"-+++++14444-**011111111111111111'?'????\bv" [Paws up!] raves Baby Cakes over his second cousin Matthew Simpson's freshly minted Rousseau's Theory of Freedom, part of the Continuum Studies in Philosophy series. Our copy -- actually Goomp's, which he agreed to have delivered here if we ordered it for him (lower right in photo) -- just arrived via UPS this morning.
"Rousseau's thought was complex and multi-faceted. Wherever his ideals have taken root, the adopting culture found in them a mirror of some aspect of its own cultural identity," wrote Mark Brittingham in "The Cold War is Not Over: Europe and the Post-Modern Left" [date unknown]:
Pursuing this idealization of their identity and emboldened by the logic of the Common Will, many have descended into oppression and genocide. In France, Rousseau's radical egalitarianism led to the bloodbath of "The Terror." In Germany, via Nietzsche and later defended by Heidegger, Nazism rose on the foundation of romanticism and the will to power. In Russia, via Marx and Lenin, Communism was born in egalitarianism and collectivism and rapidly descended into starvation and repression of a mammoth scale . . . The conclusion is inescapable that Rousseau's multi-headed hydra is genocidal in its practice regardless of its justification in philosophy. Nonetheless, Rousseau's philosophical descendents enjoy considerable support in both American and European academia and among the European media and political elite. Genocide is no deterrent to this support: proponents such as Noam Chomsky continued to defend the Khmer Rouge despite unmistakable evidence that they had plunged Cambodia into mass murder.
Now comes Matthew Simpson, who teaches philosophy at Luther College, Decorah, Iowa, AND just happens to be our beloved godson and nephew -- sister Susie's Barney I -- with Rousseau's Theory of Freedom, judged by Christopher Kelly of Boston College to be "one of the two or three best treatments of the Social Contract in any language." It's a topic we've touched on -- spiritedly if without tools -- here more than once before. We decided to start with Matthew's final chapter to get a bead on where he's coming from:
The social pact would be not only unnecessary for human nature in its less corrupt forms, but also unintelligible. Scarcity and vanity together make it necessary; rationality makes it possible. The social pact removes none of the corruptions in humanity's development. It relies on them and puts them to good use (pp 112-114).
That "scarcity and vanity" got our blogging juices flowing. Scarcity is the progenitor of economic man [see our post connecting the work of Thomas Sowell and blind paleontologist Geerat Vermiej, who notes "From humans to hermit crabs to deep water plankton, all living things compete for locally limiting resources."], and vanity, in our view, is the progenitor of all moral orders [see The Importance of Being Noticed]. Lots of blogfood for future cogitations once we've gotten the whole thing under our belt. More hors d'oeuvres from Matt's concluding chapter:
He argues that humanity's real nature and its civic nature are inevitably at war with each other in political society . . . Most people would presumably find themselves in a state of internal conflict. This conflict is not the easy one between long-term goals and immediate desires. It is the more fundamental and intractable conflict between, on the one hand, the set of natural passions, such as self-regard, love of family, and even greed and vanity, and, on the other hand, the civic passions for duty, selflessness, and country (p. 116).
Being lumpers rather than splitters, we are prone to see Rousseau's "civic passions" and "natural passions" as two points upon a spectrum rather than two battling opposites, but seen from his perspective, when "all of Europe lay exhausted by centuries of genocidal religious warfare . . . his rejection of Christianity as a moderating force is not unreasonable." More about that later -- again, after we've had a chance to read the whole thing.
Furthermore, as the citizen is a kind of artificial being, Rousseau argued that it is prone to perversion . . . No great imagination is required to see patriotism, dutifulness, and a passion for the common good degenerating into superstition, servility, and factionalism . . . the effort to make a new kind of human being is perhaps as likely to produce a monster as a citizen (p. 117).
Osama & Company come to mind. We'll give Matt the final word, with his elegant and poignant concluding words:
I believe that the complexity of his theory, and its apparent lack of a single prescription, is not exactly a weakness in his philosophy. It is rather an implication of his theory of freedom, which says that all things come at a price and that it is impossible to have all goods at once. Each kind of freedom excludes other kinds; and the conditions needed for a free society sometimes limit those very freedoms. There is, in short, no home for us in this world. Rousseau's strange fate is that the man who was thus above all a philosopher of moderation and caution should have been made the pretext for simplistic and imprudent fanaticism (pp. 117-18).
No aunt/godmother could be prouder or more intrigued with the prospect of conversations to come.
Update: There may be no home for us humans in this world, but there is always refuge for animals of the blogosphere at the Friday Ark at Modulator.