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Discourse on Inequality
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Blog Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Perhaps Rousseau's most important work The Social Contract that describes the relationship of man with society. Contrary to his earlier work, Rousseau claimed that the state of nature is a brutish condition without law or morality, and that there are good men only as a result of society's presence. In the state of nature, man is prone to be in frequent competition with his fellow men. Because he can be more successful facing threats by joining with other men, he has the impetus to do so. He joins together with his fellow men to form the collective human presence known as society. The Social Contract is the compact agreed to among men that sets the conditions for membership in society.
Rousseau was one of the first modern writers to seriously attack the institution of private property, and therefore is considered a forebearer of modern socialism and Communism. Rousseau also questioned the assumption that the will of the majority is always correct. He argued that the goal of government should be to secure freedom, equality, and justice for all within the state, regardless of the will of the majority.
One of the primary principles of Rousseau's political philosophy is that politics and morality should not be separated. When a state fails to act in a moral fashion, it ceases to function in the proper manner and ceases to exert genuine authority over the individual. The second important principle is freedom, which the state is created to preserve. Rousseau's ideas about education have profoundly influenced modern educational theory. He minimizes the importance of book learning, and recommends that a child's emotions should be educated before his reason. He placed a special emphasis on learning by experience.
Man is born free but everywhere is in chains. In reality, the difference is, that the savage lives within himself while social man lives outside himself and can only live in the opinion of others, so that he seems to receive the feeling of his own existence only from the judgement of others concerning him. It is not to my present purpose to insist on the indifference to good and evil which arises from this disposition, in spite of our many fine works on morality, or to show how, everything being reduced to appearances, there is but art and mummery in even honour, friendship, virtue, and often vice itself, of which we at length learn the secret of boasting; to show, in short, how abject we are, and never daring to ask ourselves in the midst of so much philosophy, benevolence, politeness, and of such sublime codes of morality, we have nothing to show for ourselves but a frivolous and deceitful appearance, honour without virtue, reason without wisdom, and pleasure without happiness.
In 1762, Rousseau published The Social Contract, which, though it was largely unread when it first came out, became one of the most influential works of abstract political thought in the Western tradition. In the Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau had tried to explain the human invention of government as a kind of contract between the governed and the authorities that governed them. The only reason human beings were willing to give up individual freedom and be ruled by others was that they saw that their rights, happiness, and property would be better protected under a formal government rather than an anarchic, every-person-for-themselves type of society. He argued, though, that this original contract was deeply flawed. The wealthiest and most powerful members of society tricked the general population, and so installed inequality as a permanent feature of human society. Rousseau argued in The Social Contract that this contract between rulers and the ruled should be rethought. Rather than have a government which largely protects the wealth and the rights of the powerful few, government should be fundamentally based on the rights and equality of everyone. If any form of government does not properly see to the rights, liberty, and equality of everyone, that government has broken the social contract that lies at the heart of political authority. [These ideas were essential for both the French and American revolutions; in fact, it is no exaggeration to say that the French and American revolutions are the direct result of Rousseau's abstract theories on the social contract. ]
Let us return to nature. In his earlier writings Rousseau identified nature with the primitive state of savage man. Later, especially under the criticism of Voltaire, Rousseau took nature to mean the spontaneity of the process by which man builds his personality and his world. Nature thus signifies interiority, integrity, spiritual freedom, as opposed to that imprisonment and enslavement which society imposes in the name of civilization. Hence, to go back to nature means to restore to man the forces of this natural process, to place him outside every oppressing bond of society and the prejudices of civilization. Rousseau is buried in The Pantheon , Paris. [This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License and uses material adapted in whole or in part from the Wikipedia article on Jean-Jacques Rousseau.]
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Discourse on Inequality
Russell McNeil, PhD (Copyright 2005)
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The books we select in Liberal Studies have one thing in common. They examine the problems that are basic to human living. We look at those problems -- and the novel solutions these writers offer to the most basic questions swirling around the human condition and notice that those solutions often differ in radical ways from those we've heard before.
These are questions we face daily -- personally, socially and globally. They usually take the form: what's going on? and what am I/we supposed to do about it? These texts often propose new strategies and ways of seeing the world. The resolution of the intractable dilemma posed in the Oresteia by Athena's law court required the subordination of enormous indignation -- the human desire for revenge -- in return for a solution that would choke off the interminable cycle of violence. Antigone teaches that we are obligated to follow our moral judgment when it is in conflict with law. Oedipus teaches that the home if the home is dangerous to the child, the child may grow to be a menace to the home.
