Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Monday, June 14, 2010

The relevance of Rousseau

A while ago, when I got sidetracked by A.C. Grayling's silly dismissal of "religion" (a concept that is just plain too huge anyway, covering as it ostensibly does everything from the Dalai Lama to Ken Ham), I mentioned that the real interest of Grayling's exchange with Tzvetan Todorov lay elsewhere. The conversation is occasioned by Todorov's new book about the Enlightenment, and Todorov starts out by emphasizing the central role for him of Rousseau:
He is a very singular representative of the Enlightenment, since his point was fighting against the philosophes, the extreme of the Enlightenment. He always claimed that he had to fight on two fronts, against the fanatics on one side and atheists on the other....Rousseau is one of the most complex figures of the time and for that reason maybe one of the most fascinating for us readers and critics, because he seems at times so contradictory. But, at the same time, to blame a writer for being contradictory is an easy way out of the problem of interpretation of his thought, because probably Rousseau was brighter than me, and if I can see contradictions in this thoughts, probably he saw them just as well.
This double-front fighting is something of a motif for me, as I have mentioned before. Nor is it just a matter of steering a middle course between two extremes. Though philosophy has something in it that makes it akin to moderation, this is too negative a view of it, as though wisdom were exhausted by eschewing and avoidance. Rousseau perfectly illustrates the paradox: there is nothing merely negative about him, as if one could define him by what he was against. He was, indeed, against many things; but always in the name of a concretely articulated (though not necessarily explicit) vision of what it was to be a whole human being.

I came to Rousseau quite late, and to my shame, quite prejudiced. He has a reputation of being the father of so many excesses of our own age. A believer in "man's natural goodness," he was decisively refuted by the guillotine; and yet, his oblivious progeny had gone on to give us the 1960's. This is the received cliché on Rousseau, reinforced by even such otherwise sensible (if tendentious) critics as Camille Paglia, whose Sexual Personae takes Sade's mirthless side in one chuckle after another at Rousseau's expense. Aside from a quick walk-through of The Social Contract, this was the extent of my familiarity with Rousseau. It took me a long while to unlearn what I "knew." I wasn't that interested in the Enlightenment as a period anyway (Peter Gay's scholarship eventually helped cure me of this), and so many of Rousseau's main works all seemed so... well, novelistic. Reveries of a Solitary Walker; Emile, or, On Education; Julie, or, the New Heloise. I preferred to get my philosophical instruction "straight," as it were. So I kept the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality and The Social Contract, but left more or less everything else aside, and what I did read, I read already "knowing" what it said.

Now if you've read Rousseau, you know how foolish my attitude at the time was. I can only defend myself with the lame excuse of "youth." Eventually I stumbled on Allan Bloom's essay on Rousseau's Emile, in which he called it one of the greatest philosophical masterpieces in the history of the West. I had read The Closing of the American Mind with some sympathy, though Bloom certainly seemed curmudgeonly, and I was a bit wary. But I looked in, and I saw that this was a case in which expecting great things actually helped me to see them.

In the first few pages of Emile, Rousseau says of the Republic that "[i]t is not at all a political work, as think those who judge books only by their titles. It is the most beautiful educational treatise ever written." How could it have taken me so long to get around to this? For Rousseau was clearly honing in on something essential. I had sensed for quite a while that I had not the first clue as to how to read the ancients--there was obviously more to Plato than the straw Ideas-in-the-Sky dreamer that political correctness was busy critiquing as the ursprung of all things Dead, White and Male. Here was a writer from 200 years ago telling me the same thing. I turned to Rousseau.

In fact, Emile is a phenomenally ambitious and engaging book, about everything under the sun, with always another level, another angle. Though it has a sort of story-arc, in which the eponymous main character is raised to adulthood by the narrator, calling it a "novel" is like calling the Republic a play. If Rousseau thought that Plato had concealed his pedagogy under a Utopian fantasy, he certainly learned his lesson well. It takes a great deal of attention to catch Rousseau each time he gives a clue to more going on than is on the surface. This happens all the time in Emile, because Rousseau is constantly pulling on the reader the same sorts of oblique object-lessons his narrator is foisting on Emile, taking care to lead you only so far and then letting you "draw the conclusion for yourself." But what I want to emphasize is Todorov's (correct) point, that Rousseau's struggle was twofold: on the one hand against the fanatics of "religion," and on the other, against those who believed they either could or should wage war against religion per se.

Rousseau's own vision is somewhat outlined in the story-within-a-story he nested in almost the center of Emile, the episode called "The Faith of a Savoyard Vicar." I say "somewhat," because it is a matter of considerable debate how closely the vicar's profession of faith in a sort of culturally-Christian deism matches Rousseau's own beliefs. Bloom observes in his preface that at least with regard to sexuality, Emile as a whole teaches an integration rather than the alienation such as the vicar still seems to experience. This is an important clue, for Paglia is right, despite her exaggerations, to claim that sexuality is very close to the heart of things for Rousseau. He is a Freud before Freud. No philosopher since Plato, of anything like his public standing, had been so expressly concerned with eros. It would be easy to leap to identifying Rousseau and the vicar, however, and certainly Rousseau's critics did not hesitate; it was largely because of reaction to this section of Emile that Rousseau was forced to spend the rest of his life in exile. I think this is a mistake, as I will reiterate below, but one can see how it happened.

