So I’ll post some deeper stuff on Aristotle and the history of political thought from tomorrow onwards. But for now, after that brief Fincher post a few hours back, I couldn’t resist tying Fight Club up with Rousseau’s then radical views on property and happiness. Watch the supercool IKEA clip below.
Now the initial premise behind the film before the more memorable moments of masochism arrive is that, as Tyler puts it, “the things you own end up owning you.” Hence his decision to hardly work and instead live on a minimum income in a dump. By seeing there is in fact no value in the monotonous, soul-destroying office work that is intrinsic to modern civilisation, you liberate yourself into the higher reality that is wrongly perceived as a downgrade: life without aspirations only for chandeliers and sofas. And we could chill with Tyler in this anti-materialist cult without necessarily taking the extra leap into a life of full-fledged violence. Destroying credit card companies to save your fellow Cave-like citizens from consumerism? Maybe. But bashing one another’s brains in for fun? Perhaps not. So let’s stick to the foundational philosophy of the Club before the Fight is tacked on.
Now check out some quotes from the Discourse on Inequality:
From the moment one man began to stand in need of the help of another; from the moment it appeared advantageous to any one man to have enough provisions for two, equality disappeared, property was introduced, work became indispensable, and vast forests became smiling fields, which man had to water with the sweat of his brow, and where slavery and misery were soon seen to germinate and grow up with the crops.
It is for you to correct those extravagances which our young people acquire, whence instead of the many useful things they could profit from, they bring back nothing more than an admiration for who knows what pretended grandeurs, frivolous compensations for servitude, which will never be worth as much as liberty.
Let a dissolute youth go elsewhere in search of easy pleasures… Let the alleged men of taste admire someplace else the grandeur of palaces and all the refinements of softness and luxury. In Geneva we will find only men; but such a sight has a value of its own, and those who seek it are well worth the admirers of the rest.
I could prove that, if we have a few rich and powerful men on the pinnacle of fortune and grandeur, while the crowd grovels in want and obscurity, it is because the former prize what they enjoy only in so far as others are destitute of it; and because, without changing their condition, they would cease to be happy the moment the people ceased to be wretched.
[S]ocial man lives constantly outside himself, and only knows how to live in the opinion of others, so that he seems to receive the consciousness of his own existence merely from the judgment of others concerning him. Always asking others what we are, and never daring to ask ourselves, in the midst of so much philosophy, humanity and civilisation, and of such sublime codes of morality, we have nothing to show for ourselves but a frivolous and deceitful appearance.
I trust the parallels are obvious. Rousseau reads like a precursor to Tyler, detailing what Tyler would say if he thought about things a little more and occupied his time writing essays rather than wreaking havoc.
There’s a consistent theme throughout all these passages: namely, the claim that property can come to dominate our desires, activities and identities. We can become so obsessed with external objects that all we want is to get them, we do whatever is necessary to do so and we bizarrely come to believe that they constitute part of us. How else to explain the boasting billionaire’s insatiable appetite for showing off his wealth? The ten Lamborghinis are about expressing status, not genuine need. We come to see ‘happiness’ as necessarily intertwined with owning stuff, and owning more stuff than other people. And we want others to see this and agree with it, thereby recognising our ‘worth’. The function of property is corrupted, and it thereby corrupts us.
Now as I say, there’s obviously a vast disconnect here. Rousseau believes the solution is to focus on building a free community of equals; Tyler likes freedom too, but he only follows it up by telling us to fight. But still, the belief that true happiness lies in rejecting social conventions about the benefits of money and materialism, reining in our appetites and living moderately? It’s safe to say that Jean-Jacques would be entirely onboard with that.
Hear more about Rousseau’s views on civilisation here, courtesy of the Philosophy Bites podcast series.