—Philosopher Stephen Hicks, 'Explaining Postmodernism:
Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault'
The Maori of New Zealand committed massacres regularly. The dyaks of Borneo were headhunters. The Polynesians, living in an environment as close to paradise as one can imagine, fought constantly, and created a society so hideously restrictive that you could lose your life if you stepped in the footprint of a chief. It was the Polynesians who gave us the very concept of taboo, as well as the word itself. The noble savage is a fantasy, and it was never true. That anyone still believes it, 200 years after Rousseau, shows the tenacity of religious myths, their ability to hang on in the face of centuries of factual contradiction.
--Michael Crichton, 'Environmentalism as Religion'
Okay, so that injunction not to piss on Rousseau wasn't really written above and below this sign in Paris along the Seine, but seeing as how the political philosopher was interred in the Panthéon as a national hero in 1794 after he inspired many of the French revolutionaries, I'm sure I'm treading on "glace mince" with what's in the rest of this post. Be that as it may, and despite the popularity of his works in his day, Rousseau was a buffoon. We can forgive some of this because his beliefs were born out of an overreaction to the religion of his childhood as well as the confusion that reigned in a personal life marked by the early death of his mother, abandonments by both his father and then his uncle, and a patronage from a much older woman who eventually took him as a lover in a ménage à trois when Jean-Jacques turned 20. Out of this background, Rousseau "repeatedly claimed that a single idea is at the centre of his world view, namely, that human beings are good by nature but are rendered corrupt by society." There is something almost sweet in this naive reaction to the Calvinist liturgy he would have been exposed to as a child, one that "still required believers to declare ‘that we are miserable sinners, born in corruption, inclined to evil, incapable by ourselves of doing good.'" Good for Rousseau for rejecting that bile, but it was too bad he went so far as to foist the blame for evil onto society, rather than recognising individuals—and societies composed of individuals—are capable of acting for either good or evil.
In his later more mature works, Rousseau "principally explored two routes to achieving and protecting freedom: the first was a political one aimed at constructing political institutions that allow for the co-existence of free and equal citizens in a community where they themselves are sovereign; the second was a project for child development and education that fosters autonomy and avoids the development of the most destructive forms of self-interest." Leaving aside for a moment the questionable idea of "personal sovereignty" in such a social species as ours, I do admire the intent to promote development and education of character in children. For as Rousseau said,
Virtue is a state of war, and to live in it means one always has some battle to wage against oneself.
Sadly, Rousseau lost that battle in his opportunity to educate his own children. In 1745, "Rousseau met Thérèse Levasseur, a barely literate laundry-maid who became his lover and, later, his wife. According to Rousseau's own account, Thérèse bore him five children, all of whom were deposited at the foundling hospital shortly after birth, an almost certain sentence of death in eighteenth-century France." It is surely an ad hominem to dismiss Rousseau for these personal acts alone, but an extended analysis of his survival among the fittest philosophers reveals plenty of other reasons for his ideas to be dismissed.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778 CE) was a Genevan philosopher, writer, and composer of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, whose political philosophy influenced the French Revolution and the development of modern political and educational thought.
Needs to Adapt
Rousseau’s novel, Emile, or On Education, which he considered his most important work, is a seminal treatise on the education of the whole person for citizenship. Rousseau’s philosophy of education is not concerned with particular techniques of imparting information and concepts, but rather with developing the pupil’s character and moral sense, so that he may learn to practice self-mastery and remain virtuous even in the unnatural and imperfect society in which he will have to live. In order to understand what character and moral sense are, many facts (listed above and below) are required. For society to act well and propagate the survival of life, all members of society need to receive this education. Otherwise, the evolutionary system becomes unstable as free riders and cheaters win, cooperation falters, and competition rises to levels that require a short-term focus.
Perhaps Jean Jacques Rousseau's most important work is The Social Contract, which outlines the basis for a legitimate political order within a framework of classical republicanism. According to Rousseau, by joining together into civil society through the social contract and abandoning their claims of natural right, individuals can both preserve themselves and remain free. The model man is the independent farmer, free of superiors and self-governing. Rousseau posits that the original, deeply flawed Social Contract (i.e., that of Hobbes), which led to the modern state, was made at the suggestion of the rich and powerful, who tricked the general population into surrendering their liberties to them and instituted inequality as a fundamental feature of human society. “The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said "This is mine," and found people naive enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not anyone have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.” Rousseau's own conception of the Social Contract can be understood as an alternative to this fraudulent form of association. Rousseau explains how the desire to have value in the eyes of others comes to undermine personal integrity and authenticity in a society marked by interdependence and hierarchy. The inescapable conclusion was that a new and more equitable Social Contract was needed. The first men to put up a fence probably had to defend their property using force. Only over time as people realized the huge benefits that come from the division of labor, property accumulation, and trade, was the contract made to recognize that force was a drag on the system. Still, we have not evolved sufficient control over our short-term emotional pulls, so cheaters need to be guarded against with fences and more. Individuals could be free and happy within a republic. In fact, they must be or the republic will collapse. This is why no empires to date have remained in power. Wherever inequality and suppression of freedom have taken hold, the cooperation within society weakened and the society dissolved. Citizens must understand this. The government must understand its role. Our cooperative social contract must be improved and understood to be signed by all.
