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On Politics: Rousseau

[This is a summary of our discussion of chapter 15 in Alan Ryan’s On Politics. It was written by Ulla S. Koch]

We discussed J.-J. Rousseau for half an hour and came to the conclusion that nobody understood him, least of all he himself. He led what seems to have been a miserable personal life, loosing his mother before he even got to know her, abandoning all his five children in his turn. He had had knack for making enemies and his books were burned in his home town of Geneva. Eventually he went mad. However, he was a gifted writer and composer and many of his ideas are today so engrained in our common consciousness that we take them for granted (p. 533).

In the Social Contract (1762) he outlined his idea of a perfect society, which was not the product of a revolution but was modelled on the Roman Republic and ancient Sparta. Despite being a reactionary politcal thinker, he became the inspiration for radicals. He was part of the French enlightenment subscribing to it’s ideals of rationality and the impartiality of laws, but was at the same time its prime contemporary critic, since he emphasized the importance of human irrational feelings and antisocial urges in the creation of society. In Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (1750) he claims that contemporary man was overeducated and in all respects inferior to his noble, unlettered, forebears.
Like Plato, R. was an idealist who took his starting point in his belief that man by nature is good. Mankind is characterized by two fundamental qualities, a “love of self”, or urge for selfpreservation, and empathy (pitié) for his fellows (i.e. not innately bad as Hobbes surmised, or burdened with original sin). This means that if uncorrupted by life in modern society our natural tendency would be to help, or at least avoid harming, any other sentient being. This was a radical break with earlier especially Christian theorists, paving the way for the discussions of nature vs. nuture in modern psychology and sociology. The source of all the miseries of modern society is, according to his work Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes (1755), private property rights (p. 547). The reason why a state exists at all is to prevent civil war, which is latent in society – not because of the instincts of natural man but because of socialized man and his yearning for property and the concomitant estrangement from his fellow man. States originally emerged when populations increased and makind accordingly was driven to coordinate and develop language and other means of social interaction and organization (p. 544).

Again like Plato, Rousseau sees education as the means to enabling man to preserve his innate goodness even in the face of the detrimental forces of society. In Emile ou de l’education he describes how to develop a boy into a man by allowing him to live as close as possible to his original innocent state of nature. A tutor can gently guide and mould a young man by setting the scene for him to make his own discoveries and deductions. But the best solution remains to adopt the life of a hermit, free from competition, envy fear and admiration (he could also try attending the mindfulness seminars at Oxford).
With his break with the concept of original sin led him towards theories that approch the theory of evolution (p. 540), mankind was somewhere on the continuum along with the great apes. He builds on the ancient idea that mankind has developed through a series of stages (p. 545). What is interesting is that he sees technological advances, like farming and metal working as the drivers for change (and hence corruption) – as a modern day archaeologist I concur.

His ideas on the evolution of human society, on pedagogical principles (children should be treated as children) the importance of external factors on personality formation are at least part of his legacy.

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