Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Ecstasis and Telos: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Disfigured Man

"A LOVER OF HIS KIND, but a hater of his kindred," is how Edmund Burke aptly described Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Rousseau abandoned as many as perhaps five children he fathered out of wedlock with the seamstress Thérèse Levasseur. But we mustn't forget that this noble act gave the responsible "citizen of Geneva" Jean Jacques Rousseau the time and the peace and quiet to write about so many things with great authority and aplomb, including morality, good citizenship, and (no kidding!) the proper rearing and education of children. Edmund Burke was right: Rousseau was worse than a bear, for a "bear, loves, licks and forms her young, but bears are not philosophers," at least not "philosophers of vanity." (Burke, Letter to a Member of the National Assembly, 1791). The remarkable thing is that men (particularly the French) listened to Rousseau, lionized him, and idolized this sensual and diminutive whining egoist to the point that Burke could mock the French as running to foundries with the kettles of their poor and the bells of their churches to have them smelted down into statues of Rousseau. Preposterously, the French even enshrined the ashes of this cad who wrote words sweet, but did things bitter, in the Panthéon in Paris.

In his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1754), the most famous of his political discourses, Rousseau resolves to discover the true nature of mankind by doing what Hobbes did, hypothesizing on man's "state of nature" or "original condition." Coming to the exact opposite of Hobbes's conclusions, however, Rousseau sees man in his "state of nature" not as a state of constant war, but a state of constant peace, a paradise. Rousseau comes to believe that culture and society have stained the warp and woof that is man, and that in his natural state man was far more pure and altruistic. Famously, Rousseau compares his analysis of man to the Greek statute of Glaucus:
Like the statue of Glaucus, which time, sea and storms had disfigured to such an extent that it look less like a god than a wild beast, the human soul altered in the midst of society by a thousand constantly recurring cause, by the acquisition of a multitude of bits of knowledge and of errors, by changes that too place in the constitution of bodies, by the constant impact of the passions, has, as it were, changed its appearance to the point of being nearly unrecognizable. And instead of a being active always by certain and invariable principles, instead of that heavenly and majestic simplicity whose mark its author had left on it, one no longer finds anything but the grotesque contrasts of passion which thinks it reasons and and understanding in as state of delirium.
Poor Rousseau. It was not mankind that was like Glaucus's statue. It was Rousseau that was like Glaucus's statue. It was Rousseau, whose egotistic and self-regarding sensualism and sexual license led him to his life of hideous selfishness, one which led him to abandon his children, marked him with a chronic inability to get along with any of his colleagues, and fed his palpable paranoia. By his behavior, he had disfigured himself, his soul, to where it had no semblance of its original nobility.

And that the grass, which methought hung so wide
And white, was but his thin discoloured hair,
And that the holes he vainly sought to hide,
Were or had been eyes:—
. . .
'First, who art thou?'—'Before thy memory,
'I feared, loved, hated, suffered, did and died,
And if the spark with which Heaven lit my spirit
Had been with purer nutriment supplied,
'Corruption would not now thus much inherit
Of what was once Rousseau,—

Shelley, "Triumph of Life" (1822).

As the poet Shelley put it, Rousseau had lost his eyes. Where there had once been eyes, there were but gaping holes, a man who had blinded himself. And why should we follow a blind guide, especially one self-blinded? Rousseau is called Father of the French Revolution, a revolution that during its Reign of Terror led to the death of perhaps as many as 40,000. If you include his five children (who very likely died in the foundling hospitals where they were abandoned) to the tally, that would be 40,005. These were but collateral damage to the theories of Rousseau.

Be all that as it may, Rousseau's efforts at unearthing human nature like some sort of philosophical paleontologist was not for the purpose of discovering an end or teleology in that nature. He rejected any notion of a teleology in nature, and saw that nature as "self-contained rather than ordered beyond itself." Levering, 109. Moreover, there is no notion in Rousseau wherein man finds fulfillment in community (as a political animal) or where he is "guided toward 'ecstatic' fulfilment by an ordering established by God." What Rousseau intended to do was discover this original nature so that it could be the foundation of the natural rights of the individual as against society. Thus, though Rousseau's conclusions about human nature are more optimistic than Hobbes's, they still suffer from the same individualistic strain.
The two fundamental principles of "natural law" that he finds [through his analysis] are self-preservation and compassion for others; the second principle will predominate and guide human society unless the first principle is threatened. What he calls "natural right" flows from these two principles.
Levering, 111-12.

Rousseau's conclusion was that man was radically free and equal in his original state. All goods, even women, were free and could be picked and chosen at will as if they were fruit on a tree. "Savage man is free of entangling social bonds, whether with neighbours, wife, or children, and therefore is free to seek peacefully his self-preservation and to exercise compassion." Levering, 114. It was only the invention of private property (and exclusive marriage, an invention of civilized women to control men) that led to man's fall from his idyllic savage existence.
The first person who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. What crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors would the human race have been spared, had someone pulled up the stakes or filled in the ditch . . . .
Levering, 114-15 (quoting Part II of Discourse on the Origin of Inequality).

The original sin was not disobedience to God, but the institution of private property, and following its institution, the natural law disappeared to be replaced by a regime of violence, or, only marginally better, human law, which was nothing less than violence writ on paper. Laws
gave new fetters to the weak and new forces to the rich, irretrievably destroyed natural liberty, established forever the law of property of inequality, changed adroit usurpation into an irrevocable right, and for the profit of a few ambitious men henceforth subject the entire human race to labor, servitude, and misery.
So, deftly, with his free, easy, and irresponsible pen (what did he care; it helped sell books), Rousseau managed to contradict Hobbes's view of the state of nature and the value of the commonwealth and Locke's veneration of the right to private property and contractual government. All ills were placed at the foot of civil society. As he famously wrote in the opening lines of the Social Contract: "Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains!"

It's true. Rousseau could write a line. But he could not live a life. And he could and would ruin many, and most certainly five. And whatever it was that he advanced, and for whatever it is that he is famous for, it is not because he advanced the cause of the natural moral law and the cause of virtue.

1 comment:

  1. O, The Picture of Dorian Gray
    Is much too vain to share.
    Hence comes its Painter,
    Apotheose, before we slay!

    Copr 2011 Arthur D. Sulit