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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Books of Law and Morality

This is from Crooked Timber:

Thus spake Rousseau, by Chris Bertram: I’ve been a participant in various discussions on and off blogs, about the laws of war, just war theory and so on, as it applies to recent events. Though I think it is necessary to get clear about those things, there’s a horrible disconnection and abstractness about the debates, which doesn’t seem respond appropriately to the human miseries, to the people who are most human to us just as they are stripped of their humanity. Two texts came to mind when I thought about this, and felt feeling of disgust at myself for treating such matters as theoretical exercises. The first was Yeats’s On a Political Prisoner, and the second was Rousseau’s The State of War from which I reproduce the opening lines below:

I open the books of law and morality, I listen to the sages and the philosophers of law, and, imbued by their insidious speeches, I am led to deplore the miseries of nature, and to admire the peace and justice established by the the civil order. I bless the wisdom of public institutions and console myself about my humanity through seeing myself as a citizen. Well instructed concerning my duties and my happiness, I shut the book, leave the classroom and look around. I see wretched peoples moaning beneath a yoke of iron, the human race crushed by the fist of oppressors, a starving and enfeebled crowd whose blood and tears are drunk in peace by the rich, and everywhere I see the strong armed against the weak with the terrifying power of the laws.

All this takes place peacefully and without resistance; it is the tranquility of the companions of Ulysses shut into the Cyclops cave and waiting their turn to be devoured. One must tremble and keep silent. Let us draw a permanent veil over these horrible phenomena. I lift my eyes and I look into the distance. I notice fires and flames, deserted countryside, pillaged towns. Ferocious men, where are you dragging those wretches? I hear a terrible sound. What a confusion! What cries! I draw closer and I see a theatre of murders, ten thousand men with their throats cut, the dead trampled by the hooves of horses, and everywhere a scene of death and agony. Such is the fruit of these peaceful institutions. Pity and indignation rise up from the the depths of my heart. Barbarous philosopher: try reading us your book on the field of battle.

    Posted by on Tuesday, August 1, 2006 at 12:15 AM in Miscellaneous, Politics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (2)


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