Friday, September 30, 2011

"Everyone flies to the assemblies"

Yesterday I was teaching my favorite chapter of Rousseau's Of the Social Contract, Book 3, Chapter 15, where he rails against reliance on "deputies or representatives" to serve the state. In Rousseau's ideal state, the citizens would be eager to serve:

The better the constitution of a State is, the more do public affairs encroach on private in the minds of the citizens. Private affairs are even of much less importance, because the aggregate of the common happiness furnishes a greater proportion of that of each individual, so that there is less for him to seek in particular cares. In a well-ordered city every man flies to the assemblies.

We were talking together about whether this is an appealing or chilling picture of political community: do we really want private affairs to be swallowed up in the public good? But then, as we were arguing about this, it occurred to me that Rousseau's idealization is pretty much the life I'm living right now at DePauw.

Every night I fly to some assembly. Yesterday I flew to three: to a philosophy department talk on Nietzsche's metaethics, dinner with the speaker and with the rest of my philosophy department colleagues, then an event presentation: "YoYo Ma: A Life in Music." Earlier in the week I flew to a meeting of the Prindle reading group on James Stewart's book Tangled Webs, with the author present. I've been flying to ethics bowl practices, to Fulbright application meetings, to all-faculty meetings, to the class on The Tempest. What private business do I need to have, what private cares, when this is the public business of my little liberal arts community here?

So maybe Rousseau was on to something, after all.


  1. I don't think it's a chilling picture assuming the premise is true: that the common happiness (as opposed to private happiness) furnishes a greater proportion of the individual's overall happiness. And I think it's possible, but it depends on how liberal the government is. For example, if the government subsidized the arts and entertainment industries (music, theatre, gaming, cinema, etc.) such that everyone had free access to these things, I would call any happiness derived from these the "common happiness." And you can bet people would be far more interested in voting if it affected their entertainment options.

    The problem is, everyone gets squeamish at this point that Big Brother is going to stifle individuality, creativity, dissent, etc. I.e. we'll be brainwashed. I think that's simplistic and moreover, it ignores the very real problem of corporate brainwashing, and the fact that corporations, not the free market, are the current stiflers of individuality, creativity, and dissent. But the same people who are terrified of the government are perfectly content to let corporations pollute our natural resources, oppress impoverished workers, spy on us, produce our news, and yes, decide our media.

    I think there's a lot Rousseau could not have anticipated, and I really wonder what he'd say about our present circumstances.

  2. Great comments, Leah. I'm sure Rousseau would find our present circumstances appalling in many many ways, especially the way our politics are driven by "factions" rather than by the general will.

  3. What exactly happens at an ethics bowl? It might either be fun or terrifying.

  4. The link, 'public' and 'state', being assumed seems to have left out the quiet reality that tons of wonderful 'free assemblies' are completely funded and planned by 'private' donations. (life at DePauw, Are your 'assemblies' govn't funded or private?)

    Leah, I get the corporation pollution problems but 'stifle creativity and individuality.' I'm not seeing that in business, I see the rewarding creatiity and promoting indivuality.
    Oppress impoverished workers is also on the government list historically seen in socialist societies.

    Claudia, that's an interesting comment. Quickly sifting through the little bit of history I know I'm trying to find a government not driven by factions. (I mean a functioning government ) . (And I'd like to hear about the ethics bowl, too)

  5. Ethics Bowl is like a debate team event, focusing on 16 different cases of ethical interest, in the recent news, such as: retroactive grade inflation at one law school that went back and raised all its grades from a certain span of years to raise overall GPAs to make their students more competitive - or disregarding a dead relative's prior wishes for a more elaborate funeral in order to have a more environmentally responsible funeral - all fun to talk about.

  6. That's comforting; it is more like a theoretical ethics bowl. It is much less terrifying to have a "What would you do if..." contest than to have "What have you done?" contest. I think that one of those will be enough for me...

    ... on Judgment Day.

  7. When I talk about the corporate stifling of creativity, I'm thinking of the way we get the same media over and over again, not because it's original or creative, not even because it's necessarily the most lucrative; but often because it's the exact opposite of original. Because it reinforces the status quo. Mainstream media, including music, tv, film, and gaming, is dominated by a white, male, heterocentric perspective, which is tired, cliche, ubiquitous - basically, anything but original. I've taken to getting my media almost exclusively from sources independent of the corporate mainstream. Now, it's great that alternatives exist, but they do so in spite of Corporate America. We'd have a lot more variety if, say, the government subsidized such things.

    As far as oppression goes, it's true that both governments and corporations are guilty of it. To me, the common denominator seems to be a lack of accountability. Thus, we should be wary of all institutions that are not accountable to the people they impact. And we should be prepared to give more power to the institutions that we can hold accountable rather than the ones we can't. In my case, that's the government. Whereas I am not a shareholder of any company, I AM a US citizen.

    Some people think that the way to hold corporations accountable, besides becoming shareholders, is via consumer pressure on the free market, but there are so many examples of the failure of that principle (see above: the stagnation of mainstream media), that I don't know why anyone would continue to subscribe to such a naive view.