Rousseau's vicar has given up on all metaphysical speculation, and now rests content with a simple Deism. He maintains a faith in a God who has intelligently made the universe, who loves humankind and the rest of creation, and who made humankind with free will. Human evil the vicar explains in almost the same terms as St Augustine or indeed St Paul ("the evil I would not do, that I do"), but he denies any use in petitioning God for punishment of the evil or vindication of the righteous, even in this life let alone the next; indeed he does not even know whether the soul is immortal. Though he says he believes in an afterlife as it is both comforting and not unreasonable, certainty on such questions are beyond the human scope.

Aside from this there is almost no express "theology" in Rousseau. This much, however, is almost explicitly a recapitulation of Plato's theology from Book X of the Laws: the gods exist; they care for the world; and they cannot be propitiated by men's gifts or prayers. Here again Rousseau shows himself Plato's student, and his Vicar is a kind of vicar for himself, both him and not him, as Socrates and the Athenian stranger and Parmenides are all both Plato's stand-ins and yet not Plato. The vicar happily serves in his parish and tries to help the souls under his care; he does not preach overtly against the trappings of their religion, but advises them in their worries, sufferings, and moral dilemmas, and occasionally nudges them, if they seem ready, towards his more chaste and restrained faith, a faith "within the limits of reason alone," as Kant would later reframe it.

In his recent The Stillborn God, Mark Lilla writes that Rousseau challenged Christianity
by claiming to understand Christianity's fundamental truths better than Christians themselves did. By turning attention from God to man's need for God, he laid the theological foundations for a new kind of faith that could exist within existing religions, bringing out what was true in them while protecting the faithful from dogmas that were psychologically or morally pernicious....the Vicar...explains that after his conversion to this universal moral faith...he once again could celebrate the sacraments and speak the prayers with more sincerity and respect than he ever felt before. That the particular rites and dogmas are not universal does not disturb him; one can mentally distinguish those conventions from the deeper truths they adorn. (pp 126, 129)
I submit that in his effort, Rousseau was quite successful. Not only Kant, but Hegel, Feuerbach, Jefferson, and Schleiermacher followed him. Today, whatever they maintain out loud, a tremendous number of believers are split in their own minds between a theology they think their tradition says they ought to believe, and a Rousseauian faith that accords very well with their practice. This is above all the case in America.

It is here that we might also note a difference between Plato and Rousseau. Plato's Athenian offers Deism as a public religion; Rousseau's Vicar thinks it is the inner meaning of any religion and that one can cultivate it under the auspices of any external cult. It's worth reminding ourselves that the Laws is the only non-Socratic dialogue; also, again, that the Vicar is not Rousseau. I don't pretend to know just what either Plato or Rousseau intended on this count. But I would submit that the fact that they both seem to commend deism need not be because they believe it is the final word in religious wisdom. One may well hold, instead, that it is because it is an effective tool for the cultivation of tolerance.Philosophers may well (as elsewhere in Plato) continue to speculate and indeed to strive via ascesis to ascend higher than this bland creed; but this is because philosophers do not, qua philosophers, kill each other, even when they disagree.

But Rousseau remains important not only because of what in his legacy is accomplished, but what is unfinished. His two-front war-- against religious fanatics, and against the cultured despisers of religion-- is part of what makes him relevant today, and of what makes him a vital link to the ancients. I believe he saw quite deeply into not just the methods but the motives of Plato, not in all the details of his cosmology, but in his fundamental project of salvaging what needed to be kept from the wreckage of the great upheavals in consciousness that closed the bronze age. Plato had written to try to keep open some avenues that were being lost as writing did a complete remake on the shape of human consciousness. He opposed both the rear-guard efforts to just dig in one's heels and honor the gods of the city as if nothing had happened (for something had happened, and was happening), and also the sophistic relativism which was prepared to whistle past the nihilistic graveyard, too breezily opposing nomos with physis as though one needed no answer at all to why one acted as one did. (This is the whole question that keeps Socrates preoccupied during his final hours--what is for the best?--and it is from this question that the hypothesis of the Ideas is launched).

Rousseau, likewise, sensed that a shift was underway. It was a kind of mutation in thinking, which coincided to some extent with a technological innovation (Gutenberg--we may even speculate with McLuhan about the extent to which it was brought on by Gutenberg, but that is--for these purposes--a secondary question), whose ramifications were felt above all in the relationship between faith and reason.
We are still going through this upheaval, for the Axial Age does not pass in a fortnight, and Rousseau's vision is as relevant as ever.

