Among Rousseau’s greatest concerns was human dividedness. Through discussing intellectuals and their tendency toward pride, this previous article describes Rousseau’s indictment of his time. How does Rousseau suggest solving this problem? After leading a seminar organized by the Yale Buckley Program in June, Professor Benjamin Storey at Furman University sat down with The Politic over Zoom to offer some explanations.
The interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
What do people often get wrong about Rousseau, in your opinion?
People often oversimplify his thought.
Rousseau is one of the sources of two contrary tendencies in the modern soul. On the one hand, he is one of the founders of modern communitarianism: our desire for society to be a genuine social whole that attracts real allegiance from human beings, that makes demands for duty and sacrifice, and has greater solidarity than we experience in an individualistic, liberal society, where it often feels that people are left to sink or swim for themselves.
At the same time, however, Rousseau is also the ultimate individualist, so much so that he describes the happiest moment of his life as living on an island. He’s a radical individualist and a radical communitarian at the same time.
Many readings of Rousseau privilege one or the other of these moments in his thought. What I’ve tried to do, and I’m not the original in this, is to take the whole thing together. Doing so led me to think of Rousseau as a tragic thinker. He describes his thought as a “sad and great system,” and I think it helps to take the word “sad” seriously.
I think Rousseau is aware of his own contradictions, but his contradictions are not only his contradictions—they are our contradictions. Like him, many of us are sometimes attracted to a more communitarian way of life and frustrated by a perceived lack of individual liberty and authenticity. These opposite kinds of discontents seem to be characteristic of life in a bourgeois, liberal society.
We will definitely get to the “sad and great system” later. You’ve previously discussed that the problem Rousseau identified was one of human dividedness. Would you say more about that?
Many thinkers see that human beings are vicious and unhappy. The question is how they explain why. Christians explain our misery and sin as the result of a fall. Socrates says that vice results from ignorance. Rousseau explains vice and misery as the result of dividedness. That dividedness is between exterior and interior—between who we have to pretend to be for the world and who we actually are.
In his Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men, Rousseau tells us his story of how this dividedness came into being. Once upon a time, you and I (or our ancestors) were self-sufficient beings who hardly needed anything from anyone else. As we became more sophisticated and more complicated, we also became more dependent on one another.
For example, these machines that we are using to communicate right now, the books on my shelf, the headphones I am wearing, and many other things are products created through an enormous division of labor. That is great—our overall standard of living is higher. But we are therefore much more dependent. If my headphones break, I do not know how to fix them—I have to call somebody else for that.
That dependence means that I am constantly in need of other people’s good opinion of me. Sometimes, I can pay them, but very often I need them to do me a favor—to think well enough of me to give me something I need. Therefore, I have to pretend to be somebody other than myself. I have to pretend to care about other people’s good, and they also have to pretend to care about my good. But in a liberal society, we are all really concerned only about ourselves. While we seek to give the appearance of good members of the community, everybody is always angling.
An example of this familiar to every college student is the service projects you must do to pad your résumé to get into college. Why did you do the service project? Was it because you really wanted to help suffering people? Or were you just thinking about getting into college? Rousseau thinks that, for many of us, it is entirely the latter. We are always doing things to polish our résumés and advance ourselves in society. So that is one part of our dividedness: dependency constrains us pretend to be people we are not.
But there is another part of it, which is even more painful. When we ask ourselves, am I happy? we often answer that question by asking ourselves what other people think of us. Rousseau’s famous line about this is that we draw the sentiment of our own existence only from the opinion of others. Do I matter? Do I exist? I answer these questions with reference to others – somebody else thinks I matter, therefore I do – as opposed to finding an internal standard for my assessment of my own existence.
Such is the twofold dividedness Rousseau describes. In the external or social world, we are constantly pretending to try to make other people happy, while actually trying to pursue our own ends. Internally, when we’re trying to pursue our own happiness, we are actually doing that by the mediation of other people’s opinions.
