Representation and protection of moeurs: Rousseau’s social theory of Roman constitutions

ZHANG Guowang1

(1.School of Political Science and Law, University of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences)

【Abstract】Moeurs are at the core of Rousseau’s social thought. His discussion of moeurs constitutes an important beginning of Western social theory. This paper attempts to bring the moral sociology perspective of moeurs into the discussion of the Roman constitutions and examine the social theoretical implications of various constitutions. This paper contends that the Roman Comitia were a manifestation of different moeurs in the specific historical periods, and the function of the Senate was to guide the trend of moeurs through the law. The essence of the tribune was to protect the moeurs with the negative power, whereas the power of the censor aimed to present and guide the judgment of the public opinion. Whether the dictator could effectively run relies on the social mentality of the public with regard to the absolute power.

【Keywords】 moeurs; social custom; public opinion; collective sentiment; Roman constitution;


【Funds】 Humanities and Social Sciences Research Fund of the Ministry of Education (15YJC820075) supporting project research results of the academic innovation project of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

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(Translated by HUANG Ju)


    [1]. (1) How to translate “moeurs” is a theoretical issue that needs to be taken seriously. In terms of historical origins, “moeurs” are mores in the Roman language, referring to the customs and habits in the broadest sense and the moral state they contain. European countries refer to the word “moral,” which is the origin of English word “moral.” But the core of “moeurs” is not the so-called ethical norms, so many English translators directly use mores to avoid the excessive norm of moral or morals. As far as the source of thought is concerned, Montesquieu once raised the issue of modern customs or moeurs in De l’esprit des lois. In this sense, Durkheim called it the concept of society in sociology sense. Later Tocqueville responded to the issue of the moeurs put forward by Montesquieu in De la démocratie en Amérique (Qu, 2009: 42). In Chinese, moeurs are generally translated into “风尚” (fashion) and “风俗习惯” (customs and habits). For example, Rousseau’s famous works are generally translated as “论科学和艺术的复兴是否有助于敦风化俗.” However, this translation overemphasizes the objective facts of habits and customs, and cannot convey the content of the public opinion that is related to the overall emotions and consciousness. Since the focus of this paper is to look at the moeurs from the perspective of the life state of the community of the people, the moeurs are used as a manifestation of the state of life of the body politic. Therefore, this paper translates it into moeurs as a whole. At the same time, in order to preserve the customs and habits, we will not strictly limit the expression of moeurs in the specific discussion and analysis in the text, but will use interpretative concepts such as customs and social styles, collective emotions, social mentality and common emotions under different contexts to present the richness of moeurs. [^Back]

    [2]. (2) Utopia is the perfect way to express ideas in Rousseau. It stems from Rousseau’s self-revelation and self-recognition with self-experience as the core, rather than deductive by metaphysics (Shklar, 1969: 2; Qu, 2009: 32). At the same time, Judith N. Shklar believed that there are two types of Utopia in Rousseau’s mind, Spartan city with core of citizen life and golden age with core of self-sufficient family life (Shklar, 1969: 12–32). This paper acknowledges this in a less rigorous sense and believes that Rousseau’s original state of nature must be included; even, in a more fundamental sense, the golden age is merely the evolution stage of the original state of nature. Finally, the core of the golden age is actually a natural family life. For the structure of people and citizens, nature and politics discussed in this paper, its typical significance is not important. Therefore, this paper selects the natural state and the Spartan city-state as two Utopia types of Rousseau. [^Back]

    [3]. (3) “I tell you that some people in Paris will go to the theater without any scruples, but when they return to Geneva, they will not enter the theater at all, because the good style of the motherland makes them feel closer than entertainment. Which brazen mother dares to take her daughter to the place where the ugliness is spread. Which noble person is willing to go to the theater to suffer the accusations of everyone?... In our Geneva, people’s religious beliefs are certainly not worse than Paris, and moreover, we have the power given by moeurs, virtues, and patriotism, which can even bind those who cannot be bound by religious principles” (Rousseau, 1960: 97). [^Back]

    [4]. (4) “Young people in our Geneva like in Sparta, surrounded by a decent public atmosphere. However, no matter how much confidence I have in my compatriots, I am very clear: they after all, are not Spartan” (Rousseau, 1960: 97). [^Back]

    [5]. (5) In Rousseau’s view, the promulgation of large number of laws shows that the original moeurs have lost their power and no longer have the dominant binding force; while the law can only bind the bad people, but cannot turn them into good people (Rousseau, 2016: 57). In this regard, the power of the moeurs has indeed fallen apart at the end of the Roman Republic, because the laws that symbolize the corruption of the moeurs also need unconventional means to remedy. [^Back]

    [6]. (6) In Weber’s view, the concept of asylum or enmity originated in the Masters-servant relationship in the war. With the victory of the reloaded infantry tactics, this relationship gradually lost its military significance and became a system to ensure patronage power, thus becoming an important pillar of the Roman family power (Weber, 2005: 202–203). Rousseau’s discourse does not mention this military origin, but mainly emphasizes its sociality. [^Back]

    [7]. (7) This criticism involved a shift in the voting method of the Roman Comitia, that is, at the end of the Republic, it changed from public to secret anonymous voting. Cicero condemned this change and believed that it brought about the demise of the Republic. However, Rousseau believed that Cicero was too concerned about the transformation of the voting method itself, but did not see that the change of voting method was only a representation. The real reason lies in the transformation of the social moeurs from simple and healthy to corruption. A good system should change in a timely manner in response to changes in the moeurs, rather than sticking to the original form. Otherwise, it is not only impossible to maintain the original system, but it will further ruin the moeurs because of the formal requirements imposed on moeurs (Rousseau, 1913: 105). [^Back]

    [8]. (8) Such a system setting, that is to exercise the veto power and to understand the original legislator’s intention at the same time, has not become a historical relic. For example, the judicial review power of the US Supreme Court reflects the essence of the spirit of the tribune to a considerable extent. [^Back]

    [9]. (9) The Catiline Incident is also known as the Conspiracy of Catiline. Rousseau’s narrative of it is very simple. For detailed procedures, please see the related theories of historians (Kovalev, 2007: 509–518; Ringman, 2014: 283–286). However, by contrast, Rousseau neither concerned the land reform and the debt problem at the end of the Republic, nor the factional struggle at the time, but what made the Senate abandoned the dictator system when a dictator was needed apparently. [^Back]


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This Article


CN: 11-1100/C

Vol 33, No. 06, Pages 212-236+246

November 2018


Article Outline



  • 1 Introduction: Rousseau’s moeurs and Roman constitution
  • 2 Origin of the society: the historical cascade of the moeurs and its divisibility
  • 3 Moeurs and the political constitution: the social theory of the Roman constitution
  • 4 Epilogue: Rousseau, Robespierre and Rome’s illusion
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