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The Paradox of Democratic Self-Consciousness | Focus

Democracy’s institutions promote self-reflection in every corner of society. That has its virtues, but it can also breed hubris.


Imagine a man, solitary and lacking any of the conveniences of modern life. He enjoys abundance without human artifice. Food is easy to acquire, shelter merely a matter of finding an appropriate tree or boulder. Fixed to no place and to no other people, responsible for and desiring only his self-preservation, this man in nature is self-sufficient, whole, and good.

As archaic as he sounds, this man was invented in the mid-18th century, amidst a period of European history in which many of the brightest minds were transfixed by the promises of science and reason. But this is not Thomas Hobbes’ “state of nature,” in which life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Here men without civil society are not condemned to fear and avarice, to ceaseless worry about a knife in the dark or the need to do battle over scarce resources. No, this is Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s natural man, and such crucial differences are no accident.

A wonderfully paradoxical and deeply penetrating thinker, Rousseau partially rejected the political thought of earlier Enlightenment thinkers, who regularly championed human reason rather than divine revelation as a means of understanding—and reshaping—the world. For such men like Hobbes and John Locke, reason was a practical tool that could be used to improve the lot of the inhabitants of the ever-warring European continent. While Hobbes was no liberal, his and Locke’s ideas became the intellectual foundations of liberal democracy, what one might call the “most reasonable society.”

Rousseau too believed that reason was an enormously powerful tool. Where he departed from his predecessors was on the question of whether or not reason itself was healthy for society. Indeed, Rousseau asserted it in his Discourse on the Arts Sciences that it could be supremely unhealthy. In his (self-consciously) hypothetical construction of a state of nature, man’s capacity to reason is sorely limited. He lacks the ability to reflect on himself or his surroundings, and is, at least as Rousseau presents things superficially, all the better for it.

But as preferable as natural man’s life may be, Rousseau understood it couldn’t last forever. Over succeeding generations, natural men improve upon their ability to survive, as well as to communicate with one another. Once of a kind with the surrounding fauna, they become superior to their animal kin as hunters, able to outwit and trap them. Through the almost-accidental development of his faculties, natural man becomes capable of a nascent kind of reason. With this comes self-reflection and self-consciousness. He begins to see himself in those other humans with whom he intermittently communicates and reflects on what makes him different from the animals he hunts and consumes.

What follows then is the fall. Self-consciousness leads to pride, vanity, and avarice. Men derive their self-worth from the opinions of others. No longer a unified and self-sufficient whole, man becomes divided against himself by way of reflection, self-consideration, and the need for the esteem and approval of others. The apex of this development, for Rousseau, came with the Enlightenment and the emergence of “bourgeois” liberal-rational society. Our confidence in reason as a means to perfection led us to believe that we’d outstripped our petty tribal prejudices, but in reality we lived in a world in which greed—perfectly reasonable in Hobbes’ and Locke’s conception of man—generated inequality and exploitation. Reason and our rational belief in its omnipotence as a means of social improvement detached us ever more from the moral core of human life.

Although it would be an injustice to say that Rousseau’s thoughts on human nature end there—they are infinitely more complex—at least superficially he is clear: reason and self-consciousness take humans to a terrible, regrettable place. The “most reasonable society” of Hobbes and Locke is one that takes us far from the good of nature.


Hobbes and Locke and Rousseau may have given substance—or justification—to history’s lawgivers, revolutionaries, and statesmen, but the “most reasonable society” was not built by reason alone. Instead, as world-renowned sociologist Charles Tilly concludes in his seminal work Coercion, Capital, and European States, we have war and commerce to thank for that.

As Tilly argues, the combination of internal and external struggle for territory and resources between European polities from the—arbitrarily chosen—year 990 A.D. to 1990 eventually gave rise to a continent of modern nation states. In order to expand (or defend) their borders and subdue internal rivals, the rulers of European political units needed to be able to pay for the means of war (men, materiel, food, and other supplies). They also needed to be able to marshal enough manpower to contend with opponents.

But not all European polities were identical in political form or in the distribution of resources. By luck of geography and other factors, some governed wide swaths of territory dominated by agriculture. Other political communities were constituted merely by a commercial city and its immediate hinterlands. Others still enjoyed the presence of both features. The class composition of these political units also varied greatly. The presence of many or a few “great” landlords, presence or absence of prominent “capitalists,” and the degree of freedom for those who worked the land altered the character and structure of polities.

Ultimately, those states which possessed both a populated agricultural hinterland and at least one major urban commercial center came to dominate. A monetized economy meant that rulers could extract taxes and also loans from resident urban capitalists, in particular taxes and loans that could be used to fund warmaking activities. A large agricultural territory allowed for the levying of ever higher numbers of troops. Through internal struggle and bargaining between classes in these regimes, representative institutions—like parliaments—that regularized the practices of taxing and borrowing were born.

But, as you may have gathered, such states were born through terribly violent circumstances. Struggles over the distribution of resources and territory were, in Tilly’s view, the defining factor in the birth of the modern nation state. A few examples suffice to demonstrate just how much today’s prosperous states of Europe owe to their violent past.

