The Utopian Whimsy: Left Politics of Nowhere in the Here and Now
The intellectual origins and development of the left-wing social vision
It was December 13, 2022 the last time I published an essay from the Great Illiberal Subversion series. Mr. M has been busy working on the essay below ever since. We had found ourselves a little side-tracked and distracted from the momentum we had when we first began the series. The reason was that we had arrived at a point in our research where we felt it necessary to pin down the definitions and the philosophical implications of certain terms. Terms like liberalism and conservatism for example.
We can consider this essay to be part of the Prologue to The Great Illiberal Subversion material that Mr. M has already put together. Those other preparatory essays are: A Moral Chimera -Diversity, Illiberal No-White-Male Policies and the Power of the Black Radical Tradition and Race Radicalism in America: Integrationist Past, Non-Integrationist Future .
Here is the summary description for the series The Great Illiberal Subversion: How Radical Activists Ru(i)n Western Democracies:
“Illiberal subversion, as it regards this series, refers to the “work” of radical activists and social agitators who force their will on society through a long on-going web of processes involving incremental efforts that chip away at the pillars of western democracies. Attacking and undermining public institutions as Gramsci had it - “a revolution from within” - through a drawn-out complex of affairs perhaps best viewed as death by a thousand cuts, the radical activists entrench in individual departments until they colonize an entire organization and effectively wield enough power to shape its directives. Once this happens to enough of the institutions (or pillars) of society (and it already has), the radical subverters effectively wield power over everyone, the power to shape social right and social wrong.” - The Ontology of the Great Illiberal Subversion
The Utopian Whimsy: Left Politics of Nowhere in the Here and Now
By Mr. M
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1.0 Introduction – Why you should read this entire article: Should the reader persevere until the end of this lengthy piece, they will have read one coherent explanation of what it means to be “left of liberal,” and of the interconnected origin of cultural and political phenomena as varied as utopianism, romanticism, socialism, feminism, the avant-garde movement, sociology, and student-centered education. The reader will then know again (because it is often intuited yet rarely articulated) what is left and what is right.
In the political tradition of the Anglosphere (Britain and her former colonies) what distinguishes the political left from the political right is not the matter of liberalism. While convention in Western politics dictates that only the political left should bear the descriptor “liberal,” in point of fact, from the time of the English Civil war onwards (from 1689 onwards) both the dominant left and the dominant right political parties have espoused a form of philosophical liberalism which insists upon the socio-political principles which are familiar to us all and which call for personal liberty, freedoms, individual rights and so forth.
Living in an avowed liberal democratic state, however, is anything but tranquil and harmonious on the political front, and one ought to wonder: why is that? There must be at least two sides to any healthy debate and to any functional democracy, but why do the left and the right today seem to have less and less common understanding? One answer which has found widespread acceptance is that put forward by Thomas Sowell in 1987,namely, that differing moral attitudes about the mutability (the fluidity) of human nature and about the feasibility and desirability of human change divide liberal democratic citizens into two ideological camps (roughly, left and right). The moral disposition of the right wing is described by Sowell as possessing the “constrained vision” wherein human nature is such that it must be tempered by tradition, authority and by institutions in order to thrive; in contrast, the moral disposition of the left wing is that possessing the “unconstrained vision” which places a higher estimation of the mutability of human nature and human society as encapsulated in slogans such as “Liberty, equality, fraternity,” or “social justice.” Although, what those terms actually entail also requires careful study.
The purpose of the essay to follow will be to untangle and interpret for the reader how the left-wing social vision developed and where its intellectual origins should rightly be situated. In adopting Sowell’s model of conflicting visions, Steven Pinker, an excellent political commentator in his own right, replaced the term “unconstrained vision” with something simpler yet decidedly more revealing: for Pinker, the appropriate term for the social ethos of the modern left is the “utopian vision.”What this term should entail and why it is appropriately descriptive (rather than rhetorical or pejorative in nature) will be established below.
2.0 The Root of the Utopian Vision: The French Utopianists and Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Figure 1: A network of ideas assembled by the present author. Developments in black text are discussed and their associations are documented below. Developments in blue are reserved for a future essay.
As a written genre, Utopianism had its start in the writing of Thomas More (1516) whose work “Utopia” is best understood as a social-political satire. The name of the work is a Greek word which translates to “no place” and More intended to critique certain policies and practices of the day, to say that these policies (taken to their most absurd extent) result in the comical situation described in this “Utopia.”While More’s concerns are peripheral to the subject here, utopianist writing comes to the fore again in the pre-revolutionary period of France in the mid-1700s. In this new context, utopian writing develops two important new aspects: i) utopian scenarios are now presented as hypothetical futures and ii) the French utopianists anticipate or even precipitate the coming revolution of 1789. The growing unease of those times was encapsulated and amplified in a flurry of popular utopian novels written by society’s discontents serving, in effect, as a direct rebuke to the Ancien Régime (the regime of the French king) and to tradition itself: from the Marquis de Sade’s sexual perversions to themes of the sexually liberated and manly woman, to Rousseau’s new man and order of the general will. At one time or another, the French utopianists called everything in existing order into question “the family, private property, sexual normality, the very definition of pain and pleasure, the Christian religion, aristocracy, reason, self-interest.”
