“The Newton of the Moral Universe”, “The product of the ancien regime” and “The man from Geneva” are all phrases Professor Smith uses to describe our next Political Scientist: Jean Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau is a figure of the Enlightenment and even in that era he must be regarded as the most incandescent of the thinkers after Immanuel Kant. Kant, we know, was significantly influenced by the writings of Rousseau. Prior to reading Rousseau Kant was focussing principally on Theoretical Philosophy and the modification of Cartesian rationalism and subsequent to that a defense of Rationalism against Hume who he saluted with the words “Hume awoke me from my dogmatic slumbers”. Kant’s Categorical imperative is probably a formalistic characterization of Rousseau’s position which was attempting to criticize the earlier positions of Aristotle Hobbes and Locke. Man, argues Rousseau, is not a rational animal as Aristotle would have us believe but rather a sensitive compassionate animal who cares about his fellows in a state of nature to an extent difficult to fathom upon observing his behaviour in contemporary society. Already we can perhaps suspect Rousseau of resembling Diogenes, sensing in the dark recesses of European society a discontentment which Rousseau both describes and explains brilliantly. The theories of Hobbes and Locke did not, he argued, improve our understanding of the fact that “Man was born free but everywhere in chains” simply because these philosophers failed to appreciate the complexity of what they referred to as “the state of nature”. The following is Professor Smiths introduction:
“What did he believe? Was he a revolutionary? He believed that people in their collective capacity are the only legitimate source of sovereignty and “Man is born free but everywhere in chains”. Did his writings, then, seek to release us from the bonds of society as it appears to do in the second discourse “On Inequality”. His writings provide the base for romantic individualism: a celebration of the simplicity of peasant life and rural life. He helps to bring to completion the intellectual movement we know as the Enlightenment whilst at the same time being its severest critic. He defended the savage against civilized man and took the side of the poor against the elite. The Second Discourse is a conjectural history, a philosophical reconstruction of history but not of what has actually happened in the past: it is a history of what had to have happened for humans to have achieved their current condition.”
This introduction(brilliant that it is) does not quite, in my opinion, capture the full historical significance of Rousseau’s work for the History of Philosophy in general and Political Philosophy, Philosophical Psychology and Ethics in particular. Kant was not particularly impressed with romantic and poetic images of savage and oppressed man or the plight of any class in the “battle for civilization”. He did, however, see and appreciate the extent to which Rousseau’s speculations, descriptions and explanations would fit into his metaphysical and epistemological claims about man and his relation to Reality. The very terms “”romantic” and “conjectural” belie the power of philosophy to, as Kant puts it, in his “Conjectural Beginnings of human history”, “fill in the gaps in the record” For Kant part of the record is contained in the Bible, the book Rousseau would not let Emile read as part of his early adult education
firstly because of the fear of attachment to other men’s opinions, fear of dependence upon other opinions, and secondly because such works excite the imagination unnecessarily in terms of desires, hopes, and fears. The only book Emile is allowed to read is Robinson Crusoe which seems to be approved of by Rousseau because as Alan Bloom points out in his introduction to his translation:
“Robinson Crusoe is a solitary man in a state of nature, outside of civil society and unaffected by the deeds and opinions of men. His sole concern is his preservation and comfort. All his strength and reason are dedicated to these ends, and utility is his guiding principle, the principle that organizes all his knowledge. The world he sees contains neither gods nor heroes: there are no conventions. Neither the memory of Eden nor the hope of salvation affects his judgment… Robinson Crusoe is a kind of bible of the new sciences of nature and reveals man’s true original condition.”
