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Rousseau, the Social Contract, Snow Shoveling and America’s Current Situation

16 Mar

In “The Social Contract” Rousseau tackles the question of why we have governments and societies at all, what the limits are, and what the responsibilities are.

Rousseau gets to the heart of the matter when he says that people form societies and governments in order to survive the forces of nature.

“I suppose men to have reached the point at which the obstacles in the way of their preservation in the state of nature show their power of resistance to be greater than the resources at the disposal of each individual for his maintenance in that state. That primitive condition then can subsist no longer; and the human race would perish unless it changed its manner of existence.”

In an odd way I think this man against nature justification is evident in winter when people shovel their sidewalks. It seems like an over-simplification, but when the whole neighborhood shovels their walks and pays taxes for snow plows, then the winter is much more survivable.

Rouseau Social Contract

The Social Contract revealed by snow shoveling.

By the same token, though, the ease that our modern society has provided us causes people to think that they can operate more independently of society than they might in other circumstances.

“’The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while united himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before.’ This is the fundamental problem of which the Social Contact provides the solution.”

Rousseau writes that people must give themselves over to the community, and because each person does so, and agrees to play by the same rule, retains his or her freedom.

“We might, over and above all this, add, to what man acquires in the civil state, moral liberty, which alone makes him truly master of himself; for mere impulse of appetite is slavery, while obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves, is liberty. “

What we see today is people who assert their rights to be free and act as they wish, but they take on no responsibilities for the communities of which they are a part. Listen to any modern political debate, and you will hear plenty of screaming about rights, but very little talk about the responsibilities that we owe to one another by being part of the state. The Founding Fathers wrote a Bill of Rights, but perhaps we need to add a Bill of Responsibilities to it.

In a book that I have reviewed elsewhere on this site, former U.S. Marine Jess Goodell writes about how when she returned home from Iraq, one of the things that shocked her was how selfish people were in civilian life and how much of their behavior would never be allowed in a combat zone. While I don’t think that we should all need to live on yellow alert, I think we would be better off if we all took a few minutes to realize that civilization is here because we all take on responsibilities and that those are as important as our rights.

“In fact, each individual, as a man, may have a particular will contrary or dissimilar to the general will which he has as a citizen. His particular interest may speak to him quite differently from the common interest: his absolute and naturally independent existence may make him look upon what he owes to the common cause as a gratuitous contribution, the loss of which will do less harm to others than the payment of it is burdensome to himself; and, regarding the moral person which constituted the State as a persona ficta, because not a man, he may wish to enjoy the rights of citizenship without being ready to fulfill the duties of a subject. The continuance of such an injustice could not but prove the undoing of the body politic.”

I think this is the risk we face today with everyone thinking about their individual rights and their own interests. They never see the need to set aside their own interests for the larger good because they are too far removed from the dangers that exist that forced people to enter into the social contract in the first place. When disaster strikes, we often see people pull together in ways that seem unlikely, until you consider the beginnings of the social contract. Of course people help each other after the hurricanes or blizzards – they understand the need for survival.

But I worry about the future because even those returns to the fundamental social contract are increasingly being used to score political points. If we cannot come together and recognize the duties we owe one another voluntarily, then the position we will soon find ourselves in because of our selfish behavior will force us to renegotiate and re-enter that social contract. That will involve some very hard times before it happens, though.

It is worth noting that Rousseau does not believe that recognizing we owe duties to our society means that we all become cogs in a big machine. It means that there need to be limits on our behavior in recognition that we are part of a larger whole.

“I have already defined civil liberty; by equality, we should understand, not that the degrees of power and riches are to be absolutely identical for everybody; but that power shall never be great enough for violence, and shall always be exercised by virtue of rank and law; and that, in respect of riches, no citizen shall ever be wealthy enough to buy another, and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself: which implies, on the part of the great, moderation in goods and position, and, on the side of the common sort, moderation in avarice and covetousness.”

“Such equality, we are told, is an unpractical ideal that cannot actually exist. But if its abuse is inevitable, does it follow that we should not at least make regulations concerning it? It is precisely because the force of circumstances tends to continually destroy equality that the force of legislation should always tend to its maintenance.”

Rousseau causes me to think more deeply about the rights and responsibilities that we all have. If we had more conscious thought about the social contract in our public discourse, I think we would be better off. If we continue to lose sight of that contract because life is made less risky by technology and a general inertia that keeps society going, then we will eventually be forced to come to an ugly reckoning with our own selfishness. We have to think bigger and smarter in order to reach our true potential both as a society and as individuals.


