Thursday, March 06, 2014

Book 24: A Discourse on Inequality

Yet another selection from class.  I wasn't exactly looking forward to this one though the length was going to be a nice break compared to the rest of the reading list so I was actually pleasantly surprised when I read this.  I think what little previous interactions I have had with Rousseau have involved his later work in which he comes off as a sexist, misogynistic ass that romanticizes nature and "man's natural state" way too much.  Imagine my surprise when in this, he states that men and women would have been the same in their natural state, and it was as early groups and societies formed that women took on their care giver roles.  In fact, I know his later stuff is sexist so I'm not even sure how you can believe that naturally women are no different from men and yet view them as inferior and super feminine creatures later?  I mean, yes, culture may have turned them into that, but the question is more how can you endorse that they should be that in your later writings?
Rousseau absolutely romaniticizes the idea of natural man, but he doesn't try to make an argument to return to that state; he realizes that is impossible.  However, since this was written in the 18th century, it is very clear how he either wasn't reading the correct things for his research or how unfamiliar most people were with nature at this point.  He basically compares early man to a lone wolf, believing that humans would have been on their own, only coming together for mating purposes.  Considering that even wolves live in packs and that it might make more sense to use primates or chimpanzees to determine early man's behavior, this whole view seems helplessly naive and clueless.
Even though Rousseau had rich patrons, and ended up relatively well off, he argues that society as we know it is the result of the rich convincing the poor that they needed it for protection when really it was the rich trying to protect themselves and their property from the masses.  He argues that society basically led to the increase of natural inequality.  That was also a change from previous authors in the class - Hobbes, for example, believed that people were born equal and then develop skills based on education and application.  I'm somewhere in the middle.  I would say we are generally born equal, that education and upbringing play a huge role, but regardless some people are just going to be better at running or spatial/math type things or artistic endeavors.
From what I gather, Rousseau's biography does not make him a very likable or pleasant man - he had several children with a mistress but left them all in a home.  He lived off the rich but resented them as can be seen in his opinions here.  Apparently, Voltaire did not like this book very much, and my edition actually had some of the notes Voltaire made in the margins of his copy as end notes.  I think it can also be difficult reading philosophers from older days because in some cases we know so much more, about anthropology, evolution etc. so in some cases, his comments sound ignorant.  However, this isn't entirely a matter of superior knowledge in the future and is also a case of lack of research or cherry picking on his part.  After all, he at one point talks about the Americas because they alwyas seems to get brought up when talking about natural man, and states they didn't have cities.  Voltaire's comment was basically, wrong, central America totally did.  Though for the most part, Europe hadn't taken the time to truly understand the cultures they were invading, I don't think it would have been obscure knowledge that the conquistadors came upon cities and communities rather than random people wandering around the woods. 
However, given the relative brevity of the book and the ease of Rousseau's writing, I definitley would say this isn't a bad place to start for reading past thoughts.  As far as finding insight?  Probably not, though as I said, I was positively surprised by some of his thoughts.  It's just a lot of that stuff has since either been proven wrong or would be seen as common sense.

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