Confronting the Constitution, Part 4: Rousseau’s Rebuke of Enlightenment and How You Can Use It

An image of the U.S. Consitution
The U.S. Constitution, Wiki Commons, public domain

In Allan Bloom’s contribution to Confronting the Constitution he depicts the insights of, and threats to, Enlightenment political philosophy posed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778). Rousseau’s ideas were inspiring and inflammatory to those of his age, and since, though most today don’t know Rousseau as the source of their own outlook. According to Harvard’s Leo Damrosch, while the Founders were chiefly influenced by Locke and Montesquieu, all were moved by Rousseau one way or another, especially Jefferson. While Rousseau’s radical reputation made it imprudent to affiliate, Jefferson’s declaratory line comes from Rousseau’s Social Contract: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.”

Rousseau’s reach extended past the Counter-Enlightenment, past Romanticism, and into the brains of Hume, Thomas Paine, Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill, Thoreau, Marx, Goethe, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., America’s Right, Left, and me. It was 20 years ago when I first met Rousseau, who puzzled, agitated, and knocked me off my feet. As Allan Bloom tells it, Rousseau “possessed an unsurpassed intellectual clarity accompanied by a stirring and seductive rhetoric.” His reflections “had the effect of outflanking the Framers on the Left, where they thought they were invulnerable.” While the Founders sought to neuter the old European orders of power propped up by the church and wealth on the Right, their “movement from prejudice to reason, despotism to freedom, inequality to equality [was not meant] to be infinite,” nor driven by a policy of retribution. Yet Rousseau’s philosophy did just that, multiple times throughout history.

Striking at the heart of Enlightenment philosophy and thus foundations of our Constitution, Rousseau proved to himself that the “attempt to use man’s natural passions as the foundation of civil society fails while it perverts those passions. The fulfillment of unnecessary desires, begun as a pleasure, ends up being a necessity… Desire emancipated becomes limitless and calls forth an economy to provide it.” “[This economy] instituted to serve life alters the purpose of life, and the activity of society becomes subservient to it… [while] a prosperous future is always just beyond the horizon. As politics turns into economics… men are abstractions while money is real.” Or, per anthropologist Louis Dumont, things become more important than people.

What’s created from a philosophical background of politics is an economic system that as Brooks Adam’s tells it in his Law of Civilization and Decay will continue to squeeze out inefficiencies until it has squashed the last of humane nature from its maker — man rebuilt by the system he made. An artificial man, whose central interest was once self-preservation becomes “covetous” in theological language. Which rings again the bell of contradiction between the selflessness of religion and the belonging it provides, vs. the selfishness of interest-based economics with its promise of autonomy. Precisely Rousseau’s concern.

The economic promise to make individuals independent was a resounding success. Compared to the past, we are materially rich, socially and spiritually impoverished. We’ve decided without knowing it to trade one domain for the other. As political philosopher Michael J. Sandal puts it, “liberated and dispossessed.” Economics is not merely a tool of analysis to tell us what happened or attempt predictions; it sets public policy to structure the very society we live in. By Dumont’s account, “Something that remains opaque in this transition in mental perspective is that the new morality regulates social relationships whether or not goods are involved.”

It’s a complex social system. The economic model is a consequence of the political philosophy. The political philosophy is a consequence of the human definition. That human definition delineates what moral ethics require — rights or responsibilities? This moral ethic reevaluates others in a world of more than ourselves alone, when it used to be those others in the form of true communities of deep human connection that gave us meaning (different from purpose). A meaning once set so high above the self there was no need for an afterlife, as what lived on was the readily visible community on earth in the here and now. Much later (800 BC — 200 BC), with the inward turn of Axial Age meditation , prayer, and philosophy, the individual ascends and community begins its long decay. Preservation of the self becomes a lot more important when death is psychologically final. An afterlife becomes essential. The new world religions provided it. Individualism that the Axial Age gave rise to is how we got on this self-interest track to begin with. It’s what Enlightenment tried to sort out, and what our Founders had to engage. It’s a package deal of historic span.

Like the Founders, Rousseau believed passion must control passion, not unreliable virtue. As his solution, “Rousseau chooses patriotism,” writes Bloom, “a motive tinged with fanaticism, [but he does so] because it alone can counterpoise the natural inclination to prefer oneself over everyone else, an inclination much intensified and perverted [by Enlightenment]… Patriotism is a sublimated form of self-love, seeking the first place for one’s country.”

Or maybe not. As demonstrated by the satisfaction of bloodlust in the French Revolution, more than a little tinged by fanaticism and a policy of retribution, “traced, without intermediaries, to Rousseau’s influence,” says Bloom. For all Rousseau’s opposition to Locke’s self-interested system, “Locke was simply right in one decisive aspect. Everybody, not just the rich, gets richer in a system of liberal economy. Gross inequalities of wealth persist or are encouraged by it, but the absolute material wellbeing of each is greatly enhanced.” And as Alexander Hamilton told us, “In every community where industry is encouraged, there will be a division of it into the few and the many… Inequality would exist as long as liberty existed, and it would unavoidably result from that very liberty itself” because talents are unequal. As we’ve seen in this Constitution series, the Founders provided “not the best government they could devise, but the best government the people would accept.”

