Le plus fort n’est jamais assez fort pour être toujours le maître

“The strongest is never strong enough to be always the master” – Rousseau

Rousseau’s Discourses on Inequality is an attempt to find the origin of inequality in society. Rousseau talks about the rich, the poor, the strong and the weak. I want to focus on what he calls the “Law of the Strongest”.

“It therefore seems to me certain that governments did not originate in arbitrary power, which is only the final stage of the corruption of governments, and which brings them back in the end to the very law of the strongest which they were first introduced to remedy, even if they had begun this way, such power being in its nature illegitimate, could not serve as the basis for rights in society, nor consequently for the inequality instituted in society.” (Rousseau 128) I want to consider this sentence and try to understand what Rousseau truly means by the illegitimate nature of the right of the strongest. Rousseau considers the law of the strongest as something that does not exist since as soon as the force starts to weaken no right remains. To him no lasting power can be established from strength and force. However even if he mentions that no governments actually rise from the law of the strongest, everything he states about the origin of governments could be interpreted as such. He says that there is a “perpetual conflict between the right of the strongest and the right of the first occupant which ended only in fights and murders.” The conflict then conducts the “rich man” (could possibly be seen as the strongest because of his wealth ?) to “conceive … the most cunning project that ever entered the human mind” that is to say, a unity of people under instituted laws, and rules, in the end a government (120-121). Indeed, I think it is important not only to consider the strongest the person with the best physical abilities but also the cunning one using his own ability for his advantage.  If the strongest can be the smartest or the richest, wouldn’t the governments be first established by the strongest ? In the Social Contract, Rousseau states that “the strongest is never strong enough to be always the master unless he transforms strength into right, and obedience into duty.” It would make sense in this argument as well, as before governments were established the rich/strong/smart one understood that “force could take away from them what force alone had acquired without having any reason for complaint”. In this respect, the rich/strong/smart ones have to establish something that would legitimize their power and possessions in order to keep them (121). If they manage to legitimize their strength as being what’s needed for the good of ALL people and mostly for their own good, and make their strength into a right that everyone else as to respect then only they would transform people’s obedience into duty. When Rousseau talks about the illegitimate nature of the Law of the strongest, is he suggesting that it is illegitimate because it is not natural or because it results in inequalities ?


1 thought on “Le plus fort n’est jamais assez fort pour être toujours le maître

  1. Christina Hendricks

    Really good questions here, Eloane! You’ve raised some complex issues, and pointed to things that do appear to be problematic or at least unclear in Rousseau’s text.

    As I mentioned in class today, I think that the contract introduced by the rich, as he speaks of it on p. 121 and later, is not a legitimate one. He talks about it as being based on specious reasoning, and as ultimately a negative thing when he says on p. 122 that it “put new fetters on the weak and gave new powers to the rich, [that it] irretrievably destroyed natural liberty, established for all time the law of property and inequality, transformed adroit usurpation into irrevocable right, and for the benefit of a few ambitious men subjected the human race thenceforth to labour, servitude and misery.”

    His description of how authority and government has come about, and how it as tried to legitimize itself, is not necessarily the same as what he thinks would actually legitimize power. In the Social Contract, he says that power is only legitimate insofar as we are following rules that we impose on ourselves (thus the need for the legislative power to be identical to the people).

    Your last question, on what is wrong with rule by the strongest, is also a good one. It’s not that it’s unnatural, because there are natural inequalities and that could lead people to overpower one another to steal their food, for example. I think it has more to do with Rousseau’s emphasis on natural liberty, and thus that the only basis for authority should be one that preserves our liberty. Submitting to someone who is stronger (however one interprets “stronger”) doesn’t do that so well as submitting to the rule of ourselves, of being part of the body that itself makes the laws.

    At least, that’s what I’m getting from Rousseau, having not taught the Social Contract for about 10 years and so not really remembering everything!

    Finally, and I don’t recall if I’ve mentioned this before or not, could you activate the plugin that allows those who make comments to check a box to get an email if there are any replies? When you’re logged into the dashboard of your blog, go to “plugins” on the left menu, then find “subscribe to comments” and click “activate” next to that.


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