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.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Leo Strauss and Natural Law: The Rousseauian Crisis of Virtue

YOU CAN'T GO TINKERING WITH TRADITION without causing crises. Often, little changes in thought have great unintended consequences: a wrong step at the beginning of a journey can make a big difference at the end. So, it appears, was the Enlightenment Project to Rousseau who felt "that the modern venture was a radical error." Strauss, 252. Unfortunately for both Rousseau and those who seized upon and those who suffered the effect of his teachings--most poignantly those whose heads were severed from their bodies through the morbidly efficient invention of Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin--Rousseau felt right, but reacted wrongly. "He abandoned himself to modernity" while rebelling against it.

In confronting the Enlightenment thinkers, Rousseau's modus operandi was to return to the classics, drawing therefrom the ideas of "city and virtue, on the one hand, and nature, on the other." Strauss, 253. But in doing this, he not only maintained the error of the moderns, he advanced their error by rejecting parts of the classical thought that even the moderns had the sense to leave in place. Rousseau was sort of like a little boy who goes into a messy room, makes it messier, and then claims to have cleaned it and earned his allowance. As Strauss sees it, therefore, Rousseau's "return to antiquity, was at the same time, an advance of modernity." Strauss, 252. Best as I can figure it out, Rousseau the "modern" dressed up in the city-virtue-nature clothes of the ancients, but it was as unimpressive as when he dressed himself in the furs of an Armenian. In both instances he was unconvincing. All dress, no show. This vain little narcissist is singularly one of the least impressive of little men--we might point out, for one, the five children he fathered out of wedlock that he abandoned--, and he thought he could fool us by dressing up his thoughts in the words of the ancients. Rousseau was sort of like a little kid at a carnival who's dressed up as a soldier, and in his vivid (if puerile) imagination really sees himself as one. Did Rousseau really think that by dressing up his thought with a chiton or a toga we would think him a Socrates or a Cato?[1]

Rousseau Dressed Like an Armenian

Rousseau was a wobbler. He could never quite figure out what he liked more about the ancients, the city (convention) or nature. There is an obvious tension between the convention of the city and the state of nature, and this "tension is the substance of Rousseau's thought." Strauss, 254. But this wasn't the tight tension of a synthesis. No, rather it was the "confusing spectacle of a man who perpetually shifts back and forth between two diametrically opposed positions." Strauss, 254. One the one hand, the city. On the other, nature. On the one hand, the rights of the individual. On the other, the complete submission of the individual to the state. Rousseau was, as I said, a wobbler.

Locke was the Grand Dissembler. Rousseau was the Grand Wobbler.[2]

Rousseau never solved his dilemma, and his thought wallowed in inconsistency. Complaining of the moderns, he appealed to the classics and their "city," and then "almost in the same breath," he appealed the the "'man of nature,' the prepolitical savage." Strauss, 254. "The question is, then, not how he solved the conflict between the individual and society [since he never solved it] but rather how he conceived of that insoluble conflict." Strauss, 255. Strauss believes Rousseau never resolved his problem between the conflict of the individual versus society, any resolutions were clearly tentative and unstable.

Virtue! screamed the unvirtuous Rousseau in his First Discourse,[3] yielding the word like a club against the arts and the sciences, when he should have been beating his breast praying mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa and taking care of his abandoned children, or at least controlling his sexual appetite. But virtue for Rousseau was principally envisioned as a political virtue, not a personal one, the "virtue of the patriot or the virtue of a whole people." Strauss, 256. This virtue, though he points to Socrates, or the austere Fabricius and Cato as exemplars, is something different from the classical and Christian understanding of it on at least two points. First, it is squeezed into democratic and egalitarian bottles. Equality, or at least the recognition of equality, is made inseparable from Rousseau's virtue. Second, Rousseau finds the source of this virtue not in reason, but in conscience. However, Rousseau's understanding of conscience is non-traditional; it is more akin to "sentiment" or "instinct." Strauss, 256. Here, then, passion is king. Then he ties the two together: "Rousseau saw a connection between his inclination toward democracy and his preference for sentiment above reason." Strauss, 256. In Rousseau, "passion began to pass judgment, in the severe accents of Catonic virtue." Hmmm, something is rotten in the state of Rousseauville.

This Rousseauian virtue was so tied to the conventional "city," that is, it was contrary to science or philosophy (Rousseau uses the word "science" broadly in the original Latin sense of scientia to include any sort of "knowledge," including philosophy, but also the natural sciences) because virtue was particular to a nation, to a people, whereas science was universal. Science or philosophy therefore can act as a solvent against the particular genius of a people and nationalistic and patriotic virtues. Science further emasculates a people, removing from them their warlike spirit. Any effort applied to science, moreover, is effort that is wrongly diverted from the common good of the people. So the "dogmas" of a people, "the sacred dogmas authorized by the laws" face unhealthy competition from science. A people are cemented together with opinion and faith. Science dissolves these bonds through truth and knowledge. Science is, moreover, fostering of inequality. The philosopher or scientist, in short, cannot be a good citizen.