You are not required to accept the solutions, only to encounter them; measure these new ideas against those you may hold now; and to account for your choices. The human family is old and so too are its problems. As truly horrific as last week's slaughter of innocent children at Beslan in North Ossetia-Alana was -- it has happened before. The third anniversary of 9/11 is this Saturday. We are constantly reminded by the media and our leaders that these events have changed the world -- forever. Have they? How? What happened in Beslan last week and in New York three years ago and in Auschwitz in 1941-45 where I visited this summer? For me in July the questions I ask are the same I've always asked. What happened here? What are we supposed to do? The scale of the event need not be as huge as these three examples. Each of us has experienced what we call injustice, or abuse, or assault or at some time in our lives -- or seen it happen to people we care for.
Rousseau's Discourse poses a question about human inequality. It offers an answer -- a radical answer -- that posits new ways of thinking about the nature of what we commonly call good and evil; or, justice and injustice. In 1754 those answers positively floored his readers. George W. Bush and Putin and all of us are right -- to a degree -- when we respond to 9/11 and Beslan and Auschwitz as extreme instances of evil writ large -- operating in the world. It's everyone's normal and correct response to the what is going on? question for those thee examples. But the second question -- what are we to do? requires digging more deeply -- unpacking -- our response to the first.
George W. Bush's answer to the second question is very clear. He will continue to wage his war on evil -- on terrorism -- using every means at his disposal. He is convinced he is doing the right thing because when George Bush unpacks the what is going on? question he is convinced that the very real evil he sees is a manifestation of the operation of cosmic principles. There is a God of Goodness and there is a Prince of Darkness. The doers of evil are aligned with the dark. His duty and our duty is to exterminate these forces. Perhaps he's right. Perhaps the allegory of Genesis -- where we first encountered this notion through the temptation of Eve is the way the cosmos works. The majority of the American people seem to think that way -- perhaps many of us do too?
But there have been other suggestions. Plato's Republic saw it differently. Good and evil or better justice and injustice there are manifestations of a different sort of war -- a war between the forces of appetite and the forces of the soul -- or psyche as the Greeks named the soul. Hmmmm -- that's new. Radical too. The philosopher king would also respond to 21st century atrocity as evil but because he would see the roots of evil as resident manifestations of the war between body and soul, his answer to what are we to do? might take a new shape. That's what the Republic is about. We harness evil by cultivating justice -- as a harmonious relationship amongst the division of the human soul. We fight evil through the cultivation of virtue.
Rousseau offers an entirely new understanding of good and evil. Rousseau too would see contemporary events as abhorrent -- as evil. But for Rousseau good and evil are no longer products of cosmic struggle or bad breeding. Evil for Rousseau is a necessary outcome in the development of human culture. It is perfectly understandable. People become evil or artificial as he might say -- when man -- who is by nature good -- is forced into social units. And he offers an explanation of why. For Rousseau the root cause of evil is not a necessary product of a cosmic struggle -- or the war between body and soul. good and evil for Rousseau emerge from new opposites -- tensions that devolve from the psyche of man as a social animal. We are good or we are bad because the social structure has shifted our focus from inner directed action to outer directed action; from being authentic-in-nature to inauthentic-in-social contexts; from real-self-in-nature to alienated-self-in community. Radial? Yes! The right answer? That's for you to decide. If you accept this answer your solution to the second question will take a direction radically different from George W. Bush or the philosopher king. To be honest, the answer to Rousseau's second question is not offered here -- although he does pose one in his Social Contract. Whether we like Rousseau's unpacking of the evil question or not -- we still must confront it. We need to confront it because it is an answer that has characterized all modern thought since this essay was written.
The essay itself can be a bit perplexing. Structure, style and format aside - and I'll get to those in a moment - the findings are certainly revolutionary in several ways. Rousseau's lengthy examination of primitive man paints a picture of intrinsic human goodness. In a nutshell Rousseau claims that we are born free, equal, and intrinsically good. Rousseau offers this historic fact as a basis for a form of Natural Right - an inalienable birth right. The right to life and the liberty to satisfy our simple instincts ought never be surrendered or removed because these rights conform to nature's golden rule. With socialization and culture man became enslaved; we lost our natural liberty and became defined by inequalities in wealth, power, rank and merit. The progress of mind and reason transformed the brutish bliss of natural liberty into a misery artificiality and immorality.