More on Why We Need the Humanities

1 Jun

This column from The New York Times talks about why the humanities are important.

In today’s technical age, it is easy to focus on technical skills and knowledge as the pinnacle of knowledge. It is interesting to note that technical does not necessarily mean scientific, in that even the deniers of science, such as creationists, flat earthers, and climate change deniers have no qualms about using technology to spread their messages.

But part of the reason that we can’t have reasonable conversations, and we can’t deal well with many of the issues facing us is that we do not have the language or knowledge of ourselves and of philosophy to do so. We don’t grapple with the larger questions.

This article starts to discuss that. While there are bigger questions than can be handled in a single column, it is a start. I like to think this blog is part of exploring this question in a larger way.

“Understanding heroism and schmuckdom requires fewer Excel spreadsheets, more Dostoyevsky and the Book of Job. ”

There are some problems in this article in that I think there is more to it in terms of what kind of work you do and what kind of person you are, but this is a start.

How Much are the Humanities Worth? $10 Million

5 Oct

An Indian businessman thinks the humanities are worth at least $10 million, and has given that amount to Harvard to promote study in the humanities.

His reasoning can be found in this Boston Globe article. Essentially he thinks that they are important for bringing values to the things that we do, even in business.

I wonder if he has anything for bloggers.

Augustine Feels the Pressure of Daily Life

18 Sep

Augustine Feels the Pressure of Daily Life

In Book VI, Augustine is spending time with his friends, trying to figure out how to live his life and trying to find God. He has quit the Manichean church, which he says mocked the credulity with the promise of certain knowledge that never came.

Around the same time, his mother shows up and fits herself into the local Catholic Church and its customers. She does not bring wine and cakes to church anymore and follows the dictates of the local bishop. All the while, she is trying to get Augustine to marry. For his part, though, Augustine wants no part of this.

Instead, he and his friends talk about forming a commune where they can share all their property together and live apart from the “turbulent turmoils of human life.” I think here we see something that a lot of scholars and college students would like to do. They want to get away from it all and just think about their philosophy and areas of study.

As is evident by my sporadic postings to this blog, it can be hard to read, study, and think about things when you are trying to deal with the demands of everyday life. But what Augustine and his friends figure out is that some of them have more to contribute than others and when the question of whether the men would bring their wives comes into play, the whole idea falls apart.

Much of this book is about how daily life can make the path to wisdom very long. Living in the world makes wisdom and faith hard to achieve, especially for a man of education.

For example, Augustine says that he has to learn to trust in God and accept things on faith rather than being “as assured of the things I saw not as I was that seven and three are ten.”

Next, he talks about how he wants to withdraw from daily life and pursue the cause of finding God, even if that search was not manifestly clear to him at the moment that he feels the desire. As noted above, his commune idea was designed for that, though it fell apart, and his friend Alypius tries to keep him from marrying that they might live together “in the love of wisdom.”

Augustine also has cautions for us as we deal with the structures of the world where we live and work. He described going to give a panegyric – a speech of elaborate praise – for the emperor “wherein I was to utter many a lie, and, lying, was to be applauded by those who knew I lied….” Augustine is doing this to chase honors, gains, and marriage, but along the way he sees a beggar who is asking for alms that he will use to by booze and make himself happy.

“For what he had obtained by means of a few begged pence, the same I was plotting for by many a toilsome turning and winding: the joy of a temporary felicity. For he verily had not the true joy; but yet I with those my ambitious designs was seeking one much less true. And certainly he was joyous, I anxious; he void of care, I full of fears.”
While both the beggar and Augustine are in error, Augustine notes that his is worse.

“He that very night should digest his drunkenness; but I had slept and risen with mine, and was to sleep again, and again to rise with it, how many days, Thou, God, knowest.”

Augustine gives us another example of how the pressures of daily life can weigh upon by describing his friend Alypius’s job as an assessor in the Roman Treasury. A powerful senator comes in and tries to get the treasury to do some unspecified, but illegal thing. Alypius won’t allow it, and one of his co-workers, to whom the Senator also appeals, puts the refusal on Alypius. The senator offers to have books copied at a cheap rate for Alypius, but he refused.

Alypius learned to trust God and prefer justice after being caught up in the spectacle of gladiator sports and once falsely accused of an attempted breaking and entering of a silversmith shop.

Alypius detested the gladiator fights, and though his friends dragged him, he swore he would not get caught up in them. But the shouts and noise and energy around him caused him to get caught up in the fights, and it was only through God’s “most strong and most merciful hand” that Alypius learns to trust God and gives up the gladiator games.