The discussion to follow will assess the intellectual legacy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau as having a remarkably pernicious influence on modern society, as impacting a stunning array of cultural and political positions to this day. Readers familiar with the mountains dissolved and reformed by the pens of liberal visionaries such as Locke will already know that it was early modern intellect which brought about the modern political world as it is. Nothing about the magnitude of the influence of such figures is fantastic, although demonstrating that a specific intellect has had lasting impacts on social, cultural or political trends requires considerable documentation. In many cases, Rousseau was not the first originator of the ideas which he espouses, nor does he envision a politic or social policy precisely in the way that it manifests today — rather, he was the passionate and gifted orator who powerfully articulated his anti-liberal vision at a formative stage in the emerging world politic. Thus, his articulation proves catalytic while others did not. It is arguably the case that Rousseau more than any other figure is responsible for the utopian vision alluded to above.
Biographical note: The following bit of biographical trivia is worth emphasizing because this was the life of an individual who, perhaps more than any other, contributed to shaping and reshaping the modern notion of the family and of childhood education. The man whose ideas are often deemed to have been responsible for the development of romanticism, collectivism and the French Revolution and many things besides.Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) was born, lived and wrote in the era immediately preceding the start of the French revolution (1789). Born in Switzerland to a family of Swiss watchmakers, his mother died a week after he was born and his father was forced to abandon his son to poverty when Rousseau was 10 years old. From his posthumously published autobiography, Confessions, we learn that he developed masochistic tendencies from an early age, deriving pleasure from the physical discipline administered by his female relatives and caretakers and he constantly took a submissive role in relationships with female figures throughout his life. At the age of fifteen, Rousseau left Geneva travelling to Savoy (now France) where he was taken in by a woman fourteen years his senior, the baroness de Warens. She would become his support and enabler, later his lover, he would sometimes call her “mama” — she cuckolded him.
Rousseau has been called the most influential of the modern philosophers, but he was also the least academic. His education was meager enough: he was educated by his father until the age of 10, and the baroness de Warens paid for him to be tutored in music; his knowledge of mathematics and philosophy came through self-initiation in his early 20s.Throughout his life his massive ego was apparent in his frequent passionate exclamations that his miseries are “unheard of since the beginning of time” and that “the person who can love me as I can love is still to be born.” Rousseau’s self-professed unique capacity for love apparently did not extend to his five children, each of whom he had committed to orphanages at birth. This was the man who, perhaps more than any other, has contributed to shaping and reshaping the modern notion of the family and of childhood education (see below).
Is he a good man who, deceived by false zeal, indiscreetly reproaches virtuous men? — Voltaire, criticizing Rousseau, 1764 (Sentiment des citoyens).
Section 3.0 – A Sketch of Rousseau’s Rejection of the Enlightened and Liberal West
The First Discourse: Discourse on the Sciences and Arts
Background: After living a life of relative obscurity as a servant, a secretary and intermittently an amateur composer, Rousseau in 1750, at the age of 38, decided to participate in an academic contest organized by the academy of Dijon. His success in winning the contest would alter the course of Rousseau’s life thereafter (as incredible as it may seem, it would also alter the course of modern history). The contest was to write an essay which would answer the question: “has the revival of the sciences and arts contributed to improving morality?”
Summary of Arguments: counter-enlightenment, anti-reason, repudiation of the arts and sciences, repudiation of the cosmopolitan (Athenian) Greek knowledge tradition, denunciation of history writing
Arguments: Rousseau’s award-winning essay answer would establish him as the preeminent intellectual detractor of Western Civilization in his age. One could distill his lengthy argument into the following synopsis: no, when the renaissance was sparked by the fall of Constantinople, the “debris” of Greece was brought to France. What the Greeks imparted to the West was debauchery because knowledge itself is a vanity which nature seeks to protect us from — the arts and sciences, therefore, reinforce the chains which enslave civilized people and prevent them from being free.(Perhaps the Stoics (from whom many of his ideas were probably borrowed) would agree with that.)
When he isn’t busy insinuating that the scientific study of electricity will surely amount to nothing,Rousseau is determinedly justifying his anti-arts and science discourse (turned anti-civilization discourse) with recourse to his own version of historical inquiry. Among the various pithy historical arguments in the first discourse is the following: Rousseau presents the fall of Rome as evidence that the arts and sciences result in moral corruption (a side effect is the weakness and military ineptitude of people). In contradistinction, he points to the unconquerability of the moral and unlettered native Americans: “the primitive people of America, who go naked and live off what they hunt, have never been conquered.” Present-day readers will know that this argument didn’t age well (witness the American’ westward expansion in the century after this was written); are we to conclude, with Rousseauan logic, that the native Americans turned out to be not so “moral” after all?
Rousseau pre-empted later radical intellectuals from Marx, to Nietzsche, to the structuralists and postmodernists, in attacking the legitimacy of the professional historian and the very premise that written history could be anything but a collection of the historians’ own subjective biases.And yet, Rousseau’s purpose clearly wasn’t to remove history writing as aid to philosophical analysis rather it was to remold history writing into a tool more fitted to his rhetorical purposes. In later works, Rousseau would reveal his position that it is unimportant whether a given historical fact is true, “provided that a useful teaching may be drawn from it.” Surely, it is just this sort of fabrication which enabled Rousseau to claim in his First Discourse that when the Visigoths sacked Greece (in fact, they burned many cities), they opted to leave all of the libraries untouched for (as Rousseau’s rhetorical reframing of history goes) for they knew that such edifices if left intact would surely distract and weaken the Greeks militarily.
In 1755 Voltaire wrote to Rousseau and argued that letters are “serving you, sir, at the very moment you decry them: you are like Achilles declaiming against fame, and Father Malebranche using his brilliant imagination to belittle imagination.”
Section 3.1 A Sketch of the Second Discourse and Later Works
The Second Discourse: Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Mankind
Background: in 1755, several years after winning the Dijon academy contest with his First Discourse essay, Rousseau entered the same competition and this time the contest question was “what is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by natural law?” Rousseau’s response, which becomes his Second Discourse, is worth sketching because it contains within it the anti-liberal germ of socialism as well as the field of sociology, which are deeply interlinked (this will be explicated below).