Rousseau’s work Emile impressed Kant enormously but it does sometimes remind one of the lonely soul of Descartes “Meditations” and the citizens of Hobbesian and Lockean societies striving to lead instrumental lives of comfortable self-preservation. Aristotle, another so-called authority disliked by Rousseau, begins his political inquiries with the formation of the family and points to its lack of self-sufficiency. The starting point of the Kantian account is the Biblical first family (Adam Eve, Cain and Abel) who are clearly capable of discourse and thought which they had to acquire. Kant gives an account of how this process of civilization begins in the comparison of foodstuffs which prior to the functioning of the thought process is done instinctively. This comparison, Kant claims, is “beyond the bounds of instinctual knowledge”. He notes, interestingly, that these processes of thought and reasoning are aided by the imagination which also has the power, according to Kant and the Greek philosophers, to create “artificial and unnecessary desires” which in their turn generate a sense of luxuriousness that absolutely alienates our natural powers. In discussing the powers of the imagination Kant discusses the Socratic/Platonic/Freudian theme of sexuality. For instinct, sexuality is a periodic phenomenon which disappears as quickly as it appears. Reason and imagination struggle to achieve a mastery over the impulse and the transition from animal desire to human love were made possible by a moderation of the sexual impulse via the discipline of refusal which in its turn enhanced the value of love, the binding force of a family. This in its turn, according to Kant:
“enables man to prepare himself for distant aims according to his role as a human being. But at the same time, it is also the most inexhaustible source of cares and troubles, caused by the uncertainty of the future–cares and troubles of which animals are altogether free. Man, compelled to support himself, his wife and future children, foresaw the ever-increasing hardships of labour. Woman foresaw the troubles to which nature had subjected her sex and those additional ones to which a man, being stronger than her, would subject her…..Both foresaw with fear…death”(Conjectural beginnings..Kant p58)
Once this point is reached, Kant argues, instead of appreciating the power of reason the family begin to fear it as the cause of all ills and a decision is made to live in the present and vicariously through the lives of one’s children. Yet, in the course of a life made even more difficult by the absence of reason many artificial and unnecessary desires arise, occupying the mind to the extent that even death is forgotten in the process:
“mans departure from that paradise which his reason represents as the first abode of his species was nothing but the transition from an uncultured, merely animal condition to the state of humanity, from bondage to instinct to rational control–in a word from the tutelage of nature to the state of freedom.”(Conjectural beginnings… Kant p59)
Kant’s complete account of the transition of the species from being slaves of nature(“in chains”) to being masters of our destiny is meant to take place in a series of complex stages over extremely long periods of time(100,000 years) but it is clear that during this process the common good will be constituted as a concern of the human species and thus of all individuals belonging to the human species. This is a different more optimistic account than the one we find in Rousseau who has a more pessimistic analysis of the human condition and its Discontents. For Rousseau man led the life of a noble savage or a solitary Robinson Crusoe in the state of nature which in his view was transformed the moment men began to gaze at each other and gather around huts and trees for the company. The gaze must have been experienced as a questioning of one’s moral value and resulted in many different forms of artificial strivings motivated by the imagination in order to gain recognition. Included in this “work of the imagination” is the transformation of natural judgment into artificial and mythical interpretations of the world:
“the one who sang or danced the best, the most handsome, the strongest, the most adroit and the most eloquent became the most highly regarded and this was the first step toward inequality and at the same time toward vice. From these first preferences were born vanity and contempt on the one hand and shame and envy on the other.”(Second Discourse “On Inequality”-Rousseau)
This does not necessarily contradict the Kantian account which also bears the traces of the collective memory of the Philosophy of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and the rejection of the picture of a man living a solitary life in a state of nature as a starting point for political or educational beginnings. Yet the trace of Rousseau’s Emile is present in the Kantian reflections of the moral individual on the quality of the maxims of his actions involved in all ethical decision making. The atom of the ethical system is the individual using his freedom to decide what to do. This atom joins with the rest of the moral universe however when he reasons, not in accordance with instrumental hypothetical imperatives but in universalistic non-relativistic categorical terms in which humanity and knowledge about humanity are treated as ends in themselves. Kant’s individual is not the instrumental Robinson seeking a safe comfortable Hobbesian haven for himself. He is part of an ideal network of moral agents and thinkers striving for the common good and doing what they ought to do without coming together in the Agora to discuss the matter. This reminds one of the moments in Emile when he is lost and hungry in the woods and uses the science of astronomy to find his way home. This for Rousseau was what science was for, an instrument for a comfortable life. For the Greeks, all knowledge was an end in itself and they honoured this status with the creation of schools like the Academy and the Lyceum which lay symbolically in grounds far from the madding discontented crowd. Although one does have to admit that the hypothetical structure of our modern empirical, anti-Aristotelian natural science does lend itself to Rousseau’s account. Aristotle’s categorical characterization of the kinds, principles, and causes of change is a stark contrast to the more tentative hypotheses of our modern community of scientists doing their science in the scientific Agora as part of the search for fame and recognition in the spirit of “amour-propre”. The picture of an independent thinker like Socrates and Aristotle refusing to be influenced by the madding crowd and being guided by reason alone is a picture that Kant certainly would have appreciated as part of the larger vision of the examined or contemplative life but it is not certain that this was Rousseau’s vision in the education of Emile. Certainly, Socrates’ communion with his daemon and his deference to the gods of the community would prevent Rousseau using him as an exemplary figure to be studied. Kant, as we know, was also religious and found a place for religion in his critical philosophy: a religion that did not instill a fear of dying and thereby mobilize the imagination into the realm of unnecessary and superstitious belief about the after-life or pursuit of power and riches “so as to forestall death’s assaults”(Bloom, Introduction to Rousseau’s Emile). Death as imagined perverts the natural formation of consciousness. This is Rousseau’s clear and distinct message in Emile’s education which is to allow his natural courage in the face of death not to be tainted by opinions to the contrary: opinions that carry unnatural and illusory images of death. Bloom puts the matter succinctly:
“The simple lesson is that man must rely on himself and recognize and accept necessity….Although fear of death makes it difficult to accept necessity, amour-propre is what makes it difficult to recognize necessity. This is the murky passion that accounts for the “interesting” relationships men have with one another, and it is the keystone of Rousseau’s psychological teaching.”(p10).
