SOCY 151: Foundations of Modern Social Theory

Lecture 6

 - Rousseau on State of Nature and Education


The general will – dangerous if taken too far – operates in many elements of our social and civic life. Immunizations that are compulsory for living in dorms serve the common good – the general will – regardless of individual will. The general will operates in society when individuals develop not only amour de soi, selfish love, but also amour propre, love of self in relation to others. Rousseau distinguished between bourgeois individuals who have amour de soi and citizens who exemplify amour propre. In addition to being a political and social thinker, Rousseau is an early and influential education theorist. In his book Émile, Rousseau argues that individuals are born good but are corrupted by society. He advocates “negative education” which aims at reducing mental errors that students may pick up in society. Negative education, Rousseau argues, is accomplished by focusing on educating students on how to think rather than training them in what to think.

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Foundations of Modern Social Theory

SOCY 151 - Lecture 6 - Rousseau on State of Nature and Education

Chapter 1. General Will (cont.) [00:00:00]

Professor Iván Szelényi: Then let’s go on to Jean Jacques Rousseau and Émile. And interact with me today; I need your help. I came back from Helsinki, Finland yesterday. I was sixteen hours on the road. I went to bed at 1:00 a.m. So I need your help. I want you to interact with me. And Émile is a good opportunity to interact and get excited because it’s a very important text. As I pointed out, there is no educational theory without Rousseau’s Émile. Everybody who does education has to read Émile from cover to cover. Most of them will disagree with most of his ideas, but will be provoked by his ideas. He is intentionally provocative, says things which do upset you, but makes you think; and don’t dismiss it too easy.

Now before I go into Émile, there is one more issue I would like to come back–about Rousseau’s Social Contract. I made this point briefly in the last lecture, but let me make it sharper because in the questions I am asking–questions about the general will–and I feel I may not have given enough meat to you about the notion of the general will.

Yeah, before I go–so I have to come back because there is one more chore, household chore. One of the teaching fellows reminded me that the Smith’s Lecture will come at the day when the test is due. So what to do with this? What I suggest: I will do a preview of Smith Thursday, this week, and I will put my PowerPoints before the lecture on the internet so you can read the PowerPoints. Okay? That will get you up in speed. I hope you still will come to the lecture. Though those of you who are also in the Varieties of Capitalism course can skip because, out of the 50 lectures I’m giving this semester, this is the only one which overlaps. It is the same lecture what I was giving in the Varieties of Capitalism course. I hope you won’t ask for a discount–that the professor did sell the same product twice. But anyway, so those who did that lecture and they feel very comfortable with Smith can miss the lecture. But I hope everybody else will come Tuesday.

All right, now Émile. This is something–no, no, the general will, the general will. I didn’t finish this one. So there is an interesting contrast–development–in Rousseau in The Theory of Social Contract. Because Rousseau especially emphasizes that the social contract has to be arrived at by a universal consent. So he does emphasize that in arriving to a social contract we actually have to exercise some popular sovereignty. And this is an idea which is only an element in Locke. Right? In some ways Rousseau moves a big step forward–contractarian theory, towards democratic theory, popular sovereignty, and, in fact, universal suffrage. I mentioned he did not advocate suffrage for women but advocated otherwise universal suffrage–what Locke was not willing to do.

But there is an interesting other idea in Rousseau which has an important kernel of truth, and a very disturbing idea at the same time, and this is the idea of the general will. I talked about this as a good example of methodological collectivism; that Rousseau, unlike Hobbes or Locke, or we will see later on Mill or Adam Smith, does not believe that studying the individual actions we can understand what is society and what the need of the society is. There is a general will over society which is more than simply adding up all individual wills. And this idea carried on in social theory among those whom we will discuss, particularly by Émile Durkheim. And there is clearly an element of truth to it–that there is some universal good, what is more than just the sum total of individual interest. When we are talking about healthcare reform and the needs of governments to provide healthcare for everybody, when we actually do believe that it should not be left to individual responsibility whether they have healthcare insurance. Or at least some people in this room probably believe that. Then you believe that there is a general will–that you have to overrule the individual to make a decision. And there is this general will everywhere.

When you go to the college, you have to get certain shots otherwise you are not allowed into the college. It is not leaving up to you to decide whether you have certain shots taken. You have to demonstrate, to be in residence. There is a general will. It’s not assumed that every individual is a rational actor and people will not be foolish and be irresponsible and not to be properly protected. You see? This is a strong case that the idea of general will makes sense. There is some collective good. But we can understand that individuals occasionally have to be forced to go by this general will, by the public good.