Summary of arguments: Man in a state of nature (the morally pure state) has no society, no family, no language and no private property (and thus, equality prevails).
Arguments: Writing one hundred years before the emergence of biology as a scientific model and a mode of study, Rousseau could not hope to contend with biology at this time; through a process of reasoned conjecture (common at the time) he sets his sights on repudiating then dominant theories about the state of nature (how humans were before government), including that favored by John Locke, the father of liberal philosophy. Locke held that in a state of nature, humans are social animals and, as such, man will stay with the woman after she has given birth (in order to protect the young, among other reasons. Thus, families are natural).In contradistinction, and in order to position civilization as the root of inequality, Rousseau builds the argument of his Second Discourse around the exact opposite contention: in a state of nature, man is not a social animal, man does not stay with the woman after birth and, correspondingly, families are not natural. The children leave the mother as soon as they are able. In keeping with the anti-civilization rhetoric of his first discourse, Rousseau held that it was this early state of man, natural man (as he defines it), that is the most moral – man was most moral in this time before the corrupting influences of private property, family, writing, when he walked about in nature free of violence, free of writing and letters, free of language even! (or so Rousseau thought).
Modern readers will surely find the above formulations rather jarring. From the modern perspective,it is plainly bad anthropology but there are a few things to note about that: Rousseau, writing 100 years before Darwin’s works were published, believed that the pongo (probably: the chimpanzee) was a type of human. Neither the natural historians nor political theorists perusing their work at this time had personally seen chimpanzees, orang-utans and the like but relied on the written accounts of explorers, some from the 1600s, who described the great apes as having “human faces,” as having “an exact resemblance to man” and as “burying their dead;” in the same travel accounts, drawings often depicted them as walking on two legs with canes or walking sticks. As a result, Rousseau was certainly not alone at the time in supposing that some of these specimens were another type of man.
It seems dubious to me that Rousseau made any great deductions about the pongo/ the chimp,yet we should remember that his primary purpose was neither to create a major work of natural history nor to anticipate Darwin (which he certainly doesn’t), it was to make a political statement about European civilization. He did so by achieving the following inversion: leading enlightenment thinkers of the time held that there was a single human species which consisted of civilized European man at the top (hierarchically situated at the top being god’s original creation) as well other forms of man such as primitive man and orang-utans (situated lower in the hierarchy and considered degenerations of the same species); Rousseau entirely inverts this order representing the opposite: God intended the savage state, he avers. From the supposed high moral state of natural man –which he models after (what he thinks is) the solitary life of the pongo/ the chimp– Rousseau indicates, essentially, that morals begin to fall with the savage before completely falling with advanced societies. For socialist theorists of the future, the important part of this formulation was that which is quintessentially anti-liberal: man’s moral state is that without the (allegedly) corrupting influences of private property, family, language or writing and so forth.
The modern left is often said by its critics to be self-hating, and if it takes its cue from anyone on this, it takes its cue first from Rousseau (and second, from the legion of thinkers who ape this pose through the ages). Ever the stalwart defender of civilization, the enlightenment, Lockean liberalism and rationality, Voltaire rebuked Rousseau for his chimp-based model of man on several occasions. In a passage from his Dictionnaire philosophique, he wrote “Every enemy of luxury should believe with Rousseau that the state of happiness and virtue for man is not the state of the savage, but that of the orang-utan.” And in a letter that he penned to Rousseau he remarked: “I have received, sir, your new book against the human species, and I thank you for it… no one has ever been so witty as you are in trying to turn us into brutes: to read your book makes one long to go on all fours.”
While Voltaire has directed his wit at Rousseau’s folly in adopting the chimp as a model for past and future man, with the benefit of hindsight we might recognize an additional error in the premises of the second discourse: importantly, anthropology would show us that it is not culture which drives the hierarchal structuring of society (that is, inequality), rather it is the simple presence of food surpluses. This simple truth is demonstrated by the northwest coast native Americans who, because their methods of food gathering and storage led to special food surpluses, developed a sort of hierarchical house system. No, native Americans were not innately egalitarian in every condition, and when they were it was not their lack of European culture that made them so!
Section 3.1 Left Politics and Left Culture of the Rousseauan Mold
Figure 2: Developments considered in the present essay.
3.1.1 The General Will: Having argued in his first and second discourse that the enlightenment itself was a corruption (this position also advances the anti-liberal message that both the French monarchic system of the time as well as liberalized England are immoral), Rousseau set about proposing his own system.Published in 1762, the Social Contract would advance the concept of society which might be described as “a communitarian society in which the responsibilities and duties of citizenship outweigh individual rights and freedoms.” A key component of this political theory is the General Will: roughly stated, if western society to date had resulted in inequality, driven by such things as private property and the family, the vain curiosity of the corrupt arts and sciences, and incessant politeness and false conformity which drives us apart, then it is time for a state governed by the General Will – a state in which subjects bound by a social contract will come together to collectively rule themselves. Achieving general will and collective rule means uniting the “I” with the “I commune” and Rousseau has already proposed a way to do that in his 1762 treatise on education titled Émile: “Good social institutions are those that are best able to change man's nature, to take away his absolute existence in order to give him a relative one and to translate the moi into a communal unity, with the result that each individual no longer thinks of himself as one, but as part of the unity, and has feelings only in the whole.” Here already Rousseau had formed the double aspect of what we are calling the utopian vision: i) society’s individualistic tendencies should yield to collectivistic tendencies and ii) human nature is sufficiently malleable that it is (and should be) subject to institutional manipulation. Essentially, he had called the tune which the social theorists still blithely dance along to today (although some like to present “social construction” as a fresh idea even as they pretend as though they aren’t the ones doing the social constructing).