In this context, Rousseau discusses the meaning of a baby’s tears of discomfort and cries/screams of help in response to some pressing need which normally immediately bring an adult who relieves the discomfort by meeting the need causing the condition. The baby can learn from this Rousseau argues that his will can instrumentally bring about the satisfaction of his desires by the use of others as a mean to his ends. This is the moment when such children lose their independence and become dependent on their ability to manipulate others to do their bidding. Here a desire to control others is born, emotions connected to the use of power emerge. Bloom describes the matter in the following terms:
“His concern with his physical needs is transformed into a passion to control the will of adults. His tears become commands and frequently no longer are related to real needs but only to testing his power. He cannot stop it from raining by crying but he can make an adult change his mind. he becomes aware of will, and he knows that wills, as opposed to necessity, are subject to command, that they are changing. He quickly learns that for his life, control over men is more useful than adaptation to things…Every wish that is not fulfilled could, in his imagination, be fulfilled if the adult only willed it that way. His experience of his own will teaches him that others’ wills are selfish and plastic. He, therefore, seeks for power over men rather than for the use of things. He becomes a skillful psychologist, able to manipulate others….the child learns to see the intention to do wrong in that which opposes him. He becomes an avenger….His natural and healthy self-love and self-esteem (amour de soi) give way to a self-love relative to other men’s opinions of him: henceforth he can esteem himself only if others esteem him. Ultimately he makes the impossible demand that others care for him more than they care for themselves. The most interesting of psychological phenomena is this doubling or dividing of self-love: it is one of the distinctively few human phenomena(no animal can be insulted): and from it flow anger, pride, vanity, resentment, revenge, jealousy, indignation, competition, slavishness, humility, capriciousness, rebelliousness and almost all the other passions that give the poets their themes. In these first seeds of amour-propre, as seen in tears, one can recognize the source of the human problem.”(Blooms Introduction to Emile p11).
The tears being referred to above are instrumental crocodile tears. Rousseau is venturing into the sphere of Anthropology or what today we might call Philosophical Psychology. The moment referred to above precedes the institution of property which according to Hobbes and Locke it is the duty of government to protect and keep safe. Smith comments on these points in the following manner:
“For Rousseau just as important as the idea of property is the attitude and beliefs shaped by the inequalities produced by wealth and power. Rousseau, like Plato, finds his voice when discussing the complexities of the human soul.He talks about a disposition toward inequality which is untranslatable and he called “amour-propre”. It is related to a whole range of psychological characteristics such as pride, vanity, conceit egocentrism–and it only arises in a society as the true cause of all our discontent. Rousseau distinguishes it from other dispositions, e.g. amour de soi-meme, which is a sort of self-love, a natural sentiment which moves all animals to be vigilant in the cause of their own preservation and which is directed in many by reason, modified by pity and can produce humanity and virtue, but “amour-propre” is a very different kind of sentiment that is relative, artificial and born in society. It leads an individual to value himself more than anyone else and inspires in men all the evil they cause one another and which is the true source of honour(the desire to be esteemed and recognized by others). For Hobbes, this sentiment of vanity, pride,and glory is natural to us, it is a natural desire to dominate. For Rousseau it comes about after the state of nature… how could pride have arisen in a state of nature which is defined by Hobbes as solitary?”
Smith goes on to point out that Rousseau can see the positive aspect of this passion of amour-propre, namely, “the desire to be accorded some kind of recognition or respect by those around us”. This aspect, he reminds us “is at the root of our sense of justice”. The problem with this passion is that it is a law unto itself because if this esteem is not given voluntarily it is seen as contempt. Smith refers in this context interestingly to the international controversy over the cartoon of Mohammad drawn by a Danish artist and claims that the passion of amour-propre lay at the root of the cartoons lack of respect for and recognition of the Islamic Religion. Smith claims the protestors had a point. We in the West claimed that the cartoon was not a political act on the grounds of the way in which we separate politics from religion. We do not require of our governments any protection for the practice of any particular religion nor do we require that governments ensure that any particular religious view is respected. Smith concludes this discussion almost prophetically with:
“Amour propre is the desire to be esteemed and to have your values and points of view esteemed by those around you: it is, in fact, a violent and uncontrollable passion..So much of its civilization and discontent grows out of this passion.”