Another French thinker named René Girard calls this “the mimetic character of desire”—a very striking phrase. If you ask me what I want for lunch, I might ask what you are having. I try to figure out what will be good for me through the mediation of your opinion, which is remarkable: why do we have a hard time even deciding what to eat for ourselves? Rousseau thinks much of our lives unfold in this way and this dynamic goes very deep – we’re constantly assessing ourselves in the light of the opinions of others. I think that’s roughly what he means by human dividedness.
Well, there is a lot to unpack there. Do we really believe there is no genuine concern and we are just doing it to advance ourselves? Rousseau talks about pity, which is at the origin of other virtues. It seems as if empathy can fight a lot of this cynical self-interest.
I will take your question from two angles, one internal to Rousseau and another external to Rousseau.
Internal to Rousseau, he is deeply interested in overcoming this dividedness. A major point of his whole project is to find ways in which human beings can care about one another in an authentic sense. He prefers action based on pity rather than action based on duty, because pity is a natural sentiment. If I see somebody suffering, I have the urge to help them out. Rousseau says you should follow that urge because that is the natural and authentic thing, an immediate movement of the heart, as opposed to calculation. Acting on the basis of pity is one way Rousseau thinks we can avoid being utterly self-interested and calculating.
The other way is by getting our amour-propre or pride bound up with a larger social whole. Here, he has in mind those he calls citizens, people such as ancient Spartans and his contemporary Genevans. Citizens understand themselves in the light of their cities. It is possible for human consciousness to take on a more generous and social form, by crystallizing one’s whole sense of self in terms of the social whole. He thinks this may be possible, but it would take a radical transformation and be a radically different city than any of the modern liberal orders that we know.
Outside of Rousseau, there are many other views of human love that suggest that not everything is mere self-interested calculation. I am inclined to some of those other views, but that is not our subject right now.
You say a Rousseauan republic would be radically different from any modern liberal order. Would you elaborate on that?
Rousseau’s analysis begins with a phenomenon common to the liberal order and many other political regimes. People obey the law only because they fear it. He suggests that it might be possible for people to see the law as the product of their own will. This is probably only possible in little communities, such as the cities of ancient Greece, or his own Geneva. Every citizen in such small communities could have a meaningful form of political participation. In some cases, such intense political participation is deeply opposed to liberal freedom.
But not always. Rousseau greatly influenced Alexis de Tocqueville. On his famous visit to America, Tocqueville admired our jury system not so much because juries ensure fairness but because they advance political education. I was once on a jury for a case about a very minor crime. I was the foreman so I had to pronounce the verdict, and, at that moment, the law seemed less alien, more my own. I think that gravity was also felt by my fellow citizens on the jury—people from all different walks of life. Everybody runs away from jury duty. I think it is worth doing—it is really significant civic education. It is that kind of experience that Rousseau has in mind when he describes how political participation can help make the law our own.
Given the state of our world at present, how do we encourage greater civic participation? How does one encourage people to love their country?
That is a very good question. I think it is helpful for Americans to see and say more often that there is just a lot of good about this country. There are a lot of evils, in our history with respect to the native Americans, slavery, and other things. There is a lot of evil and that is real. But there are also some extraordinarily wonderful things from the Declaration of Independence onwards. Talking about the good in your country is a recipe for seeming naïve or worse than naïve, and so one has to be wary in doing it. But I think it is a kind of courage that we have to have.
Second, we come to love our neighbors by doing things with them. I do not know if we can come to admire our country by sitting back and contemplating it theoretically or reading the newspaper. The people who most appreciate what is good in this country are often the people who are most engaged, actively doing things with their fellow citizens. If one were serving on a town board that was designing a park, for example, one might find that people can pretty easily find common ground about the best kind of sliding board – a question that doesn’t lend itself to the culture war polarities we constantly face.
As our mode of citizenship becomes ever more passive, which is a long story in American history, our political sentiments have become more divided and angry. Passivity and anger go together. When you constantly feel that things are being done to you, as opposed feeling like you do things yourself, you are going to be upset.
Going back to when you say how we draw the sentiment of our own existence from the opinions of others – which is a fantastic line – is this just because we are human and there is fundamental uncertainty about the world?