But there is a big problem with the general will; namely, if there is a general will as such, where on earth will it come from? How we will know what the general will is? And Rousseau is explicit about this. He confronts it. That’s why he talks about the lawgiver. He said, “Smart people like me, we know what is good for society and therefore we should figure out what the general will is, and then the popularly elected parliament will pass it as a law. But we are the lawgivers.” Right? Well this is a very disturbing idea–a disturbing idea which opens Rousseau up to a totalitarian interpretation–that he argues that the government knows better. And, in fact, he argues that not the government but we, the wise philosophers–we, the intellectuals–we know better what people’s interests are. “You think this is your interest? No, I tell you, this is not your interest. I know what is your interest.” Well, this is a very disturbing idea. How on earth do I know what is in your interest? And, of course, Rousseau’s notion of general will appealed a great deal to Karl Marx and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Mao Tse-tung. They loved the idea that it is the Central Committee of the Communist Party who knows better than ordinary Chinese or Russian what their needs are. There must be a central planner rather than an individual actor which tells people what their needs are.

So the problem of general will is highly problematic. Right? You can make a case for it, that you need an assumption like that. As I pointed out, there are people in this room who believe that there is general will and the common good. Right? Are there people here? Anybody believes that? Okay, yeah, yeah, there are people in this room–of course. And there are others who would not believe that. If you are an econ major, I think you got enough in economics to say, “No, no, no, no, never, ever.”

Chapter 2. Émile: Major Themes [00:10:01]

Okay, now let’s go to Émile because it actually has something to do, in a different formulation, with the same idea. So what is the story about Émile? It’s, of course–he himself is Jean Jacques, and he tells us that he’s a tutor of a boy, Émile, and educates him from the early ages until reaches adulthood and finds his wife, Sophie. I told you, of course, that this is a very idealized Rousseau, because he put all of his children into an orphanage–into a very lousy orphanage–and probably most of them, or all of them, very early died in this orphanage. But he still has ideas–what he should have done if he would not have been a bastard and would not have abandoned his children.

So what is the Table of Contents? First he says, “Well we have to rear a civilized savage, a child born in the state of nature; infancy and childhood and pre-adolescence is a gradual transformation from the state of nature into society. Then when adolescence comes, then we have a fully formed atomic individual by now, and we have to bring that person into society.” And then he has this very complicated idea that this transition from the atomic individual and state of nature to civil society is a transition from amour de soi to amour propre.

Well this is a very complex concept. Rousseau could have been more lucid about what the difference is than he was. Also, from English you think you understand it more easily than you actually do, because propre in French does not mean proper. Propre also means myself; propre only means myself in consideration with others. Soi means myself without consideration of others. Right? So be careful. Amour-propre is not proper love. Right? It is a self-love, but of a self-love in which I do take into consideration alter, not only ego, to put it with Sigmund Freud.

Well and it has to happen, otherwise we will not have citizens. He links this idea of amour propre–I will have to talk about this more–in order to have citizens. And he makes a crucial distinction between the citizens and the bourgeois. This is again the two faces of Rousseau. One face of Rousseau is a radical democrat, a deeply democratic individual, and the other face is a left radical. And he’s the first really, as far as I can tell–but I reasonably know the literature of these times–the first who is using the term bourgeois in a pejorative way, and makes this crucial distinction between citizen and bourgeois. And bourgeois are the selfish businessmen who want to have money and do not have a commitment to the collectivity–who do not obey the general will but pursue selfish, narrow, economic interest. That’s bourgeois. In some ways he gives the tool to Karl Marx, to develop his theory, as we will see later on.

And Marx, of course, loved Rousseau; not only Marx, Durkheim loved Rousseau as well. There are many people who loved this character, despite his shortcomings of his character.

Well what are the main themes? The first important theme is nature is good; society which is corrupt. A very important proposition, a very powerful proposition. This is something what Marx also takes from Rousseau, and this is what Durkheim also takes from Rousseau. “Fear of death is not natural,” he continues. “It is forced on us–forced on us by priests, philosophers and doctors. And the first task is negative education.” Well I will elaborate on this. I’ll just foreshadow this block of ideas.

