January 02, 2007

Rousseau on solitude

Placing friendship and solitude at the core of political thinking might seem an odd expedition for someone interested in politics. Our societies are too vast, too incomprehensibly big for friendship or solitude to matter within them, definitions of friendship are also difficult to understand and maintain consistently. If we are going to think sensibly about this, then the place to start is by looking closely at the way that past thinkers have handled the question of social relationships between individuals and have used those as a microcosm of society as a whole. If you like, some thinkers have understood society via the way that society affects the individual's psyche and abstracted from that a notion of the stability and morality of society as a whole. Hence if one arrangement of society makes for selfish individuals then it is to be condemned.

Definitely that could be taken in part to be the view of Jean Jacques Rousseau- the great French philosophe and thinker who lived through much of the 18th Century. Rather than tackle Rousseau's considerable oeurvre head on, I want to discuss one work in particular, published four years after the philosopher's death in 1782. The Reveries of a Solitary Walker aren't widely known outside of academia- they were written by Rousseau in the later years of his life and there are twelve reveries which are a set of thoughts collected and arranged by links to a particular walk that Rousseau had taken. Like Montaigne's essays, indeed consciously modelled on Montaigne's essays, the walks take themes and develop from the particular to the more general philosophical questions that Rousseau finds himself interested in. Again there isn't space for all of these questions but there is space here to develop one of those themes a little.

Of particular interest to Rousseau as he took these promenades was sociability- the capacity of men and women to get on in the world. Rousseau was interested in this because of his own biography, he beleived himself to have been unjustly plotted against and then attacked from all sides. Rousseau's solitary reveries therefore provide him with time to reflect and understand what has happened to Rousseau- the reflexivity of that question is intentional, sometimes one gets the feeling that Rousseau's intellectual preoccupation was the explanation of Rousseau to Rousseau. Rousseau basically argues in his Reveries that he was happy at two points in his life- he was happy early on in his social career when he didn't know of the plots against him, he then was happy later in his social career when he had given up on society and decided that solitude was better for him personally.

Amongst Rousseau's earlier works, you can find the explanations for why Rousseau came to this conclusion. He beleived that man was a solitary animal to start with and then came together to form societies. Like Hobbes or Locke he beleived in a state of nature. His argument was that in a state of nature, man had no self-consciousness, that civilisation and society were the products of the development of a self consciousness as a human being amongst other human beings and that that self-consciousness was inherently competitive. Linking this all to property, Rousseau found the reasons for the anomie of modern society as lying in the self conscious competitive self love of individual men- that competitive self love rendered society, in his view, at once immoral, luxurious, corrupt and unequal. It also made society unstable because such competitive instincts could never be satisfied. Rousseau projected a nightmare vision of the capitalist world onto the canvass of works like the Social Contract and the Discourses on Inequality, a nightmare he hoped to do away with through a new social contract and organisation of society around the principle of a general will. The only way he thought that a society could live without this malaise, was if all the individuals discarded their individual wills in favour of adopting the general, collective will.

All of the above is intensely controversial- and also intensely intricate- one day I will develop ideas about that. But today I'm interested in the way that its reflected in Rousseau's account of his own psychological stability. If we turn to the Reveries, we can date a clear moment when Rousseau begins to feel happier about life. His sojourn on the St Peter's Island in Lake Bienne is supposed by him to be the happiest period his life. He depicts the period in his revery on his fifth walk, where he describes a life of classifying flowers, and wondering idly through meadows leaving books, letters and papers unfinished and untouched. The idyll ended quickly but part of the point of the reveries is that Rousseau attempted to recreate that idyll in his later years.

All of this is reflected in the way that Rousseau understands his own position after all his social defeats: Charles Butterworth beautifully translates a passage where Rousseau describes the evolution of his own self in reaction to his social disgrace here,

Everything is finished for me on earth. People can no longer do good or evil to me here. I have nothing more to hope for or to fear in this world; and here I am, tranquil at the bottom of the abyss, a poor unfortunate mortal but unperturbed like God himself

Rousseau's attention is now focused inwards- there is a sense here of social misfortune but there is a sense of liberation. Rousseau himself has become liberated from society which is why he alone can present to us an accurate account of his descent through society- he has lost his competitive self regard because he no longer has any use for it. It has died within him. Symbolic of this death is that Rousseau doesn't intend to publish the reveries, they weren't published until after his death and as far as we know he didn't wish them to be published. Rousseau therefore starts them by saying that as these are meant for myself alone, they are much more trustworthy than other similar accounts like Montaigne's essays- they aren't corrupted by my desire to look good because only I will read them. Rousseau is not alone in making that kind of point, Lord Hattersley today in the Guardian says similar things about the fact that you ought to trust a politician's diaries that weren't intended for publication over diaries that were intended for publication! Rousseau though was more consistant in his opposition to public performance than Lord Hattersley, he beleived that by publically performing we lied about our selves and made self knowledge almost impossible.

That public performance is at the heart of Rousseau's writing and is worth focusing on. Rousseau at the beggining of the Reveries asks the question, ok so everyone's deserted me, who am I? The topic of his essays is to answer that question and the answer he comes to is that he is most truly himself when he is alone. Public performance in this sense is a betrayel of self, a kind of self perpetuating lie. Society here is something to be avoided, something not to be sought unless it can be reformed through revolution- unless men can be as the Contract argues 'forced to be free'. Its in this sense that I think we should read the Reveries, for Rousseau like some medieval monk sees loneliness as salvation.

