The Spirit of History

Rousseau, Burke, Marx


In Beyond Good and Evil (1886),1 Nietzsche plays with the dichotomy between the natural and the moral: “Every morality is—in contrast to laisser aller [letting go]—a part of tyranny against “nature.””2 This is to say, morality is a form of authoritarian rule over nature, a force by which nature is ordered, configured, or structured. Nietzsche is clear, however, that this “tyranny” is “not yet an objection” to nature: “To object, we would have to decree, once again, on the basis of some morality or other, that all forms of tyranny and irrationality are not permitted.”3 Morality is a tyranny, but this is not to say that such tyranny itself is bad or evil (such would be a moral ruling), nor that all morality is one. Rather, as Nietzsche sees it, morality always operates in the plural, in context, in locality. In fact, the tyranny of morality is “essential and invaluable,” insofar as morality is a “lengthy compulsion” to adhere to a particular, situated, un-natural form of life. Indeed, it the compulsion of the situation that opens the human person to that distinct mode of freedom peculiar to the species: “everything there is or has been on earth to do with freedom, refinement, boldness, dance, and masterly certainty, whether it is in thinking itself, or in governing, or in speaking and persuading, in arts just as much as in morals, develop[s] only thanks to the ‘tyranny of such arbitrary laws.’”4 There is a freedom distinct from the presumably natural freedom of laisser aller, a freedom afforded by dance and law and speech, a freedom that is free in its masterful manipulation of limitation.

Here, Nietzsche confronts and undertakes a stunning inversion: “the probability is not insignificant that this is “nature” and “natural”—and not that laisser aller!”5 Morality is “what teaches hatred of the laisser aller, of that all-too-great freedom, and plants the need for limited horizons, for work close at hand.”6 Unbounded freedom is a freedom intolerable to the human creature. Though in some contexts the morality of the limit “teaches . . . stupidity as a condition of living and growth,”7 it is the very same morality, the “long captivity of the spirit,” through “which the European spirit cultivated its strength.”8 It is the constraint of form at every level—as simple as “rhyme and rhythm” in language,9 and as complex as the machinery of social organization—that simultaneously opens and determines human experience. It is the knowledge of the artist who “knows how far from the feeling of letting himself go his “most natural” condition is, the free ordering, setting, disposing, shaping in the moment of “inspiration”—and how strictly and subtly he obeys at that very moment the thousand-fold laws which make fun of all conceptual formulations precisely because of their hardness and decisiveness.”10 And it is the idea that, no matter how clear or fixed, “contains something fluctuating, multiple, ambiguous.”11 Freedoms and limits reciprocally produce and condition each other—this is “nature.”

But Nietzsche, too, is “fluctuating, multiple, ambiguous”—his own position in these passages is constantly shifting; perhaps we could say that this is the “natural” impulse in him, that movement toward the “totally extravagant and indifferent magnificence” of nature, “which is an outrage, but something noble.”12 Nietzsche knows that he, too, is limited, localized, situated, that he, too, operates within a horizon, that he, too, “work[s] close at hand.” He plays with tyranny, situates compulsion, constrains limitation, acknowledging that, even in long “obedience . . . there always comes and always has come eventually something for whose sake living on earth is worthwhile . . . something or other transfiguring, subtle, amazing and divine.”13 What, then, is that transfiguring something with which Nietzsche toys? If morality is both freedom and limit, a natural impulse to “slavery,” a “grandiose stupidity” that nevertheless “train[s] the spirit,” an arbitrary “tyranny,” the “fluctuating” of a “thousand-fold” laws, the ambiguity rumbling within the concept, the “condition” of “growth,” the “otherwise” unfurling within the “categorical,”14 then perhaps we can say, in short, that the transfiguring something that Nietzsche intimates is the imperative of the contingent, the echo of the not yet within the already, the historical spirit brushing up against the limit, and projecting itself forward with the arrow of time.

