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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The People
By Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778)
 
From ‘The Social Contract’: Translation of Rose M. Harrington

THE ARCHITECT, before erecting a great building, examines and sounds the soil to see if it will bear its weight: so the wise lawgiver will not begin by making good laws, but he will first see whether the people for whom they are destined is ready to hear them. It was for this reason that Plato refused to give laws to the Arcadians and the Cyrenians, knowing that these two nations were rich and would not endure equality.  1
  The reason that in Crete there were good laws and bad men, was because Minos had given laws to a people loaded with vices.  2
  Thousands of nations have flourished upon earth which could never have endured good laws; and those which could have borne them had but a short existence.  3
  Most nations, like most men, are docile only in youth; they become incorrigible as they grow old. When customs are once established and prejudices rooted, it is a dangerous and useless enterprise to try to reform them: the people will not permit their misfortunes to be touched upon, even for their instruction,—like the stupid and cowardly sick who shudder at sight of a physician.  4
  It is not that—as some maladies upset a man’s head and make him forget the past—there may not be, in the existence of States, violent epochs when revolutions produce upon nations the effect that certain crises produce upon individuals; when horror of the past takes the place of forgetfulness, and when the State, destroyed by civil wars, rises from its ashes and takes on the vigor of youth.  5
  Such was Sparta in the time of Lycurgus; such was Rome after the Tarquins; and such have been among us Holland and Switzerland after the expulsion of tyrants.  6
  But these events are rare; they are exceptions, and their cause is always found in the particular constitution of the exceptional State. They cannot even take place twice with the same nation; for a nation can make itself free as long as it is barbarous, but it can do so no more when its civil energy is exhausted. Troubles may then destroy, without its being possible for revolutions to re-establish it: as soon as its chains are broken it falls apart and exists no longer, needing thereafter a master, not a liberator.  7
  Let free nations remember this truth: “Liberty may be acquired, but never recovered.”  8
  Youth is not infancy. There is a time of youth for nations as well as man,—or if you will, of maturity,—which must be waited for before subjecting them to laws: but the maturity of a people is not always easy to recognize, and if begun too early the labor is lost. Certain peoples may be disciplined from their earliest existence; others cannot be disciplined at the end of ten centuries.  9
  The Russians will never be truly civilized, because they were taken in hand too early. Peter had the genius of imitation: he had not the true genius which creates all from nothing. Some things which he did were good, most of them were ill-timed. He saw that his was a barbarous people: he did not see that it was not ripe for civilization; he tried to civilize it when he should have accustomed it to war. He tried at first to make Germans or English, when he should have begun by making Russians; he prevented his subjects from ever becoming what they might have been, by persuading them that they were what they were not.  10
  It is thus that a French preceptor teaches his pupil to shine in his infancy, and then to amount to nothing afterward. The empire of Russia will desire to subjugate Europe, and will itself be subjugated. The Tartars, its subjects or neighbors, will become its masters and ours: this revolution seems to me inevitable. All the kings of Europe are working together to accelerate it.  11
 
 
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