With Hicks, we might contrast the liberal rhetoric inherent in the framing of the US constitution, which was underway at around this time and which insists on Lockean themes of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, with Rousseau’s social contract style oath which he composed for a hypothetical constitution of Corsica: “I join myself —body, goods, will and all my powers—to the Corsican nation, granting to her the full ownership of me—myself and all that depends upon me.”
The reader might therefore agree that the concept of General Will is the negation of liberal society and that this negation has not been inconsequential: after Rousseau’s death, his notion of General Will would form the germ of socialism, Marxism and communism to come. The writers of the book “Utopian Thought in the Western World” find that Rousseau’s philosophy of uniting the ideal “I” with the communal “I” is a utopian mode of thought which has, nonetheless, brought no place to the here and now: “Rousseau’s magical speech articulated these fantasies in enduring form. They have seeped into the atmosphere in which we live and breath. Rousseau’s utopian “I” has been embraced by a branch of psychology and has been spread about in multiple versions; the communal “I” is a political dogma taught over half the globe; and their fusion is part of a world revolutionary credo.”
3.1.2 The General Will and the French Revolution: not all of Rousseau’s contemporaries were so taken by his eloquent speech and mastery of the pen as to dutifully pay obeisance to his vaunted genius – some lettered men at that time considered his writings to be decidedly seditious and dangerous to society. Correspondingly, Émile upon its publication in 1762 was burned both in Geneva and in Paris; both the French parliament and the clergy were offended by Émile and a warrant for his arrest causes Rousseau to flee to Switzerland and a series of places thereafter.
It would be an oversimplification to say that the outbreak of revolution in France in 1789 was predicated on the ideas of any one man, and a variety of political axioms clash at this time. However, it is fair to say that Rousseau’s influence here was significant.It is worth noting that prominent Jacobin Maximilien Robespierre, as culpable for the horrors of the Terror as any, was a devoted Rousseauan theorist who claimed that “Laws are simply acts of [a] general will”; in fact, historian James MacGregory Burns believed that the murderous excesses of the Jacobins was down to “their absolute conviction that they were right. This is a habit of political animals around the world, but the Jacobins believed that only they understood the “General Will” of the French people, hence they were morally right.” Given that Rousseau’s Social Contract actually calls for the execution of those offending the General Will, and for many other reasons, it would seem that Burns has it exactly right here. Napoleon, on taking power at the end of the revolution, is said to have remarked: “He was a madman your Rousseau. It was he who led us into our present predicament.”
3.1.3 Utopian Socialism and Rousseauan Education: Predating Marx and the Marxian variety of socialism by several decades, the earliest socialist movements materialize in France and in England in the decades following the French Revolution and they are the inheritors of Rousseauan and of revolutionary (or Jacobin) utopianist approaches to society. Three versions of what is called “utopian socialism” arose in the same time period and follow the thought of three founding fathers: in France, Saint-Simonism is named for Claude Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon (usually he is simply called “Saint-Simon” despite that he is not Saint Simon); Fourierism is named for Charles Fourier; In England, Owenism is named for Robert Owen. The term “socialist” itself appeared in print for the first time in 1827 and was supposed to connotate someone who acts for the common good (that is the collectivist orientation toward the General Will); by 1848, the term “utopian socialism” was brought into circulation by Marxists as a means to subordinate these earlier socialisms to the (supposedly) scientific socialism of Karl Marx.
Importantly, although the early socialist traditions had no political clout in the sense of running a state, the lasting cultural and theoretical legacy of these movements has demonstrably embedded itself in the cultural institutions (for example, the universities) of the modern West. Of the many anti-liberal and utopian aspects of early socialism that could be examined, for example its civil religion,or its culpability for the avant-garde movement in art, only its positions on education and the family need be sketched here. Four brief discussions are given below on the Social Utopianist impact on family, feminism, education and sociology (all of which interrelate).
On Education: Rousseau’s treatise on education entitled Émile would be no less consequential than his political works and is said to have provided the inspiration both for Kant’s idealism and Schiller’s romanticism.Throughout his educational writings, Rousseau maintains his positions that Western society is corruptive and that the framework of this society alienates man from himself. It should come as no surprise that his educational theory amounts to, essentially, not initiating children into learned and lettered Western society. As educational theorist Eliyahu Rosenow recognized, the educational program of Émile is “not merely a collection of practical educational rules, but a programme for reconstructing society by means of education…[a] method of reforming society into the image of the perfect society he offers in his Social Contract.” Pitting himself against Locke’s educational theory which involved teaching boys to be gentleman (a status Rousseau sneered at) and teaching them to read, Rousseau instead advocated for a “negative education” according to which tutors are to set books aside and teach children through experience.
Surely, such an ideologically possessed nakedly political assault upon educational values would have been rejected by the gatekeepers of the liberal educational institutions safeguarding liberal values in liberal societies? Of course not! In 1915, famed American educator John Dewey observed “Rousseau’s teaching that education is a process of natural growth has influenced most theorizing upon education since his time.”And yes, it can be understood that Rousseau’s theory on education constitutes the underpinning of today’s “student-centered” educational directions.
The Utopian Socialists, to include founding father Robert Owen, were much influenced by Rousseau’s dream of an equal and free society governing itself according to the General Will. Owen held that human nature was very malleable (the unconstrained vision) and that “rather than place children in competition with one another, and ‘thus perpetuate vicious competition, contests and division throughout society,’ he proposed that they should be educated from birth to think in terms of the collective interests of the human race…”There is obviously much to be said about how the repurposing of education in these ways has prefigured activist and progressive notions of the purpose of education today.
