Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

ROUSSEAU: The Social Contract 2

The Social Contract was written in 1762. Three hundred and fifty years later (just this week in fact) a United States Congressman says: It is rare in American politics to arrive at a moment in which the debate revolves around the fundamental nature of American democracy and the social contract. But that is where we are. Three hundred and fifty years later that is where we are; still discussing the social contract. This is a real tribute to the power of Rousseau’s ideas concerning the source of legitimate political power. And what is that source? The people. Political power comes from the people. The idea of political power coming from “the people” or “the many” goes all the way back at least to ancient Greece. So what makes Rousseau’s idea fresh and unique? His great idea lies in the concept of a “social contract” guided by the “General Will”: The first and most important deduction from the principles we have so far laid down is that the general will alone can direct the State according to the object for which it was instituted (the common good)… Democracy gets its power from the majority. But Rousseau doesn’t think that fact, in itself, is the true source of political power. The majority can still go wrong. Just think of the trial of Socrates. So Rousseau believes that truly legitimate political power can only be used by the State for the common good of all its citizens. This is the General Will; any law or policy that helps one person or one class of people more than another he calls Private Will. Private Will is not, in Rousseau’s eyes, a legitimate use of political power. Private Will in politics is merely harnessing the power of the State to acquire personal benefits. Our private lives can reflect personal interests but our public lives should be devoted to the common good. This sounds noble. What well-meaning citizen could possibly be against the common good? But here’s where Rousseau bogs down in an old philosophical quagmire: what is good? Suppose a well-meaning citizen has to choose between two opposing goods? Then what happens to the General Will? Here’s an example. Rousseau says that the end of every system of legislation comes down to these two principle objects: freedom and equality. Freedom is good. So is equality. Which good does the General Will tell us to pursue? The answer is: both. But what if it turns out that the more we have of one, the less we’ll have of the other? Then what? As Rousseau points out: The private will tends by its nature toward preferences, while the general will tends toward equality. Let’s examine more closely what individual “preferences” can lead to. Our previous readings show a wide diversity of preferences. Socrates prefers the wisdom of philosophy over the wisdom of “the people.” Aristotle prefers excellence over mediocrity. The list goes on. So how can there be a General Will among so many diverse opinions (or Private Wills) regarding the way we should live? If Socrates pursues philosophy he will not be equal with ordinary citizens. Mediocre people won’t be Aristotle’s equal if Aristotle constantly strives for excellence and they don’t. Rousseau seems to sense this. So he makes provisions to protect equality: It is precisely because the force of things tends to destroy equality that the force of legislation should always tend to maintain it. But here’s a question: why does Rousseau choose to protect equality instead of freedom? One possible answer: this is Rousseau’s preference. Equality is Rousseau’s principle object and this is what he wants to establish and preserve. He makes it a little clearer when he points to the principle objects of some of the great civilizations: The Hebrews long ago and the Arabs recently have had religion as their principle object; the Athenians, letters; Carthage and Tyre, commerce; Rhodes, navigation; Sparta, war; and Rome, virtue. Here’s another question: what is America’s principle object? We come back to the opening statement: It is rare in American politics to arrive at a moment in which the debate revolves around the fundamental nature of American democracy and the social contract. But that is where we are. Here we are. This is what the Great Conversation is all about.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