But despite the practicalities and positives of Enlightenment philosophy, Rousseau’s portentous warnings have arrived. With a level field the Constitution strives to maintain, it’s up to individuals to make the most of a system that frees them to pursue their interests, or be eaten by it.

If not dominated by the combat of “just getting by,” most Americans chase primate hierarchies of status, material display for sexual selection (the male purview of most species), while possessed by our possessions with so much stuff we rent storage. A little mediation goes a long way to a life of freedom in pursuit of interests worth pursuing. I know because I did it. I committed to my career for a limited number of years (though up to 98 hours/week). Having learned from my mistakes, I saved all I could, invested wisely, and for a decade and half had little more than a pad to sleep on, a spoon, fork, knife, and two plates — one for the cats. That prosperous future (of freedom) need not be forever “just beyond the horizon.”

I was lucky. For most, each day’s commute is another lesson in submission, where, as Mark Twain said, “All men live lives of quiet desperation.” I relished applied physics in engineering. Yet, despite that fascination, for me there were other important matters that pay nothing. Like painting, writing, the study of history, philosophy, and other sciences on another hike in the Sierras with my pups, without a deadline. Some young people have figured this out through the Mister Money Mustache movement. I salute them as smarter than I was at their age when I bought into America’s consumerist society hook, line, and sinker. Then sunk into spiritual ruin in short order after my idyllic university experience. Preparation for calamity.

While anecdotal, my example implies Rousseau correctly diagnosed the symptoms of modernity, but he got the medication wrong. He tried to impose pre-Axial Age community on individualist society; errors Marxism and socialism would repeat with Rousseau’s help. Enlightenment offered the right prescription for post-community modernity (with caveats). Most right for those who can turn from those shiny lures modernity also offers that come with a sharp hook.

Aside from his brilliance, which I cannot parallel, Rousseau was able to see the ills because he was an idealist, believing solutions exist. In that regard, Rousseau and I are birds of a feather. For people like this it is their mission to exhume a remedy to civilization’s troubles somewhere in that deepest fissure of the human nucleus where “The Truth” resides. For these types it’s an irresistible quest from the day they realize they’re on one. A quest for salvation. Saved by understanding, and with that, forgiveness for the species we hold liable — our own. But as is said of idealists, “They’re always in a moral huff.” Idealists can’t find the solution because it does not exist. They engage in a tireless fistfight to square the circle in an attempt to make sense of a creature that can’t. An exhumation that unearths not salvation, but damnation of a cerebral sort. Rousseau was damned in this same glorious and inspiring way.

References not linked to above:

Paragraph 1: “…posed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778)”: Allan Bloom Ed. Confronting the Constitution, AEI Press, 1990. Notice that Rousseau was sandwiched between the duos of Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) and John Locke (1632–1704) as pioneers in the modern movement, with Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) and Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) capping the phase, conventionally closed by 1789 and commencement of the French Revolution.
“…especially Jefferson.”: Leo Damrosch, Friends of Rousseau: Some of the people he has influenced don’t even know it, Humanities, July/August 2012, v. 33, №4.

Paragraph 2: “…and seductive rhetoric.”: Bloom, pg. 214. “…thought they were invulnerable.”: Ibid. pg. 212. “…a policy of retribution.”: Ibid. pg. 212.

Paragraph: 3: “…it perverts those passions.”: Ibid. pg. 217. “…while money is real.”: Ibid. pg. 222. Louis Dumont, From Mandeville to Marx: The Genesis and Triumph of Economic Ideology, University of Chicago Press, 1977.

Paragraph 4: Brooks Adams, The Law of Civilization and Decay, Macmillan, 1916.

Paragraph 6: “different from purpose”: In keeping with my hypothesis that meaning is externally granted from those who value us, while purpose in internally generated with an endless list of things to do. “…in the here and now.”: Mark W. Muesse, Religions of the Axial Age, The Great Courses, 2007.

Paragraph 7: “… for one’s country.”: Bloom, pg. 216. Notice Rousseau turns to patriotism, not religion.

Paragraph 8: “…to Rousseau’s influence.”: Ibid. pg. 212. “…of each is greatly enhanced.”: Ibid. pg. 223.

Paragraph 12: “(with caveats.)”: Self-interest based political philosophy and its resulting economic model come with an unstated assumption, lethal on a planetary scale: limitless resources. Couple that with massive human overpopulation and we get what we’ve got.

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Brett Alan Williams

Brett Alan Williams

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Physicist / artist / author writes about science & religion, art & culture, philosophy & politics with an edge. On Medium, Goodreads and TheFatherTrilogy.com