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Synopsis of Patrick Hochart, ‘Droit naturel et simulacre’

[‘Natural Law and Simulacrum’]

CpA 8.3:65–84

In this article Patrick Hochart considers the ambivalent status, in Rousseau’s account of a social body, of his reference to natural law and to the universal or ‘general’ conception of society associated with it. He shows that Rousseau can only justify such reference through an appeal to theology, i.e. to a divine model through which the difference between universal nature and particular, ‘patriotic’ social convention is apparently abolished. An abiding symptom of his ambivalence persists, however, in the unstable relation between the original natural ‘model’ and any actual social ‘simulacrum’.

Hochart’s broadly deconstructive analysis was first presented in March 1967 as an exposé for a course at the Ecole Normale Supérieure led by Jacques Derrida. Hochart later became a professor of philosophy at the University of Paris VII, and a specialist on Rousseau.

Hochart begins by drawing attention to the initially rigid distinction between the social and natural domains, as conceived by Rousseau. Nature is the domain of instinct and physical or ‘animal’ inclinations; a civil society or ‘social body’ is artificially created when a group of people affirms and sustains a binding relation of mutual moral obligation. ‘There is no natural sociability or social instinct’ which might allow for the passage from one domain to the other - there is no common ground, for instance, between civil society and the merely natural domain of the family (66-67). The ‘moral person’ that is a society is an abstract collective entity, a ‘being of reason’. Its existence is ‘ideal and conventional’ (67). The foundation of a society thus involves a ‘rupture’ with nature, and if nature remains the ‘founding layer’ upon which society is built, nevertheless the socially ‘founded layer’ becomes ‘independent’ of nature (68). The foundation that makes a society legitimate has to do with its moral integrity, and not with its natural, physical or actual-historical production; Rousseau is interested in the question of a morally legitimate ‘foundation, and not in historical origins’. His concern is with ‘reason and right’, rather than ‘facts’ (68).

However, if the reason and right that holds a social body together is the relation of ‘obligation’ that unites its members, then as Hochart points out, Rousseau is obliged to confuse cause and effect (70). Mutual obligation unites the members of a social or political body, but in order to be united through obligation they must already belong to a political body; in keeping with a circular logic repeated elsewhere in Rousseau’s work [cf. Social Contract II:7], ‘the effect must become the cause’ and vice versa. The source of the ambiguity which produces this circle, says Hochart, is the irreducibly ambiguous status of natural law and of ‘humanity’ (as a universal category) (70).

On the face of it, Rousseau’s position appears clear. If mutual obligation is the source of law and the basis of social right, then universal justice or natural law (a law that would apply to the whole of humanity) can only be understood as ‘the obligation that would constitute humanity itself as a moral person or as a general society [en ociété générale]’ (71). However, ‘the idea of a general society is as contradictory in the state of civil society as it is in the state of nature.’ An actual social body or ‘moral person’ cannot be extended to include the whole of humanity without losing the features that allow it to hold together as a person in the first place, i.e. without losing a certain degree of homogeneity and virtuous or patriotic devotion to a common purpose. ‘The further social bonds extend, the weaker they become’ (Social Contract II:9), and the more general a society, the more it dissolves into a shapeless ‘multitude’. This is why every true patriot, according to Rousseau, ‘acts coldly towards foreigners; they are only men, and nothing to him.’ (‘This defect’, he continues, ‘is inevitable but of little importance. The essential thing is to be good to the people with whom one lives. Abroad, the Spartan was selfish, grasping, and unjust; yet unselfishness, justice, and harmony ruled within his home. Distrust those cosmopolitans who search far in their books for duties that they neglect to fulfil towards those around them’ (Emile, §24)).

The notion of a ‘general society’, and of a universal or natural law, might then seem to be nothing but chimera (72). ‘Nevertheless, not only did Rousseau never abandon the idea of natural law, if he had abandoned it he could never have written the >Social Contract, since only the notion of natural law makes political law possible.’ Without reference to pre-social or natural law, there is no basis upon which people might take on moral and legal obligations in the first place. However problematic it might seem, natural law performs an ‘irreplaceable function’ in Rousseau’s conception of society.

Rousseau rejects two alternative means of avoiding reference to natural law. He refuses to follow Grotius and adopt an empirical-historical approach whereby rights are conceived as mere ‘facts’ or established conventions (73). He also refuses to follow Hobbes, and adopt a simply ‘formal’ approach to social unity, such that the unifying process which converts a multitude into a social person depends not on the people involved but solely on the singular ‘representative’ who comes to govern them (74). Rousseau remains determined to found his own conception of ‘political law and right [droit] on natural law’: far from being chimera, natural law and general society need to be understood as ‘that which renders possible the constitution of civil law and civil society; a particular society can only acquire moral reality, and thus reality tout court, to the degree that it conforms to the demands of natural law and general law’ (75). Any account which conceives of a society as a ‘narrowing’ or ‘closing together’ presumes an initial openness, an initial ‘sense of humanity’. Even if we only become human, properly understood, after becoming citizens of a particular polity, nevertheless the social contract whereby we become citizens (and thus human) must ‘respect the rights of humanity which are thus in some sense prior to civil rights’ (75). Rousseau is sometimes even prepared, Hochart notes, to celebrate cosmopolitanism and criticise the ‘imaginary barriers which separate [distinct] peoples’ and societies, in keeping with the ‘example of the sovereign being who created natural law’ (i.e. the God whose love and bienveillance embraces the ‘whole human race’ (76)). (This natural or universal law which thus applies to ‘general society’, Hochart observes, should not be confused with that instinctive ‘pity’ spontaneously shown by one individual for another in the state of nature, a natural feeling which compensates, in part, for the absence of all law characteristic of the state of nature).