This is the Nietzschean revelation with which George Grant reckons in his CBC Massey Lectures, collected in the slim volume Time as History.15 Nietzsche is not the originator of the historical spirit, but rather the one who most profoundly identifies its effects and inhabits its space. For Grant, Nietzsche is the “thinker who thought the crisis of Western civilization most intensively and most comprehensively . . . [a crisis] centred about the notions of time and of history.”16 History, in the Nietzschean sense, is a moral term, in that it orders, configures, and structures human existence. As Grant indicates, history, too, is a local term, “one of those words that is present for [Western society] and not present in any similar sense in the languages of other civilizations.”17 History “denote[s] a certain kind of reality,”18 a “way of conceiving temporality,”19 and as such, denotes or conceives the form of human experience as essentially historical. This idea brings about an “orientation to the future” that is fused “with the will to mastery,”20 a mode of “purposive doing”21 by which human beings “take continuing steps in arranging and using other parts of nature so that [their] ends can be achieved.”22 The historical person, as a purposive doer, becomes the “maker[] of events,” thereby converting time into a “developing history of meaning,”23 saturated with will and desire. This is the imperative of the contingent, the constancy of “negation”, “determination,” and “creation” of historical beings in time.24

George Grant describes the concept of “time as history” as an “animating vision”—it is the vehicle of modernity, the principle of progress, the force that is present in “the urgent experience of every lived moment.”25 It is this vision, the historical spirit, that animates the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Edmund Burke, and Karl Marx. In each of these modern political philosophers, nature, in the classical Aristotelian-Thomistic sense, is replaced with history, and politics find itself immersed in the purposiveness, the ‘thrownness’ (to borrow Heidegger’s term), of future-oriented being. The imperative of the contingent is palpable in the thought of these three thinkers, the awareness of the ambiguity of human experience as simultaneously limited and free, constrained by the past and open to the future. With the moderns, the “horizon” of historical being becomes the condition of political action, and it this situatedness of thought that continues to condition our political present.


To capture the import of the moral plurality, contextuality, and locality of Rousseau, Burke, and Marx (and the historical epoch from within which they write), an additional concept must be set in dialogue with, or perhaps even fused with, the concept of “morality” as theorized by Nietzsche. That concept is narrative.

In the historian Hayden White’s book, The Content of the Form,26 narrative is described as a “meta-code,”27 a specific form of representation with a content of its own. It is narrative that represents temporal experience, that captures in linguistic terms the sensation of being in and through time. Narratives arise from the fact of the silence of temporality: “real events should not speak, should not tell themselves. Real events should simply be.”28 The idea that “real events could “speak themselves” or be represented as “telling their own story”” is, in White’s eyes, an artifice or fiction.29 This is not, however, to condemn such fictions, but rather to draw out their moral-semantic content. Though narrative might be a meta-code, this is not to say that narrative is universal in its application. Narrative is a way by which real events can be arranged into stories, and indeed, a way by which the “real” is construed as such; it is an ordering, configuring, or structuring of experience intimately bound up with the moral attitudes and presuppositions of the representer. It is a vital function of human understanding.

The historical innovation in narrative form is the shift from sequence to structure.30 In the movement from annal, to chronicle, to history proper, White sees a structuring of historical sequences within “order[s] of meaning” that necessitate “some metaphysical principle by which to translate difference into similarly . . . a “subject” common to all of the referents of the various sentences that register events as having occurred.”31 The subject—as Balibar argues: simultaneously substance, subjectivity, and legal subject32—imbues the narrative of history with the “moral principle” by which the contingency of temporal succession attains a “proper discursive resolution.”33 Along with such contingency, too, is contention. History is not the ordering of temporal experience in general, but the “discursive resolution” of moral contest:

Common opinion has it that the plot of a narrative imposes a meaning on the events that make up its story level by revealing at the end a structure that was immanent in the events all along. What I am trying to establish is the nature of this immanence in any narrative account of real events, events that are offered as the proper content of historical discourse. These events are real not because they occurred but because, first, they were remembered and, second, they are capable of finding a place in a chronologically ordered sequence. In order, however, for an account of them to be considered a historical account, it is not enough that they be recorded in the order of their original occurrence. It is the fact that they can be recorded otherwise, in an order of narrative, that makes them, at one and the same time, questionable as to their authenticity and susceptible to being considered as tokens of reality. In order to qualify as historical, an event must be susceptible to at least two narrations of its occurrence. Unless at least two versions of the same set of events can be imagined, there is no reason for the historian to take upon himself the authority of giving the true account of what really happened. The authority of the historical narrative is the authority of reality itself; the historical account endows this reality with form and thereby makes it desirable by the imposition upon its processes of the formal coherency that only stories possess.34

History constructs and establishes reality; Rousseau, Burke, and Marx cannot be separated from this formal operation of “historical discourse.” In the Social Contract (1762), the Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), and The Communist Manifesto (1848), respectively, these three thinkers find themselves embroiled in the moral contest of history, each striving to formulate the reality of the political domain of human experience in narrative terms. Such an effort cannot be separated from the moral particularity of each, and indeed is constitutive of that particularity. Narrativity, morality, and historicality are constantly entangled with each other. As such, not only is the historical situation of Rousseau, Burke, and Marx distinct in its transcendence of classical “nature,” but the very mode of the historical through which they interpret temporality transcends the universality of the prior historical form, finding its motivation and its meaning in the plurality and agency of human subjects.