There is much more obviously to Rousseau, and much more to the Reveries- the length of an undergraduate essay won't sum up a hundred pages from a philosopher of his quality nor will my brief comments on his oeurvre suffice. If you are interested I reccomend going and reading his works. But it is worth contemplating in this light my original question because for Rousseau politics flows out of this sense of the way that societies affect personal relations. Because he beleives that all personal relations in a society based upon competitive egos are in a sense based on lies, based on self presentation and artifice, plots and machinations, therefore he argues that such societies can contain no true social relations, no true friendships and he feels that this invalidates them as ethical communities. Rousseau's critique of the world is a critique of the way that our social relations work and that he beleives is tied intimately to our construction of society.

Many other theorists, his contemporaries Adam Smith and David Hume, his forebears Aristotle and Cicero and his successors Marx and Oakeshott all saw in different ways the same issue. That government presents us with a space for social interraction and that depending on the dimensions of that space we can evaluate that government- obviously between Rousseau, Hume, Smith, Aristotle, Cicero and Oakeshott you have very different versions of what that space should look like but they all saw this question as crucial to their politics.

Again I must state that this is a huge misstatement of Rousseau, don't rely on me, go to the text and read it for yourselves- its an incredible read. But this is a snapshot of an idea about how to think about that text- its also uninfluenced by any secondary work- so I offer it as a possibility but I'm sure this is only the beggining of the evolution of my views of Rousseau and one of the privileges of blogging is that you can all correct me, so please do.

I should also note that in response to this post, the illustrious and distinguished Mr Higham has posted a note on Rousseau. I haven't read it yet but am sure its interesting.

Occasionally I can be sloppy and this is no exception- I should note thanks to Christopher in the comments that there are only ten walks not twelve- my mind just played a mental trick on me there and I didn't check. Anyways I don't think it affects the overall argument- he has a good reccomendation for further reading in the comments as well.


Ian said...

This is another characteristically fascinating posting, thank you. At least one of the points I'm about to make in response will seem very solipsistic. Typical blogger... I also take your caveat, albeit with a slight pinch of salt, that his ideas are more complex than even your very lucid post can convey.

Rousseau's intellectual preoccupation was the explanation of Rousseau to Rousseau

Without wishing to somehow equate myself to Rousseau, I can recognise this preoccupation. It's my belief that most, if not all, discussion is rooted in the need to affirm to oneself the correctness of one's beliefs, rather than trying to change the interlocutor's stance.

he believed that by publically performing we lied about our selves and made self knowledge almost impossible.

Hmm, that's interesting. While I would not argue that all interactions with others, whether in public or in private, can be considered performances, and that the exact style of performance depends on the situation and other protagonists, does that necessarily mean that the individual is unknowingly deceiving him or herself? On the other hand, would that that were all that prevented us from full and complete self knowledge...

Because he beleives that all personal relations in a society based upon competitive egos are in a sense based on lies, based on self presentation and artifice, plots and machinations, therefore he argues that such societies can contain no true social relations, no true friendships and he feels that this invalidates them as ethical communities.

So how can we, indeed, can we at all, reduce the impact of the competitive ego?

Anonymous said...

I love your posts. I was reading Lawrence Durrel and thinking that one of the reasons literature will now be inevitably different is the absence of men of leisure. What are we losing by not reflecting?.. You seem to manage though, and I envy you.

james higham said...

Yes but that loss of competitive self regard is also dark in itself and it leads one to the place I'm now heading, having followed the same path and become virtually unsocial. Then that's where a faith saves you from the further descent to total alienation. Hence I'm commenting on your post.

Gracchi said...

James I am no Rousseauian he is wrong I think on many issues he is wrong. As for faith I think that can provide people with an inner strength in times of crisis- whether that makes faith a good thing or not is a topic that I suspect can be discussed for years.

Interesting arguments Ian I agree with you about the aspect of argument that is about politics that is actually about personality. Your point about self identity and the way that it works off the notion of personality is I think perfectly correct- I am intrigued by personal identity and the ways that personality is actually composite and not a single thing. Its interesting in that way to think about self knowledge but I may need to think about this in the context of another post- and develop it at greater length.

Your last question is one of those imponderables- I agree with you but it may just be a function of individual perception of reality- its the thing that we are all working on.

james higham said...

Tiberius, my answer is now here:


Forgive me for putting it on-site but I feel it's germane to the issue.

Great topic and you're one of the very few who tackle this kind of thing. That makes you inestimably valuable to the blogosphere.

Gracchi said...

James cheers I'm about to go over and look and will make comments on your post- I'm going to add the link above but it hasn't worked in your comment here- blogger again methinks! Anyway the link is here for those as wants it.

Ian said...

Oops, just re-read my comment, and my fifth paragraph was meant to read in part: While I would not argue with the proposition that all interactions with others, whether in public or in private, can be considered performances, which is ever so slightly different in meaning...

Christopher said...

A minor point: you say that there are twelve walks or promenades. There are ten, right? (My two French editions, a Garnier-Flammarion paperback and the Pleiade Oeuvres compl├Ętes, vol. 1, have ten.) Because I don't know the recent Butterworth translation I thought I would ask, in the unlikely case that there are two promenades (sketches?) that have been added.

Also, if you're interested in a starting point in the secondary literature, you might consider Jean Starobinski's Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Transparency and Obstruction, which originated as his doctoral thesis and was first published in 1957. Starobinski has a lot to say not only about Rousseau's solipsism and the tension between authenticity (transparency) and the wearing of masks (obstruction), but the way in which his personal obsessions shaped his political and aesthetic ideas.

Gracchi said...

Thanks Christopher. Firstly yes you are right apologies I slipped in writing from ten to twelve and invented two walks.

The secondary literature you recommend looks fascinating as well- I'll search it out- thanks for the recommendation and sorry for the sloppiness.