Rousseau recognizes two broad categories of inequality: physical and meta-physical. Rousseau's physical inequalities include notions of mind or soul. These for Rousseau ARE innate and they do differentiate but never in a radical or significant way. The meta-physical or moral inequalities arise exclusively from our social arrangements and are absent in nature. These meta-physical inequalities: differences in wealth, rank, power and merit are, moreover, grossly disproportionate to those physical differences.
For Rousseau wealth breeds power and power breeds slavery. Wealth, power and slavery then become institutionalized under the guise of illegitimate regimes. The driving force underlying the institutionalization of these meta-physical inequalities the emergence of a quadrangle of human vices: vanity, contempt, shame and envy. These are for Rousseau artificial passions and never found in nature.
These three human inequalities: wealth, power and slavery emerge from the so-called Right of Property. They are consolidated through the invention of tools; strengthened by the creation of false needs; and given unholy sanction by the emergence of family and the invention of familial love. These same inequalities are further amplified by the development of art, agriculture and science - in other words the products of reason.
Is Rousseau having us on? Or is this a dash of Rousseauic satire strategically designed to show these metaphysical emperors- wealth, power and are as naked as Rousseau's thesis proclaims? Satire uses caricature and exaggeration to make its point. And Rousseau does characterize classic virtues as false ; our species as morally bankrupt; and the products - almost all products of social man as useless. We live to work (a thing we abhor); we court the mighty (who we despise); we operate socially under the ruse of deception and frivolity; we seek honour without virtue; reason without wisdom; and, pleasure without happiness. Is it really that bad? How else can we account for this reflection from a mirror so out of sync with an enlightened age - a time of such unbounded pride and optimism and the very same age during which Rousseau himself was to become a leading figure?
Read straight this Discourse is extraordinarily radical - radical in its attempt to uncover truths from the root of nature. The irony of course is these truths are uncovered exclusively using only the light of reason, that self-same thing Rousseau maintains is the cause for our demise. Of course he shuts down all possible criticism by maintaining that the very truths he uncovers are inaccessible using any kind of knowledge. On p. 18: knowledge itself precludes knowing ... Really? Sure Rousseau says - with a flourish of impeccable logic, the more we know - the less we know. hmmmmm...
On p. 26 Rousseau asserts: Let us begin with dispensing with the facts, for they are not relevant to the question. This clever Alice in Wonderland stick handling somehow lands Rousseau to a description of a Nature imbued with the two fundamental Principles of Natural Law, self preservation, and a repugnance to the suffering of others, from which his famous Golden Rule of Nature, the Do what is good for you with the least possible harm to others. because the laws and the derived maxim are innate Rousseau concludes that man is nature must have the inalienable Natural Right to Life and Liberty.
Rousseau use of reason to attack Reason as the source of human misery. On p. 32, The fatal proofs that all our troubles are our own work ... I almost venture to affirm that the state of reflection is a condition contrary to nature and that the man who meditates [as Rousseau most assuredly is doing as he is writing this] is a depraved animal!
I do not mean to suggest that Rousseau is not being serious. Satire can be deadly serious and dangerous. These assertions are conjectures - Rousseau knows that - he even admits as much here and there. But the point of his exercise and the only real point of this part of the exercise is the claim that those things that differentiate man in nature are of little consequence in the grand scheme of things. I already knew that - so did you. I have 12 gold fish in my tank at home. I can see slight differences in size, speed, agility, color, fin size, etc. But in the morning all 12 eat the same food, defecate in the same water, operate under the same conditions in the same way, day after day: power wealth and slavery and meaningless in their world. But within the confines of their 33 gallon universe they are all equally alive and equally free. I rest my case.