On Sociology: The root of the field of sociology is the intellectual world of the Utopian Socialists. The term “sociology” was coined by Auguste Comte, the father of positivism and a devote of Saint-Simon.The purpose of the nascent field of study was to create a new “science of man” which, according to the precepts of Saint-Simon, would usher in a new golden age based on a new study and understanding of social classes, the collective behavior of social classes as well as their history and development. Ultimately, these studies on social classes would be revised and expanded by Karl Marx and, while today’s sociology students have little inkling of the Utopian Socialist roots of sociology, it is not surprising to find that Marx’s conflict theory (that society is nothing more than a perpetual class struggle) is one of three models of society standardly taught to sociology students.
On Family and Feminism: Although the women’s liberation movement might be pursued by employing liberal argumentation (men have been granted rights and so women should be granted rights as well), from the time that utopian socialist founding father Charles Fourier coined the term “feminist” and invented the ideology that goes along with it, women’s liberation has predominantly been argued according to the socialist mode.Just as Rousseau had decried Western civilization as the root of inequality and moral depravity, so Fourier argued that civilization too, as well as the institution of marriage, oppressed and victimized women in particular. And, just as Rousseau had identified the family as a stepping-stone toward the immoral descent toward inequality, so the Utopian Socialist sought to disband the family through various means.
How might one go about disbanding the family one might ask? Yes, “free love” is another utopian whimsy imparted to us by the early socialists. We can see how this played out in the “Phalanstères,” cult like micro-communities developed by the followers of Fourier. In the Phalanstères, women were to enjoy ‘sexual liberation’ and free love – attaining, at the age of 18, complete feminist sexual independence. This meant that women in the Phalanstères could have simultaneous relationships with several men, maintained control of reproduction (when or whether to have children and whether or not to abort), and children, for that matter, had the option to choose among biological or adoptive fathers.The men, naturally, were cuckolded and powerless over their own progeny (thus becoming Jean-Jacques Rousseau incarnate). The rising enthusiasm for “free love” in the 1960s would result in a resurgence of the popularity of the works of Saint-Simon and Fourier.
Conclusion: The preceding essay set out to examine a very basic question. Given that in the English tradition both the dominant right and left political parties have been avowedly liberal on a philosophical level, what can explain the severe separation between the left and the right today on policy matters? It might be said that, wherever the left now diverges from the right, its adherents have been persuaded by propagators of the utopian vision, by views that are in fact anti-liberal, anti-family, anti-human rights and so forth. What unites left and right are the predominating principles of the English and the American revolutions; what divides them is the French factor, that is the ideologies which gave rise to and carried the French revolution and the related social movements arising in its aftermath (there are additional separating factors which might be covered in another essay). To conclude with a reflection from Roger Scruton’s discussion “What is Left?”: “Leftists believe, with the Jacobins of the French Revolution, that the goods of this world are unjustly distributed, and that the fault lies not in human nature but in usurpations practised by the dominant class. They define themselves in opposition to established power, the champions of a new order that will rectify the ancient grievance of the oppressed… much of their literature is dedicated to deconstructing such institutions as the family, the school, the law and the nation state through which the inheritance of Western civilization has been passed down to us.”
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Moran, Francis III. 1995. “Of Pongos and Men: Orangs-Outang in Rousseau's Discourse on Inequality.” The Review of Politics 57(4): 641-664.
Mossner, Ernest Campbell and Ian Simpson Ross. 1987. The Correspondence of Adam Smith. Indianapolis: Liberty Classics.
Rosenow, Eliyahu. 1980. "Rousseau's "Emile", an Anti-Utopia." British Journal of Educational Studies, 28/3: 212-224.
Scruton, Roger. 2015. Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left. London, Oxford, New York: Bloomsbury.
Smith, Paul and Carolyn Wilde. 2007. A Companion to Art Theory. Wiley-Blackwell.
Sowell, Thomas. 1987. A Conflict of Visions. Ideological Origins of Political Struggles. Basic Books.
Testart, Alain. 1982. “The Significance of Food Storage Among Hunter-Gatherers: Residence Patterns, Population Densities, and Social Inequalities.” Current Anthropology 23/5: 523-537.
Warraq, Ibn. 2007. Defending the West: A Critique of Edmund Said's Orientalism. University of Washington Press.
Wokler, Robert. 2001. Rousseau: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wokler, Robert. 2012. Rousseau: The Age of Enlightenment, and their Legacies. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.
The history of the shift of the British Tories to the political philosophy of their rivals, the Whigs (the early liberals) following the English Revolution of 1688 is recounted in Preece 1977. See also: https://wokewatchcanada.substack.com/p/subversion-of-meaning
Although Sowell is rightly considered to be an economist and a conservative social commentator, his dichotomy of constrained and unconstrained visions is repeated often enough in academic literature: for example, the left-wing analyst and cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker adopts Sowell’s analysis in his 2002 work The Blank Slate…”. Similarly, a work on moral fundamental published by Graham et al. 2009 refers to Sowell’s model (discussed below).
Sowell 1987, Chap. 2.
Pinker 2002, 287. This term is entirely in keeping with Sowell’s discussion as Sowell names William Godwin as the prototypical exponent of the unrestrained vision – Godwin (as Pinker points out) is the “English Rousseau,” hence, he ought to count as a utopianist.
Picon 2003, 4.
Picon 2003, 4–5.
Manuel and Manuel 1979, 431–432.
Wokler 2012, 1.
