The Legacy of Rousseau

331 pages,
ISBN: 0226638561

Post Your Opinion
Art, Anthropology, & Oprah
by Lorna Dawson Knott

How are contemporary debates about the fine arts traceable to a thinker who declared human beings by nature more akin to beasts than to cultivated patrons of the opera? Why would the scientific study of chimpanzees suggest that Aristotle's account of human nature is superior to Rousseau's? And what connection could there be between a sometime citizen of Geneva who advocated a stern virtue of strict self-abnegation and the baring of souls brought to us on shows like Oprah?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) declared the study of human nature to be necessarily an historical inquiry, and it is thus altogether fitting that his legacy should be the subject of a very impressive collection of essays. The editors, Clifford Orwin and Nathan Tarcov, professors at the Universities of Toronto and Chicago, explain that Rousseau "originated modern dissatisfaction with modernity." This dissatisfaction remains with us today, often expressed unwittingly in Rousseau's language but usually emphasizing one aspect of his thought at the expense of another. One goal of this commendable book, accordingly, is to "return from these broken shards of Rousseau's understanding to the intact original," to recapture the richness of Rousseau's thought and reveal its connection to our self-understanding. The index-which runs from "adultery" to "Yugoslavia"-shows these essays to reflect the diversity of Rousseau's own interests, which ranged from opera to political economy, from constitutions to botany.

What, then, is our dissatisfaction with modernity, and how is it traceable to Rousseau? The early modern philosophers, such as Hobbes and Locke, whose thought undergirds our liberal democracies, saw in civil society an escape from the perpetual war and deprivation in the pre-political state of nature. Rousseau's most penetrating criticism of these early modern thinkers was that they fundamentally misconstrued the state of nature: they attributed to natural man characteristics of civilized man and thus mistakenly deemed the state of nature a state of war rather than a state of peace. Rousseau found in the state of nature a positive standard that reveals civil society to be corrosive of the happiness, goodness, and independence of natural man. Civilized man is divided between his inclinations and his duties, dependent upon others, alienated from his true self, and unhappy. Man was and is born free, but in civil society he is a chained slave.

This analysis led Rousseau to advance different ways to recapture or replicate the original happiness, independence, and wholeness of natural man, despite civilization. His clearest formulation points to two distinct solutions: man and citizen. The citizen is completely defined by his political order; he thinks of himself as a citizen rather than as an individual, and thereby regains to some extent the wholeness of natural man. "The man", by contrast, can avoid division and alienation by complete self-absorption, but at a cost: he is no part of society and is good only for himself.

Failure to choose between these two extremes leaves one divided, dependent upon others, and miserable. One who is neither man nor citizen, declared Rousseau, is nothing: he is a Frenchman, an Englishman, a Canadian or American, a bourgeois. He is us.

Rousseau's thought is notoriously difficult to penetrate, for while claiming rigorous consistency in his thought, he revelled in presenting "paradoxes" in his writing. He seems capable, as Kennedy once said about Nixon, of arguing every side of any issue. This complexity and consistency is nicely revealed in "Rousseau & the Case against (& for) the Arts", by Christopher Kelly. Kelly argues that contemporary debates about the fine arts reflect diverse understandings of the relation between the individual and community traceable to Rousseau's view of the arts as "the source of both human dependence and independence, of both healthy and unhealthy social life".

Kelly reveals that Rousseau's social criticism moved between the poles of nature and politics. From the standpoint of politics, the arts as generally practised reveal and contribute to the corruption of society, becoming the tokens of status and inequality and inducing widespread hypocrisy. The empathy and community apparently fostered by the imitative arts is illusory, for while we may be moved by a play, it is unlikely to have an enduring effect on our treatment of others: Al Capone may cry at an opera but will still murder. Political life, however, can be better or worse, and the citizen is superior to the bourgeois. True citizenship, according to Rousseau, requires that an individual be given an artificial identity as a member of the community that effectively quashes his individuality. According to Kelly, acquiring this social identity is a fundamentally imitative or artistic act: "being social is essentially the same as being imitative" and "genuine social life is coextensive with artistic life." The arts as practised are corrupting, but properly employed they could enhance the bonds of citizenship.

Because Rousseau alleged that political life is unnatural, the arts are subject to a natural critique. Imitative arts require an ability to identify with someone else and experience his emotions; this ability relies upon unnatural imagination and entails a connection with others contrary to our original, solitary nature: the arts make us "dependent and too social". But even from the standpoint of nature there is something to be said for art, for the life of independence that most closely approximates the natural condition of man is essentially artistic. Kelly discerns in Rousseau's account of his study of botany a kind of inquiry distinct from the traditional understanding of philosophy as the search for eternal truth about being: "Rousseau describes a life of self-sufficiency as the highest human happiness, but this is a life of aesthetic contemplation, imaginative creation, and stupefying ecstasy; it is a poetic rather than a philosophic life."

Despite his impressive clarity, Kelly does not explain what would induce Rousseau to exchange self-indulgent ecstasy for the drudgery of writing constitutions for Poland and Corsica. More importantly, why should a poetic account of human nature and politics that deems irrelevant the search for truth be of any serious interest?