Rousseau identifies the age of natural law and ‘general society’ with the idyllic beginnings of society as such, the moment of la société naissante, in which people joyfully unite in innocent ‘dance and song’ (77). Without magistrates, representatives or codified institutions, law here simply remains a matter of general ‘civility’, which applies to people insofar as they are general moral beings. In its nascent state, sociability remains a function of a universal benevolence or goodness [bienveillance]. Rousseau attributes the subsequent corruption of this ‘most happy and most durable’ condition to the results of some sort of ‘disastrous stroke of misfortune’, but the seeds of imminent degeneration (the first stirrings of egoism, jealousy, cruelty, etc.) are already scattered all through society in its originally ‘innocent’ state (78). The inaugural social dance already includes ‘the first steps towards inequality and vice’ (Rousseau, Discourse on the Origins of Inequality). Only the subsequent purification of a virtuous patriotic society (along the lines laid out in the Social Contract) can compensate for the initial flaws that undermine the origins of general society; ‘civil society has always already begun to supplement [suppléer] general society’ (79). Though the source of evil was present from the beginning, at some point a fatal ‘lack of vigilance’ allowed it to actualise its potential and to initiate the process of corruption which led to our current state of generalised social inequality and hypocrisy.

The only way that Rousseau can justify his assertion of an originary general-social benevolence, Hochart argues, is by ‘recourse to a theology which establishes the primacy of spirit over matter, activity over passivity, life over death’. Only a ‘divine sovereignty’ can hold together a ‘general society’, such that ‘it is the will of God that governs the [all-inclusive] society of the human species’ (80).

How now are we to understand the ambivalent relation between a civil (i.e. particular or patriotic or exclusive) society and general society, since the former both presupposes and then comes to oppose the latter? Hochart suggests that since Rousseau offers no clear answer to this question we must approach it indirectly, on the model of the relation that certain heroic ‘associations of brigands’ have with civil society. ‘These same brigands who are the enemies of virtue as understood in the wider society respect the simulacrum of such virtue in their own caves’ (Discourse of Political Economy). A civil society, in other words, holds together as a ‘simulacrum of general society’, and the body of civil laws operative in a particular society are a simulacrum of universal natural law (81). It is precisely ‘the ambiguity of this concept [of the simulacrum]’, Hochart notes, that allows it ‘to assume the contradictory demands’ of the relation between actual civil law and the perfect model that is natural law. In actual historical time, the natural model is no longer directly accessible or present. ‘The simulacrum is opposed to the model insofar as it is fundamentally other [than it] and is only constituted in and through the model’s absence. Simulacrum and model are incompatible, as are civil society and general society, and the simulacrum disfigures and dishonours the model. And yet the simulacrum retains an irreducible relation of filiation which attaches it to the model from which it proceeds, and in this sense it is that which saves the model’ and guarantees some access to it, however compromised.

Such is the ‘originary’ configuration of Rousseau’s socio-political thought. ‘As a simulacrum of general society, [a] civil society refers to it as its foundation and model, but since the model is always already simulated’, the true or ‘perfect model can only be fictionally reconstituted on the basis of the simulacrum.’ And if in the absence of a true model the simulacrum is thus always the simulacrum of a simulacrum, so then ‘its very notion is in danger, since it only has any meaning in relation to a model that might itself not be already simulated’. In an echo perhaps of his teacher Derrida’s critique of the ultimately theological basis of the metaphysics of presence, Hochart argues that the only way that Rousseau can ‘fix’ the slippage that would otherwise undermine this logic is to refer it - ‘in a move that nothing in the Rousseauist structure of the simulacrum justifies’ - to a ‘theological provenance. Only the notion of a “divine simulacrum” can authorise an end to the chain [of referrals] at a point where the simulacrum [...] can serve as a genuine model’ (82). Such points are marked, in Rousseau’s texts, by reference to a ‘divine writing’ inscribed in the human conscience, or to an originally sociable humanity as ‘the image of God on earth’ (83).

‘In brief’, Hochart concludes, ‘the notion of natural law in Rousseau owes its meaning to theology alone’ (83). Unlike Hobbes, Rousseau recognises that ‘the moral being must always precede itself’, that only always-already moral beings can bind themselves together in that social contract which constitutes morality, according to a ‘strange turn’ which folds the moral being back upon itself and allows effect to serve as cause. But Rousseau can only ‘maintain this turn and this folding back’ (which provides the basis for his account of political freedom) through ‘recourse to a theology in which the divorce of nature and convention is abolished’ (84).

References to this text in other articles in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse:


English Translation:


Primary Bibliography:

Selected secondary Sources

  • Althusser, Louis. ‘Rousseau: The Social Contract (Discrepancies)’, trans. Ben Brewster, in Althusser, Politics and History: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Hegel and Marx. London: NLB, 1972. 111-160.
  • ‘Politique et histoire: de Machiavel à Marx. Cours à l’Ecole Normale Supérieure 1955-1972’ ed. François Matheron. Paris: Seuil, 2006.
  • Derrida, Jacques, Of Grammatology trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.