Intros to European Philosophy: Rousseau

JEAN JACQUES ROUSSEAU (1712-1778)

Previously Read: Not that I recall

Key texts: The Social Contract

Overall impression: The concept of the social contract seems to be wielded much as Kant spoke glowingly of the categorical imperative or Comte (to an amazing extent) waxed about positivism.   Or, he spoke glowingly of an idea I did n’t understand, similar to your professor’s pet philosophy term which does n’t explain what (s)he tells you it does.  Perhaps you ‘re surprised to hear me fret over misunderstanding him, but I ‘m leaning towards he did n’t understand (few of us do) what his ideas sounded like to others.

Still I admire some of his social insights piecemeal while unsure of what the social contract truly would look like in practice.

Surprises:

“Aristotle was right; but he took the effect for the cause. Nothing can be more certain than that every man born in slavery is born for slavery. Slaves lose everything in their chains, even the desire of escaping from them: they love their servitude, as the comrades of Ulysses loved their brutish condition. If then there are slaves by nature, it is because there have been slaves against nature. Force made the first slaves, and their cowardice perpetuated the condition. (European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche, ed. M. Beardsley, p. 323)”

Wow. Blaming slaves for lacking the will to shake off their chains is… Wow. Stating that it is easier for the disempowered to accept their disempowerment (because they could always change their state) ignores the fact that subversive power is necessary both to establish and maintain the institution.  Having just finished 1984 again, I must say that dehumanization is a difficult process and one whose effects we should refrain from laying on the abused.

Far more sensible is:

“War is constituted by a relation between things and not between persons; and, as the state of war cannot arise out of simple personal relations, but only out of real relations, private war, or war of man with man, can exist neither in the state of nature, where there is no constant property, nor in the social state, where everything is under the authority of laws. (European Philosophers, p. 326)”

As he applies this to deny the supposed right of a state to execute its war captives (and then mercifully enslave them or ‘killing his enemy usefully’), I appreciate this. It may be I misunderstand his idea of socialization of slavery’s scope, but at least he denies this ‘right of the state’ to enslave. “Individuals are enemies only accidentally” sums this up well (accidental in the Aristotelian sense) (ibidem, p. 326).

Now that I ‘ve gone and invoked Orwell, I wonder what Rousseau would have had to say about modern warfare in the nuclear age.  It seems so unimaginable; the gulf between those who could imagine a society without war and our annihilationist age of fear which serves to justify perpetual war without relation.

“[T]ruth is no road to fortune, and the people dispenses neither ambassadorships, nor professorships, nor pensions. (p. 338)”

Love it.  That ‘s easily a favorite quote from European Philosophers as a whole.

  • Also, I enjoyed this footnote attributed to the Marquis d’Argenson: “Every interest has different principles. The agreement of two particular interests is formed by opposition to a third. (ibidem)”  ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’ much as Oceania is alternately friend to Eastasia or Eurasia based not on some overriding relation but on anti-relation to the other.  Theology too is defensively targeted to defend principles from external and internal opposition (Cf. Ghazali).

 

And a moment of hubris:

“All my ideas are consistent, but I cannot expound them all at once. (p. 343)”

Sorry, that kind of genius is reserved for the world from whence it comes. Genius is a term given from the outside, a recognition, it is not to be bestowed on oneself when one is unable to communicate adequately. If we must accept all of your precepts pre-simultaneously, we shall reserve our energies for better pursuits.

“The question ‘What absolutely is the best government?’ is unanswerable as well as indeterminate; or rather, there are as many good answers as there are possible combinations in the absolute and relative situations of all nations. (p. 357)”

You’ll have to forgive him, clearly he didn’t feel the impending approach of God’s penultimate kingdom come to earth that is enjoyed in our country (which kingdom?). We must forgive the poor Frenchman who did not see our most glorious day.

On representation:

“As soon as public service ceases to be the chief business of the citizens and they would rather serve with their money than with their persons, the State is not far from its fall. When it is necessary to march out to war, they pay troops and stay at home: when it is necessary to meet in council, they name deputies and stay at home. By reason of idleness and money, they end by having soldiers to enslave their country and representatives to sell it… In any case, the moment a people allows itself to be represented, it is no longer free: it no longer exists. (pp. 358 & 360-361)”

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