But here we come upon a Rousseauian contradiction. It is through philosophy that Rousseau condemns philosophy and science and promotes political or national freedom and virtue. He also heaps encomia upon such men as Bacon, Descartes, and Newton, which would appear inconsistent with his primary thesis. So he devises some ways out of his situation, none of them entirely convincing. First, he suggests that "science is bad for a good society and good for a bad society." Strauss, 259. In other words, science has a role when society is bad in criticizing that society, but once that society becomes purified of its evils, science has no more role. But he saw his "science" as perennial, and therefore lasting and valid even in the context of a good society. Obviously, our diminutive narcissist would not want his "science" ever to be passé. So there is another explanation given, this one equally as narcissistic. Science is bad for the hoi polloi, for the common man, but not for the brilliant minority, of which, naturally, Rousseau was a part. Again, our little man was nothing but a little boy who loved to dress up:

[Rousseau] intimates that, far from being a common man, he is a philosopher who merely appears in the guise of a common man and that, far from ultimately addressing "the people," he addresses only those who are not subjugated by the opinions of their century, of their country, or of their society.

What hubris! Rousseau, the grand philosopher, suffers to show himself a common man, so as to speak to--not the common man, for the common man could not understand him--but the visionary equally brilliant as he to impart his divine gnosis! This way he can save the common man. Oh Rousseau, who, being equivalent to divine philosophers, did not consider equality to be grasped at, but humbled himself, taking the nature of the common man, and so lowered himself, even toward the death of being misunderstood. Presumably, our virtuous light from light did all this so as to save us from our darkness.

Me thinks our little man suffered from a Messiah complex. Indeed, as Professor Carol Blum notes in her Rousseau and the Republic of Virtue, Rousseau envisioned himself a kind of Christ figure, for Rousseau's “wish was not to imitate Jesus Christ, but to compete with him.” Well, I have news for Rousseau. He lost the competition. Besides, now he finds himself in another quandary. Now he has re-injected inequality among men, which is inconsistent with his egalitarian premises.

The third way Rousseau sought to get out of his quandary between the philosophy being bad for the city, and yet his philosophy being exceptional is as follows. Rousseau distinguished between two kinds of science or philosophy. There is one kind ("metaphysics) which was incompatible with virtue, and there was another kind ("Socratic wisdom") which was compatible with virtue. Naturally (is it any surprise?), Rousseau's philosophy was the latter kind. This Socratic wisdom was consistent with virtue because it recognized the need to be concerned with the "science of the simple souls." As Strauss puts it: "Socratic wisdom is needed, not for the sake of Socrates, but for the sake of the simple souls or of the people." Strauss, 263.
The true philosophers fulfil the absolutely necessary function of being the guardians of virtue or of free society. Being the teachers of the human race, they, and they alone, can enlighten the peoples as to their duties and as to the precise character of the good society.
Strauss, 263. This would seem to be a solution, yet Rousseau again wobbles things by questioning the very thing the one with Socratic wisdom was meant to serve: the city and virtue. "In the name of nature, Rousseau questioned not only philosophy but the city and virtue as well." Strauss, 263. This was forced upon him because his particular brand of "Socratic wisdom" was highly untraditional and against the classical and Christian spirit that came before him. The Rousseauian philosophy was not philosophy at all, but "a particular kind of theoretical science, namely, modern natural science." Strauss, 263.

And this leads naturally to Rousseau's Second Discourse,[4] the Straussian view of which shall be the topic of our next blog posting on Rousseau.

[1] Rousseau has been the subject of prior postings, and you can search the blog using the gadget on the upper left of the blog, using his name as a search term to find them. But his hypocrisy was particularly treated in Ecstatsis and Telos: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Disfigured Man.
[2] Rousseau wobbled in his faith. He converted (in a fashion) from his childhood Calvinism to Catholicism in 1728, only to give it up in favor of Calvinism in 1754. But whether Protestant or Catholic, his life was not particularly led by Christian values. He also wobbled in his occupation, and in his relations with women. He was a man with no true compass. His only consistent attribute was a self-preening narcissism.
[3] The First Discourse refers to Rousseau's Discours sur les sciences et sur les arts (A Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts).

[4] The Second Discourse refers to Rousseau's Discours sur l'origine de l'inégalité (Discourse on the Origin of Inequality). It is significantly the more important text in understanding Rousseau's political philosophy.

1 comment:

  1. I think you are being a bit hard on Rousseau. I would highly suggest reading his Confessions. Also, he repeatedly says in Emile that he prefers society over the state of nature because it is only through society that man can achieve the highest good.