Every social and political philosopher has to give an account of the power of human opinion over our minds. Rousseau is not the first person to discover that human beings are powerfully influenced by what their fellow citizens or their social peers think. Plato was concerned with this. How does one get outside the reign of opinion? I think Plato and Rousseau pointed interestingly in opposite directions.
Plato says the only way to escape being ruled by other people’s opinions is to know your own ignorance and to seek knowledge. Knowing your own ignorance is also in some ways to know the ignorance of others, which relieves us of the impositions of charlatans, who are everywhere. Knowledge of ignorance is both self-knowledge and freedom, and is all-important for Plato. At the same time, Plato thinks we can understand certain problems of human life that are permanent. Knowledge of those problems can give you an orientation in the world and guide you, but such knowledge does not give you a formula for living in any particular situation. It can, however, be a powerful antidote to being swept along by the opinions of others, which so often promise that our human problems can be miraculously solved. If we know some problems are permanent, we’re much less susceptible to that kind of thinking.
Rousseau’s view is very different from Plato’s because Rousseau seeks something foundational in sentiment. For him, we make our escape from slavery to the opinions of others not by ascending to knowledge, but by descending to something presocial – my sentiments, my feelings, which are the real me.
Rousseau’s view is prevalent among us. You hear people saying all the time, “I feel that…” Thinking that what we feel should be our standard is a profoundly Rousseauan thing. Rousseau is one of the fountainheads of the sense that feeling is real, whereas intellectual pursuits are more artificial and less reflective of the authentic self.
I like that contrast. Especially because, when we look into the philosophy of science, knowledge looks shaky. It almost seems as if feeling is a more secure foundation.
But the interesting question is: how do you learn what you feel? I get a good feeling when I think about a cup of coffee, but aren’t cups of coffee social artifacts that don’t exist in many times in places? So, is my feeling about coffee an artifact of the kind of modern society in which I live? It probably is, at least in part.
From a Platonic point of view, you might say to yourself don’t be so quick to trust your feelings, because the sense that you get to rock bottom when you discern what you feel ignores the mimetic character of desire. Our feelings are frequently mediated by our opinions. That would be a Platonic argument against Rousseau.
Do you think the individualism in the Reveries of Solitary Walker (1782) offers an answer to what we’re discussing?
The Reveries is a fascinating book. In it, Rousseau depicts himself “putting the barometer to his soul,” as he says, an art for which he has a real gift. In taking his temperature in this way, he is following in a long French tradition of trying to discover the secret movements of the mind, a tradition that begins with Michel de Montaigne in the 16th century.
Some of my favorite moments in the Reveries are those in which Rousseau laughs at himself. That laughter suggests to me that even Rousseau knows that individualistic immersion in our sentiments is not finally a cure for what ails us.
To my mind there’s something sentimental and solipsistic, not adequate to the realities of our socially connected lives, in the version of happiness Rousseau describes in the Reveries. Rousseau was never a man who could live up to his social duties. He acknowledges that he cannot meet the ordinary obligations that constitute so much of bourgeois life: taking your kids to school, taking out the garbage, walking the dog (although Rousseau seems to have been better at meeting his obligations toward his dog than toward people).
But there might be a form of human flourishing that consists in making oneself serviceable to others in an ordinary way—that is neither exalted sentiment nor grand Spartan self-sacrifice. I wonder if ordinary forms of love and duty might be more defensible than Rousseau allows.
Both the social contract and individualism attempt to present a solution to human dividedness. They seem contradictory and cannot really be reconciled easily.
They cannot be reconciled at all. Sometimes Rousseau puts the citizen first, signing some books as “Citizen of Geneva.” Whatever his nostalgia, though, he never lived in Geneva after he was 16 years old and eventually had a terrible break with the Genevans, who burned his books. Rousseau then tries to find happiness in a more solitary way of life, and he recognizes the contradictions between his republican and individualistic longings.