Through the historical consciousnesses of Rousseau, Burke, and Marx, then, we see the contest of moral authority played out, and the articulation of narrative that gives the contest form. In Rousseau’s Social Contract,35 his assertion of a moral narrative begins with the famous phrase, “[m]an is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”36 Just as Nietzsche asserts in Beyond Good and Evil, Rousseau sees humankind as enslaved by a self-naturalizing morality. The “social order is a sacred right,” but this “right does not come from nature. It is therefore founded upon convention.”37 This flies in the face of Aristotle’s grounding of the political on a natural basis. For Aristotle in the Politics,38 politics and social order are the good and natural end of the marriage bond, the reproductive union of male and female.39 Rousseau too argues that the family is the “prototype of political societies,” but for Rousseau, the family is the only “natural” society.40 The political organization, and its structure, is not a natural consequence of the family, but an imitation of it. Aristotle views the whole of his society as natural or given, but Rousseau contends that in this Aristotle takes “the effect for the cause.”41 Specifically with respect to the equality of persons, Rousseau sees Aristotle’s claim that some are fitted only for slavery as a post-hoc justification of a conventional system according to a false principle of nature. The slave is not a slave because it is his nature to be so; the slave is a slave because of the force of others used against him. The “strongest . . . transforms force into right,” and by this artifice enslaves the weaker.42 The hierarchy of Aristotle’s society, and his teleological rationalization of it, is in no way natural; it is a violent imposition of a moral narrative, a narrative that Rousseau seeks to challenge.

For Rousseau, anticipating Nietzsche and White, it is clear that “no man has a natural authority over his fellow man, and since force does not give rise to any right, conventions therefore remain the basis of all legitimate authority among men.”43 What is key, here, is the legitimacy of convention. Convention is legitimate in agreement, and since no person agrees to his enslavement except out of “necessity” or “prudence,”44 a true convention will be legitimate only in the mutuality of its establishment. Such a convention is a shared moral code, the limit within which freedom can be properly practiced. Here, Rousseau’s rationale for placing Hobbes with Aristotle becomes clear. Hobbes, in the Leviathan, also argues that morality is a convention:

The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have there [in the state of nature] no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no injustice. Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues. Justice and injustice are none of the faculties neither of the body nor mind . . . They are qualities that relate to men in society, not in solitude. 45

And yet, Hobbes naturalizes violence and self-interest in a way that is abhorrent to Rousseau. Fear of violence and deprivation drives people into the contract, and fear of violence and deprivation maintains order once the contract is established. Morality is merely an attendant function to the violence of order; it is purely artificial. For Rousseau, however, this is morality’s power: to remove “all morality from [one’s] actions is tantamount to taking away all liberty from [one’s] will.”46 Liberty and agency depend on morality; indeed, they cannot be separated from it. Where Hobbes merely reinscribes the tyranny of force—the authority of Aristotle’s nature transformed into the leviathan—Rousseau approaches the question of authority differently. His powerful insight is that morality is always already chosen, and never imposed. It is a constituting narrative, a structuring story, that saturates the being of a community in time with meaning.

On this point, however, Edmund Burke is skeptical. One cannot merely recreate society with a morality of equality, investing it with whatever meaning one chooses. Though such a moral vision or social bond might be more preferable than that of a monarchy or oligarchy, it is no less tyrannical. For Burke, Rousseauvian idealism is fundamentally misguided. He begins his Reflections47 with a statement of his pragmatic position:

I cannot stand forward and give praise or blame to anything which relates to human actions, and human concerns, on a simple view of the object, as it stands stripped of every relation, in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction. Circumstances . . . give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing color and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render ever civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.48

As with Nietzsche above, the locality of morality cannot be ignored, or in Burke’s terms, the circumstances of morality. Historical consciousness might allow one to discern the roots of one’s present situation, but this does not mean that one can do away with these roots as though insubstantial. For Burke, one is always embedded in one’s history, and must work upon it from within. What is more, one’s society, as a historical entity, is a “partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”49 A social organization might be produced by people, but this does not entail that its constituents have an unlimited power to change it. Change must be gradual, measured, and thoughtful. It must not only look to the present, but to the duration of the institution over time.

