Monday, February 3, 2014

The Personal is Political

            A reminder for those who have not been keeping up:  This blog is dedicated to discussions arising from a year-long trip my wife and two boys are making across the US in a fifth-wheel recreation vehicle.  We began in August and in six months have made it to 28 states from Texas and to the east, missing only Florida.  However, in early January, our plans, changed.  My wife’s father suffered a stroke, so we have paused our journey.  My wife stays mostly in the hospitals and rehab centers with her father, and the boys and I pass the time in Hundred Acre Woods doing home school and caring for nine cattle and two dogs. 
The Trip So Far
We are able to do this because I have a sabbatical for the year from my job at a community college.  The sabbatical doesn’t come free.  I have certain duties that I have to complete during the year.  One of these is to retool with some classes in the humanities. I am currently taking a course concerned with wealth, class, and money.  So far in the class, we have read Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Discourse on the Origin’s and Foundations of Inequality Among Men” and Max Weber’s “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.”  We are somewhere in the middle of Adam Smith “The Wealth of Nations.”  Then, of course, there is the background reading we all do exploring topics for on-line discussion boards and essays.  I got sort of bogged down in my first essay and that, with other obligations and distractions, pulled me away from my more or less weekly posts for the blog.  Therefore, I am going to offer one of my little essays as a substitute for a travel blog post. 
If you are a faithful reader of the blog, you might remember that I mentioned Rousseau back in December in a blog called “Wonderful Life.”  I have to say that I have felt a strange kinship with Rousseau.  I am as fascinated with how he negotiated his life as with the development of his ideas.  On the one hand, many of his ideas are simply wrong headed.  For instance, I have never thought my fellow humans were basically good creatures and that we would all be sweet and tender and loving if society had not corrupted us. I think society is corrupt because we individuals are shits. What we call morality merely codifies the conventions we employ to reduce the shit factor.   Nor do I think we would be better off living some version of the aboriginal life.  On the other hand, I do think that the development of Western civilization needed to disengage itself from “Original Sin” and to explore how our social institutions and customs reinforced and perpetuated unnecessary and cruel inequalities.  We can also all find ways to simplify our lives.
Our Friends in Texas
Where I have to admit my kinship with Rousseau is that both of us have a deeply breed belief that there is a strong connection between biography and literature, between personal experience and philosophy.  We are both navel gazers; we both have an unshakeable need to talk about ourselves and our lives as if the future of the entire world depended upon it.  I think both of us recognize how ridiculous this idea is.  I am also fascinated with Rousseau’s unease within the world, with societal expectations, fitting in, and reputation.  There, I think he nailed something very modern.  If not that, he nailed something frantic within me.  Here is the class essay.  I hope to get back to the trip soon.  [Following the essay, I add a couple of observations.]

