PLSC 114: Introduction to Political Philosophy

Lecture 19

 - Democracy and Participation: Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality (Part II)


The discussion on the origins of inequality in the Second Discourse continues. This lecture focuses on amour-propre, a faculty or a disposition that is related to a range of psychological characteristics such as pride, vanity, and conceit. The Social Contract is subsequently discussed with an emphasis on the concept of freedom and how one’s desire to preserve one’s freedom is often in conflict with that of others to protect and defend their own. General will becomes Rousseau’s solution to the problem of securing individual liberty.

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Introduction to Political Philosophy

PLSC 114 - Lecture 19 - Democracy and Participation: Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality (Part II)

Chapter 1. Amour-Propre: The Most Durable Cause of Inequality [00:00:00]

Professor Steven Smith: Good morning. My name is Borat. Anyone see the movie yet? Yeah, I saw it over the weekend. Had to cheer myself up a little bit after Saturday afternoon but there’s still another week to go. Still time.

Good morning. I want to talk today about my favorite part of the Second Discourse, a book that never grows old, that never fails to produce. Last time, in talking about Rousseau’s account of the origins of inequality, I focused on a famous passage in which Rousseau claims it was the establishment of private property that was the true formation of civil society and the beginnings of inequality and all of the subsequent miseries of the human race that he wants to describe. But in fact, that’s not really true. Rousseau himself knows it’s not quite true. If Rousseau were only interested in issues of class and economic inequality, there would be very little difference between him and materialist theorists of society like Karl Marx although Marx was in fact a very appreciative reader of Rousseau and got most of his best lines against capitalist society from him. Nevertheless, Rousseau understands that even for institutions like property and civil society to be possible there must be huge and important developments that go on or take place even prior to this, moral and psychological transformations of human beings. And it is for Rousseau far more what we might call “the moral and psychological injuries of inequality” than the material aspects of the phenomenon that is of concern to him. Rousseau very much takes the side of the poor and the dispossessed but it isn’t property, or it isn’t poverty rather, that really rouses Rousseau’s anger as it is the attitudes and beliefs shaped by inequalities and of wealth and power. It is Rousseau the moral psychologist where his voice truly comes out. In many ways, Rousseau like Plato finds his voice when discussing the various complexities of the human soul.

So what is the chief villain in Rousseau’s Second Discourse and his account of the beginnings in development of inequality? Real inequality begins in a faculty or a disposition that is in fact in most editions of the book rendered simply by the French term because it is really untranslatable into English. It is amour-propre, the first term I put on the board, which is the first and most durable cause of inequality for Rousseau. Amour-propre, again, is an untranslatable word but in many ways is related to a range of psychological characteristics such as pride, vanity, conceit. In the translation that you have, I believe, the translator refers to it as egocentrism, a kind of ugly modern psychologistic term I think but better and more accurately, evocatively translated by terms like vanity and conceit or pride. Amour-propre for Rousseau only arises in society and is the true cause, he believes, for our discontents. And in a lengthy footnote that I hope you checked–in a lengthy footnote, he distinguishes amour-propre from another disposition that he calls amour de soi-meme, a sort of self-love. How are these distinguished? He says in that note: “We must not confuse amour-propre with love of oneself. These are two passions very different by virtue of their nature and their effects.” Love of oneself, amour de soi-meme, ”Love of oneself is a natural sentiment,” he writes, “which moves every animal to be vigilant in its own preservation and which directed in many by reason and modified by pity produces humanity and virtue.” So there is a kind of self-love, he says, that is at the root of our desire to preserve ourself, to be strong in our self-preservation, and to resist the invasion or encroachment by others.