This is the difficulty of Rousseau’s thought, the effects of which Burke identifies in the chaos of the French Revolution. For Rousseau, the moral narrative of equality and freedom transcends the tyranny of nature, and this is its power. But in some situations, people may not wish to move beyond nature to the higher order of social organization that Rousseau proposes. As he remarks in his discussion of Aristotle, force “produced the first slaves,” but “their cowardice has perpetuated them.”50 People come to “love their servitude,” and freedom loses its savor.51 Rousseau’s solution is troubling: if slaves will not choose their freedom, they “will be forced to be free.”52 He who denigrated the use of force in politics so decisively, only a few pages earlier, now advocates for its use to sway unconsenting members of society. By the time of the French Revolution, this contradiction in Rousseau’s thought has been horrifically realized. Burke scathingly responds to the violent “labors of [the] Assembly”: “I do not deny that, among an infinite number of acts of violence and folly, some good may have been done. They who destroy everything certainly will remove some grievance. They who make everything new have a chance that they may establish something beneficial.”53 Rousseau’s idealism only produces good in scattershot fashion—mostly random, and explosively so.

Such is the outcome of a moral narrative established in the general will. In principle, the general will seems an innovative and desirable solution to the problem of governance: “Each of us places his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will; and as one we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.”54 The individual gives up his private rights in exchange for public position, an “alienation . . . made without reservation.”55 And, “since each person gives himself whole and entire, the condition is equal for everyone; and since the condition is equal for everyone, no one has an interest in making it burdensome for the others.”56 This “union is as perfect as possible, and no associate has anything further to demand. For if some rights remained with private individuals . . . each person would eventually claim to be his own judge in all things . . . The state of nature would subsist and the association would necessarily become tyrannical or hollow.”57 The moral narrative that Rousseau articulates would, ideally, assure equality in its foundation:

Finally, in giving himself to all, each person gives himself to no one. And since there is no associate over whom he does not acquire the same right that he would grant others over himself, he gains the equivalent of everything he loses, along with a greater amount of force to preserve what he has.58

But the asymmetries or inequalities of an unjust system cannot so easily be dissolved. Indeed, as we seen here already, if mutual consent fails, Rousseau, and his followers, resort to violent force as well, that most asymmetric of powers. Freedom and equality are goods above all others, and in Rousseau’s logic, it is for the good of all that the resistant few be forced to comply. Despite the revolutionary challenge to the tyranny of his predecessors, Rousseau’s thought culminates in just another form of tyranny; the general will seems little more than a totalitarianism of the many.


Is there any escaping the tyranny of morality? Even Rousseau, in his radically idealistic challenge to the authoritarianism of his predecessors, must resort to violence to resolve certain political impasses. If we are to take Marx and Engels, in The Communist Manifesto,59 at their word, then it would seem correct that the “history of all society hitherto is the history of class struggles,” or in the terminology already employed here, the history of moral contest.60 Such is inextricable from the use of violence. Different moral narratives, and their respective social positions, are “situated in constant opposition to one another,” and have “carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open, conflict, a fight that each time end[s] in a revolutionary transformation of the entire society or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”61 Though Marx and Engels are not without their own idealizing tendencies, here the ideality of Rousseau’s social compact is set aside. No society of equals can be established peacefully. The tyrannically enforced asymmetries of a society, and the ossified narratives of a society’s rulers, must be violently overthrown. Until the rulers, the elite of society, are dealt with, there can be neither equality nor freedom.

As has already been seen in Rousseau, any inequality between the members of the social contract will undermine its validity. The moral narrative with which Rousseau structures the body politic takes as its defining principle the equality of persons; to admit of any inequality would be to introduce a contradiction at the heart of the contract. Rousseau’s social contract works because one abdicates one’s private interest in exchange for the public goods shared by all, but if even one person holds greater power than another, then the basis of the social organization crumbles. Sovereignty is a collective power, which means that it is “indivisible”: “either the will is general, or it is not.”62 If there is no general will, no equal union of members, there is no sovereignty. There can be no “partial society in the state” if the general will is “to be well articulated,”63 but this is precisely what happens when the interests of the elite impinge upon the will of the whole:

