|Sep 17, 2020|
On a fine summer’s day in 1749, a 37 year old Jean Jacques Rousseau stopped in at the grocer’s on the way to Vincennes from Paris and chanced upon a newspaper advertisement for an essay competition. The competition was sponsored by the Academy of Dijon and the theme for the prize essay to be judged the following year was: “Has the progress of the arts and sciences contributed more to the corruption or purification of morals?” The words were a revelation for Rousseau, who wrote later in his Confessions, “From the moment I read these words, I beheld another world and became another man… on my arrival at Vincennes I was in a state of agitation bordering on madness.” Rousseau would go on to win the prize and his essay Discourse on the Sciences and Arts would form his first discourse, which along with his later discourses, rested on the same fundamental theoretical foundation that man is essentially good, but society corrupts him and makes him desperate. Ten years later, Rousseau had become the most reviled man in France following the publishing of the Social Contract and Emile. Right from the onset of the Social Contract, Rousseau fulminates against the established order of things by saying that man “is born free, but every where he is in chains.” But it was the lengthy theological discourse in the form of a dialogue between Rousseau and a Savoyard priest that concludes that the only religious instruction to be given to children and adolescents is the rudiments of “natural religion”, which has “neither temples, nor altars, nor rites and is confined to the purely internal cult of the supreme God and the eternal obligations of morality.” This drew the ire of the Archbishop of Paris. Charged with heresy, an arrest warrant was issued for him and his books were publicly burned. Fleeing to his native Geneva did not afford him any protection either, for the Calvinist populace there were equally incised by his doctrines as the catholic Parisians. A mob attacked the house in which he was staying along with his mistress Therese la Vasseur and his dog Sultan, forcing him to seek refuge elsewhere.
Rousseau’s saviour was the Scotsman David Hume who had recently returned from the salons of Paris where he was hailed affectionately as Le Bon David. Like other writers of the eighteenth century, Hume concerned himself with the moral aspects of wealth and luxury. By Hume’s time, the nepotic tradition of the court system had largely disintegrated. Rich merchants could acquire status from the purchase of houses and lands of the dispossessed gentry. The Industrial Revolution, then underway, was ushering in a new “Consumer Revolution”. Hume believed that consumerism is necessary for rousing “men from their indolence” and keeping humanity moving forward through a continual refinement of tastes and the needs they invoke.
Such is the delicacy of man alone, that no object is produced to his liking. He finds that in everything there is need for improvement…. The whole industry of human life is employed not in procuring the supply of our three humble necessities, food, clothes and lodging, but in procuring the conveniences of it according to the nicety and delicacy of our tastes.
Adam Smith, Lectures on jurisprudence (1766), Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978
Whereas previously, the produce of a land along with its natural riches constituted its wealth, now the fruits of society’s labour in fabricating such conveniences as to meet the ever burgeoning refinements of taste. So the wealthiest nations provide their subjects with widest variety of conveniences to exercise as many desires. Such commerce is what drives the arts and sciences and gives them an unceasing patronage, producing aesthetic objects of beauty to appease and delight every imagination and all manner of contraptions. Now these material objects were the measure of social status and possessing these objects of desire. The line between needs and wants is blurred and they become conceptually indistinguishable and we cannot distinguish morally between needs and luxuries. Social needs of recognition and prestige are what fuel our consumerist desires. And in such a consumerist society, it is possible to acquire prestige from material possessions, achievements, to even physical attributes, as long as they are novel or unprecedented in some way. Rousseau saw through this affectation and false system of values. To him, man is pure before he is corrupted by society and man’s very character is socially constructed so that he knows not where his true self lurks and which of his desires are truly his own.
While government and laws take care of the security and the well being of men in groups, the sciences, letters, and the arts, less despotic and perhaps more powerful, spread garlands of flowers over the iron chains which weigh men down, snuffing out in them the feeling of that original liberty for which they appear to have been born, and make them love their slavery by turning them into what are called civilized people. Need has raised thrones; the sciences and the arts have strengthened them. You earthly powers, cherish talents and protect those who nurture them. Civilized people, cultivate them. Happy slaves, to them you owe that refined and delicate taste you take pride in, that softness of character and that urbanity of habits which make dealings among you so sociable and easy, in a word, the appearance of all the virtues without the possession of any.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, 1750
Being social animals, we invest a large part of our time and energy in our bid to belong. While cooperation and contribution were the only means to secure esteem, social status is now a commodity that can be acquired by procuring material objects and displaying our skills and abilities in battles oneupmanship. Rousseau saw how social slavery and the drive to acquire the symbols of success is a way for the mind to seize some measure of control and fixity in a world that is rapidly changing around us. The categories of things and the symbols of social etiquette and propriety lure us into a false sense of stability instead of embracing a dynamic and ever-changing world. Within this social reality, we can construct rules to distribute our resources, and those who play by the rules and fabricate a socially acceptable (and perhaps even exceptional) self are deemed suitable to win by such arbitrary and rigid rules. The desire for recognition and esteem provokes all individuals in society to construct a socially acceptable self. “The one who sang or danced best; the handsomest, the strongest, the most skillful, or the most eloquent came to be the most highly regarded” says Rousseau, “[to] be and to appear became two entirely different things, and from this distinction arose ostentatious display, deceitful cunning, and all the vices that follow in their wake.” The need to be noticed compels us to attract considerations by affecting them, and to do so became possible because character is hidden behind “conventions of etiquette and propriety” in modern society. But once we realise that these categories and characterisations are of our own making and question the needs we have adopted from without, we can never go back to being comfortable with our selves again. For Rousseau, the fracturing of his reality began with a single sentence read in a newspaper; words that fomented a lifelong quest to excavate his true self, challenge all his perceptions and beliefs and critically examine what is “genuine and artificial” in the makeup of his personality.¹
The inner possibility of growth in a person is a dangerous thing because either you say yes to it and go ahead, or you are killed by it. There is no other choice. It is a destiny which has to be accepted.
