March 4, 2019: Confronting the Constitution Part 4: Rousseau’s enduring rebuke of Enlightenment governance

In Allan Bloom’s contribution to Confronting the Constitution he depicts the insights of, and threats to Enlightenment political philosophy posed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). [1] Rousseau’s ideas were inspiring and inflammatory to those of his age, and since, though most today don’t know Rousseau as their source. According to Harvard’s Leo Damrosch, while the Founders were chiefly influenced by Locke and Montesquieu, all were moved by Rousseau one way or another, especially Jefferson. [2] While Rousseau’s radical reputation made it imprudent to affiliate, Jefferson’s declaratory line comes directly from Rousseau’s Social Contract: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.” [3]

Rousseau’s reach extended past the Counter-Enlightenment, past Romanticism, and into the brains of Hume, Thomas Paine, Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, Wordsworth, John Stuart Mill, Thoreau, Marx, Freud, Leo Strauss, Goethe, Tolstoy, Schopenhauer, John Dewy, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., America’s Right, Left, and me. It was 20 years ago when I first met Rousseau, who puzzled, agitated, and knocked me off my feet. As Allan Bloom tells it, Rousseau “possessed an unsurpassed intellectual clarity accompanied by a stirring and seductive rhetoric.” [4] His reflections “had the effect of outflanking the Framers on the Left, where they thought they were invulnerable.” [5] While the Founders sought to neuter the old European orders of power propped up by the church and monopolizing wealth, their “movement from prejudice to reason, despotism to freedom, inequality to equality [was not meant] to be infinite,” nor driven by a policy of retribution. [6] Rousseau’s philosophy did just that, multiple times through history.

Striking at the heart of Enlightenment philosophy and thus foundations of our Constitution, Rousseau proved to himself that the “attempt to use man’s natural passions as the foundation of civil society fails while it perverts those passions.” [7] “The fulfillment of unnecessary desires, begun as a pleasure, ends up being a necessity… Desire emancipated becomes limitless and calls forth an economy to provide it.” [8] “[This economy] instituted to serve life alters the purpose of life, and the activity of society becomes subservient to it… [while] a prosperous future is always just beyond the horizon. As politics turns into economics… men are abstractions while money is real.” [9] Or, per Louis Dumont, things become more important than people. [10]

What’s created is an economic system that as Brooks Adam’s tells it in his Law of Civilization and Decay will continue to squeeze out efficiency, until it has squashed the last of humane nature from its maker. [11] Man rebuilt by the system he made. An artificial man, whose central interest was once self-preservation becomes “covetous” in theological language. Which rings again the bell of contradiction between the selflessness of religion and the belonging it provides, vs. the selfishness of interest-based economics with its promise of autonomy. Precisely Rousseau’s concern.

Four years ago on this blog we considered Rousseau’s fears realized: “The economic promise to make individuals independent was a resounding success. Compared to the past, we are materially rich, socially and spiritually impoverished. We’ve decided without knowing it to trade one domain for the other. As Michael J. Sandal puts it, ‘Liberated and dispossessed.’ Economics is not merely a tool of analysis to tell us what happened or attempt predictions; it sets public policy to structure the very society we live in. By Dumont’s account, ‘Something that remains opaque in this transition in mental perspective is that the new morality regulates social relationships whether or not goods are involved.’” [12]

It’s a complex social system. The economic model is a consequence of the political philosophy. [13] The political philosophy is a consequence of the human definition. That human definition delineates what moral ethics require—rights or responsibilities? This moral ethic reevaluates others in a world of more than ourselves alone, when it used to be those others in the form of true communities of deep human connection gave us meaning (different from purpose [14]). A meaning once set so high above the self there was no need for an afterlife, as what lived on was the readily visible community on earth in the here and now. [15] But with the inward turn of Axial Age (800 BC – 200 BC) meditation, prayer, and philosophy, the individual ascends and community begins its long decay. Preservation of the self becomes a lot more important when death is psychologically final. An afterlife becomes essential. The new world religions provided it. Individualism that Axial Age gave rise to is how we got on this self-interest track to begin with. It’s what Enlightenment tried to sort out, and what our Founders had to engage. It’s a package deal of historic span. [16]

