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Naturalism, Primitivism, and the Theory of Social Right

Now that we have reconstructed his thinking, what is its overall significance? Saint-Just uses a collective tool: he thinks in terms of the idea of nature. What is his conceptual field? What are its harmonic elements?

Saint-Just is clearly aware of the topicality of the theme and its ambiguity. Rather than calling the very concept of nature into question, however, he asserts its primacy and atemporal character. "Sovereign nature is the chief right, it is for all time!"[8] Determined to establish the unequivocal and ahis-


torical truth of this concept, Saint-Just meant by nature "the point of exactness, justice, and truth in the relations between things or their morality," which exists outside of any human intervention, in contrast to the artificial. An objective moral order is implied here into which convention does not enter. Society should be based on nature, for it is not the product of artificial creation, the work of man, but a natural given that exists prior to man and exists independently of him. Saint-Just considers that this social order or "natural morality," which exists parallel to the physical order, is ruled by laws producing not necessary relations but intelligent relations that provide some purchase for human action, even though this nonautonomous objective order is not foreign to a divine order. Nothing, then, is more foreign to this idea than legal voluntarism, and it is more akin to classical natural right than to individual or revolutionary natural right. The human mind should content itself with "reading" the laws of the natural order that are imposed on it from the outside; however, the faculty is granted to it to arrange its different elements and to project the arrangements between the social law and the practical exigencies of the civil state.

Saint-Just pushed his social naturalism quite far; society finds not only its basis in nature, but also a solution to the complex relations it begets and the guarantee of its robustness, no matter what its stage of historical development. The spontaneous harmony of nature is the opposite of force, the real basis of contemporary societies. On the note of a studied idyllic optimism, and an even more rigorous and coherent naturalism, Saint-Just excluded reason, an artificial faculty, from the conceptual field. At the end of De la nature . . ., we observe a clear drop in tension; after pitting himself against common conceptions and aggressively reversing their usual meanings almost entirely, "savage state" meaning for him "civil" or "political state," and "social state" meaning "state of nature," Saint-Just returns to the standard terminology of his time: "In nature men love each other. In social life they take care of each other . . . . I have called social life the life of men united by a written contract, not to be misunderstood."[9] Saint-Just denied that reason was a natural faculty, maintaining that in the state of nature it virtually did not exist and emerged in history only as a substitute for and as a degenerate form of the earliest intelligence. Thus reason, a mere a posteriori to the accident by which humanity proceeded from the social to the savage state, is the only tool left to man for working out the political contract and organizing society on relations of force. This conception of reason as generator of political or savage life, a tool for constraining nature, shows how far Saint-Just distances himself from rationalism, even if his writings seem not to altogether exclude some good use for reason. The precedence given to the original intelligence over reason betrays a tendency toward a quite radical primitivism.

Indeed, in Saint-Just's thought, novelty is synonymous with error. He chose the attitude of regret; his mind, his awareness, are irresistibly turned


toward what is no longer. His is an essentially chronological primitivism: the perfect state of humanity existed at the origin of the human race; history is merely a long decline. This is why Saint-Just rejects history, for history is evil and alteration is a key word in his philosophy of history. Every society turns corrupt as it gets away from its earliest state. Though he professess a theory of decline, Saint-Just is convinced of man's natural goodness. What is actualized in the change from the social to the savage state is not a defect in human nature; there was no fall owing to some innate corrupting passion of human nature, but merely an accident, for which the sole factor responsible was theologico-political subterfuge. There is therefore an antinomy between the deterioration of the human soul and its original innocence. This contradiction can be resolved only by the discovery of a socially created unreason at the base of contemporary societies. Thus a kind of temporal breach opens between the social and the savage states; we necessarily rediscover the latter if we move in the opposite direction. The result is the prescription of static imperatives, without any search for a dynamic means that would point a way to the social state. No vision of the future appears in De la nature . . . . Both the word and the idea of progress seem unknown to Saint-Just; historical time seems to be unfamiliar.

Historical indeterminism at least does not preclude hope; nature is associated with the earliest society, which does not prevent nature from ordering and ruling the current society. Nature was not created just for the wilderness. Cognizant of a certain growing economic complexity in the society of his time, Saint-Just still asserts that it must not be concluded from "some relations that business, agriculture, and industry have established among men, that they cannot be governed naturally."[10] Men are thus free to return to a natural social form and, if present society is based on nature, "relations will arise from each other, and business and industry will again find laws in nature."[11] A clear cultural primitivism—the rejection of a form of civilization—takes on and enriches itself with Saint-Just's social values. In the face of nascent capitalism, which he opposes, Saint-Just exalts the earliest society where men did not suffer from greed but achieved happiness by rest and the meeting of primary needs.