Rousseau, however, might have shared some of the animus if not the particular motivation of the Islamic protest. According to him, amour-propre plays a role in the establishment of all governments and inequalities are instituted. The relation between people and their government are as a rule flawed relationships. Smith summarizes his Rousseau’s position excellently:
“Rather than bringing peace as Hobbes and Locke claimed the establishment of government had the effect of establishing existing inequalities. For Rousseau, there is something deeply troubling and deeply shocking about the fact that men who were once free and equal are so easily led to consent to the inequalities of property and to rule by the stronger. For Rousseau, the Hobbesian Social Contract is a kind of swindle. The establishment of government is also a kind of swindle that the rich and powerful use to control the poor and the dispossessed: rather than instituting justice this compact merely legitimizes past usurpations.Government is a con game that the rich play on the poor. Political power simply helps to legitimate economic inequality. The government may operate on the basis of consent but the consent that is granted rests on falsehood and lies. How else can one explain why the rich have lives that are so much freer and so much easier, much more open to enjoyment than the poor. This is Rousseau’s critique. The establishment of government is the last link in the chain of Rousseau’s Conjectural history–the last but the most powerful links in the chains that bind us.
Governments, Smith continues, have created and favoured a middle class, bourgeoises, that are not quite the phenomenon envisaged by Aristotle: namely a golden mean class using knowledge and reason to avoid the extremes of firstly,a wealthy life wallowing in the luxury of unnecessary desires and secondly, the life of poverty wallowing in the cesspools of lack of dignity. The Governments envisaged by Hobbes and Locke have been called “liberal” and have favoured the wealthy, seeking to distribute that wealth more broadly to a middle class with the values of the upper class. This kind of economic focus by governments would have been frowned upon by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. For them, government by necessity would have to concern itself with areté:–doing the right thing at the right time in the right way. Economics, for these philosophers, was a secondary art that ought to be confined to the running of households and the private sphere of a citizens existence. Kant shared this vision to some extent. In his work the “Anthropology” he discussed the passions and their detrimental effects on our lives:
“Desire is the self-determination of a subject’s power through the representation of something in the future as an effect of this representation. Habitual sensible desire is called inclination. Desiring without power to produce the object is wish…Inclination that can be conquered only with difficulty or not at all by the subject’s reason is called passion..To be subject to affects and passions is probably always an illness of the mind because both shut out the sovereignty of reason.”(Kant’s Anthropology p 149)
Kant continues in the same vein on page 166:
“passions are cancerous sores for practical reason, and for the most part they are incurable because the sick person does not want to be cured and flees from the dominion of principles, by which alone a cure could occur.”
Kant is not, however, in complete agreement with Rousseau in relation to the industriousness of the middle class. Ambition can be an inclination determined by reason and the need for social intercourse in which there is a mutual striving for recognition and esteem. It is only passionate ambitions that becomes hated by others and which in turn leads to the mutual avoidance of each others company.Passions enslave man in chains and are antithetical to freedom according to Kant and in this respect, Kant and Rousseau agree. All desires are not necessarily passionate as we can see from Kant’s definition above. The relation between desire and passion is illustrated in the following quote:
“The desire to be in a state and relation with ones fellow human beings such that each can have the share that justice allows him is certainly no passion but only a determining ground of free choice through pure practical reason. But excitability of this desire through mere self-love is just for one’s own advantage and not for the purpose of legislation for everyone: it is the sensible impulse of hatred, hatred not of injustice but rather against him who is unjust to us. Since this relation is based on an idea, although admittedly the idea is applied selfishly it transforms the desire for justice against the offender into the passion for retaliation which is often violent to the point of madness, leading a man to expose himself to ruin if only his enemy does not escape it, and (in blood vengeance) making the hatred hereditary between tribes…”
