Rousseau’s Social Contract & Why the Rich Get Richer While the Poor Get Poorer

My husband and I recently visited a charming 280-acre National Trust property nestled in the green hills of south Oxfordshire.  First built in the late Middle Ages, Greys Court comprises a substantial complex of sandstone buildings and walled courtyard gardens.  Enjoying coffee and cake in a long, low building said to have garrisoned Cromwell’s soldiers during the Civil War, we contemplated battles long since fought and won. With dozens of other tourists, we rambled  through the three-gabled Elizabethan house dreaming of what it must have been like to have grown up  in such a comfortable and privileged home .

But it was while admiring century-old wisteria awash in a sea of bluebells that I remembered Rousseau’s observation that the ‘fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody’.  If this were true, then why do some families flourish on 280 acre country estates while others scratch out their survival in a city slum? Rousseau suggests a diabolically simple answer:

“The first man who having enclosed a piece of ground, thought up the statement this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him…was the real founder of civil society.”

Society yes.  Civil no.  It was Rousseau’s view that the social contract devised by men to make their property secure was not in accord with the ‘natural order’, but instead was a hoax perpetrated by the rich on the poor.  In other words, the poor (majority) had been tricked into agreeing to give their right to share in the wealth of the land to the rich (minority).   According to Rousseau in exchange for peace and protection:

“All ran headlong to their chains, believing they had secured their liberty.”

I question whether such a social contract remains in society’s best interest in the 21st century.  Do we still require privileged property owners to care for us?  Or in a post-modern democracy are we capable to taking care of ourselves?

If we conclude the later, then is it not up to each one of us work toward changing the terms of the social contract?  Do we really want that in the interests of all, the rich get richer while the poor get poorer?

Or might we rather like it the other way around?

The (Philosophical) Demise of Democracy

Of late, there’s been much debate about the collapse of authority in the UK.   It would appear a consensus  of sorts has finally been reached this is not a good thing.  However the hope is the new government will sort it all out for us.  I wonder.

In The Republic, Plato reminds us that just as surely as Democracy evolves from Oligarchy (a system of government where the rich rule the poor), that Democracy evolves into Tyranny.  While the first transition results from an excess of wealth, the later results from an excess of freedom.  He provides some startlingly scary examples of the warning signs:

“Father and son, citizen and foreigner, old and young are all on a level; fathers and teachers fear their sons and pupils, and the wisdom of the young man is a match for the elder, and the old imitate the jaunty manners of the young because they are afraid of being thought morose.  Slaves are on level with their masters and mistresses, and there is no difference between men and women.  Nay, the very animals in a democratic State have a freedom which is unknown in other places.”

Plato then goes on to remind us that bloated with desire to do whatever we wish whenever we wish, the citizens of democracy will at last become so sensitive we no longer can endure ‘the yoke of laws’.

This is the beginning of the end.

“… for there is a law of contraries: the excess of freedom passes into the excess of slavery, and the greater the freedom the greater the slavery.”

It happens like this: because law and order have vanished, the disgruntled citizenry elect a champion to seize control.  All goes well until inevitably, the champion oversteps his bounds.  When the citizenry tries to remove him, they discover their champion turned tyrant is even more lawless than they.

I suggest that a little more respect for authority won’t kill us and in regards to freedom, a little less emphasis on our ‘rights’ might help us come to terms our  ‘responsibilities’.   Don’t leave the preservation of what you hold most dear to the government.  You might not be too pleased if you do.

“Know Thyself” but then what?

Inscribed over the entrance to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi is the ancient Greek aphorism “Know thyself”.  Certainly good advice.  But before we can follow it, we need to dig deeper into the nature of the ‘self’ that we wish to know.

This is harder than you  think.  In the West there is no consensus of what is ‘self’.  Add that to the Eastern tradition that ‘self’ is a mirage and it’s little wonder we’re confused (or should be if we took time to consider it).

For argument’s sake, let’s assume, that the following is necessary for ‘self”: (1) continuity of perception, (2) awareness of such perception, and (3) ability to recall such perception across a time/space continuum.  Further, if we are to ‘know’ this ‘self” we must assume capacity for both self-reflection and verbalisation of those reflections.

