Jace Yarbrough: Strange bedfellows indeed.
Rousseau’s anthropology (and the modern modes of thought arising from it) has always been more than a little frustrating for those of us here at HP. In particular, his telling of man’s “development” in Discourse on the Origin of Inequality was like “smoke to the eyes” when I first encountered it as an undergraduate. Unfortunately, as is the case with Freud’s work, the gross speculation and groundlessness of his explanation of man have made it is no less popular—at least among intellectuals.
In short, man is born a beastly brute, qualitatively similar to the rest of the animal world. (All sorts of promiscuous implications will gleefully be expounded from this, but more on that later.) He develops skills to satisfy his needs by copying what he observes in nature: learning to weave from the spider, to make fire from lightening, etc. etc. Soon he has the ability to satisfy not only bare necessity but ever growing want, and in the end cultural norms are nothing more than clever mechanisms serving greed. Civilization is lipstick on a pig.
Rousseau and his modern disciples have made much of man’s supposed equality with animals and the “merely” artificial origins of culture. But even assuming him to be correct (no small assumption), I think he’s wrong to draw the degrading and iconoclastic conclusions so characteristic of the French philosophes.
When you think about it, if man is a “mere” imitator he’s probably the most remarkable creature on the planet. Every engineer knows that designing an adaptable, environmentally conditioning process is qualitatively more difficult than programing something to repeat the same function time and again (e.g. to fly south every winter). Those two tasks are not even on the same spectrum of ingenuity.
Another problem with the culture-as-mere-artifice argument is that it doesn’t really explain why the artifice would be effective in the first place. It’s a favorite pastime of forward (froward?) thinking anthropologists to find some primitive tribe that’s actually ashamed to wear clothes (or some such behavior directly at odds with our norms) and conclude that what men are ashamed of depends totally on local custom. Maybe, but the point is that men are everywhere ashamed.
Why would coating oppression with a (however thin) moral veneer make it more palatable for the majority of men? Why did Rousseau’s infamous chains hold free men at all? If wearing lipstick allows a pig to pass for a king, then who put it into the minds of the masses that kings ought to wear lipstick?
The obvious answer is that the convention is (albeit often imperfectly) an extension or representation of something that’s actually there. Explaining why crude jokes are funny, Lewis puts it this way,
“…we have here an animal which finds its own animality either objectionable or funny. Unless there had been a quarrel between the spirit and the organism I do not see how this could be: it is the very mark of the two not being ‘at home’ together. But it is very difficult to imagine such a state of affairs as original—to suppose a creature which from the very first was half shocked and half tickled to death at the mere fact of being the creature it is. I do not perceive that dogs see anything funny about being dogs: I suspect that angels see nothing funny about being angels.” C.S. Lewis, Miracles
What got me thinking about all this again was the first volume of Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization. I was excited when I picked it up, because I’d heard that Durant was not a fan of the compartmentalizing methods used to study history today, and on top of that he’s an eloquent writer. While both of those conclusions are true, I was dismayed when Durant swallowed, hook line and sinker, so much of Rousseau. This question from Durant is telling,
“What was it that led men to replace the semi-promiscuity of primitive society with individual marriage?…For marriage, with its restrictions and psychological irritations [thanks Freud], could not possibly compete with sexual communism as a mode of satisfying the erotic propensities of men.”
I think that’s a great question, one that suggests there’s more to us than erotic propensities. But alas, Durant arrives at Rousseau’s conclusion. Men wanted cheap slaves and surety that their goods wouldn’t be left to other men’s children more than they wanted free sex. So marriage won out.
It’s an unfortunately reality that modern science (social or otherwise) can’t see the glaring fault in its own method. The scientist assumes only physical causes, tailors his experiments to measure the physical, and concludes—surprise!—nothing non-physical going on here. It seems that Durant is doing the same thing with appetite; if the sex drive isn’t the motivation behind marriage, then another craving must be.
But I was pleasantly surprised by his remarks concluding his discussion of marriage.
“But this does not prove the worthlessness of morals; it only shows in what varied ways social order has been preserved.…Our heroic rejection of the customs and morals of our tribe, upon our adolescent discovery of their relativity, betrays the immaturity of our minds; given another decade and we begin to understand that there may be more wisdom in the moral code of the group—the formulated experience of generations of the race—than can be explained in a college course. Sooner or later the disturbing realization comes to us that even that which we cannot understand may be true…We are warranted in concluding that morals are relative, and indispensable.”
Well, I can agree with a good bit of that.
Jace is a member of the Humane Pursuits editorial board. He is a life-long Texan and is currently a JD candidate at Stanford Law School. Before heading out to California he served in the Air Force, taught AP Calculus in Honduras, studied at the John Jay Institute for Faith, Society and Law (www.johnjayinstitute.org), and earned his B.A. in Government and B.S. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. He enjoys all things old and dust-covered, and his favorite pastime is reading to his wife, son, and daughter.