[W]hen intrigues and partial associations come into being at the expense of the large association, the will of each of these associations becomes general in relation to its members and particular in relation to the state. It can be said, then, that there are no longer as many voters as there are men, but merely as many as there are associations. The differences become less numerous and yield a result that is less general. Finally, when one of these associations is so large that it dominates all the others, the result is no longer a sum of minor differences, but a single difference. Then there is no longer a general will, and the opinion that dominates is merely a private opinion.64

This is the effect of social asymmetry. The elite need not be strong in numbers, but only in power, to effect the domination of the rest. It is for fear of such devolution that Rousseau allows the use of violence to coerce those who do not agree to the “total alienation” of equality.

This logic of asymmetry and division is precisely that for which Marx and Engels advocate in The Communist Manifesto. Rather than presume to Rousseau’s “perfect” union, Marx and Engels see partisan struggle as a vehicle for change:

The proletariat goes through various stages of development. With its birth begins its struggle with the bourgeoisie. At first the contest is carried on by individual laborers, then by the workpeople of a factory, then by the operatives of one trade, in one locality, against the individual bourgeois who directly exploits them . . . At this stage the workers form a mass scattered over the whole country and fragmented by competition. Uniting to form more compact bodies is not yet the consequence of their own active union, but the uniting of the bourgeoisie, which, in order to attain its own political ends, is compelled to set the whole proletariat in motion . . . But with the development of industry the proletariat not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated into greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels its strength more. The interests and conditions of life within the ranks of the proletariat are more and more alike . . . The unceasing improvement of machinery, ever more rapidly developing, makes their situation in life more and more precarious . . . From time to time the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their struggles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever more inclusive union of workers.65

On the basis of this historical sketch, Marx and Engels assert that “every class struggle is a political struggle.”66 Politics cannot be separated from divisions of class. Marx and Engels accept asymmetry as a given and seek to use this asymmetry as a motivating principle for their particular moral narrative. In a Burkean sense, morality cannot be excised from its circumstances. The contradiction in Rousseau’s thought, identified above, is result of circumstantial negligence. For historical materialists like Marx and Engels, it is precisely the circumstances of political struggle and class division by which they are provoked. The power of elites must be accepted, but this does not mean that the workers cannot seek their own advantage.

On this point, then, though only in principle, Burke and Marx actually agree. Moral narratives cannot be separated from their historical conditions, from the compulsion of the situation. Though the moral narratives that they proffer are decidedly different, both Burke and Marx understand the contingency of such. History establishes both the limits and the potentialities of social being. Whether one advocates for a “patriotic, free, and independent spirit,”67 or for the elimination of a system that “train[s]” people “to be machines,”68 one must take into account the history, the traditions, and the dispositions of the people one seeks to change. And yet, Rousseau would agree as well:

Peoples, like men, are docile only in their youth. As they grow older they become incorrigible. Once customs are established and prejudices have become deeply rooted, it is a dangerous and vain undertaking to want to reform them. The people cannot abide having even their evils touched in order to eliminate them, just like those stupid and cowardly patients who quiver at the sight of a physician . . . One people lends itself to discipline at its inception; another, not even after ten centuries.69

So it would seem, then, that even Rousseau, in his idealism, understands the influence of history upon politics and the social order. The affinity between Burke and Marx is not, I would argue, a proper agreement, but an effect of the particular mode of the historical of which Nietzsche writes, a mode within which Rousseau operates as well. As I argued above, for the likes of such moderns as Rousseau, Burke, and Marx, the horizon of historical being becomes the condition of political action, the vehicle by which a moral narrative can be made manifest. Despite the substantial differences between the texts here discussed, the “purposive doing”70 of the historical consciousness shapes each thinker in their moral-political assertions.


It is the historical spirit that, as we have seen in Nietzsche, imports a “transfiguring” something into the domain of the political.71 It is this something that, despite the best intentions of Rousseau, Burke, and Marx, is not fully embraced. Rousseau, in his idealization of freedom and equality, nevertheless acquiesces to violence in the realization of his ideals; Burke criticizes the violence and chaos of revolution, but supports the private interests of the landed classes that exclude many from the public goods of the social contract; and Marx champions the excluded and the dispossessed, but to do so he must demonize whole segments of society, and violently strip them of their goods and their lives. History continues to be a struggle; with the moderns, humans merely gain a better understanding of the struggle in its operation over time. The transfiguring something remains unrealized.