Kant, in the above quote, is drawing an interesting distinction between a power and its object. One cannot hate injustice it seems because hatred is logically or grammatically an object relation term and injustice must be defined in terms of a principle of justice. Hatred seems to be an appropriate logical consequence of the way in which people’s gazes operate when amour-propre is the motivating power of relations between people(Rousseau). Hatred, according to Kant, is impermeable to reason. Freud in his Conjectural speculations upon the beginnings of Civilization also deals with the issue of hatred. The band of brothers is, on this account, ruled by a tyrannical father who uses everyone in the extended family as a means to his own ends, attributing no esteem or respect to them. The brothers unite in their hatred and kill the father and consequently are forced to face up to the meaning of their action which is: anyone assuming the father’s mantle of rule can expect the same fate as their father. This for Freud is the moment in which the light of reason dawns and a connection is made between what is done, and the past and the future of the tribe. In this new dawn, the band of brothers agrees that principles or laws are needed to regulate the activities of the tribe. In this instance, Eros wins a major battle against Thanatos and an important milestone of civilization is established–the rule of law. That particular moment comes a little later in Kant’s Conjectural speculations, when Cain kills his brother Abel, probably in a fit of “amour-propre”
Smith wonders what solutions Rousseau has to the problems caused by the inequalities that have been in their turn caused by amour-propre and the installation of a property protecting government. Smith points t the following:
“The General Will concept is the concept Rousseau thinks will be important in the answering of the problem of inequality in society…The General Will is the foundation of all legislative authority and he means by this that literally, all standards of justice have their origins in the will or free agency. It is this liberation of the will from all transcendent sources or standards, whether found in nature, custom or revelation, or any other source that is of importance. It is the liberation of the will from all such sources which is the true centre of gravity of Rousseau’s philosophy. His world is a world that emphasizes the privacy and primacy of the will, the moral point of view(Kant). Given Rousseau’s liberation conception of human nature his description of the actual mechanisms involved, the Social Contract, comes as something of a surprise.”
Everyone, according to Rousseau must embrace the following aims: protection of the property and persons of the society and protection of the right of every person to “obey only themselves”. There seems, however, to be at the very least a tension if not a fully fledged contradiction in this conception of the Social Contract. Rousseau, however, is envisaging a Hobbesian like sovereign at the root of the conception. Smith summarizes this as follows:
“The General Will is not the sum total of all individual wills but is more like the general interest of the rational will of the community. Since we all contribute to the shaping of this general will when we obey its laws, we obey ourselves. This is a new kind of freedom which brings about a transformation of human nature….it is a new kind of freedom to do what the law commands.”
The above position is reflected in the third form of Kant’s Categorical Imperative which claims that the kingdom of ends is a kingdom in which the citizen-subject identifies with the legislator and treats the law as an end in itself. We are now in the sphere of the Aristotelian “common good”. The law does not need to be liked but given the fact that it is partly shaped by the activities and debates of the citizens, it has to be respected. If the processes involved are somehow at fault then it is, of course, possible for the citizen body to change then. What is being imagined here is the Aristotelian ideal of the many debating an issue by bringing many different perspectives to bear upon the process of the formation of the law. The process is a synthetic one and will involve extracting the truth from many theses and antitheses presented in the debate. A process, that is, that is designed to produce the good, the whole good and nothing but the good.
In this context, Rousseau argues, perhaps paradoxically, that:
“we need to return to Rome and Sparta to find models of citizenship where the spirit of self-sacrifice and devotion to the common good were important.”
Sparta was also paradoxically a model that Plato referred to and although it was not a divided regime as was the case with oligarchies and democracies, the military code of honour certainly would have reminded Plato of “amour-propre” as it would have reminded Kant of the rule of the passions over the sovereignty of reason. The Spartans, after all, were haters of philosophy.
Prof Smith concludes the lecture with a section entitled “Legacies”. He includes amongst these the influence Rousseau’s work had on the French Revolution, the fact that he was approached to assist in the formations of the constitutions of Poland and Corsica, the influence on Jefferson in the USA, the influence on de Tocqueville, the influence on the kibbutz movement in Israel. He ends with the following:
“”Kant was taught by Rousseau to respect the rights and dignity of man. Kant called him “The Newton of the Moral Universe”. Kant’s entire moral philosophy is a kind of deepened and radicalized Rousseauism where the General Will is transmitted into the rational will of the categorical imperative.”
The sense in which Kant’s philosophy is deeper is probably the sense in which Kant continued in the tracks of Aristotelian philosophy and was prepared to investigate the benefits that religious discourse has had for mankind, even if the concept of God the creator and cause of the universe is not in itself responsible for the cultural progress of mankind toward a kingdom of ends. For according to Kant, all that is required for this cultural and moral journey is freedom which is an idea of reason.
Professor Smith could also have mentioned under the heading “Legacies”, Rousseau’s influence on our educational systems everywhere in the world but perhaps the jury is still out in relation to this issue. Opinion is divided about this vision of a lonely Robinson being educated by a tutor supposedly unaffected by the more destructive social passions.