In the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men, or Second Discourse, Jean-Jacques Rousseau famously postulates a kind of Golden Age and Fall Myth.  His origin story describes human kind as a relatively un-self-aware species, happy in a solitude, with few desires, and those few easily met.  Everyone was more or less equal, because everyone lived independently of others and, therefore, non-competitively.  Then, one of these early humans, “having enclosed a piece of ground, to whom it occurred to say this is mine, and found people sufficiently simple to believe him,” became “the founder of civil society” (161). Tragically, at that moment what we call “civilization” began. In addition to “crimes, wars, murders, . . . miseries and horrors,” individual weakness and strengths began to appear; individual talents inspired different and unequal rewards; hierarchies developed and were passed through generations, eventually leading to eighteenth century Europe, where, as Rousseau wrote in The Social Contract,  human kind, even though born free, “is everywhere in chains” (49).  In this essay, I will postulate that Rousseau’s dislike of civilization and civil society was as much personal as political; it was deeply engrained and long lasting; and can be understood through his use of the term “amour proper.”
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
            Rousseau always seemed to have lived in the difficult situation of being both an insider and outsider simultaneously, a life of contradictions.   His father enjoyed the privileged rank of citizen of Geneva, yet he was exiled from the city.  Rousseau vacillated between Protestantism and Catholicism.  He alternately enjoyed great fame and high regard from the public, the aristocracy, and the leading intellectuals, and he suffered notoriety and disregard from the same constituents.  He seems to have been a man without a home, living in many places in his life, in poverty and on the property of the wealthy.  He was a musician and composer but also a philosopher, novelist, and memoirist. Often a personality in combat with his contemporaries, his final years saw him writing books he refrained from publishing in his lifetime, Dialogue:  Rousseau Judge of Jean-Jacques and Reveries of a Solitary Walker, defending his solitary being and his reputation to himself, possibly, and to future generations, he hoped.  His self-examination makes him important as founder of modern psychology as much as he is instrumental is the development of political philosophy and education.
            For the first thirty-seven years of his life, Rousseau slowly worked his way into the higher reaches of society, governmental functionaries, and French Enlightenment Philosophes.  Then with the publication in 1750 of the Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts, or First Discourse, which won First Place in the prestigious competition sponsored by the Dijon Academy, he enjoyed instant fame and instant notoriety.  In The Confessions, he describes the moment when he conceived the theme of the essay.  He was hiking to the town of Vincennes to visit the famous philosophe Diderot when he saw in a paper the announcement of the prize and the prompt.  “The moment I read this I beheld another universe and became another man” (327).   Although he admits his memory is sketchy, “What I remember quite distinctly about this occasion is that when I reached Vincennes I was in a state of agitation bordering on delirium” (328).  He read some of the notes that he had written in this delirium to Diderot, who appreciated them, “and from that moment I was lost.  All the rest of my life and of my misfortunes followed inevitably as a result of that moment’s madness” (328).  In this essay, Rousseau set a course for his life, thought, and reputation that was at once both contrarian and alternately appealing and repugnant.  He argued that contemporary culture was the result of behaviors that supported and contributed to human inequalities. Because we become concerned about inequalities—and therefore about status—we become concerned about reputation.  “What gives rise to all these abuses, if not the fatal inequality introduced among men by the distinction of talents and the disparagement of the virtues?” he writes in the First Discourse.  “This is the most obvious effect of all our studies and the most dangerous of all their consequences.  People no longer ask about a man whether he has probity, but whether he has talents; nor about a Book whether it is useful, but whether it is well written.  Rewards are lavished upon wits, and virtue remains without honors” (23).  From the very beginning of his philosophical career, we can see that Rousseau was concerned, even obsessed by the idea of reputation.  This obsession becomes clearer in the Second Discourse.
            As Rousseau postulates about the psychology of humans in their earlier pre-civilized state, he attributes to them a primitive form of pity and awareness of themselves as a being among other similar beings; however, they remain free from destructive forms of self-awareness and reflection.  Rousseau develops the ideas of amour de soi-meme, which translates roughly as “self-love,” and amour proper, which we can understand generally as “vanity,” but it is something more, besides, something that becomes political, as it highlights human inequality.  In his notes added to the Second Discourse, Rousseau points out that amour de soi-meme is a natural and healthy urge for creatures to seek self-preservation.  More than instinct, it the self-aware regard for oneself, without comparison to other creatures.  Therefore, since one merely observes others and sees oneself only through one’s own eyes, one does not develop jealousy, envy, resentment, urges toward retaliation or revenge.  Amour proper  however, develops in humans when they begin to view others of their species as possessing something that they, themselves, lack.  They would not necessarily be comparing only their own skills and talents or physical attributes.   When one is merely concerned with survival, one does not care about whether others have more shelter or more food.  Satisfaction knows no envy.  But when property and then, later, fame and cultural regard, including one’s dependence upon others, begin to affect one’s satisfaction with oneself and one’s social standing, then one enters into the emotional territory of amour proper.    “Amour proper is only a relative sentiment, factitious, and born in society, which inclines every individual to set greater store by himself than by anyone else, inspires men with all the evil they do one another, and is the genuine source of honor” (218).  One’s self-regard becomes dependent upon how one sees others seeing oneself.   In a recent essay, Niko Kolodny, points out that Rousseau views amour propre in two lights.  The first is a “desire to be evaluated by others as having a certain value in comparison with others” [emphasis Kolodny’s] (169).  The second is a desire to be valued highly in comparison with others.    Granted this might be a distinction without a clearly definable difference, but the second form appears to be a more internally generated comparison without regard for the evaluation of others. 
            Contemporary philosopher Alain De Botton, following in the footsteps of Rousseau, examines what he calls “Status Anxiety,” which develops from amour proper.  Among the definitions that he offers of this status anxiety is “A worry, so pernicious as to be capable of ruining extended stretches of our lives, that we are in danger of failing to conform to the ideals of success laid down by our society and that we many as a result be stripped of dignity and respect; a worry that we are currently occupying too modest a rung or are about to fall to a lower one” (4).  De Botton acknowledges Rousseau as establishing one of the earliest understandings of status anxiety.  First, the anxiety flows from the recognition that when humans are considered politically equal, they are still naturally unequal in terms of intelligence, skills, strength, and other physical attributes that society values.  Second, the anxiety can be modulated psychologically by becoming attentive to both our desires and our achievements.  In other words, we can control the negative feelings we may have in comparing ourselves with others by 1) achieving more and thus receiving more of the measures we desire, be it fame or fortune, or 2) lowering our expectations, by desiring fewer measures of fame or fortune. 
            I would argue that in examining Rousseau’s own life, we can see that he was consumed and distracted by amour proper, and that to lessen his anxiety over his status he attempted the first of these methods, and then, in his later years he attempted the latter.   At first, it seems that Rousseau both pursued and welcomed celebrity while at the same time criticizing it.  In “Rousseau, Amour Propre, and Intellectual Celebrity,” Michael Locke McLendon fully describes Rousseau’s early success in attracting fame by attacking the very mechanisms that apportioned literary fame in eighteenth century France—the philosophes. The intellectual elite such as Diderot and Voltaire encouraged and later criticized Rousseau as he continued to argue talent need not become the ultimate judge of a person’s value.  McLendon concludes, “What Rousseau ultimately objects to is the attempt by the philosophes to make intellectual talent the measure of a human” (517), and thus he “uses amour propre to deconstruct the claims of people who seek to define themselves as society’s most valuable members” (518).
            The problem with Rousseau’s ambivalence toward his own fame, fostered by a contrarian stance toward the arbiters of fame, was that when the criticism toward him became particularly bitter, especially following the publication of The Social Contract and Emile, he was forced to reconsider his attitude toward his own his notoriety and his own talent and writing.  His final three works, written in the last twelve years of his life, were each published following his death.  The Confessions ends with a combative note, saying that anyone who offers different memories is “not lover of justice” and that anyone who believes him dishonorable should be stifled (606).  The title of the next book says everything that needs to be said:  Dialogues:  Rousseau, Judge of Jean-Jacques. His final work, in many ways, a very lovely work, Reveries of the Solitary Walker, attempts to replace harsh and disheartening memories with pleasant ones.  Early in the first section of the book, he writes, “My emotion and indignation plunged me into a fever which has taken all of ten years to abate, and during this time, as I lurched from fault to fault, error to error, and folly to folly, my impudent behavior provided those who control my fate with weapons which they have most skillfully used to settle my destiny irrevocably” (28). 
The language here, I believe, illustrates Rousseau’s overwhelming entanglement with amour propre, that is, the attachment to a psychological process of internalizing (or rejecting) the reputation that others construct for him in their comparisons of him to others.  Certainly, rather than living the life that he heralded in his early works—that of natural human, living a life of self-love without regard for reputation or comparative value in society—Rousseau is constantly engaged with reputation building (or defending), and with the desire to create for himself a value independent of his social celebrity and notoriety.  Antoine Lilti, in discussing Rousseau, Judge of Jean-Jacques, concludes, “What his paranoid writing reveals is his difficulty in maintaining his own image of himself while in the public eye” (56).  He was a man haunted, perhaps even enchained, by amour propre,  and its personal and political implications.

