Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Rousseau, the Self, and the Unsolvable Equation of Society

Christopher Bertram in the TLS:
The common thread that runs through Rousseau's work is the question of how to satisfy our most basic human cravings for freedom and recognition in a world of interdependence. Rousseau was obsessed with the idea that as our needs multiplied beyond the point where we could satisfy them using our natural powers, we had become dependent on cooperation with others to get what we want, a theme explored most famously in the Discourse on Inequality. This dependence on others fosters a deformation of the self as people turn themselves into the characters they believe others will find attractive or useful. But we are all playing this game together, and the sense that the love and respect that others show us may just be feigned for instrumental reasons, a sense that derives support from what each of us does ourselves to bend others to our will, gives rise to a deep sense of anxiety and to feelings of pride, vanity, rage contempt, self-loathing and jealousy. We engage with  others not as we "really are" but via an endlessly recursive play of beliefs about what others believe, a play that underpins hierarchies of oppression and domination. These powerful forces simultaneously socialize and isolate us, leading us to suppress our natural sensitivity to the suffering of others and to develop elaborate rationalizations to justify power and position that take the form of political ideologies and moral codes.
Whether this is a fair summary of Rousseau's thought I do not know, but I find it to be a powerful statement of the basic human dilemma. Indeed, it is the basic dilemma of all social animals, as powerful for baboons as for us: We need each other, but find each other very hard to deal with. To provide every member of any community with the respect, love, friendship, and so on that we all want would require solving an unsolvable equation, and we spend our lives struggling with partial solutions. Even the individual problem, of how to get what we want while being true to ourselves, is all but impossible to work out; multiply this difficulty by a million and you see the impossibility of creating a society that feels just to everyone.

No comments: