Rousseau’s legacy.

Terry Eagleton joins the discussion of the birthday boy with an article full of flowery lines and misunderstandings for Comment is free:

[A]t the heart of an 18th-century Enlightenment devoted to reason and civilisation, this maverick intellectual spoke up for sentiment and nature. He was not, to be sure, as besotted by the notion of the noble savage as some have considered. But he was certainly a scourge of the idea of civilisation, which struck him for the most part as exploitative and corrupt.

If you want to dampen my worries that you’ve mistakenly thought Rousseau extols nature at the expense of society, a little tip: don’t acknowledge the excessive historical focus on the ‘noble savage’ before proceeding a sentence later to claim Rousseau scourged the idea of society. That quite clearly implies he despised it a priori, as a mere concept. And for anyone that has read The Social Contract attentively, that can quickly be seen to be nonsense:

The passage from the state of nature to the civil state produces a remarkable change in man, substituting justice for instinct in his behavior, and giving his actions the morality they had previously lacked. It is only then […] that man, who had until then considered only himself, is forced to act according to other principles, and to consult his reason before listening to his inclinations […] his mental faculties are trained and developed, his ideas enlarged, his sentiments ennobled, his whole soul elevated

Emphasis mine. Thanks to David A. Bell for highlighting that passage.

Bell also reflects on Rousseau’s legacy:

Feminists from Mary Wollstonecraft onwards have charged him with inspiring modern forms of misogyny that imprison women in cages of domesticity. Rousseau has been excoriated for undermining Christianity, for destroying traditional morality, for inventing xenophobic nationalism, and even for starting a quarter-millennium’s worth of noxious child-rearing fads. He remains prominent enough today for the high priestess of reactionary hackdom, Ann Coulter, to denounce him at length in her most recent screed, Demonic. For Coulter, Rousseau was an evildoer of almost Obamaesque proportions: “a paranoid hypochondriac who denied divine revelation and original sin” and inspired “all the bloody totalitarian dictatorships of the twentieth century.”

Well, at least Wollstonecraft had a point. In her own words:

[He] insist[s] that [woman] should all her life be subjected to a severe restraint, that of propriety. Why subject her to propriety—blind propriety, if she be capable of acting from a nobler spring?

Rousseau is guilty on this point. He thought women are naturally more attuned to a sentimental life devoted to child-raising and, conveniently, housework, providing the firm foundations upon which men could spend long hours rationally deliberating upon the best direction for their exclusively male democracy to go in. The only thing to be said in Rousseau’s defence is that he wouldn’t thereby judge men superior, and the sexes unequal. He would view both social roles as essential and worthy of praise. But insofar as he thinks woman, by her nature, is not inclined to employ reason, his sexism is self-evident.

But I have little sympathy for the rest of the charges, undermining Christianity aside (what kind of criticism is that?). He certainly didn’t invent xenophobic nationalism, whatever that would mean. He only promotes patriotism insofar as he deems it sociologically necessary to hold a group together. Such sentiments merely act as social glue.

The Ann Coulter allegation, though, is both common and the most serious. If you’re tempted to dismiss it because it comes out of her mouth, note that Bertrand Russell made a similarly ludicrous accusation: Hitler (!) comes out of Rousseau. And all I can say to this in a brief blog post is that the burden is on the accuser to prove the fairness of such a polemical put-down. Historically speaking, it’s well documented that insofar as a totalitarian has ever delved into philosophy, it’s Nietzsche that has offered inspiration. So presumably the claim is that books like The Social Contract, in spirit support tyranny. A thinker striving for a social consensus around principles which treat all citizens as equals, preserving freedom, is theoretically in bed with racist murderers. Please.

Rachel Humphris, writing for the UN Refugee Agency, is a little too generous:

Rousseau’s thought played an important role in promoting the notion of human rights, which is central to UNHCR’s work. Many previous philosophers, from Dutch jurist and philosopher Hugo Grotius to the Englishman Hobbes, had conceived of rights in terms of the possession of power or of legal constructs within society.

In contrast, Rousseau’s insistence on the fundamental freedom of human beings in their “natural state” contributed to the modern notion that people have inalienable rights, regardless of their place in society. This notion is clearly reflected in 20th century documents such as the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The man was an original, but the notion of natural rights clearly predated him. Locke, for one, espoused them on the basis that we are all created imago dei well before Rousseau arrived on the scene, and no doubt this Christian basis for egalitarianism was common currency at the time.


Age or Virtue may give Men a just Precedency: Excellency of Parts and Merit may place others above the common level: Birth may subject some, and Alliance or Benefits others, to pay an Observance to those to whom Nature, Gratitude or other Respects may have made it due; and yet all this consists with the Equality which all men are in, in respect of Jurisdiction or Dominion one over another, which was the Equality I there spoke of . . . being that equal Right that every Man hath, to his natural Freedom, without being subjected to the Will or Authority of any other Man.

To round things off though, Eagleton does make one good point that strikes me as accurate:

[Rousseau] would also be struck by the way the democracy he cherished so dearly is under siege from corporate power and a manipulative media. Society, he taught, was a matter of common bonds, not just a commercial transaction. In true republican fashion, it was a place where men and women could flourish as ends in themselves, not as a set of devices for promoting their selfish interests.

If Rousseau knew of the wealth disparities prevalent today; the extent to which people still value money and image over freedom and character; the way politics unfolds as a battle between factions where the biggest group wins, rather than it being a collective pursuit of the common good – the man would be turning in his grave. Quite rightly, too.


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