The second one is: well the task is to turn the savages, noble savages–that’s the noble savage, a very Rousseauian idea–into social beings, and from amour de soi to amour propre. Well but what makes us social–it’s a lovely idea; provocative, ironic, and I just love it–what makes us social is pity. And I will labor on this. It’s really so wonderful. And the big question is can we be citizens without being bourgeois? What is the distinction?

And then he said, “What is civilization?” Well civilization becomes culture when sex is sublimated into imagination. It’s very important. I will labor on it, and I hope you will be able to relate to it as much as I can. Right? He said there are really two processes which makes us social: pity and love. But not sex. It is erotic love, which is in your mind as much as in your sexual drives.

And then he suggests love develops in three stages. And I think this is absolutely wonderful. Again, certainly I can relate to this very well. The first stage is that you are in love but you don’t know yet with whom. Right? You are ready for love and you are looking for somebody to be loved. But you don’t really know yet, you did not identify yet. But there is a sense that you are in love. Well, it happens certainly for the first time in adolescence. When we are thirteen or fourteen, and we suddenly realize that there is romantic stuff but we don’t have the object of our romantic feelings, we have to find this out. But it happens actually always when one falls in love. Can I tell you as an old man, it will happen later to life as well. There is rarely one love in life. Right?

Okay, then he says love brings different people together on the basis of differences. This is very much a Durkheimian idea of what binds people together can be their differences. And he makes a very provocative argument: men and women are different. He’s mostly read as a male chauvinist bastard. But it’s more complicated than this, and I will show you text what will make you think, without completely dismissing him, just on some very damaging quotations–what I also will show you.

Chapter 3. Nature is Good; Society Corrupts [00:19:22]

All right, so nature good, society corrupts. Well people in nature are good; society corrupts. Well this is the opposite argument to Hobbes. Or, in fact, Durkheim’s idea that you need more control over society is also opposed to Rousseau’s fundamental idea. And he said, well a child does not know vice and doesn’t know error. It is introduced to the child by society. And then he gives–though he was not much of a believer–he gives a bit of theological argument: “Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the author of things [God] and everything degenerates in the hands of man.” “Man turns everything upside down. He wants nothing as nature made it.” We are being told to get rid of our natural instincts. And this is again lovely, right? “Man must be trained like a school horse.” So it’s lovely.

Also I think you sense this very important distinction between training and education. Right? Once I had a conversation with Daniel Bell, a famous social scientist, and he said–we were talking about graduate students–and he said, “My colleagues are always talking about training graduate students.” He said, “What an outrage. You educate students, you don’t train them. You train a dog.” Now that’s Rousseau’s point. Right? Training, simply to giving skills and telling them how to do things is training. The point is education. And I hope we try to do in this course a bit of education. That’s why I don’t emphasize that you have to go back and memorize the citations from the authors, come in, and in the blue book quickly copy in what you memorized and will immediately forget after the test–what you often are expected to do. That is training. Education is the process in which we force you to think on your own. That is education. And he said well the problem is that there is too much training. Right? Like cutting back the trees; a French garden, they cut back everything what grows to fit what they thought a beautiful image. It is always non-natural.

And I also like this a great deal. Many of you will not agree with this. He said, “Fear of death is not natural. In nature one accepts it.” And Rousseau agrees with Hobbes we are indeed driven by the fear of death, but this is not natural. He claims that an animal accepts death. Well whether it is true or not, that’s another question. You may have seen your dog dying, and you have seen fear in the eyes of a dog. So I’m not so sure how correct Rousseau’s observation is. But there is an element of truth to it. Right? That buffaloes when they know it is time to die, they go on their own and they lay down and wait for death in a peaceful way. That’s what he suggests. He said. “What is put into us”–and I think it’s a wonderful, deep idea–“the fear of death by philosophers, doctors and priests.” A great idea. Right? It’s a very important idea–that we are ruled by people who monopolize a different type of knowledge, and the essence, the power of knowledge is that it put fear of death into us. The doctors will say, “Well I will cure you.” Right? The priest will say, “You will burn in hell.” And therefore you will fear of death. He said naturally we would know how to suffer and how to die, but we are being sort of indoctrinated to fear death and have anxieties in my life.