But then, he goes on to say amour-propre is an entirely different kind of passion or sentiment. “Amour-propre is merely a sentiment that is relative,” he says, “artificial and born in society which moves each individual to value himself more than anyone else, which inspired in men all the evils they cause one another and which is the true source of honor.” Listen to that last expression. “Amour-propre,” he says, “is what moves every individual to value” him–or herself–“more than any other, which inspires all of the evils in society and,” he says, “is the true source of honor, both evil and honor, the desire to be recognized and esteemed by others.” How can this passion of amour-propre be responsible for these two very different sort of competing effects? How did this sentiment arise first of all? How did it come about and I suppose fundamentally and more importantly, what can or should be done about it?

For Hobbes, recall, and this idea of pride, vanity, what Hobbes called vainglory, you remember, a very important part of Hobbes’ political and moral psychology in Leviathan, pride is seen as something natural to us, Hobbes writes, you remember, it is part of our natural–pride is part of our natural desire to dominate over others, but for Rousseau by contrast amour-propre is something that could only come about after the state of nature, a state that Hobbes, you remember, had called solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short, after the state of nature had already begun to give way to society. Hobbes’s account for Rousseau is incoherent. If the natural state is truly solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short, what would it mean in such a state to feel pride or vanity that requires human sociability and requires the esteem of others and somehow the gaze or the look of others? How could pride have arisen in a state of nature which on Hobbes’s own account is solitary? Rousseau uses Hobbes in a way to prove his own point, that amour-propre, vanity, is not a natural sentiment but, as he says in that passage I just read, a sentiment that is relative and artificial, could only have come into being once we enter society in some ways.

But how did that happen? Rousseau speculates about this and, again, this is part of his hypothetical or conjectural history. He speculates that amour-propre began to arise and develop as soon as people began to gather around a hut or a tree and to look at one another, as soon as we became conscious of the gaze of another, and it is from that gaze, from the look or gaze of another, that the passion of vanity was born. Listen to the way in which he speculates how this arose. “Each one,” he says, “began to look at the others and to want to be looked at himself and public esteem had a value. The one who sang or danced the best, the handsomest, the strongest, the most adroit or the most eloquent became the most highly regarded and this was the first step toward inequality and at the same time toward vice. From these first preferences were born vanity and contempt on the one hand and shame and envy on the other and the fermentation caused by this new leavens eventually produced compounds fatal to happiness and innocence.” So the rise of this passion to be seen, to be seen to be best at something, produced in many–for many people again, as he puts it, pride and vanity from some shame and envy on the part of others and from this fatal compound grew tendencies that were, as he says, fatal to our happiness and innocence, and Rousseau, I think is very much onto something here.

Amour-propre is presented in the passage I just read and throughout much of the Second Discourse in largely negative terms but it is also related to something positive, in many ways, for the development of humanity in society, the desire felt by all people once we enter society, to be accorded some kind of recognition or respect by those around us. That too is a part of amour-propre, the desire to be seen and recognized and respected. The desire for recognition, he says, is at the root of our sense of justice and underlying this, I think, is the intuition powerful and in many ways I think deeply true, that our feelings, beliefs, opinions and attitudes be acknowledged and respected by others around us, that we matter in some way. When we feel that our opinions are slighted, when others do not recognize our worth, we feel angry about this and this need for recognition, which is part of this passion of amour-propre, is for Rousseau also a cornerstone of justice but it is also, as he says, at the same time the demand for recognition can easily become cruel and violent as we demand this from others.

Consider again just the following. I want to read one other passage from the same part of the text. He writes: “As soon as men had begun mutually to value one another and the idea of esteem was formed in their minds, each one claimed to have a right to it, each one claimed to have a right to esteem or recognition, and it no longer possible,” he writes, “for anyone to be lacking it with impunity. From this came the first duties of civility even among savages and from this every voluntary wrong became an outrage. Every time someone was harmed or injured, it became an outrage because along with the harm that resulted from the injury,” he says, “the offended party saw in it contempt for his person, which often was more insufferable than the harm itself.” Think about the psychology, the moral psychology that Rousseau is invoking here in his talk about harm and injury. It’s not the physical aspect of the harm that bothers him. It is the sort of contempt that is implied or entailed in the act of injury. Hence, he goes on to say, “each man punished the contempt shown him in a matter proportionate to the esteem in which he held himself. Acts of revenge became terrible and men became bloodthirsty and cruel.” That is to say, amour-propre and society gave rise to the state of war. Does this sound familiar? I think it should.