Like the Founders, Rousseau believed passion must control passion, not unreliable virtue. As his solution, “Rousseau choses patriotism,” writes Bloom, “a motive tinged with fanaticism, [but he does so] because it alone can counterpoise the natural inclination to prefer oneself over everyone else, an inclination much intensified and perverted [by Enlightenment]… Patriotism is a sublimated form of self-love, seeking the first place for one’s country.” [17]

Or maybe not. As demonstrated by the satisfaction of bloodlust in the French Revolution, more than a little tinged by fanaticism and a policy of retribution, “traced, without intermediaries, to Rousseau’s influence.” [18] For all Rousseau’s opposition to Locke’s self-interested system, “Locke was simply right in one decisive aspect,” writes Bloom. “Everybody, not just the rich, gets richer in a system of liberal economy. Gross inequalities of wealth persist or are encouraged by it, but the absolute material wellbeing of each is greatly enhanced.” [19] And as Alexander Hamilton told us in January, “In every community where industry is encouraged, there will be a division of it into the few and the many… Inequality would exist as long as liberty existed, and it would unavoidably result from that very liberty itself,” because talents are unequal. [20]

Rousseau’s portentous warnings have arrived, but as we saw back in September, the Founders provided “not the best government they could devise, but the best government the people would accept.” [21] With a level field the Constitution strives to maintain, it’s up to individuals to make the most of a system that frees them to pursue their interests, or be eaten by it.

If not the combat of “just getting by,” most Americans chase primate hierarchies of status, material display for sexual selection (the male purview of most species), possessed by our possessions, with so much stuff we rent storage. A little mediation goes a long way to a life of freedom in pursuit of interests worth pursuing. I know because I did it. I committed to my career for a limited number of years (though up to 98 hours/week). Having learned from my mistakes, I saved all I could, invested wisely, and for a decade and half had little more than a pad to sleep on, a spoon, fork, knife, and two plates—one for the cats. That prosperous future (of freedom) need not be forever “just beyond the horizon.”

I was lucky. For most, each day’s commute is another lesson in submission, where, as Mark Twain said, “All men live lives of quiet desperation.” I relished applied physics in engineering. Yet, despite that fascination, for me there were more important matters that pay nothing. Like painting, writing, the study of history, philosophy, and other sciences on another hike in the Sierras without a deadline. Some young people have figured this out through the Mister Money Mustache movement. [22] I salute them as smarter than I was at their age when I bought into the banality of America’s consumerist society hook, line, and sinker. Sunk into spiritual ruin in short order after my idyllic university experience. Preparation for calamity.

While Rousseau correctly diagnosed the symptoms of modernity, he got the medication wrong. He tried to impose pre-Axial Age community on individualist society, errors Marxism and socialism would repeat with Rousseau’s help. Enlightenment offered the right prescription for post-community modernity. (With caveats. [23]) Most right for those who can turn from those shiny lures modernity also offers that come with a sharp hook.

Aside from his brilliance, which I cannot parallel, Rousseau was able to see the ills because he was an idealist, believing solutions exist. In that regard, Rousseau and I are birds of a feather. For people like this it is their mission to exhume a remedy to civilization’s troubles somewhere in that deepest fissure of the human nucleus where “The Truth” resides. For these types it’s an irresistible quest from the day they realize they’re on one. A quest for salvation. Saved by understanding, and with that, forgiveness for the species we hold liable—our own. But as is said of idealists, “They’re always in a moral huff.” Idealists can’t find the solution because it does not exist. They engage in a tireless fistfight to square the circle in an attempt to make sense of a creature that can’t. An exhumation that unearths not salvation, but damnation of a cerebral sort. Rousseau was damned in this same glorious and inspiring way.

