Review of The Social Thought of Rousseau and Burke: A Comparative Study

Review of The Social Thought of Rousseau and Burke: A Comparative Study, by David Cameron, Canadian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 8, No. 4 (Dec. 1975), pp. 573-576.


The word “comparative” in the title is emphatic. Professor Cameron is comparing, not contrasting, Burke and Rousseau. The relative novelty of his study is its break from the radical opposition between these two thinkers as seen by the tradition. He believes that they have more in common than has been ordinarily understood to be the case. Essentially this thesis implies a reevaluation of Rousseau whose radicalism was the target of Burke’s rhetoric during the French Revolution. Cameron must argue that Rousseau was misunderstood by Burke and used by him as a symbol of the extremism of the revolution as well as show that Rousseau is both more cautious and less doctrinaire than he may appear. In this latter endeavour Cameron is supported by contemporary trends in Rousseau scholarship, and his achievement here is more in bringing this version of Rousseau to the Burke- Rousseau relationship than in any fresh vision of Rousseau. These remarks do not imply that the simple account of Burke as a mere conservative and traditionalist suffices for Cameron but only that the greatest changes required for the rapprochement he is attempting concern Rousseau.

Baldly stated, Cameron concludes that “Rousseau and Burke are similar in their negations, and similar in their efforts to elaborate what in their view would be a more satisfactory account of political life” (p. 178). He arrives at this assertion by arguing that both Rousseau and Burke were dissatisfied with the dominant schools of thought about man and politics, that they believed that the bases for community were undermined by the teachings of their contemporaries, and that they were, therefore, in some way precursors of the new syntheses of the nineteenth century. These propositions are unexceptionable, as are the many citations from Rousseau proving his awareness of kinds of problems central to Burke’s concern, such as reverence for tradition and concern for the common good. But the question is whether these are the only issues or the most important ones. One could, legitimately, find much in common between the language of Fascism and that of Communism, for they both begin with a critique of a common enemy, liberal society, and look forward to a new kind of community. But such a comparison would have to abstract from the whole intention of the teachings involved. And, in his quest for comparison or similarity, Cameron fails to persuade me that he has not focused on parts of Burke and Rousseau which fit his interest while neglecting or underplaying those parts which do not. It is, of course, extremely difficult to grasp the fundamental intention of a great thinker; but the comparison of two great thinkers on the broadest basis necessarily implies that both have been understood.