I was trying to think of some example that might fit this and one I came up with when I was thinking about this earlier–consider a story that was much in the news. I forget if it was last spring or last summer sometime. The Danish cartoon controversy. Do you remember that, about the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad and the outrage and the protests, often violent, that occurred about that? To some degree, Rousseau might argue, the protests were about disrespectful cartoons of the prophet but he would argue, I suspect, that the deeper cause seemed to be that the protesters believed was disrespect being shown to them, to their beliefs, to what it is they held sacred in some sense. It is their beliefs that were being disrespected and were the cause of the protests. Amour-propre, as Rousseau I think himself recognizes, is this very volatile passion. It contains the desire to be respected again and acknowledged that is at the root of justice and virtue and yet at the same time this passion, as we know, is easily manipulable by those who wish to convince others that their basic entitlements or views are not being respected. To some degree, I think, Rousseau would believe the protesters over those cartoons had a point.

Their views were not being respected and to which you might say a Lockean or a liberal formulation of the problem or response would be, “Well, so what?” The task of government, according to Locke or the liberal view, is to ensure the security of person and property, to protect you from harm and of course to provide you the freedom to practice what religion you like, consistent with the freedom of others to do so too. It is not the business of government to ensure that your beliefs are being respected. This was clearly the view, for example, of the Danish newspaper editors that published the cartoon as well as the Danish prime minister who refused to apologize for this on the ground again that the government’s job is not to impose a gag order on what can and cannot be said on the grounds that some people might find it offensive. This is a respectable, sort of liberal line of thought going from Locke to John Stuart Mill, and yet, while I am inclined to agree very much with that point of view, there is something powerful and true about what Rousseau has to say about it, about this kind of issue.

Lockean liberal thought was addressed in many ways to people who had experienced the crucible of civil war, a century of religious conflict and were looking for a way to settle their religious and political differences. Toleration in many ways is a liberal virtue because it requires us to distinguish between beliefs that we may take with the utmost seriousness in private life and yet nevertheless bracket them in some way once we enter the public world. This, in many ways, is the peculiar liberal virtue of self-restraint or self-denial, that we refuse to allow our own moral point of view to, in many ways, dominate in the public space. But it is one thing, you might say, to tolerate other views and another thing to accord them respect and esteem. That seems to be something very different from what Locke talked about. To tolerate simply means not to persecute, to leave alone, while respect for something requires that we esteem it. You might ask yourself, “Must we esteem and respect values and points of view that we do not share?” This seems very different, again, from the sort of liberal understanding of toleration that means only extending acceptance to views again that are very different from our own. It doesn’t require us to, as it were, censor, self-censor, our own views on the ground that they may be–our views may be in some ways disrespectful or hurtful to others.

This is a vast topic. I’ve sort of used the opportunity to sort of move away from Rousseau a little bit but his point is I think that amour-propre, the desire to be esteemed, recognized, and to have your values and points of view esteemed by those around you is in fact a violent and uncontrollable passion. It is the passion very much like Plato’s thumos, spiritedness, back in the Republic. It is a passion that makes us burn with anger over perceived slights and makes us also risk our lives and endanger the lives of others to rectify what we believe to be acts of injustice. Like Plato, in many ways, Rousseau wants to know whether amour-propre is purely a negative passion or disposition or whether, likethumos, whether it can be redirected, in some way, to achieve social goods and social benefits. All of this is entailed in that short discussion of amour-propre in the Second Discourse. So much of Rousseau’s subsequent account of civilization and its discontents grows out of this peculiar psychological disposition and passion.