Until next time, May 6, 2019.


[1] Allan Bloom Ed. Confronting the Constitution, AEI Press, 1990. Notice that Rousseau was sandwiched between the duos of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-1704) as pioneers in the modern movement, with Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) capping the phase, conventionally closed by 1789, commencement of the French Revolution.
[2] Leo Damrosch, Friends of Rousseau: Some of the people he has influenced don’t even know it, Humanities, July/August 2012, v. 33, No. 4, , Leo Damrosch is professor of literature at Harvard University and author of Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius, Houghton Mifflin, 2005
[3] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, Oxford, 1994
[4] Bloom, pg. 214
[5] ibid, pg. 212
[6] ibid, pg. 212
[7] ibid, pg. 217
[8] ibid, pg. 217
[9] ibid, pg. 222
[10] Louis Dumont, From Mandeville to Marx: The Genesis and Triumph of Economic Ideology, University of Chicago Press, 1977
[11] Brooks Adams, The Law of Civilization and Decay, Macmillan, 1916
[12] Brett Williams, July 6, 2015: Mount Economics – It Wasn’t Always So Tall
[13] Recall Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations that codified capitalism was first published in 1776.
[14] “Different from purpose.” In keeping with my hypothesis that meaning is externally granted from those who value us, while purpose in internally generated with an endless list of things to do.
[15] Mark W. Muesse, Religions of the Axial Age, The Great Courses, 2007
[16] Recall that Enlightenment philosophy from which all this blooms was built on the fruits of Newton’s Scientific Revolution, with an attempt to apply its kind of thinking to man. Newton was built on Renaissance, which was the West’s rediscovery of ancient Greece, their philosophy, science, and mathematics. It was Thales who ca. 600 BC said, we will—in this new pursuit one day to be called science—no longer accept supernatural explanations. There are no miracles in science. Why? Because the gods are as fickle as the people who invent them. Science accepts only natural causes that bear testable predictions. Now, 2600 years later, planes, trains, internet and automobiles prove his method quite right—The Truth in nature with a capital T. But success in nature does not necessarily make it a discipline appropriate for the mastery of human nature. Except that the Founders tried to do just that with Enlightenment’s new “science of political philosophy.” Could it be, as Marcel Gauchet terms it, an “illogical solution to our illogical condition,” that we exist and that we won’t, would be more appropriate? Marcel Gauchet, The Disenchantment of the World: A political History of Religion, Princeton, 1997. Furthermore, I hide here in the footnotes a notion that the Axial Age is the second indication of too many humans on earth, the first as a swap in priority from goddess to god. I suggest the goddess with her powers of reproduction were initially paramount as survival of the species depended on it. Once there were too many humans, especially with sedentary agriculture and its highly invested settlements (no more hunter-gatherer wandering), then war gods rise to primacy in order to defend and dispose of threats from all those humans. War gods favor only a chosen people, with little regard for the humans themselves. Dramatic individualization that accompanies the Axial Age occurs (I suggest) not because of increasing change, effects of the State, or Empires and their wars, but one level down: because there’s too many humans that result in all these compensations—social countermeasures as innovations to counter innovations. We just keep trying to fix what we broke. Then break something else.
[17] ibid, pg. 216. Notice Rousseau turns to patriotism, not religion.
[18] ibid, pg. 212
[19] ibid, pg. 223
[20] Brett Williams, January 7, 2019: Confronting the Constitution, Part 3: Has social change made the US Constitution obsolete?
[21] Brett Williams, September 3, 2018: Confronting the Constitution, Part 2: Government of, by, and for unstable humans
[22] Mister Money Mustache
[23] However, as we now witness, self-interest based political philosophy and its resulting economic model come with an unstated assumption, and lethal on a planetary scale: limitless resources. Couple that assumption with massive human overpopulation and we get what we got.
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Published on March 04, 2019 09:22
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