Sunday, March 10, 2019

The Solitary Self: Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Exile and Adversity IV

The epilogue consists of a summary of Rousseau's contributions and a description of the influence of his work over time. The material was drawn by the editors from essays and lectures previously published by Maurice Cranston.

Rousseau was a force in the backlash against the rationalism of the Enlightenment, and it was no coincidence that he broke with some of his Parisian friends. Rationalism manifested itself not only in the sciences, but also in the arts. He opposed the formalism in the musical theory of Rameau, and his popular opera, Le Devin du Village, introduced a new musical style to Paris that later influenced Mozart. His novel, Julie, which became the main source of his popularity, was the first romantic novel and added a new kind of realism to literature, with an emphasis on the beauty of nature. Before Rousseau, people didn't generally hike, and they typically thought of mountains as forbidding and dangerous places that should be avoided. The Romantic poets of England and Germany were probably the most obvious adopters of Rousseau's ideas. Further on in time, he may indirectly have influenced Henry David Thoreau and the hippie movement. Very loosely, he might be linked to environmentalism. I think that his most enduring work is Confessions, which is still quite readable and marked the beginning of the modern autobiography.

In his political writings, it seems that Rousseau fizzled quickly. This was partly because his views changed over time, and even the later ones seem incoherent to me. He started out with Geneva and tried to make that his model, but his later modifications got him into trouble there. He read Hobbes and Locke, probably in an attempt to be intellectually thorough, but I think that he was out of his depth. His thinking on politics is so far from mine that I don't take him seriously at all. I fall within the rationalist school of thought, and, in my view, Rousseau and most political thinkers don't frame their questions properly. Although nationalism and patriotism are instinctively appealing, on an increasingly crowded planet they now seem like foolish ideas. To me, the main questions to be addressed are whether all people will be treated equally under the law and whether the governing body is capable of making sound decisions, without bias. If a government does this job, its form is irrelevant to me, and I wouldn't necessarily care whether it was a democracy, a monarchy, a dictatorship or a communist regime. The primary obstacles to good governance, I think, are incompetence and corruption. One need only look at the federal government of the U.S. to see how badly it works in these respects. The Constitution is largely obsolete. Many laws are poorly conceived and badly written, and Congress, the Supreme Court and the president all make bad decisions. Beyond the cognitive limitations of humans there is the self-interest of individuals and groups. Though the Founding Fathers fell short with respect to equality, they wisely separated church and state and designed the branches of government in such a manner as to balance power, but in the long run they failed to prevent special interests from infiltrating and manipulating each branch. This is why I favor, when it becomes technologically feasible, an AI-based world government. Taking humans out of the process could be a vast improvement that would benefit everyone.

Rousseau can't be faulted for not knowing what the world would be like in 250 years. Who now knows what it will be like in 2270? I have enjoyed this biography even though it became tedious at times. It was possible to overcome Cranston's limitations as an academic by ruminating over the material that he provided. As I move away from fiction, I increasingly find a deep immersion into someone else's life more satisfying, whether I identify with the biographical subject not. There was a special flavor to Rousseau's life, because he lived in a time when people's worldviews were quite different from the ones we have now.

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