Chapter 2. Civilization and Its Discontents [00:20:15]

So let’s talk a little bit more about civilization and its discontents. In Woody Allen’s movie, Annie Hall, you might recall a scene in which he says there are two kinds of people. They’re the horrible and the miserable. The horrible are those who have suffered some kind of personal tragedy, a disfigurement of some kind, who are facing a terminal illness. The miserable is everybody else. Rousseau wants us to be miserable. He wants us to feel just how bad things are, how bad we are, how bad off we are. The only exception to this general human misery is, as he tells us at one point, kind of early primitive society. These societies described by him, not quite the state of nature to be sure, maintained a kind of middling position between the pure state of nature and the development of modern conditions. He says these were the happiest and most durable societies and the best for man. It was primitive man, not the pure savage of the state of nature, where Rousseau finds a happy equilibrium between our powers and our needs that he says is the recipe for happiness, bringing our powers and our needs into equilibrium, but the end of that happy state came with two inventions, two discoveries: agriculture and metallurgy.

With agriculture came, here we see the division of land, the division of property, and the subsequent inequalities that came with it. With metallurgy came the art of war and conquest. With these two developments, he tells us, humanity entered a new stage, one where laws and political institutions became necessary to adjudicate conflicts over rights, and the establishment of governments that this entailed rather than bringing peace, as it would for Hobbes or Locke, the establishment of governments had the effect simply of sanctioning the existing inequalities that had begun to develop. For Rousseau, there is something deeply shocking and deeply troubling about the assertion that men who were once free and equal are so easily, as it were, led to consent to the inequalities of property and to rule by the stronger, which government brings into being. The social contract, as he presents it in the Second Discourse, is really a kind of swindle. The establishment of government is a kind of swindle that the rich and the powerful use to control the poor and the dispossessed. Again, rather than instituting justice, this compact merely legitimizes past usurpations. Government is a con game that the rich play upon the poor. Political power simply helps to legitimize economic inequalities. Governments, he tells us, may operate by consent but the consent they are granted is based on falsehoods and lies. How else can one explain why the rich live lives that are so much freer, so much easier, so much more open to enjoyment, than the poor? That is Rousseau’s real critique and real question.

And it is the establishment of government that is the last link in the chain of Rousseau’s conjectural history, the last and most painful, in many ways, legitimation of the inequalities that have been created after our emergence from the natural condition. But what, again, is most painful to Rousseau is the emergence of a new kind of human being that this stage of civilization has been brought into–that this state of civilization has brought into being. And Rousseau is the first, I think, to use that term so powerfully, which became used very much in the next two centuries, the bourgeoisie. Thebourgeoisie is Rousseau’s invention and most striking about this human type for him is the necessity to appear to be one thing where actually being something else. Go back again to think of the way in which Plato or Socrates uses that distinction between seeming and being when he talks about the just man in Book II of the Republic, someone who seems to be and someone who is just. It is this tension between the two that is so central to Rousseau’s account of what he calls the bourgeoisie. “Being something and appearing to be something,” he says, “become two different things and from this distinction there arose grand ostentation, deceptive cunning, and all the vices that follow in their wake.”

And in the penultimate paragraph of the Second Discourse Rousseau describes the dilemma of the bourgeoisie in the following way. He says, “The savage lives within himself. The man accustomed to the ways of society, the bourgeoisie, is always outside of himself and knows only how to live in the opinions of others and it is, as it were, from their judgment alone that he draws the sentiment of his own existence.” Think of that sentence. It comes from the next to the last paragraph of the book, that in society we only live through the opinions of others, through the gaze of others, through what others think of us. We are constantly our own sentiment of existence, he says. Our own sentiment of self and existent comes entirely from the judgment, as he puts it, of those around us.