In some respects Rousseau's examination of the emergence of early man bears a resemblance to allegory with parallels to the biblical account of man's creation and fall in Genesis. It's designed for the same purpose, as an explanation of that from which good and evil arise. We might see Rousseau's allegory as the secular version of Eden: The fall of man in a world free of snakes. the story line is similar. In Genesis there is a forbidden tree - the tree of knowledge of good and evil. In Rousseau there is a secret world of knowledge - one Rousseau clearly feels was never intended to be discovered. Rousseau's replaces the snake here with cleverly contrived freak accident of nature - perhaps a volcano, he suggests. An event where by nature accidentally revealed one of her jealously kept secrets. The secret was metallurgy, the chance discovery of elemental iron embedded and forged in an ancient flow of molten lava. For Rousseau this was the forbidden fruit - the first seed of man's demise. The discovery led, by degree, to the manufacture of the first primitive tools, to divisions of labour, to the creation of agriculture, to the creation of property, to an aggregation of people into social units, to the establishment of rituals, to primitive culture, to leisure, to an intensification of primitive passions, to differentiations, to self love, etc.
In this setting small differences amplified enormously - the tiny physical differences that nature allows became psychic butterflies engendering grossly exaggerated inequalities in the artificial meta-physical or moral plane. People became proud of those differences. Cooperation and competition became the modus operandi - the means needed to rise in the once meaningless worlds of wealth and power. The sexes separated - creating a brand new world of difference. With all this we saw the birth of jealousy and contempt. The accident of nature had let loose an uncontrolled chain reaction in which small physical differences produced social divisions determined by wealth, power, status and merit. The race to difference fueled by competition gave birth to new vices: ostentation, cunning, deceit, artificiality, ambition, greed and cruelty says Rousseau masking darkly as good will. The shift in valuations caused by this are as profound as the Genesis account with man falling from innocence and bliss into the pit of endless toil and misery.
As evil enters the world so too does the place we look to for validation. For Rousseau's savage validation was in self. For social man validation came from others. The real tragedy as Rousseau sees this, is that this entire process led to the gradual loss of the natural capacity to feel the suffering of others. Rousseau describes this shift movingly on p. 56. where he describes the horror our world would seem to Natural man. Man in nature would be appalled by our world. He would see perversion depravity and decadence in those self same ideals we value so highly. In our world the rich are happy because the poor are miserable. In our world the powerful are happy because the powerless are miserable - and so it goes for Master and slave; ruler and ruled; man and woman; and today, Rousseau might add for young and old; white and black; North and South; and the thousand other false distinctions our social divisions impose on us for social, political, or psychological reasons.
Rousseau leaves the heavy guns for later in the paper. It's here I suspect we may see the real reason his essay was not well received. It's here, beginning on p. 76, that Rousseau trains his sights on the sacred centre of enlightenment culture - the very Laws and constitutions that encouraged its rise:
The rich man, hard pressed by necessity, eventually conceived the most well-conceived project which ever entered the human mind, That was to use the very forces of those who were attacking him [the poor - who will inevitable attempt to break out of the chains of their servitude], to turn his enemies into his defenders, to inspire them with other maxims, and to give them other institutions which were as advantageous to him as natural right was against him ... he [the rich man] easily came up with specious [empty, meaningless] reasons for leading them to his goal. Let us unite he said to them, to protect the weak from oppression [deceit], to restrain the ambitious [meaning the poor], and to assure to each man the possession of what belongs to him [meaning the assurance that the poor would be restrained]. Let us set up rules of justice [for the strong] and peace [keep weapons out of the hands of the poor] to which everyone has a duty to conform, which do not exempt anyone ... in a word let us collect them into one supreme power which governs us by wise laws, etc.
Rousseau sees clearly how this scheme could be used, was used, and is still today used to hoodwink the poor. The use of clever language plays to the advantage of the elite. On paper both sides are treated as equals, but it is only the powerful or wealthy who will have the wit to comprehend the real meanings.
Rousseau's stinging critique is in no way intended to suggest that things might ever improve. For Rousseau corruption breads ever more devious ways to conceal real intentions.
However Rousseau gets to here - has he uncovered a truth? It's important to resolve. This work has had a huge influence on modern thought. The ancient world view was rooted firmly in the concept of the polis - the community - and its laws - divinely sanctioned - or otherwise. This Discourse marked a profound turning point. It sanctions distrust in community while locating the centre of human existence in me, the self a self it encourages we nurture and embrace as the only true and trustworthy place for living in an authentic way. if Rousseau is wrong about his thesis, this shift from and neglect of community creates an enormous vacuum. If we turn from society - who is left to mind the store? If we do not tend to our community or even see its importance - someone or something else will step in and do it for us. If that someone or something else shares our base values and attitudes the community risks being apprehended by political thieves - political tyrants. Perhaps it's already happened?
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