There is another narrative, however, in which the transfiguring potential of history finds its growth: the narrative of Christianity. As Rousseau argues, the “spirit of Christianity has won everything.” This is not necessarily a good thing, in his opinion, and yet, something of the Christian story has made an indelible impact on history. With Christianity, “Jesus came to establish a spiritual kingdom on earth.” The Christian is not invested in this life, but in the life to come. For this reason, Rousseau sees Christian doctrine as “injurious” to the “strong constitution of the state,” insofar as it resists institutional power.72 Rousseau claims that the Christians were regarded by the “pagans . . . as true rebels,” but when the “humble Christians changed their language,” and the “so-called otherworldly kingdom became, under a visible leader, the most violent despotism in this world,” the Christian narrative was reduced to nothing more than a highly successful tyranny the likes of which the “pagans” knew well.73 The institutionalization of Christianity lost sight of the “true and simple religion of the Gospel, the true theism,” which is the truly radical narrative that Jesus initiated.74 Rousseau argues that “no state has ever been founded without religion serving as its base,”75 but the power of the Christian narrative is that it moves beyond the state, beyond the struggle of history, saturating every moment, every contingency, with a meaning beyond time that invests the temporal with eternal consequence. This is the transfiguring force of history, the purposiveness of historical consciousness, the significance of those moral narratives that project human society beyond the limits of its circumstances. Rousseau, Burke, and Marx toy with this force, but do not ultimately embrace it.

In Marx and Engels, the very emancipatory impulse which drives his proletarian revolution finds its genesis in the Gospel narrative proclaimed by Jesus: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”76 Marx and Engels contend that the purportedly Christian “ideas of freedom of conscience and religion” were used by the “then revolutionary bourgeoisie” to justify the “domination by free competition of the realm of conscience,” and that it would be better for all “eternal truths” (such as those of the Gospel) to be “abolishe[d]” than to be “remodel[ed] . . . afresh,”77 but even in this bold assertion, they adopt the transfiguring potential of the Christian narrative to establish a sort of heaven on earth: “[i]n place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, there [will] emerge[] an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”78 Such a radical vision cannot escape the echoes of Jesus’s teachings. As Jesus declares in the Sermon on the Mount, “[b]lessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”79 Try as they might, Marx and Engels’s workers’ revolution is but an echo of the greater, universal emancipation that Jesus promises.

What, then, is to be said of the Christian narrative, and its influence upon the historical spirit? Each of the three modern texts of political philosophy here discussed operate within the historical paradigm of Christianity, which revolutionized the human relationship to time. The entrance of the divine into history forever upset the division of eternal and temporal, infinite and finite, essential and contingent, opening human experience to a hitherto unheard of dimension that cannot be explained in purely naturalistic, reductive terms. It is this opening, and the freedom that it affords, that allows for the politics of Rousseau, Burke, and Marx in the first place. The challenge of Christianity, however, is the abnegation of interest, which none of these three accept. The “work close at hand” of Christianity is the work of radical self-dispossession, a morality of the other, the stranger, the meek. It is a narrative that refuses interest and privilege and power, a narrative that takes its adherents even unto death, a narrative through which one gains life by losing it. Such is a politics unlike any the world has seen, a politics that requires everything, but cannot be imposed—only chosen. It is a vision of reality motivated not by conflict and violence, but by the gentle touch of the spirit, and the gift of grace.

Works Cited

Balibar, Étienne. “Citizen Subject,” e-flux 77 (2016): 1-11.

Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France [1790]. In The Broadview Anthology of Social and Political Thought: Volume One: From Plato to Nietzsche, edited by Andrew Bailey, et al., 830-834. Toronto, ON: Broadview Press, 2008.

Grant, George. Time as History. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2001 [1969].

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. In The Broadview Anthology of Social and Political Thought: Volume One: From Plato to Nietzsche, edited by Andrew Bailey, et al., 413-490. Toronto, ON: Broadview Press, 2008.

Holy Bible. New Revised Standard Version. New York, NY: Harper Bibles, 1989.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto [1848]. In The Broadview Anthology of Social and Political Thought: Volume One: From Plato to Nietzsche, edited by Andrew Bailey, et al., 1031-1046. Toronto, ON: Broadview Press, 2008.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil [1886]. In The Broadview Anthology of Social and Political Thought: Volume One: From Plato to Nietzsche, edited by Andrew Bailey, et al., 1063-1074. Toronto, ON: Broadview Press, 2008.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. On the Social Contract or Principles of Political Right [1762]. In The Broadview Anthology of Social and Political Thought: Volume One: From Plato to Nietzsche, edited by Andrew Bailey, et al., 664-717. Toronto, ON: Broadview Press, 2008.