How might this all fit together to form the ‘self’ as we experience it everyday?  The fashionable narrative theory offers a fascinating perspective .   The idea is that as we become socialised, we make narratives about ourselves and how we  interact with our environment.  For example, when Mom says “you went to school today didn’t you Johnny?”, Johnny nods and adds this idea of being a ‘school-goer’ to his definition of himself.

So far so good. It’s easy enough to imagine ourselves as the product of the stories we (and others) tell about our lives.  But what about revision?

As every writer knows, a good story is the product of numerous drafts and revisions – a process, which for the sake of holding the reader’s attention necessarily alters mousy brown hair into something more exciting – i.e. the “long silken tresses the colour of freshly mown hay on a crisp autumn morning” type of thing.

Revision is good stuff for fiction.  We don’t know how good it might be for our notion of ‘self’.   However one thing that is certain is that the more we tell and retell our narratives, the further we move away from an accurate picture.

Perhaps instead of seeing ourselves solely in terms of our history, we  might acknowledge that although things did (or did not) happen to us, we can still understand ourselves as something more than a product of our past.  In other words although we may refer to ourselves in terms of what we have or haven’t done, we do not need to define ourselves by it.

This require a more detached view of the ‘self’ than most Westerners currently take.  But it is possible to change.  Instead of being so wrapped up our accomplishments that its nearly impossible to view ourselves as separate from them, we might instead learn to take a more happy-go-lucky, see-what-comes point of view.

I suggest that until we can do that, we stand no chance of meeting the challenge to ‘know thyself’ – as the ‘self ‘ that actually is rather than the ‘self’ we would like to be.

When is Fiction Art and Why Does it Matter?

Art commands special status and support from states, corporations, and the public at large. Art is not just a matter of profits – indeed some art is extremely unprofitable.  Art is of enduring cultural esteem and concern.

Yet given its importance, surprisingly there is no accepted definition of art.

Most philosophers believe that simply being entertaining is not enough. Similarly defining ‘art’ in terms of the emotions it evokes won’t do. There is nothing valuable in the arousal of emotion for it’s own sake (unless you’re willing to agree that – for example – pornography is art). Even if we acknowledge some emotions are more valuable than others, we’d still need a yardstick by which to measure their  relative worth.  This would lead to impossible questions about morality and  religion.

Instead, some philosophers suggest that art should be defined by whether or not it promotes knowledge and understanding – most particularly self-knowledge because according to Hegel (1170-1831) it is only self-knowledge that frees us from fate (i.e. the forces of causality that binds lesser creatures to their animal nature).  This would seem a particularly appropriate theory for contemporary Westerners who are in large part,  psychologically defined.

If we accept this last thesis, then how might we ascribe value in the literary arts, where by definition (through the use of language) some knowledge is always conveyed?  Some philosophers suggest the answer lies in the fact that authors create images (character, scene, events, ideas) that  enhance understanding of the human condition.  But is this enough?

I suggest that to be considered art, fiction must go beyond simply creating images that help us reflect on our lives.  Instead to be classified as art, I believe fiction must create images that become paradigms for our lives.

Take for example Shakespeare’s Othello. Othello is not only the image, but the archetype of destructive jealousy.  He is not merely a distillation of the characteristics commonly found in jealous persons (i.e. a stereotype), but instead he taps directly into the very patterns that structure our experience of the world.

To accomplish this is a tall order.  It requires more than gimmicks, theatrics or even good writing.   It requires a style of narration that draws readers into to a character’s experience in such a way that as the result of reading, in his heart the reader knows the subjective joys and sorrows of a different way of being.  Only in this way, can fiction be said to provide us not only with understanding, but with self-understanding.

I further suggest that although a particular work of fiction falling short of this mark may be profitable and enjoyable, it is not art.  Conversely, although a particular work of fiction that does meet the mark is neither profitable nor enjoyable, it deserves the special status and support given by society to art.