Lazarski 2013, 244; The Encyclopedia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Louise-Eleanore-de-la-Tour-du-Pil-baronne-de-Warens
Manuel and Manuel 1979, 436.
Lazarski 2013, 244. For Rousseau’s term “mama” for the baroness de Warens, see Dunn 2002, 36.
This general information is stated in the Encyclopedia Britannica: Encyclopedia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Louise-Eleanore-de-la-Tour-du-Pil-baronne-de-Warens and on wiki: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Jacques_Rousseau . Voltaire once scoffed at Rousseau’s scholarly pedigree: “is it a scholar arguing against scholars? No, he is the author of an opera and two whistled comedies” — Voltaire 1764, Sentiment des citoyens see: https://fr.wikisource.org/wiki/Sentiment_des_citoyens/%C3%89dition_Garnier#cite_ref-4
Rousseau would abandon his first child at the age of 33, and the subsequent four as well. All proceeded from his relationship with a servant woman and his long time lover Thérèse Lavasseur (see Dunn 2002, 37). Manuel and Manuel (1979, 437) comment here: “he wrote the most famous treatise in modern times on the education of a boy and a young man and left his own five children in an asylum-if he ever really sired them.” Similarly, Lazarski (2013, 245): “His overflowing love, however, did not extend to his own five children, who were, on his orders, left in an orphanage as soon as they were born.” Writing anonymously in Sentiment des citoyens, Voltaire, after noting that Rousseau had abandoned his children, indignantly exclaims “so he is the one who dares to give advice to our fellow citizens…!”
In other words, Rousseau attempts to make the case that there is “an inverse relationship between cultural and moral development: Culture does generate much learning, luxury and sophistication—but learning, luxury and sophistication all cause moral degradation” (Hicks 2011, 92).
Rubiés (2001, 99–100) explains that Rousseau was largely inspired by Seneca (a Stoic philosopher), who wrote about “the theme of the Golden Age (aetas aureas), arguing that freedom and indeed true humanitas, the love of fellow humanity, had been lost through the greed that accompanied the process of civilization, and that ‘following nature’, the philosophical ideal of the Stoics, consisted of a virtuous return to a primitive simplicity (although he did not say that savage men could, in their state of ignorance, be called virtuous).” The author further elaborates on a similar debt to Lucretius.
Dune 2002, 57 (see Rousseau’s original footnote reproduced on this page).
This sentiment is encapsulated in Rousseau’s summary statement “as the comforts of life increase, as arts are brought to perfection and as luxury spreads, true courage flags, military virtues fade, and this too is the work of the sciences and all those arts that are practiced in the privacy of one’s home” (Dunn 2002, 60).
Dune 2002, 48 (see Rousseau’s original footnote reproduced on this page), 54.
Rousseau’s views on history writing are apparent from his treatment on the matter in Émile, as Black describes: “Rousseau regards the so-called facts of history as interpretations of the facts—interpretations that are almost always colored by the bias of the historian in favor of the sciences and the arts” (Black 2005, 126). Later, Marx and Nietzsche would maintain that the pursuit of objective truth through historical research is an abject impossibility, the historian merely exerts his own subjective bias for the purposes of using knowledge in pursuit of power (Iggers 1997, 8–9). Incidentally, they were all absolutely incorrect: history writing, even before the advent of professional history writing in the 19th century, has always been distinguished from fable and from falsification by its special attention to truth, to a reality pre-existing the historical text and positioned outside of it (Iggers 1997, 12–13).
Black 2005, 131. The author specifies that these positions are articulated toward the end of Book II and later in Book IV of Emile.
Dune 2002, 60. Rousseau’s fabrication referencing the invasion of Athens, Argos, Corinth, and Sparta by the Visigoths under Alaric I in 395 AD. See Black 2005, 265, 304.
For a translation of Voltaire’s letter, see: https://www.whitman.edu/VSA/letters/8.30.1755.html
Rousseau responds and objects to this directly in a footnote to his second discourse (Dunn 2002, 145).
For a convenient summary of these positions, see Lazarski 2013; Dunn 2002, 5–6. A translation of the Second Discourse is given in Dunn 2002, 87. Notably, one hundred years prior to Rousseau, Hobbes, writing in Leviathan, had also (incorrectly) speculated that man in a state of nature was solitary (Dunn 2002, 5). Hobbes’s solitary man was miserable and in perpetual conflict, however.
Modern evolutionary anthropology tends to posit that man has been socially organizing in kin groups and communicating with language for some 200,000 years (that would correspond to the same amount of time Homo Sapiens are thought to have existed (Finlayson 2004, 128–129).
In the mid-1700s, the nomenclature to describe the primate kingdom was not well established. All known primates were called orang-utans, and a chimpanzee from Africa might be called an orang-utan or a host of other things. It’s clear from the drawing of an “orang-utan” produced by anatomist Edward Tyson in 1699 and studied by the Comte de Buffon (a natural philosopher) that they were studying what we now call a chimpanzee (Wokler 2001, 60). In note 10 of his second discourse, Rousseau refers to the “pongo” (the primate he focuses on) as coming from the “kingdom of Loango” which is the modern-day Congo. This means that it could have been the chimpanzee but could not have been the primate we refer to as orang-utan. However, it is impossible to be unequivocal about the identity of Rousseau’s pongo (see Moran 1995).
For an excellent account of what the explorers reported back about orang-utans (various primate species), see Moran 1995, 644–655. At certain points it appears that influential natural philosophers such as the Comte de Buffon (whose work Rousseau read and relied on) were persuaded by the travel literature to take chimps are a kind of human; at other times, the same thinker objected that the chimp could not have been a species of mankind as it lacked the powers of speech and reason (Wokler 2001, 60).