White, Hayden. The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987.


  1. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil [1886], in The Broadview Anthology of Social and Political Thought: Volume One: From Plato to Nietzsche, eds., Andrew Bailey, et al., 1063-1074 (Toronto, ON: Broadview Press, 2008). 

  2. Ibid., 1064. 

  3. Ibid. 

  4. Ibid. 

  5. Ibid., 1064. 

  6. Ibid., 1065. 

  7. Ibid. 

  8. Ibid., 1064. 

  9. Ibid. 

  10. Ibid. 

  11. Ibid. 

  12. Ibid., 1064-65. 

  13. Ibid., 1064. 

  14. Ibid., 1064-65. 

  15. George Grant, Time as History (Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2001 [1969]). 

  16. Ibid., 4. 

  17. Ibid., 6. 

  18. Ibid., 8. 

  19. Ibid., 11. 

  20. Ibid., 17. 

  21. Ibid., 19. 

  22. Ibid., 19. 

  23. Ibid., 24. 

  24. Ibid., 27. 

  25. Ibid., 15. 

  26. Hayden White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987). 

  27. Ibid., 1. 

  28. Ibid., 3. 

  29. Ibid. 

  30. Ibid., 5. 

  31. Ibid., 16. 

  32. Étienne Balibar, “Citizen Subject,” e-flux 77 (2016): 1-11. 

  33. White, The Content of the Form, 19. 

  34. Ibid., 20. 

  35. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, On the Social Contract or Principles of Political Right [1762], in The Broadview Anthology of Social and Political Thought: Volume One: From Plato to Nietzsche, eds. Andrew Bailey, et al., 664-717 (Toronto, ON: Broadview Press, 2008). 

  36. Ibid., 664. 

  37. Ibid. My emphasis. 

  38. Aristotle, Politics, in The Broadview Anthology of Social and Political Thought: Volume One: From Plato to Nietzsche, eds. Andrew Bailey, et al., 177-242 (Toronto, ON: Broadview Press, 2008). 

  39. Ibid., 177. 

  40. Rousseau, Social Contract, 664. 

  41. Ibid., 665. 

  42. Ibid. 

  43. Ibid., 666. My emphasis. 

  44. Ibid., 665. 

  45. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, in The Broadview Anthology of Social and Political Thought: Volume One: From Plato to Nietzsche, eds. Andrew Bailey, et al., 413-490 (Toronto, ON: Broadview Press, 2008): 425. 

  46. Rousseau, Social Contract, 666. 

  47. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France [1790], in The Broadview Anthology of Social and Political Thought: Volume One: From Plato to Nietzsche, eds., Andrew Bailey, et al., 830-834 (Toronto, ON: Broadview Press, 2008). 

  48. Ibid., 830. My emphasis. 

  49. Ibid., 833. 

  50. Rousseau, Social Contract, 665. 

  51. Ibid. 

  52. Ibid., 670. 

  53. Burke, Reflections, 833. 

  54. Rousseau, Social Contract, 669. Original emphasis. 

  55. Ibid. 

  56. Ibid. 

  57. Ibid. 

  58. Ibid. 

  59. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels., The Communist Manifesto [1848], in The Broadview Anthology of Social and Political Thought: Volume One: From Plato to Nietzsche, eds. Andrew Bailey, et al., 1031-1046 (Toronto, ON: Broadview Press, 2008). 

  60. Ibid., 1031. 

  61. Ibid. 

  62. Rousseau, Social Contract, 672. 

  63. Ibid., 673. 

  64. Ibid. 

  65. Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto, 1035-36. 

  66. Ibid., 1036. 

  67. Burke, Reflections, 833. 

  68. Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto, 1039. 

  69. Rousseau, Social Contract, 679-80. 

  70. Grant, Time as History, 19. 

  71. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 1064. 

  72. Rousseau, Social Contract, 715. 

  73. Ibid., 714. 

  74. Ibid., 715. 

  75. Ibid. 

  76. Holy Bible. New Revised Standard Version. Luke 4:18-19. 

  77. Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto, 1040. 

  78. Ibid., 1041. 

  79. Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version, Matthew 5:5. 

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