Marie-Louise Von Franz, The Problem of the Puer Aeternus, London, 1970
To understand Rousseau’s struggle, we must travel forward two centuries to 1954, to the publishing of the humanist philosopher, Abraham Maslow’s seminal and groundbreaking analysis of human motivations. Called the Hierarchy of Needs, this examination of human motivations situates the baser and more physiological needs like satiating hunger and natural desires at the bottom and ascends towards more refined needs like social recognition and achievement, culminating with what he called self-actualisation at the capstone. As we move on to more refined and elaborate needs, we leave the lower ones behind—when bread is aplenty, other needs emerge which are not physiological, and when these are satisfied, other needs emerge which are more advanced and refined, and so on and so forth. Self-actualisation is attained when we become our true selves and form a concrete identity. Self-actualised individuals have developed the self-assurance and self-confidence to express their views and construct a fairly robust worldview. Prime examples of self-actualisers are people who hold positions of power, such as leaders of nations, CEOs, and even certain celebrities. In his journals, Maslow identifies Eisenhower and Truman as two presidents who fit the mould, but in 1967, he adds “they are clearly not B-people”. Being-Cognition (shorted to B-) is a character trait that Maslow identified after he had published his initial model. “B-cognisers” are people who have gone past self-actualisation and exist in a higher state of consciousness. At this level of being, one is less concerned with seeking autonomy or selfhood, or any of the other needs of the ego, but rather seeks to “transcended the geographical limitations of the self.” This transpersonal or transhuministic pursuit involves mystical experiences such as a union or oneness with nature or an intimate communion with another human being—any experience that effaces the personal identity of self that we have nurtured as we transcended through our needs. People at this stage of their lives feel safe and secure, they are able to love and be loved, they feel respected and respect everyone and everything in return; consequently they seek to be of service to others, or devotion to an ideal or a cause. They realise that self-actualisation is not enough and what is truly good and worth striving for is not freedom or autonomy or self-esteem, or any of the other personal goals, but what is good for both other people and also good for the self.
…it is quite clear that a purely intrapsychic, individualistic psychology, without preference to other people and social conditions, is not adequate.
From Maslow’s unpublished 1966 paper, Critique of Self-Actualization Theory
I previously told you about the value of eliciting your personal values. Maslow refers to these transcendent values as higher needs: “higher human needs are … biological, and I speak here of love, the need of love, for friendship, for dignity, for self-respect, for individuality, for self-fulfilment, and so on.” It is when these higher needs are met that self-transcendence becomes a possibility. Encountering people who are “awakened” and “illuminated” is like entering another realm. “The … point of departure, into this transhumanistic realm” says Maslow, comes when they answer the following kind of questions: ‘What are the moments which give you … the greatest satisfaction? … What are the moments of reward which make your work and your life worthwhile?’” B-cognisers frame their answers to these questions in terms of the universal values (verities) such as truth, goodness, beauty. Such values are of a higher order than the baser ones and can no way be classified as selfish. Such people are rare according to Maslow for they are “fully developed (and very fortunate) human being working under the best conditions”. But even for those operating on such stable footing, the transition engenders a widespread dislocation of being, the disintegration of the centre of personal gravity, for when one seeks to make the transition to this high plateau, “then troubles (of the highest type) begin.” Maslow called this disruption Value Pathologies (also referred to as metapathologies). When one deliberately abstains from the baser and ordinary needs of life—the lack of fulfilment of metamotivations—cynicism, apathy, boredom, loss of zest, despair, hopelessness, a sense of powerlessness, and nihilism ensue. In this sense, those in the process of transcending must go through a right of passage wherein the self disintegrates.²
Value pathologies can be a very high achievement. And one can respect profoundly those in whom one can see—through the symptoms of frustrated idealism—the beautiful B-realm that they are reaching for and may therefore get to. The ones who are struggling & reaching upward really have a better prognosis than the ones who rest perfectly content at the SA [self-actualisation] level.
The Journals of Abraham Maslow
Rousseau was compelled to expunge parts of his identity by constantly interrogating his motivations in the quest for truth. Hume was comfortable in his skin as a self-actualiser with no interest in transcending his worldview, or perhaps was oblivious to this other realm. Those of us like Rousseau have no choice but to follow through with this transition, even if it means the effacement of everything that is familiar to us. The most important thing to ask yourself is what you value above all else and then give yourself over to its whims and vicissitudes. Just as the more we love someone, the more we must grieve for their loss; the more of ourselves that we give to love, the more we risk losing when it’s gone; when we give all of ourselves away to our singular verity, we also chance the void of selflessness.