U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Toward Democracy Book Club: Entry 6 – Chapter 5

Dust Jacket for Toward Democracy (OUP, 2016).

[About a month ago I posted the schedule. I thought that by today I’d be covering chapters 7-8. Instead I got stuck on chapter 5. The scheduled end for this book club remains March 30, but I’ve moved around the dates and chapters covered between now and then. My apologies. Our political environment has been more distracting than I anticipated. I’ve also been busier than expected with some personal matters. But we’ll soldier onward! – TL]

I’m a sucker for any historical reading related to the Enlightenments in Europe and America. Why? The expansion of knowledge. The romance of scientific discovery. New ways of thinking about religion. Skepticism about received values and traditions. Belief, however naive, in the ideas of progress and reason. Beyond the topics and ideas, it’s also the outstanding figures: Voltaire, Montesquieu, Denis Diderot, Francis Bacon, John Locke, Isaac Newton, David Hume, René Descartes, Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and on and on.

My (b)romance with the Enlightenment stems from neglect and ignorance, ironically. My stints in secondary school and the first rungs of higher education did little to acquaint me with these figures. How does one learn philosophy in high school? And when does one pick up European history on the way to a bachelor of science in chemistry? Even as a graduate student, my learning about these figures was incidental because of my chronological specialty in post-Civil War U.S. history. To this day, despite my long stints reading great books and my focus on the history of education, I’ve still not read Rousseau’s Emile. (hangs head in shame(!)) So much for my love of “enlightenment.”

Chapter five of James Kloppenberg’s Toward Democracy is titled “Sympathy, Will, and Democracy in the Enlightenments of Europe.” The thesis for this chapter is as follows:

The complicated relation between democracy and Enlightenment varied over time and across cultures, but beneath those differences certain themes emerged, particularly in the work of the towering figures of the French Enlightenment, Montesquieu and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and of the Scottish Enlightenment, David Hume and Adam Smith. This chapter concentrates on these protean and controversial thinkers, and situates them in a wider array of eighteenth-century contributors to debates about politics, because of the profound and paradoxical consequences of their ideas for democratic discourse on both sides of the Atlantic. By linking particular conceptions of autonomy and sympathy with the possibility of self-government, they helped inspire the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century.[1]

Kloppenberg follows through on these figures: Montesquieu (9 pages), Voltaire (3 pages), Rousseau (24 pages), Hume (10 pages), Smith (5 pages). Sprinkled in are other “minor” figures: Anthony Ashley Cooper (3rd Earl of Shaftesbury), Jean le Ronde d’Alembert, Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, Denis Diderot, Paul Henri Thiry d’Holbach, Helvétius, Francis Hutcheson, and Thomas Reid. Each in this latter category help Kloppenberg build bridges between themes and different countries.

For today I want to focus on a single figure from chapter five. Of that one Kloppenberg wrote: “Lake Geneva…gave birth to the most important—and most misunderstood—eighteenth-century European theorist of democracy, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.” [2] And it’s clear from the 24 pages (pp. 212-235) spent on Rousseau that JTK intends on clearing the brush around that thinker’s work, particularly First Discourse, Second Discourse, Emile, a 1755 essay titled “Political Economy,” and Social Contract.

For instance, on First Discourse ( formerly Discourses on the Sciences and Arts), JTK disabuses us of the notion of “primitive simplicity” as the guiding ideal, relaying how Rousseau fought against “the temptations of sham profundity,” “corrupted morals,” decadence, and even railed on the philosophes “dependence on wealthy patrons.” It was less about pushing a false kind of primitive simplicity, and more a diatribe against his intellectual and social context that seemed to support a less thorough Enlightenment.[3] Perhaps this deconstruction is obvious to students of Rousseau, but it meant something to me, a person with only a casual acquaintance with the main themes of that work.

This misunderstanding of Rousseau’s focus apparently continued, in his day, with Second Discourse (formerly, Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men). Voltaire thought that Rousseau to be, in JTK’s terms, “urging a return to the simple life of primitive people.” But JTK points out while Rousseau did state that the luxuries of civilization erode our early tendencies toward pity and simple self-preservation, Rousseau did so in order to point out that the drive for property, corrupted by competition and a degenerate “self-love,” were the deeper issues. Rousseau desired of the human species to find “a golden mean” between primitive indolence and “the petulant activity of our vanity.”[4]

The goal should be the common good, reciprocity, and a “general will” that meant, in essence, “legitimate rule of law authorized by the people and grounded in popular sovereignty.” Rousseau by no means desired a return to some mythical “state of nature,” but rather a better civilization based on benevolence. [5]

I don’t want to simply recount all of JTK’s hard work here. But it’s clear from the passages above that Toward Democracy believes we must see democracy’s foundational ideas, in the right light, before we can understand the strengths and weaknesses of the systems that emerged, particularly and most hopefully in North America—ground covered in chapter six. The American Enlightenment drew on thinkers like Rousseau, both directly and indirectly, as popular sovereignty and self-rule emerged there. Rousseau’s friend Hume helped bridge the gap between Rousseau and Franklin, Madison, and Jefferson. – TL


[1] James T. Kloppenberg, Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 192.

[2] Ibid., 212

[3] Ibid., 215-216.

[4] Ibid., 217-218.

[5] Ibid., 219.

2 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Thanks for the posts on this book Tim! I’m looking forward to the coming installments.
    I’d read this book, in the fall, as an erudite but cautious history of how democracy has developed into the 19th c. I like a cautious history, one that doesn’t try to claim too much and sticks closely to material evidence.
    One of the reoccurring themes of the book is demonstrated in JK’s discussion of Rousseau. It’s what JK calls his “deep ambivalence about democracy”. (230) Rousseau sees direct democracy as ideal but unrealistic and so settles perhaps uncomfortably on representative democracy. JK shows the debate over direct and representative democracy is repeated across time and continents and though he doesn’t discuss the 20th or 21st centuries that discussion hasn’t been resolved.
    What’s wonderful about this book is the care JK exercises in discussing the vicissitudes of democracy. It begins with the title Toward Democracy. Toward is not an endpoint nor judgment, it’s a direction without a finish (as you suggested in your opening post). The direction wasn’t straight and is full of obstacles and there’s no promise of arrival. Every chapter is an example of the troubled path that democracy has been considered, rejected, ignored, celebrated, tried, failed and tried again. It seems to me that this is JK’s major accomplishment and effort, to clearly demonstrate the contingent course of democracy.

    • Paul: My apologies for this very tardy reply. First, thanks for the comment.

      I concur with your “cautious history” evaluation. It’s a very deliberate book—unpacking the development of the U.S. Constitution, step-by-ideological-step. It hews closely to the intellectual evidence.

      And yes, the direct-v-representative democracy problem is one that dominates the first half of the book. It’s obviously still relevant.

      Finally, I’m with you on the book as a tour de force on contingency. I don’t always love the book, but I’m appreciating the story and the work that went into it. – TL

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