Another index of Rousseau's pertinence, a sign that marks his thinking as that of a genuine philosopher, is one of his most misunderstood characteristics: his optimism. Like Leibniz, who died when Rousseau was four, Rousseau is known for his belief that the world is good, and human nature, left unmeddled with, is good as well. It's this which opens him up to the belittling of his critics, who see him as sufficiently refuted by Robespierre, Stalin, Pol Pot, and any number of others who put into practice some utopian dream vaguely traceable to Rousseau's door. Clearly, in a blog post, I'm not going to defend the doctrine of the goodness of the world from every attack. All I want to do here is point out the continuity between Rousseau and his precursors--all the way back to Socrates--and his descendants, including even Nietzsche, who rarely had a kind word to say about Rousseau but whose yea-saying is Leibniz' optimism etsi deus non daretur. The question about whether or not life can be good is ancient, and one can be forgiven for coming away from the ancient tragedians shaking one's head. That the gods "kill us for their sport" was not a sentiment that originated with Shakespeare. Socrates' contention that the unexamined life was not worth living is both a counter-accusation against his jury, and a counter-claim to the pessimism of the tragic poets. (The question of the origin of ancient pagan pessimism is different; I don't assume it was primordial). To the wisdom of Silenus, which claimed that the best thing for man is not to be born, Socrates rejoins: there is a kind of life that is worth living:
I say that to talk every day about virtue and the other things about which you hear me talking and examining myself and others is the greatest good to man, and the unexamined life is not worth living.
Socrates did not deny that the pessimistic verdict on human life was, or seemed, often warranted. Nor did Rousseau. But something in him held to a faith (and it is a faith) that it is possible for the human race to do better than its record would lead one to suspect. This is too easily sneered at as "the myth of progress," and such a sneer just starts a back-&-forth, in which the ills of yesteryear (the Black Plague, Torquemada) are compared with those of the past hundred years and today (DDT, oil "spills" under the Gulf of Mexico, genocides), or the towering achievements of our day are held up against some prelapsarian World We Have Lost. These debates don't get us anywhere. The question of a direction to history (teleology) is a legitimate one, but it is possible to hold that things can improve without holding that they will; or indeed to hold that if they improve they will do so along such-&-such lines, but they might not.

Rousseau is indeed an ancestor of such starry-eyed hopefuls as Carl Sagan and Gene Roddenberry, who believed we can someday figure out how to get along, well enough to venture to the stars. But Rousseau believed we would attain this not by forgetting about religion but by understanding it. This understanding was twofold. On the one hand, letting go of the desire for unattainable certainty in metaphysics; on the other, letting go of an incorrigible disdain for faith. The religious urge is an inner drive of humankind, Rousseau believed, and cannot be uprooted or "critiqued" without doing violence to ourselves. Both sides of this understanding aim at finding in ourselves an appropriate humility, a humility by which, paradoxically, we would be able to do great things.


  1. That is so much more fun to read than those crazy German Idealists. This is like a glass of wine and some nice conversation. Reading Maimon is more like trying to make your clothes from wool or bread from wild harvested grain.

    I have to confess I've been guilty of the same prejudices against Rousseau, and probably some additional ones thrown in. You do a great service if you can get your readers to adopt a beginner's mind toward authors they long ago stuffed into odd shaped boxes.

    In our time of such extremism and incivility in politics, intellectual discourse, food preferences and all kinds of little life style choices; it is great to read a defense of the middle road. I just got finished readings some heated emails about the car seats my son's day care is using to get to swim lessons--the same ones they've been using without incident for twenty years. It's like we're engaging in some sort of I'm_more_neurotic_than_you arms race. I don't want to argue for mediocrity, just civility.

  2. I enjoyed this piece on Rousseau, thanks. I've been recently going through Hegel's lectures on Religion (the third volume, on Christianity) and he makes the same point regarding his enemies: the faithful and the enlightened. Philosophy has always striven to maintain the middle way between the simple-minded traditional nomos of the people and the skepticism cum nihilism of the exceptions.

    I doubt if this will ever change...

  3. Glad you liked this, Joe, I actually sorta had you in mind.

    I agree w/ Dy0genes, Rousseau is both easier to take and in a way more edifying than Maimon; but he's very relevant to the Maimon reading in a sense, in that he stands behind Kant, and in my opinion Kant's moral philosophy is the center of gravity around which all of his thinking turns. The intuition of Kant's metaphysics, its respectful distance from the ding an sich, is of a piece with his ethics, which insists on treating every rational being as an end and not a means. I sometimes think the first critique is like an elaborate Rube Goldberg device for cooling the engine of his metaphysics of morals. In any case, Rousseau's (Vicar's) willingness to prescind from seeking certainty in metaphysics is behind Kant, and we see in the Vicar's story and creed the practical link between this metaphysical shrug and the moral-political practice. I am not sure that the improvised skepticism is the final word for Rousseau (Kant certainly wanted it to be less improvised, at least). But he certainly thought it needed to be cultivated in his age.