Come Together VI: Live While You Live, A History Boy, 23/03/2017

Read the Come Together series of posts on Jean-Jacques Rousseau's The Social Contract from the beginning.
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Continued from previous . . . I ended yesterday with a question. If even the most virtuous will inevitably fall, why should we even hope?

The question underlies the whole point of writing about utopias and political or ethical ideals at all. Well, no, it underlies rather more than that. Taken rhetorically, it’s the sigh of despair for every aspect of life. It’s the possibility that death nullifies the value of life.

It’s the challenge of mortality. Everything ends eventually. Realizing this thought is sobering, and sometimes terrifying. Funny thing is, it’s actually defined my work since I started publishing philosophy.

My first published essay in an official philosophy venue was an essay in the first Doctor Who and Philosophy collection. Because of course it was. It grappled with that existential question, of what the value of life could be if death negated all its achievements.

The answer to the question is to deny its validity. Just because the effects and knowledge of your actions won’t last forever doesn’t rob them of their value. The value of our actions are in the actions themselves, and the immediate time frame of their effects.

The city rises and will fall one day. Its dignity is in its life.
If I help one old poor woman get a good lunch one day, it doesn’t matter that she died that very evening of a catastrophic coronary in her sleep.* If you go to any figure in the general canon of Western philosophy, you’ll find this concept most clearly in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche.

* I sometimes feel like I don’t do enough to help people who need it.

But I see it asked in Rousseau’s The Social Contract, and I’m left wondering about its status in that very ambiguous text. Before I picked up Rousseau’s books again for this string of classical research, I hadn’t really touched his writing since I was an undergraduate.

I learned a very simple Rousseau back then, one that doesn’t quite jive with the ambiguous thinker I see here. My education in political philosophy suffered from the unfortunate trend of undergraduate teaching – making the ideas clear, too clear.

Rousseau’s work is remembered because of his ambiguity. He’s a genius at describing the hidden potentials of humanity – freedom, happiness, social harmony, all the aspects of our perfection. But he’s also a genius at explaining what it is about human society that keeps us from realizing that potential.

We can conceive of this potential and approach it, even though we might only inch toward living a more perfect existence in our own lifetimes. Circumstances might conspire against us completely in trying to become more perfect creatures.

I’m reading Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy right now. He, most stereotypically of anyone else in the tradition, is a thinker of contingency and crap circumstances. You can tell, when you read these two books one after the other, how scholars are on target when they discuss the deep influence Machiavelli had on Rousseau.

Scholarship aside, it’s not as though Machiavelli’s pragmatic sensibility survives in Rousseau. The Social Contract and all his major works are aporetic – they leave you hanging. There are no certainties, no comforting paths forward.

You understand the human condition better than before you read it – our possibilities for social harmony and perfection along with our tendencies to corruption, greed, violence, and ruin. Understanding leads to wiser action.

Wisdom is not a correct answer on an exam. Never confuse the two.

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