Victor Nuovo: Creating equality
Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of essays about political liberalism and conservatism.
When I finished the previous essay, I realized that I was not finished with Rousseau or “The Social Contract.” This goes without saying; one can never be finished with a work of genius, which this surely is. My purpose is more modest. In the previous essay, the question was how to preserve individual liberty in society. There remain to be considered the great themes of equality and public morality, about which Rousseau has important things to say.
But first, we should consider the man himself, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He was Swiss, born in Geneva in 1712. His family was among French Protestants who found refuge in that city during the 16th Century, and he took pride in calling himself a citizen of Geneva. Rousseau was home schooled and self educated. He was a voracious reader with a splendid memory, as his writings show, for they are filled with references and allusions to a vast body of literature. He made his living by copying music. In the process, he became deeply engrossed in the theory of music. He developed a system of musical notation, which is simpler than the one now in use. He also published a dictionary of music, which is still a mine of useful information. His “Essay on the Origin of Languages” connects language and music. Language, he wrote, is in its origin or essence lyrical and melodic, it is primarily an expression of passion. In this respect, it has been commented that Rousseau anticipated Romanticism; his influence is discernible in Friedrich Nietzsche’s “The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music,” a classic of the Romantic movement. He was highly regarded as a playwright and a novelist. One of his novels, “Julie, or the New Heloise,” an early feminist novel, was a record best seller. Another, “Emile,” included a theory of education, which has been deservedly praised and is still fresh. He was also noted for his autobiographical writings: “The Confessions,” reputed to be the first modern autobiography, to which he added two sequels. They read like novels, full of charm and paranoia and deep insight into human motivation and the workings of the human mind, most of all his own. He corresponded with the great personages of the age, and many of his letters are long essays on important philosophical issues. One could spend a lifetime reading Rousseau and never waste a minute, and never suffer a moment’s boredom.
In “The Social Contract,” Rousseau argues that human equality is less a natural birthright than a social product. This seems inconsistent with his claim in his “Discourse on the Origin of Inequality” that civilization is the cause of inequalities. I will comment on this shortly. In any case, Rousseau allows that in a natural state, human beings are all equal only in the sense that we may regard any member of an animal species as equal to all others, a notion expressed in the statement, “If you’ve seen one squirrel, you’ve seem them all.” We can label this “natural equality,” which exists alongside a “natural inequality,” for individual members of any animal species differ in size, swiftness, virility, ingenuity, and many other ways. Now, Rousseau contends “so far from destroying natural equality, the social contract replaces it with a moral and legal equality which compensates for all those natural inequalities from which men suffer. However unequal they may be in physical strength or intellectual gifts, they become equal in the eyes of the law.” Nature provides no such protection for the individual. It is achievable only by social means, by law, enacted by a legislative body and upheld by an executive.
How does this idea of social equality relate to Rousseau’s other claim that civilization causes inequality? He would respond, I think, by observing that the inconsistency and paradox represents neither an error in his thinking, nor a fault of his making, but of human reality. Unlike other social thinkers, Rousseau does not fantasize about a golden age of social existence, nor does he suppose, as did Locke, that we are by nature disposed and outfitted for a life in civil society. For him, creating social justice, and, in particular, social equality, is not a simple activity like fitting clay into a mold; it is more like training a wild horse; the result is something altogether new, and yet filled with the energy of the creature and its creator. The animal and its trainer become inseparable; each requires the other. But this imperfectly describes the effort. He sees the process of civilization as a constant struggle of humanity with itself, one in which it is repeatedly engaged in creating and training itself. This is the meaning of history.
In this respect, Rousseau was no liberal. If history has any meaning, it must be tragic. He did not believe that human nature was perfectible, for at every stage of the process towards perfection, new imperfections will arise, counteracting the original endeavor and unmaking its product. Every social improvement is a seed bed for some deviant antisocial scheme. One need but consider the ill effects of the internet: hacking, identity theft, bullying, and other antisocial practices that contradict the professed purpose of the enterprise. The social media has become the incubator of every anti-social sentiment.
But, to return to the idea of equality as Rousseau describes it, it is a noble idea. It is the very idea of equality before the law, which makes no distinction, a notion of pure impartiality, symbolized in the image of the Lady Justice, blindfolded, with sword in one hand and a scale in the other. Lady Justice is the symbol of legal equality.
There remains the idea of moral equality. For Rousseau, morality, like language and music are rooted in the passions. Our individual sense of self is rooted in the deepest of feeling: freedom, self interest, and pride. Surely, self-interest is a passion, so is pride, or a sense of self-importance. These sentiments are transfigured in a civil society, or as Rousseau’s prefers to call it, the City, a corporate person, in which “each of us puts his person and all his power under the supreme direction of the general will” and by doing so jointly, as one body, or one person, together receive each other, each individual, “as an indivisible part of the whole.” The outcome of this incorporation is a great person: whose consciousness and conscience encompasses deep feelings of corporate freedom and corporate pride.
Some interpreters of Rousseau worry that his notion of the social contract contains the seeds of totalitarianism and nationalism, which is not an unreasonable worry, even if it isn’t what he intended or even less advocated. His view of history is tragic and although tragedy does involve the mistaken use or abuse of power and great suffering, its action is always noble. The cruel instances of totalitarianism and ultra-nationalism that plagued the last century and are reviving even now are devoid of all nobility. But this observation does not put the matter at rest. There is more to be said about this.
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