Well this is why we need negative education. This is a very provocative idea that became extremely popular in the 1960s and ’70s. Those of you who do education probably know Ivan Illich’s work; he’s pushing it as far as you can. Right? But in the kind of counter-cultural educational theories it was very important that what you need is negative education. You have to get out of those silly ideas from people’s mind what society put in there. And he said–and this is again a lovely citation–“Our didactic and pedantic craze is always to teach children what they would learn much better by themselves and to forget what we alone could teach them.” Right? So this is again–education is giving an opportunity for people to use their mind, rather than indoctrinating them. “And therefore,” he said, “the first act of education should be purely negative.” Right? “It consists not at all in teaching virtue and the truth but in securing the heart from vice and the mind from error.” Very important. Right? The task of education, not training, is not to tell you what the truth is. The task of education is to help your brain operate sufficiently to tell what is an error and to figure out when you are making an error. That’s why there is no easy solutions. There is no right answer to the question. There are competing answers to every important question. And the task of education is to consider the pros and cons, to consider what speaks for and against the evidence, and then to make a judgment what is the proposition you will accept to try to eliminate error. That’s what education is all about.

Okay, now another issue is about command. And he said–and again I love it–“There shall be no commands. The words obey and command will be proscribed from the Lexicon. And even more so duty and obligation.” Very provocative, but again I think very deep. Think about it very hard. He said what we really should be, in the process of education do, is to emphasize your strengths. We emphasize necessity; we emphasize impotence. We try to figure out what is outside of our reach, what we cannot do. We emphasize constraints, realistic constraints upon our action. Right? That is really what should happen in education. So the argument, this is your duty to do that, is the wrong way to approach. Right? It’s not what the educators should do–to appeal to people’s guilt feelings, to create guilt in them. We will talk about this more in Nietzsche–where the guilt feelings is coming from. No, don’t create guilt. But, on the other hand, tell people what is necessary, what are the limitations of your action. Emphasize what you are capable of doing. Encourage them to get the best out of them, but always warn them that, “I don’t see that you can really go that far. Don’t push yourself too much because you won’t be able to make it.” That’s what he believes education is.

Chapter 4. Turning Savages in Social Beings [00:29:06]

Now this is turning savages into social beings, moving from amour de soi to amour propre. The love of oneself, amour de soi, is always good. There is nothing wrong about it–what Adam Smith will call self-interest. Well the child is born with amour de soi. Takes the toy away, “It’s mine.” Right? The other child will say, “No, this is mine.” Right? This is amour de soi. I want it. Right? Amour de soi, as we will know from Freud. I want the breast of my mother. I want to monopolize it; this is mine. Right? That’s amour de soi.

Well but on the other hand we have to extend our relationships; we have to interact with other people. And amour propre will be when we realize there is another people who are also led by amour de soi, and we figure out the way how to live with them, by interacting with them. Well there are–where does sociality then come from; amour propre, where does it come from? And there are–the first maxim is, “It is not the human heart to put ourselves in the place of people who are happier than we, but only of those who are more pitiable.” It’s ironic, but as far as I can tell this is ad hominem. Right? Think just very honestly about yourself. When you know somebody was more successful with you, you can’t–very hard to love that person. Right? If somebody is less successful than you, you feel pity for them. Suddenly your heart warms up. Suddenly you feel responsible. Suddenly you want to help. Right?

The second maxim: “One pities in the others only those ills from which one does not feel oneself exempt.” So we don’t necessarily lead by love when we see misery what is sort of outside of our possible experiences. We have love for pitiable people when we think we can actually end up in the same situation. That’s when we will have amour propre.

And the third maxim is, well: “The pity one has for another’s misfortune is measured not by the quantity of that misfortune but the sentiment one attributes to those who suffer it.” Right? So I think that’s a wonderful idea.

And now about compassion and pity one more time. He said, “We are born twice, once to exist and the second time to live”–for species reproduction, and “the young adult becomes sensitive before knowing what he’s sensing… It is now that man, truly born to live” and beginning to experience the others. So it is actually our weakness what makes us social, not our strengths. “It is our common miseries which turns our hearts to humanity.” I think really ironic but a very deep idea. You can disagree with it, but you have to think about it. There is clearly an element of truth in the argument.

Okay, and I also love the last sentence here. He said, “Pity is sweet.” This is one of my favorite sentences in Rousseau. Right? It is so sweet to feel pity for somebody. “Oh, I am so sorry for you.” Right? Then your heart is overflowing with love. Right?

Well and then the citizen and the bourgeois. This is again fantastic. “Pedaretus runs for council of 300. He is defeated”–not elected in the 300 representatives in Sparta. He goes home delighted there were 300 men worthier than he to be found in Sparta. “This is the citizen.” Are you a citizen when you only got a B- and there are thirty people in class who got an A? Do you feel how fortunate I am that I’m in such a great class that thirty people are better than I am? Right? If you feel that way, then you are a citizen. Right? When you develop amour propre; that is his point.

