The idealistic conception of the state reached its pinnacle in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. No political theorist since, except for Hegel perhaps, held the state in so high a regard, alas, with a religious kind of reverence, as Rousseau did. The state was for Rousseau the end-all and be-all. It trumped all other interests and concerns. As David Runciman puts it in “Why Not Eat an Eclair?” Rousseau envisaged “political life as a quintessentially collective endeavor, in which the claims of the state as a vehicle of human co-operation had to be asserted against the claims of other more partial groups, which would otherwise distort our co-operative impulses to their own ends.”
We’ll return to this all-important vision of political life as a quintessentially collective endeavor, an aspect all-too-oft ignored by the apologists for the liberal state because of “the[ir] assumptions and models of an individualist politics” (see Wolff, page 2). Meanwhile, we can surely appreciate Rousseau’s insight in having posited the state as, potentially at least, the ultimate vehicle of human co-operation, especially when compared to “other more partial groups” and their presumably self-serving interests and claims.
Granted, Rousseau had bought here, lock, stock, and barrel, into a pluralistic, conflict-ridden model of factional politics [according to Wolff, the best that the liberal-democratic state can offer (see, for example, the chapter on “Tolerance” in The Poverty of Liberalism)]; besides, he was unduly suspicious (with a suspicion that bordered on paranoia) of the stifling effects of voluntary associations: Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. Even so, his vision of politics as an activity, and of the overarching political community as the primary focus and site of that activity, reminds one of Aristotle (Man is a political animal) for whom politics and engagement in politics, the life of a citizen, that is, represented the pinnacle of human development (the term “human” functioning here in a generic, undifferentiated sense); the final realization of our potential as social beings.
It is arguable, in fact, that for both Aristotle and Rousseau, the ultimate political community, envisaged by either of them as the state, commanded a kind of loyalty that transcended all other loyalties, be they to other institutions, groups of individuals, or individual persons. As an aside, one can’t help but think here of the biblical injunction, “… let no man put asunder,” to establish the primacy of marital relations over the familial ones, except that for Rousseau, and to an extent Aristotle as well, the relationship of a citizen to the state trumped all other relationships and alliances, all other loyalties.
Again, we shall have to hold in abeyance for now the hard question as to whether, and under what circumstances it is possible for an institution to command the same kind of respect and loyalty we usually reserve for persons. I suppose part of the answer has got to do with how we happen to regard the institution in question: it must, in some sense, transcend the real and approximate the ideal; and Rousseau’s vision of the state as the end-all and be-all, enabling the individual to sever the chains imposed on him or her by custom, tradition, what else have you, so as to become free at last through and by total identification with the state, certainly qualifies.
By way of preliminaries, let me suggest two likely responses. The first may be termed “Socratic,” and it’s exemplified by Socrates’ willful submission to the laws of Athens and his opting for drinking hemlock rather than trying to save himself by seeking life in exile; the second can be associated with Thucydides (History of the Peloponnesian War) or with Euripides (The Trojan Women), both latter-day contemporaries of Socrates and super patriots in their own right. In the first instance, the laws and the constitution of Athens are being upheld in spite of an occasional miscarriage of justice; in the second, the entire edifice of the state, the very institution itself, is brought into question, along with a host of related concerns as to its legitimacy, the kind of loyalty it may properly command, etc.
In Socrates’ defense, we must note he hadn’t tasted the full unraveling of the Athenian empire, sanctified as it had become by the formation of the Delos League with Athens in charge. Athens was but a city-state in his times, a powerful city-state and the most enterprising one, a city-state definitely to be reckoned with, but no one could possibly foresee the rise of her imperialistic ambitions, the underlying hubris, and her eventual demise. The Melos massacre, the pinnacle of that hubris, an event which Thucydides so unforgettably records in his first-hand accounts (see the Melian dialogue, for instance, in order to appreciate the full impact), was still far off in the ever-seeing mind of Socrates. And so were the heroic acts of the Greeks epitomized in Homer’s immortal epic if only because they were a myth, a glorious and breathtaking myth, but a myth nonetheless.