So I have included this academic essay—at least as academic as I wish to get these days—here in this blog for two reasons.  One is that it is the writing project that distracted me from normal sort of writing I was doing for this blog.  I felt I had to post something.  Second, somewhere in the background, I think the topic of the essay does relate to the themes I have been approaching and dancing around.  On some level, Rousseau was important to the founding of this nation.  He engaged and quarreled with the Enlightenment philosophers who inspired many of this nation’s founding fathers.  Besides we wouldn’t even be separate from England if it had not been for the French and Rousseau’s philosophy was central to the French revolution. 
Caravan of Wonder=Freedom

Also I do think that Rousseau wrestled with phenomena that haunts us today.  First, inequality.  You can’t pick up a paper or listen to the television without somebody talking about income inequality, about voting rights, about class mobility.  These issues develop from Rousseau.  Second, conformity.  All of us wrestle in some way with the demands placed upon us by those around us to be like them.  Sure, it is a teenager issue, but it also rears its ugly head with phrases such as “dress for success.”  We all are judging each other all the time.  We are also pressuring each other—too fat, too skinny, too poor, too ostentatious, too redneck, too Christian.  Rousseau understood these mechanisms in society.  It is why he became a “Solitary Walker.”  And I think it is why I enjoyed so much being on the road.  Since we were in one place for very short periods of time, I had no relationships with others that I had to worry about being judged for.  As I said in the essay, “Satisfaction knows no envy.”  I think, on the road, I was satisfied, and on the continuum moving toward Rousseau’s nomad early humans.  It is something I’m going to have to think about.

Soundtrack.  Hank Williams:  "A Mansion on the Hill."

Works Cited
Damrosch, Leo.  Jean-Jacques Rousseau:  Restless Genius.  Boston:  Houghton Mifflin.  2005.
De Botton, Alain.  Status Anxiety.  New York:  Penguin Books.  2005.
Kolodny, Niko.  “The Explanation of Amour-Propre.”  Philosophical Review.  119:2 (2010).
Lilti, Antoine.  “The Writing of Paranoia:  Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Paradoxes of
            Celebrity.”  Representations.  103 (Summer 2008).  53-83.
McLendon, Michael Locke.  “Rousseau, ‘Amour Propre’, and Intellectual Celebrity.”
            The Journal of Politics. 71:2 (April 2009).  506-519.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques.  The Confessions.  Tr. J. M. Cohen.  New York:  Penguin Books. 1953.
----------.        The Discourses and Other Early Political Writings.  Ed and Tr. Victor
            Gourevitch.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press.  2008.
----------.        Reveries of the Solitary Walker.  Tr.  Peter France.  New York:  Penguin Books.
----------.           The Social Contract.  Tr.  Maurice Cranston. New York:  Penguin Books.  1968.

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