In common with other philosophers of the day, Rousseau looked to a hypothetical State of Nature as a normative guide. Rousseau deplores Hobbes for asserting that since man in the "state of nature...has no idea of goodness he must be naturally wicked; that he is vicious because he does not know virtue.” On the contrary, Rousseau denied that morality is a construct or creation of society. Rousseau held that uncorrupted morals prevail in the state of nature. He considered morality as natural, in the sense of innate, an outgrowth of man's instinctive disinclination to witness suffering, from which arise the emotions of compassion or empathy, and which are shared with animals. Rousseau's natural man is virtually identical to a solitary chimpanzee or other ape so the natural goodness of humanity is thus the goodness of an animal, which is neither good nor bad. But definitions for good and evil do arise from nature - good is that which promotes the long-term survival of life. Because man must be able to cope with extreme competition in order to survive, the emotions that cause him to inflict pain and dominance are also innate. That does not make them good. So a solitary chimpanzee can be said to do bad in the same way that man does. But we have evolved reason to help us understand that such competitive behaviors are disastrous in the long-term. It is not surprising that before the discovery of evolution, Rousseau’s understanding of the state of nature misses these points. The rest of his errors flow from this misconception.
Anglophone critics erroneously attribute to Rousseau the invention of the idea of the noble savage; an oxymoronic expression that was never used in France and which grossly misrepresents Rousseau's thought. Contrary to what his many detractors have claimed, Rousseau never suggests that humans in the state of nature act morally - just that terms such as justice or wickedness are inapplicable to pre-political society, as Rousseau understands it. To him, morality proper or self-restraint, can only develop through careful education in a civil state. Morality and justice do exist in pre-civilized as well as animal societies. It can be better developed once its origins and justifications are more fully understood.
For Rousseau, progress has curbed the well-being of humanity, that is, unless it can be counteracted by the cultivation of civic morality and duty. Only in Civil Society, can man be ennobled - through the use of reason. The passage from the state of nature to the civil state produces a very remarkable change in man, by substituting justice for instinct in his conduct, and giving his actions the morality they had formerly lacked. Then only, when the voice of duty takes the place of physical impulses and right of appetite, does man, who so far had considered only himself, find that he is forced to act on different principles, and to consult his reason before listening to his inclinations. Although, in this state, he deprives himself of some advantages which he got from nature, he gains in return others so great, his faculties are so stimulated and developed, his ideas so extended, his feelings so ennobled, and his whole soul so uplifted, that, did not the abuses of this new condition often degrade him below that which he left, he would be bound to bless continually the happy moment which took him from it forever, and, instead of a stupid and unimaginative animal, made him an intelligent being and a man. Progress is the wellspring of the well-being of humanity and it requires the evolution of sociobiological morals. Civil society reinforces our cooperate behavior, allowing us to compete better with death and ultimately survive longer. Civil society does pose challenges to humans evolved with short-term emotional fuses, but these can be overcome through reason and education. As this occurs, the downtrodden that may be worse off than they would be in the state of nature will gradually disappear.
In Rousseau's philosophy, society's negative influence on men centers on its transformation of amour de soi, a positive self-love, into amour-propre, or pride. Amour de soi represents the instinctive human desire for self-preservation, combined with the human power of reason. In contrast, amour-propre is artificial and encourages man to compare himself to others, thus creating unwarranted fear and allowing men to take pleasure in the pain or weakness of others. He proposed that the progress of knowledge had made governments more powerful and had crushed individual liberty; and he concluded that material progress had actually undermined the possibility of true friendship by replacing it with jealousy, fear, and suspicion. There is nothing artificial in amour-propre. It arises to help one survive in a competitive environment. Fortunately, reason helps us to understand that cooperation for the long-term benefit is better for everyone. Reason helps us to ignore and not act upon the pleasure we may feel in the pain or weakness of others. Reason, through cognitive behavioral training, can even help us to no longer feel such emotions. Progress does not need to cause jealousy, fear, and suspicion. Progress helps us stay adaptable and stave off extinction. That is to be celebrated with great joy.
Rousseau argues that the arts and sciences have not been beneficial to humankind, because they arose not from authentic human needs but rather as a result of pride and vanity. Moreover, the opportunities they create for idleness and luxury have contributed to the corruption of man. The mistaken premises of Rousseau ultimately lead him to a vile conclusion of disregard for arts and sciences. He would mistakenly bring about our extinction more quickly if he could.
Rousseau did rail against government at a time when monarchies were about to be overthrown, and for this, he will always be remembered. The personal sovereignty that Rousseau advocated for instead—an idea that led to an emphasis by his intellectual descendants on freedom and libertarianism at the expense of civilised society—is clearly rooted in myth and misunderstanding though and needs to be brushed aside. As David Brooks pointed out in March 2011 in his op-ed piece titled 'The New Humanism':
"Across an array of diverse fields: neuroscience, psychology, sociology, behavioral economics and so on...[a] growing, dispersed body of research reminds us of a few key insights. First, the unconscious parts of the mind are most of the mind, where many of the most impressive feats of thinking take place. Second, emotion is not opposed to reason; our emotions assign value to things and are the basis of reason. Finally, we are not individuals who form relationships. We are social animals, deeply interpenetrated with one another, who emerge out of relationships. This body of research suggests the French enlightenment view of human nature, which emphasized individualism and reason, was wrong. The British enlightenment, which emphasized social sentiments, was more accurate about who we are. It suggests we are not divided creatures. We don’t only progress as reason dominates the passions. We also thrive as we educate our emotions."
Bravo. And now that we are educated about Rousseau, it's time to happily move on. If only France, America, and the rest of the world would as well.