The “Facebook philosopher.”

That’s the accusation levelled at Rousseau by Theodore Dalrymple, writing for The Telegraph:

Jean-Jacques was also, in his way, the philosophical progenitor of Facebook, of the notion that we should live our lives in the open, hiding nothing, for concealment is both the symptom and the cause of insincerity, which was one of J-J’s bugbears.

Wait, what? I can only assume the reference here is to Rousseau’s emphasis in The Social Contract on public deliberation. He fears factions and special interests insofar as they tend to corrupt democracy and promote egoism. Transparency helps to hinder such forces. So what’s Dalrymple’s objection?

The problem is that while all men are born equal, they are not all born equally interesting; so the confessional mode does not suit everyone.

Oh, so he thinks public deliberation means every citizen must write an autobiography, copying Rousseau’s Confessions. Where that wild inference and invention comes from is beyond me.

He goes on to claim that this painstakingly honest man was incapable of perceiving and acknowledging his own flaws, instead always blaming others for his woes. False. Totally false. The main source of inspiration for his prophetic prose was a recognition of the fact that he himself was plagued with imperfections. He strove for a return to natural goodness, but he did not think he achieved it.

And this Facebook-dig is, I think, hugely ironic, because it’s precisely the type of thing Rousseau would despise. This passage from the Second Discourse speaks for itself:

[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.

The sort of personal image-management that social media encourages would give the guy nightmares. It facilitates far too much vanity. But you wouldn’t find that out reading Dalrymple.

There’s far too much bullshit in that piece to bother debunking. But two more points. Dalrymple writes:

Rousseau was also the unwitting founder of the psychology of the Real Me, that is to say of the inner core of each of us that remains immaculate and without sin, however the external person actually behaves. The inner core, the Real Me, is good; what might be called the Epiphenomenal Me, that is to say the one that loses his temper, tells lies, eats too much, etc, is the result of external influences upon him. In this way a monster of depravity may preserve a high opinion of himself and continue his depravity; nothing he can do can deprive him of the natural goodness first espied by Rousseau.

This tradition of thought is, indeed, implicit in Rousseau, but he by no means dwells on the metaphysics of it to such an extent. And insofar as he assumes it, he only borrows from an idea stretching all the way back to Plato.

And then relatedly, this:

Democrats see in his concept of “the general will” the notion of popular sovereignty; aspiring dictators see in it something they believe that they embody, a semi-mystical entity that is independent of any individual’s will, much less that of the numerical majority, and of which he is merely the inspired mouthpiece, as it were.

A notorious cliché, but this one goes further in using the verb see to suggest Hitler-esque figures have actually read Rousseau, rendering him in some sense responsible for tyranny. To present the ‘tension’ with such faux-balance, though, as if it really isn’t clear what is meant by the general will, is either maliciously or wilfully ignorant. It doesn’t take an intensive reading of The Social Contract to work out that Rousseau means by the general will little other than what Rawls later meant by common political principles around which a social consensus can be established. And yet, where are the character smears directed towards the latter?

David Bell and Laurie Feindrich wrote the best birthday posts last week. More coverage of Rousseau’s 300th from me here and here.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s