Come Together III: In Perfect Harmony, Research Time, 17/03/2017

Continued from last post . . . An impossibility is an inspiration. It is Eden. Heaven on Earth. Rather, it’s Earth becoming Heaven.

That’s the movement Rousseau makes from the reality of humanity to its perfection. In real life, we’re a bunch of incurably corrupt, inescapably ignorant bastards. But in our perfected state, we damn near perfectly understand the common interest of our whole community, and are kind enough always to act on it.

Submitting completely to an authority that speaks with the voice of God
has never been a request that turns out well for anyone of whom it's
asked. Usually, it's a submission to slavery, as when Indigenous
Canadian children literally had Christianity beaten into them.
This is the mind-set of the individual when the will of a community is expressed as the general will. The harmony of thought across the whole society isn’t somehow imposed from above.* It’s a perfectly harmonized expression of every individual spontaneously.

* I haven’t read nearly enough Rousseau scholarship to say authoritatively whether my hypothesis is generally on target. Nor would I really want to, even if I had time. It’s not like I would have had time as a professor either – I’d have had budget meetings to attend with the associate vice-deans.

When he says that “Gods would be needed to give men laws,” he isn’t talking about God as a person standing over obedient humans. This isn’t any divine absolute despot, giving orders to which you submit.

If that were the kind of god that was on order, then Rousseau is quite the totalitarian. That’s what it means to submit all of human existence to the orders of an authority. But I’m taking Rousseau as a thinker of radical freedom, and it’s easy to do so if you just think of God in that line differently.

Remember that he’s said that the only true laws that a legislature could write were rules and institutions written as the expression of the general will. Only when the entire community (politicians and bureaucrats included) act in perfect harmony and love spontaneously is any legislation a truly legitimate law.

In any case less perfect than that, the laws are just rules backed up by threats of punishment (like jail time) or rewards (like tax credits). The law has only moral significance.

No ethical significance. The general will is the immanent expression of a community itself. Now you see it.** I’m using Rousseau in Utopias as part of a tradition of political materialism, whose fulcrum is Spinoza.

Well, hello there, good sir.
** And so do I.

I have one question for any of my scholar friends who might come across this. I may actually just write a former professor of mine who I remember has published academic articles on Rousseau. I’m not sure how believable this reading is. Maybe I should call it an appropriation. I feel like that’s a more accurate term for what I’m doing with the historical research for this book.

One of the problems with Rousseau is that he knew his audience too well. This is what makes it difficult – as a scholar or just an attentive reader – to be sure he’s really thinking what you think you read in his writing.

So when he uses terms like “the sovereign” or tosses off flourishes like that line above about gods, he sounds like he’s referring to monarchs and God the Father. Because that’s what his audience of reasonably intellectual literate people in 1760s Europe thought of when they heard those terms.

It’s how Rousseau’s own audience thought of power, authority, kingship, and the divine. This conception of divinity as a perfect material expression would have gotten someone strung up for some hardcore heresy.

Geneva was a Calvinist country at the time, and that is not a religious authority known to tolerate leniency. At the time, “Spinozist” was an insult you hurled at someone when you wanted to destroy their reputation. Materialism of Spinoza’s expressive, free kind was considered just as corrosive as atheism.

So how plausible would it be for me historically to make Rousseau a chain link in a semi-underground Spinozist tradition? Should I even care about plausibility to the scholarly community when I don’t even plan on making Utopias a scholarly book? . . . To be continued

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