Eminent enlightenment scholar Robert Wokler was convinced that Rousseau had made great deductions about the solitary life of the orang-utan decades and even centuries before empirical observation confirmed this (Wokler 2011, 11–12). This would only be true if Rousseau was actually talking about what we call today orang-utans (the most solitary of the great apes); it is drastically misleading should Rousseau’s pongo be (as it probably was) the chimpanzee (see note 26 above).
Following Moran 1995, 662.
For the explicit recognition that the model for Rousseau’s natural man is in fact the chimp (in the terminology of the time, the orang-utan), see Wokler 2011, 12–13.
For rhetorical purposes Western intellectuals had, from the early 1500s, periodically been in the habit of placing native peoples discovered across the world on an equal or higher moral footing than Europeans. Warraq 2007, 33–34 gives as examples Peter Martyr and Michel de Montaigne, the latter argued that the native practice of cannibalism wasn’t as barbarous as European practices of torture. The missionary Jean-Baptiste Du Tertre travelled to the Caribbean and described the natives he found there according to the manner of the myth of the noble savage: “The savages of these islands are the most content, the happiest and least corrupted by vice, the most sociable, the least deformed, and the least tormented by illness, of all the nations of the world… they are all equals, so that they do not know almost of any kind of superiority or servitude […] nobody is richer or poorer than his companion…” (Rubies 2011, 120). This is because Du Tertre thought and wrote in the mode of the Stoic philosopher (that civilization and writing is the corruption of mankind), and of Rousseau (since Rousseau was also writing in the Stoic mode, see note 15 above). It’s probable that the ethnographic accounts of native peoples which Rousseau read at the time were colored by this same noble savage rhetoric and helped to shape his opinion of man in a state of nature — despite this, less rhetorical and more scientific accounts were also available at the time (Rubies 2011, 120–121). Naturally, there were plenty of 18th century thinkers who maintained the opposite position, of course, that the way to understand native populations intellectually is that they are a lessor form. As Wokler notes, “naturalists in the eighteenth century often contrasted the flora and fauna of the New World unfavourably with related species in the Old, and so, too, they regarded non-European men and women as generally inferior copies of an older race” (Wokler 2012, 6; see also p. 9; see also Moran 1995, 657).
Translation obtained from: https://www.whitman.edu/VSA/letters/8.30.1755.html
For an examination of the Northwest Coast Indians, their hierarchy and inequality, see Testart 1982, 525–526. See also https://www.britannica.com/topic/Northwest-Coast-Indian/Stratification-and-social-structure . This comment was inspired by Christopher Ferguson’s woke watch article which points out that that native Hawaiians had caste system of their own making: https://wokewatchcanada.substack.com/p/history-is-complicated-lets-teach?utm_source=post-email-title&publication_id=515626&post_id=106241758&isFreemail=true&utm_medium=email
As Hicks (2011, 92) observers, Rousseau argued that civilization itself is thoroughly corrupting “not only the oppressive feudal system of eighteenth-century France with its decadent and parasitical aristocracy, but also its Enlightenment alternative with its exaltation of reason, property, the arts and sciences.”
Dunn 2002, 9.
Although it only gained major political traction with Rousseau, the concept of general will predates him. The French rationalist philosopher Nicolas Malebranche seems to have employed the term general will much earlier, although in these cases the term referred to God’s general will, which is a much different usage. See Wokler 2001, 85 as well as https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/malebranche/
Wokler 2001, 71–88. See also Burns 2014 chap. 4: “Rousseau supposed that this good society would be governed by a “general will” that would produce purely rational policies from the unanimity of citizens.” Manuel and Manuel (2001, 414) point out a logical inconsistency built into the reasoning of the Social Contract (Rousseau is famous for these as well): “The greatest evil is dependence upon others, yet final liberation can be achieved only through the instrumentality of the general will, which has absorbed into itself all individual wills, has put an end to the class of wills, and has eradicated every vestige of independence.”
Manuel and Manuel 2003, 447; see also Bloom 1979, 40.
Quoted in Hicks 2011, 100.
Manuel and Manuel 2003, 441. Similarly, Sally Dunn (a professor of French Literature) calls Rousseau’s Social Contract a “utopian vision” and notes that he never takes the time to conceiving the political or parliamentary institutions of his hypothetical system (Dunn 2002, 12).
Wokler 2001, 72; Dunn 2002 39–40. At one point in 1766 Rousseau, still on the run from hostile authorities, takes refuge in England with his friend and fellow philosopher David Hume (Hume, an irrationalist, was presumably smitten by Rousseau’s anti-reason). For an account of Rousseau’s rude abuse of Hume’s hospitality in England, fabricating grievances and feigning victimhood in an attempt to generate public sympathy, see Hume’s correspondence with Adam Smith (published in Mossner and Ross 1987).
As professor of French Literature Susan Dunn puts it: “Of all the great philosophes of the French Enlightenment—Montesquieu, Diderot, Voltaire—it was Rousseau who would have the most profound and enduring impact on history, not only on the Revolution in France but on almost all modern, democratic movements for political liberation” (Dunn 2002, 5).
Burns 2014, chap. 4.