ROUSSEAU: The Social Contract 1

In our last reading Freud examined why modern people are often unhappy. We live with a level of comforts and freedoms that few people in the past ever experienced. So why are we still unhappy? Freud believed it was because civilization forces us to suppress many of our natural inclinations. This tension of living in society with other people causes psychological turmoil between civilization and its discontents. But long before Freud the French writer Rousseau could sense something of this same phenomenon when he observed: Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. Is this true? How are we “born free” and if we are born free then how does it come about that now we’re all “in chains”? Rousseau starts at the very beginning of our lives, the moment when we’re born. We’re born to be free, but not yet. For several years we’re merely children and still dependent on our parents. But we finally do grow up and leave the nest to become adults living out on our own. Then we’re free. Or so we think. Rousseau puts it this way: The most ancient of all societies, and the only one that is natural, is the family: …children remain attached to the father only so long as they need him for their preservation. As soon as this need ceases, the natural bond is dissolved. So far so good. That answers our first question about how we’re born free. But as Freud points out, it’s a rough world out there: Men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggression. Once we’ve left home and the protection of our parents we face a new problem: how to live in safety and security as adults. The trick here is how we can live safely and securely but still retain the freedom we gained the day we left the security of our parent’s home. Now we have to tackle our second question: if man is born free, then how does it come about that he is everywhere in chains? Man is everywhere in chains in this sense: we all live under some form of government. The chains are laws we have to obey as citizens living under that government. A question naturally comes to mind: why should men live under a government, in chains so to speak? Another Great Books author, Hobbes (GB Series 2), tells us why: because it’s better than living in a state of nature. Without government to protect us life would soon become short, nasty and brutish. Living under a government (almost any government) is far superior to living out in the wild and being left to our own resources. It’s much better for us to associate with other people so we won’t face the world alone. Rousseau summarizes our problem like this: Find a form of association that defends and protects the person and goods of each associate with all the common force; so that he unites with all and yet obeys only himself and still remains as free as he was before joining the association. What Rousseau is looking for is a way for us to have our safety and security and yet still retain our freedom too. How can we accomplish both at the same time? Rousseau’s answer comes in the form of a “social contract.” Since we’re all born with the right to political liberty we should make a mutual compact with one another that we will honor each citizen’s individual freedom. Under this arrangement the government will protect every citizen’s freedom and property. In return, each citizen will give up his right to make decisions on his own. He will need to conform his freedoms to the wishes of the whole community. Only under this sort of arrangement will the state be able to flourish and not disintegrate into anarchy and violence, the true state of nature. Some readers may ask: but how am I still free if I can’t make decisions on my own? Rousseau has the answer: …whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be constrained to do so by the entire body; which means only that he will be forced to be free. “Constrained” doesn’t sound like freedom to some people. If you’re with the majority then you’re in luck. If not? Then you may well become one of the unhappy ones. These are the discontents Freud talks about.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

FREUD: Civilization, Discontents and Genesis 2012

What motivates people? A quick review of our recent readings shows a diversity of answers. In Rothschild’s Fiddle Jacob was motivated by money. For Aristotle motivation comes from excelling in whatever we do. For Socrates the answer is philosophy. For Kurtz in Heart of Darkness it was personal political power. For Kant it was a clean conscience. For Marx it was getting fair wages for our work. Then we come to a reading that was baffling to Freud: Genesis. Freud could account for all the other motivations through his theory of psychology. But how do we account for this unexpected religious motivation that we find in Genesis? Freud admits that as a scientist he’s perplexed by this whole phenomenon: The whole thing is so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life. How can people still believe that kind of stuff in the twentieth century? What disturbs Freud even more is the sheer number of believers: It is still more humiliating to discover how large a number of people living today (who cannot but see that this religion is not tenable) nevertheless try to defend it piece by piece in a series of pitiful rearguard actions. For Freud the question is closed. Modern science has answered most of the frightening questions that drove primitive peoples to try and placate the gods. It was understandable for those who lived in ignorance. It is not understandable for those who have a scientific view of life. Here Freud is talking about what the common man understands by religion… And what is this common understanding? The common man cannot imagine Providence otherwise than in the figure of an enormously exalted father. Only such a being can understand the needs of the children of men and be softened by their prayers and placated by the signs of their remorse. This is childish to Freud; “patently infantile.” Science, and especially psychology, has disproven once and for all the childish idea of a bearded old man sitting in the sky who will somehow take care of us. There is simply no proof that God exists. So how do we account for people who still believe in spite of what science or Freud have to say? A contemporary of Freud’s (American economist and engineer Stuart Chase) put it this way: For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don't believe, no proof is possible. The foundation for the believer is laid in the first sentence of Genesis: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth… There isn’t any attempt to prove that God exists. God’s existence is just stated as a fact and the story moves on. Two readers can read that same sentence. One reader may simply accept the statement at face value; for them no proof is necessary. Another reader may reject it out of hand; for them no proof is possible. Freud rejects it. In his view religion is psychologically unhealthy: Its technique consists in depressing the value of life and distorting the picture of the real world in a delusional manner; which presupposes an intimidation of the intelligence. At this price by forcibly fixing them in a state of psychical infantilism and by drawing them into a mass-delusion, religion succeeds in sparing many people an individual neurosis; but hardly anything more. This is Freud’s summary of the religious motive: it’s childish. Other Great Books authors argue precisely the opposite. Genesis says that human beings are created in the image of God. That’s why the common believer thinks of God as a father figure; it’s comforting. Genesis also claims that religion elevates life, enlightens the mind, and transforms the heart. Submission to God is not infantile at all but an entirely proper response to the creator of the universe. The rebellious are generally the most childish ones. Freud and Genesis are obviously far apart. Freud says man’s judgments of value… are an attempt to support his illusions with arguments. We may have the illusion that we’re physically attractive. But Stuart Chase says the Lord prefers common looking people. That is why he made so many of them. No argument there.