And then another point. “A Spartan woman had five sons in the army and was waiting news of the battle. A Helot arrives, trembling, she asks him for news. ‘Your five sons were killed.’ And now she answers. ‘Base slave, did I ask you that?’ ‘We won the victory.’ The mother runs to the temple and gives thanks to the gods. This is the female citizen.” Right? My children died, but we won– the general will. Well, “He who in a civil order wants to preserve the primacy of the sentiments of nature does not know what he wants. Always in contradiction with himself…he will never be either man or citizen…he will be a bourgeois. He will be nothing.” That’s what Karl Marx loved. People who just pursue their own self-interest is not much.

Chapter 5. Men and Women, Sexuality and Love [00:36:27]

Now men, women, sexuality and love. Well, civilization becomes culture when sex is sublimated; bodily desire is turned into imagination. We will see that greatly inspires Sigmund Freud. There are two mechanisms which constitute social compassion: pity and love. And he also adds a very provocative idea of his time and kind of foreshadows post-modern thought: Enlightenment demythologizes the world. Deprived from its meaning, it’s a cold rational world of the marketplace, and competitive, isolated individuals; that’s what modern world Enlightenment produced. And the world became unerotic, unpoetic. This is something which will play a big role in Max Weber’s idea of disenchantment, or if you know Marcuse’s wonderful book, Eros and Civilization, comes straight out of Rousseau. Rousseau wants to bring back the erotic–not sex, the erotic experience.

Well the love develops in three stages. As I said quest–first is quest. You are in love but you don’t know yet with whom. Again think back: you were thirteen or fourteen, you began to search for somebody to love. Then comes the discovery. You found it. That’s it, that’s the person I am in love with. Émile finds Sophie. What brings them together, he said, is the differences–that they complement each other. Durkheim will argue it can be similarity what brings us together. It’s a more complex argument, but the origin of the idea is in Rousseau.

Then comes the important part. Once you fall in love, don’t rush. As I said, not sex, eros is what he’s believing. Leave, right? Don’t rush to bed. Go to travel, and then when you travel you think about the person you love. You idealize that person in your mind, and that’s when this love becomes an erotic experience. Then you can go home and you can consume the love. Right? I think this is really wonderful.

Well, and here comes a problem: his views on gender relations. Well men and women are different, and that means that they ought to be taught differently. “If you would decide,” he said, “to raise women like men,” he said, “men will gladly consent to this. The more women want to resemble men, the less women will govern them.” Well you can say it’s a pretty sexist observation, but probably an idea you heard before. Right? Who wears the hat in the family? This is the kind of argument, that women are the bosses after all.

Well therefore what the education should do: cultivate men’s qualities–not to cultivate men’s qualities in women, but raise it differently. Well, and here are the citations which shows you Rousseau the sexist. Hard to say he’s not a sexist bastard, right? “Woman is made specially to please men.” Well I’m sure at least half of the men in this room are also outraged, and I think probably all the women are outraged. But I hope there are other men in this room, not only me, who is upset by this statement.

Well he said, “Women and men are made for one another, but their mutual dependence is not equal. Men depend on women because of their desires; women depend on men because of both their desires and their needs. We would survive more easily without them than they would without us.” I mean me, man. This is of course straight silly, right? I was widowed for awhile. I know how much more difficult it is for a man to survive without a woman than for a woman to survive without a man. Well and then he goes on: “Almost all little girls learn to read and write with repugnance. But as far as holding a needle, that they always learn gladly. Sewing, embroidery and lace making come by themselves.” So nothing more should be said.

But there are other citations. Read this one. And there are some post-feminists who actually like this Rousseau, who says men and women should be different. He said, “Sophie ought to be a woman as Émile is a man.” And then he goes further. He said, “In everything not connected with sex, woman is a man.” In some ways he’s formulating the idea of the gender. Right? Gender equality, sexual differences; that’s what he said. The problem is if women try to look sex-wise like they were men. Right? That’s, I think, an interesting idea. And then he said, “Everything men and women have in common belongs to the species, the human species, and everything which distinguishes them belongs simply to sexual differences.” And then he said, “In the union of sexes each contributes equally to the common aim, but not in the same way.” Well I will suspect that most of you will see him as a sexist. But some of you may actually see the points what he’s making in this last set of quotations. Thank you.

[end of transcript]

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