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Rousseau on Government and the People

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Des divers ouvrages que j’avois sur le chantier, celui que je méditois depuis longtems, dont je m’occupois avec le plus de gout, auquel je voulois travailler toute ma vie, et qui devoit selon moi mettre le sceau à ma réputation étoit mes Institutions politiques… mes vues s’étoient beaucoup étendues par l’étude historique de la morale. J’avois vu que tout tenoit radicalement à la politique, et que, de quelque façon qu’on s’y prit, aucun peuple ne seroit jamais que ce que la nature de son Gouvernement le feroit être; ainsi cette grande question du meilleur Gouvernement possible me paroissoit se reduire à celle-ci. Quelle est la nature de Gouvernement propre à former un Peuple le plus vertueux, le plus éclairé, le plus sage, le meilleur enfin à prendre ce mot dans son plus grand sens. J’avois cru voir que cette question tenoit de bien près à cette autre-ci, si même elle en étoit différente. Quel est le Gouvernement qui par sa nature se tient toujours le plus près de la loi? De là, qu’est-ce que la loi?

Of the various works that I had in progress, which engaged me the longest in contemplation, and at which I worked with the greatest satisfaction, upon which I would have gladly worked my entire life, and which would have placed the seal upon my reputation was my Institutions politiques… my views had been greatly extended by the study of the history of manners. I had come to see that everything was connected radically to politics, and that, no matter what course one followed, no people could be of a nature other than that which its government gave it; and thus this great question of the best possible government seemed to me to be reduced to just that. What is the nature of the right government which will create the most virtuous, the most enlightened, the most wise people, in the end to take this word in its greatest sense. I had thought this question close to another even if it was different. What is the government which by its nature adheres today most closely to the law? And from that, what is the law?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Confessions, bk ix (1770) in: Œuvres complètes vol. 1, pp. 404-05 (Pléiade ed. 1959)(S.H. transl.)

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