by comparison, Rousseau was passionate to blueprint a society where citizens could live in harmony with their natural virtues and rights.
It could be seen that Augustine and Rousseau philosophised human nature from opposite premises, which consequently results in disparate approaches to justify the legitimacy. It can be assumed that since St Augustine and Rousseau derived the legitimacy from different existences, therefore they adopted opposite approaches of realising a legitimate government and a just society. In Augustine’s perspective, justice is the virtue accords to each one’s due, however true justice would never be achieved in Earthly cities for their original sins and disbelief (Ellingsen, 2005).
For this reason, he advocated that it is the God-given love that orientates a government, whose functions are stabilising social orders, repressing conflicts and mitigating social turbulence. As he reiterated, a conservative approach of legitimising society should be taken, people should obey their superiors regardless of forms of government. This assertion appears to be coherent with his constant Christian advocacy that humanity could only achieve happiness and justice after death, following that, it can be suggested that all forms of government are legitimate, for justice has already been removed (Morrow, 1998).
On the other side, although Rousseau did not explicitly define justice, yet he acknowledged that justice emanates from God. However unlike Augustine, Rousseau’s elaboration of legitimacy stresses upon the positive reconciliation of individual’s rights and general wills. He therefore first declined two possibilities of legitimacy, namely the physical enforcement and innate sociability (Grimsley, 1973), this demonstrates that reluctant enslavement and presupposed morality are not the answer as referred in the quote.
Then, he theorised that the social contract is the transformation from individual interests into common well-beings, which legitimises the Sovereign with true justice. During this process, it appears to be indispensable for a citizen to surrender his power to the general will (Grimsley, 1973). It is worth emphasising that Rousseau’s majority principle essentially aims at ensuring the freedom of individuals’ political rights, albeit that some critics argue it depreciates their liberty.
In nature, although Augustine and Rousseau both acknowledged that justice stems from God, due to their underlying differences, Augustine’s legitimacy appears to be essentially a passive compromise between temporal things and God, whereas Rousseau’s legitimacy is a positive endeavour to achieve social equality and liberty. As far as legitimacy is concerned, it is inevitable for both philosophers to delineate their corresponding governments, of which one serves for the preparation of posthumous life while another intends to give its citizens full expression of their rights.
To Augustine, the most applicable government in Earthly cities is the church-state. By definition, a church is a community built on its members’ faith and constituted by them; church’s inheritance of Christian principles is superior to personal experiences (Ellingsen, 2005). Therefore in purpose of reflecting cosmic orders, Augustine stressed that Christian Emperors along with churches govern best with terrestrial justice and coercive power. Turning to Rousseau, his solutions seem to be complicated.
He stratified a civil society into three aspects: Sovereign, government and subjects. According to his social contract, Sovereign is the absolute supreme constituted by the general will, government is an intermediate body between subjects and Sovereign carrying executive functions, and subjects, clearly refers to citizens (Rousseau, 2004). His elaboration of applicable forms of government is relatively dialectic, which indicates that there is not a single model that could be applied to all countries.
Yet the city states as in ancient Greek appear to be preferable for him, since compassion and full participations could be achieved within medium size states, wherein the elective aristocracy could also apply to. Overall, Augustine’s church-state advocates obedience and suppression in the temporal world, whereas Rousseau’s city-state defends citizens’ natural rights in an optimistic manner. Nevertheless, their solutions are both foresighted with regard to their philosophy, aiming at full self-actualisation in either Heavenly world or the present life.
After evaluating both sides, it would be necessary to examine their adaptability in the modern society, where People’s Republic of China is attracting the increasing global attention. In light of their historical influence that St Augustine’s Christian philosophy had profound influence in the medieval period and beyond (Ellingsen, 2005), while Rousseau’s critique on inequalities inspired the French Revolution in the 18th century and afterwards, it can be assumed that the promotion of liberty and equality are more applicable in a polarising society where common prosperity is poorly achieved.
Moreover, although now Christianity is acknowledged as one of the official religions, yet the promotion of atheism by Communist Party and the sparse distribution of Chinese Christians suggest that Augustine’s philosophy may not be adaptable. On the other hand, although due to the fact that the form of government in China is people’s representative assembly, which is not recommended in Rousseau’s Social Contract as the direct democracy, yet many social aspects resonate with his either advocacy or critiques.
If take a broad perspective, addressing Chinese issues appears to be too sophisticated to discuss. However, Chen Guangcheng’s case emerged as a current controversial issue, having revealed some social darkness which could be extended and examined under the enormous background. Chen is a blind self-taught lawyer in Shandong Province, who had been imprisoned, beaten and under house arrest by local government for his disclosure of unlawful taxation, discrimination against the disabled and the enforcement on birth control.
His violated human rights concerned many humanistic figures who tried to assist and rescue him; however, they were all assaulted and menaced by the local government. It was only when he escaped to the US embassy in Beijing, then was he able to petition for protection and fair treatment. Adopting Rousseau’s theory, it is clear that Chen’s natural rights are violated, which indicates that his prosperity is restrained by the “corporate will” (Rousseau, 2004).
This corresponds with his rejection of the second false contract, where physical enforcement could only lead to inequality. With regard to the fact that China is essentially a socialist country with a considerable number of the impoverished, a concentrated government is needed to allocate resources and coordinate conflicts, which is in accordance with Rousseau’s suggestion that a large size country requires centralised power.
However, it can be inferred that although it is written in Chinese Constitution that Communist Party represents the interests of people, still, the current democratic dictatorship goes against Rousseau’s interpretation of a centralised state, namely the individuals’ will precedes over corporate will, which is prior to the general will (Rousseau, 2004). It follows that, the unfairness imposed upon Chen and social critiques may reflect the misrepresentation by the government of individual wills.
In that case, the question is brought up that if the majority takes precedence over the minority, would there be suppression and inequality upon the minority; alternatively, if the minority takes precedence over the majority, would therefore the government be regarded as an autocratic dictatorship? The answer of China resides in the quintessence of democratic dictatorship, which substantially obscures and integrates Sovereignty, government and citizens.
Chen is not alone; there are many Chinese democrats appeal for democratisation in recent years. Rousseau’s philosophy could inspire them to defend their civil rights, promote the reformation of government as articulated in Social Contract that, a government is an intermediate body with limited executive power, and eventually achieve self-liberation. In conclusion, St Augustine and Rousseau philosophised the society from disparate prerequisites, resulting in different political ideologies and historical influences.
By comparison, St Augustine appears to be relatively conservative whereas Rousseau is more progressive, for the reason that the former dedicated his passion to self redemption and the posthumous life while the latter advocated for repossessing freedom and equality. It could be the case that due to their underlying differences, Rousseau’s theory is more applicable in the modern society, for instance, China. In essence, they are both great philosophers since their ideas arose from unstable social backgrounds; with regard to respective circumstances, they both have contributed to historical progress.