Rousseau's claim that by nature man is both good and solitary, that "other-regarding feelings" are the effect of alterations in the human constitution over time, is the source of his influence on modern science, particularly physical anthropology. In "Rousseau & the Rediscovery of Human Nature", Roger Masters evaluates Rousseau's account in light of modern scientific findings, emphasizing that Rousseau aimed not at poetic creation but at scientific truth-with an unfortunate consequence. For the scientific study of our primate ancestors, advocated by Rousseau, has now revealed the naturalness of "feelings and behaviours associated with social competition and dominance" and rendered untenable his contention that the "moral" acquisitions of human beings are due to society or culture. Social comparisons that Rousseau attributed to the corrupting effects of unnatural society are, rather, innate characteristics of primates. Science has refuted Rousseau's account of original human nature and his fundamental dichotomy between nature and society, finding humans to be by nature social. Rousseau's legacy has undercut his authority.

Masters's impressive effort to take seriously Rousseau's claims of scientific truth "has the paradoxical effect of suggesting a return to the ancient naturalism of Plato and Aristotle in preference to modern theories of human nature", that is, to thinkers who emphasized natural human sociability. This is indeed paradoxical, for with important exceptions, most who seek Aristotle's guidance in politics and ethics find it necessary to disavow his biology, which they believe to have been discredited by modern science. Intriguingly, Masters appears not to accept this bifurcation, suggesting that the return to the ancients is indicated precisely on scientific grounds.

But is Rousseau's account of human nature so discredited that we ought to jettison it for one that suggests, for instance, the eternity of species? As Masters notes, Rousseau conceded the importance of a social bond with the mother for the child's "normal development"-a striking concession given his apparent premise of natural human asociability. If "normal" means "healthy", the issue is whether the child's healthy social development is compatible with his ostensibly asocial nature. Rousseau addressed this question in Emile, where the denial of natural human sociability appears less absolute than elsewhere and in which he reveals a full awareness of the difficulties entailed by his claim of natural sociability. Rousseau's complex understanding of man might not be so completely invalidated by science.

But even if his science is wrong, can Rousseau's moral critique, severed from its scientific basis, still guide us? In "Rousseau & the Modern Cult of Sincerity", Arthur Melzer traces to Rousseau the admiration of sincerity characteristic of our "self-obsessed society, with its hunger for every form of personal disclosure and disburdening self-display from psychoanalysis to tell-all memoirs to EST to Oprah Winfrey." Melzer argues convincingly that the elevation of sincerity was an aspect of Rousseau's critique of bourgeois culture, which, in attempting to generate sociability from selfishness, induces widespread hypocrisy: men who are selfish but dependent upon others must dissimulate in order to achieve their ends. Although certainly not discovered by the early moderns, Rousseau deemed hypocrisy a vice "systematically produced by the evils of modern society".

This critique was coupled with the novel argument that sincerity was good because simply being oneself was good. Rousseau offered a radically new conception of the self, finding its "foundation" to be the "sentiment of existence", the mere awareness that one is. To "actualize oneself" most fully requires communion with the inner self, and sincerity is the means "through which we draw closer to Being and make ourselves most real". Melzer elaborates clearly six characteristics of the "Rousseauian self" that entail the elevation to sincerity. First, the true self is private because the sentiment of existence is wholly internal; the self is discovered through introspection. Second, the true self is not essentially rational; as we are not ultimately rational beings, but feeling beings, wisdom is less important than sincerity. Third, the true self is not moral, for morality is a civil construct that requires "self-overcoming". Fourth, the true self is composed not of what we share in common with others but of what is peculiar to us. Fifth, self-consciousness is simply "awareness that we are-without any specification of what we are." Finally, the true self is "expansive" and wishes to "connect" with others to intensify the experience of existence.

Melzer correctly observes that Rousseau's promotion of sincerity was meant to apply primarily to the solitary who senses most fully his existence, a caveat that suggests Melzer may overstate Rousseau's endorsement of any and all selves. The solitary dreamer appears to recapture something akin to the naturalness of original man, and a fundamental aspect of natural man is, as Melzer has convincingly argued elsewhere, his natural goodness. "I gotta be me" may be the motto of our age, but it is questionable whether our belief that "I must `be myself' regardless of what I may be" is traceable to Rousseau, or to a democratic distortion of Rousseau.

This is an extremely valuable compilation of contemporary work on Rousseau. Its diversity, both in subject-matter and interpretations of Rousseau, is its greatest strength. Did Rousseau aim at "aesthetic contemplation" or scientific truth? If the highest life is poetic, what would induce Rousseau to write instead of simply enjoying the sentiment of his own existence? Has his scientific account of man been repudiated, and if so, is scientific veracity essential to the poetic life? Can Rousseau's scientific account be separated from his moral critique, or is it doomed by his faulty science? If the self is naturally expansive, why must all other-regarding feelings be traceable to hominid evolution? If Rousseau endorsed any and all selves, why did he consistently invoke the standard of nature? This excellent volume reveals that Rousseau's most important legacy is to provoke thought about human nature and civil society. Questions raised by the essays are properly put not only to their authors but to Rousseau's own writings, and recognition of the need for serious consideration of Rousseau's work would, I suspect, be welcomed by the authors and editors of The Legacy of Rousseau. 

Lorna Dawson Knott received her B.A. and M.A. in political science from the University of Alberta. She recently completed her Ph.D-with a dissertation on Rousseau's Emile-at Boston College.


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