Being falsely accused of a crime, after he was the one who scared off the would-be thief, taught Alypius to prefer justice.

It seems what Augustine is trying to show us in this book is that even though we might prefer to withdraw from the world and go live on a commune and love wisdom, we must face the world. We need to experience and learn from the challenges it throws at us so that when we are tested, we do not end up like Augustine, chasing honor, gains, and marriage in a way that leaves us unhappy and feeling full of anxiety day after day. I will say this is the lesson that I take away from it as a modern, secular reader. I think along with the message of learning from the world’s challenges in the message that we must learn to trust God in those situation to bring us through and teach us the lessons, as he did with Alypius.

Next Time: Book VII – Augustine Gradually Extricated from his Errors

Aristotle’s Ethics: Learning to Behave and to Be Happy

11 Sep

This week’s reading is the first book of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. This is an important reading because it can give us some practical guidance on how we should live our lives. In this book, Aristotle begins to look at the question of what is good, how we know it, and how we should behave.  His premise is that there is some good that every art, action, and pursuit aims to achieve. He goes on to say that the end goal of all the things we do is happiness, and we achieve this by living a virtuous life.

Even an author from 2,000 years ago is prepared to admit that this is something of a cliché. ‘Oh, we just all want to be happy.’ But he argues that all the things humans strive for — health, honor, wealth — aim at this one goal of happiness, and that it is the only thing we seek for its own sake. “Happiness, then, is something self-sufficient, and is the end of action.”

“Presumably, however, to say that happiness is the chief good seems a platitude, and a clearer account of what it is is still desired. This might perhaps be given if we could first ascertain the function of man,” Aristotle says.

The function of man is “an activity of the soul which follows or implies a rational principle,” is how Aristotle defines it. In other words, he is saying we are rational creatures who can define, pursue, and achieve excellence and virtue. Once we do so, then we can live a happy life. 

It is important to note here that Aristotle defines happiness in terms of virtuous activity. Happiness, and virtue, for that matter, are not states of being of Aristotle. You do not achieve these things and have them forever. Instead you act them out throughout your life. Aristotle shows us that we can’t just collect a certain amount of wealth or accolades and call it a day.

“For no function of man has so much permanence as virtuous activities…and of these themselves the most valuable are more durable because those who are happy spend their life most readily and most continuously in these….The attribute in question, then, will belong to the happy man, and he will be happy throughout his life; for always, or by preference to everything else, he will be engaged in virtuous action and contemplation, and he will bear the chances of life most nobly and altogether decorously, if he is ‘truly good’ and ‘foursquare beyond reproach’.”

Aristotle here becomes kind of a self-help guru and says that happy men, who are truly good and wise will make the best of circumstances.

Now, I am taking the book in somewhat reverse order, because in the first part of the book, he lays out how we can know what is good. For Aristotle, people know what is good because they are educated in good habits and by getting a good all around education, they become good all-around judges.

Aristotle says that we all learn by example what is good, rather than deducing what is good by comparing examples to some universal knowledge of an absolute good. This separates him from his teacher, Plato, who argued through Socratic dialogs that we know what things are through understanding universal forms, and we know what is good because we have some idea of the ultimate idea of good.

According to Aristotle, we learn through experience rather than revelation. 

“It is hard, too, to see how a weaver or carpenter will be benefitted in regard to his own craft by knowing this ‘good itself’, or how the man who has viewed the Idea itself will be a better doctor or general thereby. For a doctor seems not even to study health in this way, but the health of a man, or perhaps rather the health of a particular man; it is individuals that he is healing.”

Aristotle is talking about finding virtue through induction, as opposed to the deduction used by Plato. The New York Public Library Desk Reference, third edition, defines the two as follows.

Inductive Reasoning: Any process of reasoning from something particular to something general, or form a part to a whole. Inductive reason can be valid or invalid.

Deductive Reasoning: Reasoning from a general statement to a particular or specific example; for example, “All cats are mortal; William is a cat; therefore William is mortal.”

In addition, Aristotle takes pains to say that we need to set limits on our inquiries into these matters. He says that it is too easy to make the inquiries infinite unless we set limits on what we are trying to find out.

Where does this leave us? To start, Aristotle says we need to exercise our judgment and rational faculties to know what is good.

He also says that to achieve happiness we must behave in a good and virtuous way. Happiness is actions, not a state of being. I think this may be why many people are chronically unhappy even after they have gathered things and created a set piece that they think should make them happy.

Happiness is not having; it is doing.

Next Time – These Books are Big: Some Thoughts on the Set