Similarly to Burns, Linton (2010, 39–41) elaborates on the direct impact of Rousseau’s ideas on Robespierre’s thinking. For an account of Robespierre’s personal meeting with Rousseau and pledge to follow the inspiration he took the latter’s works, see Dunn 2002, 21. O’Brien (2002, 301) describes it in this way: there occurred “the rise of the Jacobins and in particular of Maximilien Robespierre for whom The Social Contract was both the object of a cult and the guarantee of his own political holiness and absolute power for a time, as arch-priest of the cult. Rousseau was also, in a curious way, the guarantee of Robespierre's impartiality as a being above normal politics, spokesman for a mysterious and awe-inspiring entity: the General Will." In his Social Contract, Rousseau theorized that a citizen who opposes the general will is no longer a citizen and is worthy of death (Dunn 2002, 14). So, what happens in the real-world experiment of the revolution when a citizen opposes the Rousseauan turned Robespierre notion of the general will? We all know that: “In 1793–1794, to be designated by Robespierre, with no evidence at all, as opposed to the General Will, was invariably the prelude to the fatal prosecution of the individual concerned, to a trial with the result known in advance, and then to speedy execution” (O’Brien 2002, 302). It is notable that the interpretation of the Terror is highly politized within the field of history studies. Historians who are politically left tend to find that there was nothing special about Robespierre: he wasn’t especially misguided or brutal, essentially, he was a victim of circumstance. Less left leaning historians instead find that it was the radical ideological concocted and fomented by the leading revolutionaries (and originating with thinkers like Rousseau) that made them especially dangerous and volatile (Linton 2010, 38). Very dubious and possibly obscurantist positions are reached by scholars such as McDonald (2010) who meticulously chart Rousseau’s cult of personality among the revolutionaries but then come to the conclusion that his political ideas were not followed by these radicals because the Social Contract was allegedly not widely read at the time (McDonald 2010, 169–171); this not only overlooks the words that powerful revolutionaries chose to use when justifying their own policies (such as general will) but it also overlooks the fact that the essentials of the doctrine of the general will had long been disseminated in Rousseau’s massively popular Émile.
Dunn 2002, 17.
For the term socialist, see Fanning 2021, 27. Although Marx acknowledges a debt to the systems of Fourier and Owen, his Communist Manifesto (1848) denounces these systems as utopian on several occasions.
Rousseau’s Social Contract is the first document to propose “civil religion,” a concept which normalizes a fusion of religion (whether it be Christianity or other) and politics, so that the purpose of a nation’s religion becomes to reinforce the Social Contract within the minds of the citizenry. Rousseau calls this the “religion of man” and those who profess a belief but do not believe are subject to the death penalty: https://www.britannica.com/topic/civil-religion . See also Maureen 1979, 150–175. The socialist magazine “Jacobin” is probably correct in finding that the “Cult of the Supreme Being,” a religion created by Robespierre during the revolution, to have been inspired by Rousseau’s Social Contract: “Rousseau was Robespierre’s direct inspiration for the idea of a republican civic religion.” (https://jacobin.com/2016/01/robespierre-rousseau-religion-separation-church-state-kim-davis). Saint-Simon’s invented religion, Nouveau Christianisme, is theoretically distinct from Rousseau’s model in several ways, however it shares the basic theme of civil religion in that Saint-Simon intends it as a way to unite the masses around a political dictum (Maureen 1979, 182).
In casting aside traditional society, and with it traditional concepts of beauty, modern art perpetually looks forward to a utopian future in which a cult of ugliness will be the new aesthetic norm embraced by all. Such is the position of Roger Scruton: see https://topdocumentaryfilms.com/why-beauty-matters/ . It has recently emerged that the first recorded use of the term “avant garde” occurs in a comment on art penned by none other than Saint-Simon, one of the three founders of utopian socialism (Smith and Wilde 2007, 216–217). It would seem that Saint-Simon conceived of art as a vehicle for the dissemination of socialist politics — which might be a start to answering the question: what happened to art for art’s sake?
Following Bloom 1979, 28. In terms of how one book could inspire both idealism and romanticism, this is in some sense made explicable by Rousseau’s own personal response to the real, which was to either passionately throw himself at the fabrication of the ideal (or utopian) or else to withdraw into dejected solitude. At one point in book i of Émile, he exclaims “Give man entirely to the state, or leave him entirely to himself, but if you divide his heart you will rend him asunder” (Wokler 2001, 130). See also Rosenow (1980, 212–213) for Rousseau’s division between the natural man who is solitary, the man of the state (who adheres to the general will) – these stand in contrast to enlightenment man (or liberal man) who is alienated from himself, or so Rousseau thought. The term “alienation” actually comes from the later rhetoric of Marx (which surely borrowed conceptually from Rousseau).
Rosenow 1980, 216.
Wokler 2001, 119–120. For a characterization of the political framework behind Rousseau’s Émile, see Rosenow 1980, 212.
Quoted in Oelkers 2002, 685.
Rosenow 1980, 223. For essays which question the progressive embrace of Rousseau’s educational theory, see both Rosenow 1980 and Oelkers 2002 (the latter essay argues that Rousseau’s method should not be deemed “modern” as it is, in fact, retrograde).
Fanning 2021, 34.
Picon 2003, 9. Pioneering sociologist Emile Durkheim attributed the founding of sociology to Saint-Simon himself (Picard 2003, 1).
Picon 2003, 8–9.
For Fourier’s coining of the term “feminist” see Goldstein 1982, 92.
See Goldstein 1982, 99.
Jones and Patterson 1996, xiii.
Picard 2003, 19.
Scruton 2015, 3.
That was quite an article written articulately and well referenced. Personally, I prefer the witticism and simple philosophy of America's greatest humorist, Mark Twain, who frequently spoke on the folly of mankind with comedic disdain:
“Man was made at the end of the week's work when God was tired.”
When their aim is to deconstruct "such institutions as the family, the school, the law and the nation state through which the inheritance of Western civilization has been passed down to us", then our aim as parents is to foster family, be responsible for our children's education (or deliberately involved), and teach a love of the inheritance of Western civilization.