Rousseau prefers to go to extremes than to try to hold his equilibrium in the middle. The natural reaction of a reader of both the Social Contract and the Reveries is, first, “I should be a citizen in a small republic!” and then “I should live alone on an island!” Encountering Rousseau’s system leaves you more divided than when you were when you started. Rousseau gives us a profound analysis of our modern discontent that people have found resonant for centuries. But I do not know if he has got a better idea.
You say he gets at a very profound analysis of modern discontent. Would you say more?
Rousseau’s account of modern discontent and dividedness shows that we wish both to be more authentic and to be more engaged in our communities, that we wish both for greater solidarity and for greater individual freedom. He powerfully thinks through some of the most characteristic ways in which we articulate our own discontent.
Insofar as Rousseau lays down the principle of perfectibility, then in principle our discontent need not be insoluble. A certain level of discontent is not natural to us, a given part of the human condition. We ought to be able to fix it, because our natures are plastic, malleable. If we are trying to create the wholeness we feel we have lost, can we adjust our social order, or ourselves, to bring social life and individual life more into equilibrium?
I think many of us are haunted by the dream that I could somehow be perfectly myself and perfectly at home in my community at the same time, if we just managed to get these things into the proper adjustment. But it might be the case that no human being is ever fully at home in any community. We might just have to learn to live with that fact.
One last part to the system is Émile and his view on the family. Would you give a brief introduction to what that is?
Émile is what Rousseau called his “greatest and best book.” It was one of his attempts to make natural authenticity and social life go together. The book culminates in the marriage of the title character, Émile, with Sophie, his beautiful and virtuous beloved. Both have been raised in a special way to avoid many of the vices of the modern world, and they seem to form a uniquely harmonious couple. But there is a sequel, which Rousseau didn’t publish, called Émile and Sophie or The Solitaries, and it is about their breakup. They have a child who dies, Sophie’s parents die, they are depressed and make mistakes.
Of all the things Rousseau dreamed of – authenticity, social community – I think this picture of the harmonious family is perhaps the one that attaches the modern heart the most. We have different versions of family that we aspire to, but the picture of the harmonious household is one of the most deeply attractive and therefore deeply contested things in modern life. In the old aristocratic order, the contestation that we have had about the nature of marriage, for example in the gay marriage debates, really would not make that much sense, because the old vision of the family was much less romantic. We have dedicated tremendous mental and emotional passion toward the nuclear family as the culmination of life. And if we do not succeed in creating such a family, we are often abandoned to brutal social isolation—it is very hard to get along in a modern commercial democracy without a family. Rousseau saw how uniquely attractive the romantic couple, and the marriage based on the romantic couple, would be for modern human beings.
At the same time, Rousseau sees that this construction is riddled with weaknesses. Mortality comes crashing into the lives of Émile and Sophie, and it breaks up this notion of wholeness found through family. I think many of us hope to find wholeness in the family. Without denigrating the family at all, that may not be the right thing to hope for from it. Perhaps we shouldn’t expect the family to make us whole.
How do you think the Buckley seminar went? Was there anything you found surprising or did not turn out as expected?
I liked the seminar. Sometimes I thought that it was hard for people to take things plainly enough, for us to imagine ourselves into the situation of the author as he wrote. Those of us who live in the environment of a modern university, particularly a really prestigious university such as Yale, often feel compelled to deploy complicated hermeneutical lenses through which to analyze everything.
I think the work that many of us have to do to educate ourselves is more basic than we sometimes understand. The hermeneutical lenses that we might like to apply to things, the latest theories, are based on older theories, which are based on still older theories, which are based on older theories than that. Who knows if there has not been a wrong turn, somewhere along the way?
One of the best ways to liberate ourselves from subjection to the passing fancy of the day is to put ourselves through the exercise of slowly and carefully trying to see the world through the eyes of someone really smart in another time and place. You almost always find something that deeply challenges the conventions of your own moment. Doing that can help liberate you from those conventions—from being subject to the intense mental and social pressure that is so often prevalent on university campuses. Such experiences are both humbling and freeing because they allow us to see that we are free to question many of the opinions most dominant in our own times and in our own souls.