In the first half of the 17th century, the majority of the continent became embroiled in the Thirty Years’ War: a result of a political struggle over control of the Holy Roman Empire. The quasi-independent polities that made up the “empire” asserted their autonomy against the ruling dynasty, and in doing so demonstrated the power of well-organized “states” over loosely and lightly governed empires. When the war ended in 1648, the many nascent states of the Holy Roman Empire were far more autonomous from the Hapsburgs than when the war had begun.

France too, by intervening mostly with conscripted troops rather than hired mercenaries, made some crucial progress toward statehood. However, it wasn’t until the French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic wars that  the French went beyond such baby steps. When the ancien regime of the ruling Bourbons was overthrown, it was replaced by a succession of totalitarian governments that exercised extraordinary coercion to standardize the laws and regulations of the French polity. The Committee of Public Safety, the Directory, and Napoleon Bonaparte are famous for little else. Through external wars and internal violence were the military and civilian bureaucracies of France expanded, and its regime centralized, to unparalleled extents.

As Tilly writes, “War made the state, and the state made war.” Over the centuries of the second millennium, the number of polities on the European continent was reduced from several hundred to less than thirty, as those that could effectively marshal and organize the resources and manpower for conflict swallowed the others. Revolutions and interstate conflicts forged parliaments with increasingly enfranchised populations, expansive civilian bureaucracies, and standing armies subject to civilian control. By the 1990s, the only real competition left vanished, and this was the model to emulate.

Indeed, almost every one of the 200 or so states in the world today has a national parliament, a constitutional form of government, a central bank, and a set of guaranteed rights. In short, they have, on paper, all of the institutions of liberal democracy, the regime that we so often rationally deduce as the most beneficial and most reasonable to live under. But with few exceptions, the politics on the ground doesn’t accord with what reason expects. The separation of powers is not respected, democratic elections are frequently fraudulent. That rights are deemed natural and inherent does not necessarily earn them respect.

The reality is that a hubristic determination to spread what we rationally know “works” is hardly sufficient for bringing about the practice of the “most reasonable society.” As a result of factors ranging from geography to the historical legacy of colonialism, polities outside of Europe did not experience the same trajectories of violence and monetization that eventually brought liberal rationalism in Europe. In the haste of the former colonial powers to export their models to their former colonies, there was an assumption that all of those steps could reliably be skipped. While greed and geopolitical interest surely played a role in the failure of postcolonial countries to develop robust liberal institutions, it was certainly a hubristic faith in their consciousness of what “works” that led the former colonial powers to err. Reason and self-consciousness, while powerful tools, can lead us to have more faith in our wisdom than we ought.


A few weeks ago, Philip wrote a Focus on this same topic of democracy and self-consciousness. He argued—correctly, I think—that it is democracy’s capacity for reflection and self-awareness that makes it such a potent force in global politics.

As he argues, the institutions of a consolidated and (at least now) peaceful liberal democracy essentially mandate society-wide self-consciousness. Free speech and the freedom of the press are the most obvious sources of this, but I think it goes even further. Regular elections require that voters ask themselves that fateful question Ronald Reagan first posed in 1980: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” The separation of powers also demands that our government argues with itself constantly over whether to forge ahead with this or that policy. Engrained at every level of liberal democratic politics is the idea that self-consciousness, self-questioning, and reasoned deliberation are fundamental to efficacious government.

That bundle of self-reflective practices, I’d argue, doesn’t just allow democracies to win in geopolitical contests. It actually allows for genuine moral progress. It lets us look back on the dark and bloody parts of our history—free for us all to see thanks to institutionalized rights to speech—and recognize where we went wrong and where we’re still going wrong, to make slow (painfully slow) movements towards something better. Without overstating the case, a regime that develops not just self-consciousness but also something like conscience is a genuine human achievement.

But Rousseau was right that it leads to vanity and hubris too. We’ve come to believe that solving political problems is merely a matter of plugging in this or that policy, this or that institutional innovation, and that all good things follow. And of course, changes in policies and institutional arrangements do matter—citizens and officials respond to the incentives that they’re provided.

But it’s not enough to expect that problems which are fundamentally political can be solved on a technical or social scientific basis. Our faith in reason also makes it easy to distract ourselves from core problems with discussions of process. Instead of engaging with profound moral questions and challenges which cannot be answered with reason alone, we occupy ourselves with arguments over abstracted, rationalized technical matters, like how to interpret polls to divine the popular will and win elections. Those distractions from urgent moral questions, Rousseau might say, are a product of our capacity to self-reflect that detaches us from ourselves and from  what it means to participate in politics at a fundamental and human level.

This isn’t to say that we need to “return to monke,” to aim to recapture the wholeness and self-sufficiency of Rousseau’s natural man. Natural man has no ability to freely judge the world or to understand his place in it, a condition that I think (and, as Rousseau himself intimates) might just be deeply undesirable. Indeed, the only way to solve the problem of self-consciousness is, as frustratingly paradoxical as it might be, to be more conscious of it. Only a kind of humility, a recognition that reason operates within the boundaries of our moral sentiments and material desires, provides a way through. Liberal democracy, that “most reasonable society,” requires a baseline capacity for self-consciousness and self-reflection in its citizens. We should be deeply interested in preserving that, and harnessing it for yet better ends.

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