Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

DIDEROT: Rameau’s Nephew

Socrates is a hero to every generation of college students. They normally sign up for Philosophy 101 to get credit for a course in the humanities so they can graduate from college. Then they can go out into the world and look for a job with a bachelor’s degree tucked neatly into their resume. Socrates himself would probably have been amused at this state of affairs. Diderot’s character Rameau would have understood perfectly. In 18th century French society Rameau was adept at leeching off rich cultivated Parisians. That way he didn’t have to do any real work. In modern-day America he would likely have tried to make a living off university stipends, government programs and grants from private foundations. That way he wouldn’t have to do any real work.
Come to think of it, neither did Socrates; unless talking about philosophy is considered an occupation. Does that count as real work?

The narrator in Diderot’s short story introduces us to a unique character, Rameau, who is a philosopher in his own kind of way. He only thinks about himself. He doesn’t give a damn about the rest of the world. Come to think of it, one of Socrates’ favorite quotes was “know thyself” and he also taught that living in our everyday world was like living in a dark cave. He wanted his students to turn their backs on the “real” world and follow him into the sunlit splendors of philosophy. But Rameau was having none of that. He liked this world just fine, thank you very much. In fact, he was against most of the things that Socrates was for; philosophy, for example. Rameau says Lord, may I never meet anyone more pigheaded than a philosopher…Virtue and philosophy aren’t for everybody. For the few who can, let them have it. Socrates exhorted his students to seek a higher level of existence than we find in the workaday world. Rameau was having none of that either: The important point is that we exist and that we exist as you and I. Let everything else go. The best order of things, in my view, is one in which I exist here in this world. Who cares about life in a perfect world if I'm not in it? … So let's just accept things the way they are. Rameau accepted the world the way it is, imperfect as it is. That’s good enough for ordinary people. It’s the smarty-pants of the world that screw things up: We must have men, but not men of genius. No, my goodness, we don't need them. They're the ones who are constantly trying to change things … evil has always come from some genius. All this talk about philosophy gives folks unrealistic expectations about life. And therefore about how life should actually be lived: Virtue is praised, but really it’s hated. People avoid it when they can, because it’s ice-cold and in this world we have to keep our feet warm. A lot of times devout people are harsh, touchy and unsociable. That’s because they’ve forced themselves to do something that’s unnatural. They’re in pain, and people in pain make other people suffer too. This certainly gives a different spin on the Socratic method of trying to instill virtue into his students.

College wouldn’t have done a man like Rameau much good. He wouldn’t have followed the course guidelines anyway: You’d be surprised how little I care about methods and rules. The man who needs a textbook won’t get very far in life. Geniuses don’t read much, but they experiment a lot. Rameau has a simple philosophy developed on his own: I want a good bed, good food, warm clothes in winter, cool in summer, plenty of rest, money, and other things that I would rather have given to me than to earn them by working. This may be a bit blunt but at least it’s a coherent philosophy of life. And he may have given Socrates a run for his money in a fair and open debate. Not everyone will agree with Rameau’s outlook. College students will more likely gravitate (intellectually) to the message of Socrates. But many of them will actually live daily lives more like Rameau than Socrates. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.


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