The bourgeoisie, in other words, is someone who lives in and through the opinions, the good opinions, of others, who thinks only of himself when he is with other people and only of other people when he is by himself. Such a person is duplicitous, hypocritical, and false. This is why this is the true, you might say, discontent of civilization. This is what our perpetual restlessness and reflectiveness have made of us. Goaded on perpetually by amour-propre, this is the particular misery that civilization has bequeathed us. So the question at the end of the book is what to do about this and here, in many ways, one has to say the Second Discourse falls short. The book ends on a note of utmost despair. It offers no positive answer to cure the problem of civilization but only hints at best at two possible solutions. One is suggested, you will recall, by the letter to the City of Geneva which, in a sense, prefaces the book. Perhaps the closest approximation to the early state of primitive society lauded by Rousseau are the small, isolated rural republics like Geneva in its own way where a kind of simple patriotism and love of country have not been completely overwhelmed by the agitations of amour-propre. Only, he says, in a well-tempered democracy like Geneva is it possible for citizens still to enjoy some of the equality of the natural man. Democracy for him, this kind of simple rural democracy like that of Geneva, is the social condition that most closely approximates the equality of the state of nature and that of course is a theme that Rousseau will take up powerfully in his book the Social Contract.

But Rousseau offers another hint to the solution of the problem of civilization, what to do about it. How can we restore happiness in the midst of society? The Second Discourse leaves us to believe that all society is a state of bondage and alienation from nature, from our true being. We have lost our true humanity that he describes in the state of nature, our state of–our capacities for pity and compassion and the like, and the answer to the problem of society is, in many ways, to return to the root of society and this root of society is not just the need for self-preservation but a kind of primordial, as he calls it in that passage I read a minute ago, sentiment of existence, the sentiment of our own existence. By giving oneself over to this feeling of existence without a thought for the future, without care or fear, the individual somehow psychologically returns to the natural state. Only a very few people, Rousseau writes, he being one of them of course–only a very few people are capable of finding their way back to nature. The type of human being who can find their way back to the sort of pure sentiment of existence is not going to be a philosopher, is not going to be a person of high order reflection like Socrates, but will more likely be an artist or a poet. He is one of those rare aristocrats of nature, you might say. His claim to superiority is not based on a higher understanding but a superior sensitivity, less on wisdom than on compassion. Rousseau believed himself to be one of these people. Maybe you also are one of them. Yes? But it requires you, in some way, to distance yourself severely and psychologically from all of the possibilities of society, to return inward, and it was that inward journey that Rousseau took and that he writes about so powerfully in hisConfessions and his final book, The Reveries, where you find the Rousseau, founder of the romantic disposition that you get again in writers in America like Thoreau and others who look inward and return to nature in some way, their natural self as opposed to society.

Chapter 3. The Social Contract [00:32:06]

But the Second Discourse leaves us, to be sure, with a paradox. The progress of civilization is responsible for all of our miseries. Yes, it is society’s fault. It’s not your fault. It’s society’s, he wants to tell us, and yet he also leaves us with no real apparent way out. He denies that we can, as a practical solution, return to simpler, more natural forms of political association but how then do we resolve the problem that he leaves us with? And his answer to it, his political answer to it, his most famous political answer to it is contained in his book, yes, called the Social ContractDu Contrat Social, published in 1762, seven years after the Second Discourse. Here he attempts to give one such answer, and I mentioned one such answer because it is not his only or final answer, but one such answer to the problems of inequality and, again, the injuries of amour-propre.

The Social Contract begins with one of the most famous sentences in all of the history of political philosophy, “man is born free and is everywhere in chains.” Always begin your essays with a good, strong sentence like that. Rousseau knew this. He knew something about how to write. The phrase seems to be perfectly in keeping with the Second Discourse. In the state of nature, we are born free, equal and independent. Only in society do we become weak, dependent, and enslaved. It is what follows after that sentence in a way that is the shocker. How did this take–how did this change take place, Rousseau asks. I do not know. What can render it legitimate? I believe I can answer this question. What can render it legitimate and by the “it” I take it he means the chains as in–that states man is born free and is everywhere in chains. In the Second Discourse, he had attempted to completely delegitimize the bonds of society, saying how the Social Contract and the creation of government was nothing but, in many ways, a sophisticated swindle. Now in the Social Contract, he asks the question, “What can give these chains or bonds moral legitimacy?” He says I believe I can answer that. Has Rousseau simply undergone a massive change of heart in the seven years between these two books? I don’t think so but I think these are–this is part of his–one of his answers to this fundamental question. But before going into the details of this, let’s consider some of the differences between these two very powerful books. Right?

The Second Discourse, the discourse on inequality, presents itself as a hypothetical or conjectural history of human development from the state of nature to the civil condition. It is written in a vivid language, which is why it is always- it is often considered one of Rousseau’s most powerful pieces of writing, a vivid language drawing on in many ways the biological sciences of his day and newly discovered knowledge of animal species like orangutans and other kinds of anthropological investigations of the Caribs and North American peoples, a very vivid work. The Social Contract, by contrast, is written in a dry, even a kind of bloodless language of a lawyer. It is very much written in the genre of a legal document. Its subtitle is The Principles of Political Right. It is a work of considerable philosophical abstraction whose leading concepts are abstractions like the social contractthe general will, and so on. The book, he tells us in short preface, was originally part of a longer investigation of politics which has since been–which he says has since been lost. Also, the Social Contract presents itself in many ways as a utopia, an ideal city, in some respects an answer to the Calipolis of Plato’s Republic and yet this is also–this seems to be not quite true.

The work begins, even before the famous sentence about man being born free, the work is prefaced with a statement that could have come directly out of Machiavelli’s Prince. “Taking men as they are and laws as they might be,” Rousseau says, “I will try in this inquiry to bring together what right permits with what interest prescribes.” Taking men as they are… You remember the fifteenth chapter of The Prince. Let us look at the effectual truth of things, not what is imagined to be but the way people actually are. Let us take men as they are, Rousseau says, following Machiavelli. He will not begin, he tells us, by making any heroic assumptions about human nature, no metaphysical flights of fancy, but rather stay on the low but solid ground of recognized fact. What does he mean by this and what are these facts of human nature, men as they are, he says, that Rousseau claims to describe in the Social Contract? And here we get to the basic premise of the book. The basic premise, I think, from which the entire Social Contract unfolds is the claim that man is born free. All subsequent relations of hierarchy, obligation and authority are the result not of nature but of agreement or convention. Society and the moral ties that constitute it are conventional, you might say, by agreement, all the way down. There is nothing natural about any of the social contract. And from this basis of man as a free agent, that we are born free, Rousseau attempts to work out a system of justice.

The Principles of Political Right, again is the subtitle, suggests that are appropriate to human beings conceived as free agents responsible to themselves alone. But how do you do that? How can you do that? Rousseau’s political philosophy begins, at least he believes I think, with the realistic or even empirical assumption that each individual has a deep rooted interest in securing the conditions of their own liberty. The state of nature and the social contract presuppose individuals who are in competition with others and each attempting, as it were, to secure the conditions for their own liberty. He does not presuppose altruism on the part of any human being or any other kind of self-other regarding characteristics, what I called a moment ago heroic assumptions. He doesn’t make the assumption that we act for the interests of others. We are selfishly concerned with our own freedom and the best means of preserving it and protecting it. Each of us has a desire to preserve his or her own freedom and that social order will be rational or just, that allows us to preserve that freedom. The problem, of course, is that in the state of nature the desire to preserve my freedom comes into conflict with the selfish desire of everybody else to preserve their freedom. The state of nature quickly becomes a state of war based on conflicting desires and conflicting again means of liberty preservation. So how do we preserve our liberty without lapsing into anarchy, that is the state of war? This is the question that the Social Contract sets out to answer and to which his formulation, his famous formulation of what he calls the general will, is the solution. I’m going to end on that note today and Wednesday I want to talk about the general will and how Rousseau sees it as a sort of collective answer to the problem of the securing of individual liberty. So meditate on that if you like for the next day.

[end of transcript]

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