ICONS – ROUSSEAU

In a recent comment this blog was described as iconoclastic. Fair enough, many icons need smashing, none more so than progressive icons.

Censorship is wrong and counter-productive. Books should not be banned. The way to counter erroneous or even evil ideas is not to proclaim their importance by banning them but by exposing them to the light of day.

Works of political philosophy from Tom Paine to Edmund Burke, publish them.

Works of historical significance from Mein Kampf to Das Kapital, publish them.

Works of fiction from TinTtin in the Congo to the Lib Dem Manifesto, publish them.

I would even go so far as to support publication of what is probably the most dangerous book, certainly in its consequences, published in the Western world, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract. I know J-J was French (Swiss-French) but that is no excuse, I am sure that there are many Frenchmen who still manage to lead productive, stable and relatively sane lives.

Modern educational theory has been described as a series of footnotes on Rousseau. In his novel Émile (1762) Rousseau presented a view of childhood and human nature which informs educational theorising in every way to this day.

This week we have been hearing the usual voices pointing out that the British Olympic team is dominated by those who have been privately educated. Only 7% of young people are educated at a fee-paying school yet in the 2008 Beijing Olympics 37% of British medals were won from amongst that 7%. It is doubtful if our success this Games will radically alter this statistic.

This is not just a matter of money or privilege as progressives insist, it is mainly a matter of educational ethos. Fee paying schools tend to encourage healthy striving for fulfilment and personal excellence  in all fields of endeavour, scholastic and otherwise. This is in contrast to the paternalism of state schools which engenders a state where the ultimate sneer amongst pupils is to call another pupil a swot and where for huge swathes of pupils it is just not ‘cool’ to be educationally successful.

In contra-distinction to the realistic doctrine of original sin and the need for personal striving against its effects, J-J asserted the mythical notion now beloved of progressives that human nature is essentially good. He rightly came to the conclusion that humanity is corrupted, but laid this at the door of the institutions of society. ‘From the beginning’, he writes, ‘to the end of life civilized man is a slave. At birth he is sewn up in swaddling bands, and at death nailed down in a coffin.’

Also in 1762 J-J wrote the classic treatise on freedom, The Social Contract. Even if we have the good fortune never to have read it we know it’s opening line: “Man was born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”

Unfortunately the liberty Rousseau envisioned wasn’t freedom from state tyranny. This progressive icon was all for state tyranny and can justly be described as the father of modern totalitarianism. It was his disciples such as Robespierre who instigated The Terror, that blood drenched aftermath of the French Revolution.

For Rousseau it was freedom from the chains of personal obligations which was demanded. In J-J’s system tyranny arose from within smaller social groupings, the family, church, and workplace, and the like.

Escape from the claims made upon one by these groups can only be made by transferring total loyalty to the state. In Rousseau’s world society can offer nothing positive, only subjection of the individual to the state could bring happiness. As Rousseau put it, each citizen can become “perfectly independent of all his fellow citizens” through becoming “excessively dependent on the republic.” J-J insisted he was following Plato: hadn’t Plato said the state is better equipped than parents to raise good citizens?

In his political theory these ideas emerge in the form of general policy recommendations. For example, he said responsibility for educating children should be taken away from parents and given to the state. And his ideal state is one where impersonal institutions liberate citizens from all personal obligations.

To give him credit Rousseau put his beliefs into practice. He drifted from unsuccessful tutoring post to unsuccessful tutoring post, from mistress to mistress. Eventually he settled down with Thérèse Lavasseur a seamstress. When Thérèse presented him with a baby, Rousseau was, in his own words, “Thrown into the greatest embarrassment.” His longing was to be received into Parisian high society, and an illegitimate child by a functionally illiterate working class girl was a somewhat awkward encumbrance. There was also the practical side to be considered, he could not work in a house “filled with domestic cares and the noise of children.” Together he and Thérèse had five children, all of whom were left at a foundling asylum. As Rousseau well knew children raised there usually died, with the survivors ending up as beggars.

Not for nothing is Jean Jacques Rousseau an icon of progressivism.

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About Campbell

Now retired but once upon a time a parish minister in Glasgow, before that the South West and initially the Black Isle. Been a prison chaplain and lecturer. Still am constantly bemused by the weird world around me.
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3 Responses to ICONS – ROUSSEAU

  1. John Ferguson says:

    Have you read paul Johnsons” Intellectuals’ He has a chapter on Rousseau. Quite amusing exposé. By the way, really glad you are back blogging..John

  2. Sugel says:

    Rousseau argued that we are inherently good, but we become corrupted by the evils of society. We are born good – and that is our natural state. In later life he wished to live a simple life, to be close to nature and to enjoy what it gives us – a concern said to have been fostered by his father. Through attending to nature we are more likely to live a life of virtue. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was interested in people being natural.

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