In the face of this radical repudiation of every form of power and authority within the city, are we warranted in thinking Saint-Just is arguing for anarchy? This interpretation ignores the still rough idea of rights that permeates De la nature . . . and culminates in the idea of a necessary harmony between social right and civil right. Saint-Just himself explicitly denies the charge that he is a theoretician of anarchy: "Where there will be no powers, there will be no anarchy."[12] At first blush this answer seems specious, but it puts us on the right track; we must dissociate right and power, and we can conceive of a legal order free of constraint and authority. Saint-Just's political ideas belong to the stream of social right that George Gurvitch defined as follows: "The


autonomous right of communion in which each active, concrete, and real totality embodying some positive value is integrated objectively."[13] The analogy is not merely terminological but involves the form of sociability and the essence of right that Saint-Just advocated as the basis of the city. This is confirmed by the critical aspect of Saint-Just's thought. The form of sociability Saint-Just is arguing against as the rule of political law clearly contains the obverse of the one for which he was striving. The political tie results in a sociability via interdependence where essentially distinct individuals are reciprocally delimited and have merely an external connection. When political law enters the civil state, most natural relations are experienced as conflict, and relations of union are replaced by those of dependence. Because in this society others are seen as impediments and one's relations to them as antagonistic, the city becomes a mere assemblage of hostile and divided citizens, caring for one another in terms of the balance of forces and connected only through the state, which superimposes itself on them from the outside.

It follows that the legal expression taken by this form of sociability must be an order of coordination, namely, the contract, the necessary tool of mediation between separate individuals. Conversely, the desirable form of sociability is spontaneous. Its distinguishing sign is the network of union, all the more intimate because the whole precedes the parts, and each person lives for all. Interpersonal relations are experienced as friendship or love—because it is a form of sociability by interpenetration in which, despite differences, identity prevails and generates a resolutely anticontractual right of integration: social right.

It thus seems that Saint-Just's contrast between social right and political right exactly matches the contrast between social right (right of integration) and individual right (right of coordination) and, in terms of specific legal expression, between statutory right and contractual right. By placing Saint-Just in the stream of social right, we get a clearer view of the main features of his thought: doctrinaire naturalism, anti-individualism, and opposition to any theory of the contract.

Let us pursue this analysis a bit further and get a clearer view of the theory of social right. After questioning the city's need of civil laws and concluding in the affirmative, Saint-Just writes: "The city will thus have its laws, so that each, following the rule of all, is connected to all, and for the citizens to have no connection to the state, but only between themselves, they form the state, and the source of the laws will be possession, not the prince or the convention."[14]

This sentence expresses principles essential to the overall interpretation of Saint-Just's thinking: first, the principle of the distinction between society and state, and the assertion that the state is based on society and not vice versa. The state, the contractual mediation of wills, does not create society; society, the relations of affections and needs that are concretized in posses-


sion, creates the state. Society is conceived as an organism, an organic totality: "The social body resembles the human body, all its mechanisms contribute to harmony."[15] The social body spontaneously secretes a common social right, the end result of the relations of human needs and affections, of Hegel's "civil society." "In all engagements the civil rule should be copied from the social rule. Because they are confounded, the social nexus is tightened and, as I have said, all parts of the society that subsists of itself by a natural principle is connected by the civil rule."[16] The social order thus exists as autonomous, independent of the statist order that merely disturbs the initial spontaneous order.

Finally, and above all, the main function of social right is integration. The totality, the "social body," is immanent; it does not externally transcend the members of the city but emanates from the experienced reciprocity of needs and affections, from possession, which begets union—a concrete, dynamic, endlessly renewed participation from the whole to the parts and from the parts to the whole. "The right of man to nature or independence, the right of citizen to citizen, is possession, the right of a people to people is force. In these relations and in the correspondence of these things we find the unity of the social body. The social body preserves itself because in these relations it is united ."[17] Any individualism is thus clearly excluded: the man who is bound in a network of natural and nonviolent bonds lives spontaneously for all, and with all the greater ease when the community to which he belongs has a task to perform, that of its own preservation and defense from outsiders.

Hence Saint-Just's radical opposition to a contractual and artificialist conception of society and to any theory of individual right. In this respect the theory of law in De la nature . . . is symptomatic. Any voluntarist basis for right is to be forsworn; thus the law expresses not the general will but nature. And the role of expressing nature falls to the lawmaker, sage, or philosopher, but not the prophet.

Finally, Saint-Just conceived of possession as a defective right (the jus abutendi is missing), checked, harmonized, relative, functional—in short, a social property. It is the prototype of the theory of social right according to which the needs of the community guide the regulation of possession, quite unlike the property born of Roman right. Saint-Just's conception of man's owning himself does not come under the category of possessive individualism, for the individual is conceived as part of a larger whole whose organic unity he must strengthen by his economic or affective projection.

We cannot fail to be struck by an almost systematic anti-Rousseauism at the three successive levels of the philosophy of history, the theory of society, and the basis of rights. And above all, like Billaud-Varenne in his Éléments de républicanisme (Year I), Saint-Just criticizes Rousseau for rejecting the thesis of natural sociality.


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