Partially Examined Life
… would no doubt have been appalled by the drastic shrinking of the public sphere. His greatest work, The Social Contract, speaks up for the rights of the citizenry in the teeth of private interests. He would also be struck by the way the democracy he cherished so dearly is under siege from corporate power and a manipulative media. Society, he taught, was a matter of common bonds, not just a commercial transaction. In true republican fashion, it was a place where men and women could flourish as ends in themselves, not as a set of devices for promoting their selfish interests.
Young adults, he thought, should be allowed to develop their capabilities in their distinctive way. They should also delight in doing so as an end in itself. In the higher education systems of today’s world, this outlandish idea is almost dead on its feet. It is nearly as alien as the notion that the purpose of education is to serve the empire. Universities are no longer educational in any sense of the word that Rousseau would have recognised. Instead, they have become unabashed instruments of capital. Confronted with this squalid betrayal, one imagines he would have felt sick and oppressed. As, indeed, he usually did.
Rousseau’s ideas are related to several developmental accounts of society and psyche. For instance, according to Aristotle the goal of a state is a good life for its citizens, whereas the more rudimentary associations out of which it develops are motivated primarily by survival. This division between what we do for the sake of survival (and self-love) and what we do out of love (whether for other human beings or sublimating activities) is a common motif in philosophy and literature. Aristotle’s account of political development tracks Freud’s account of psychological development, from early “primary narcissism” (in which “ego-instincts” related to self-preservation predominate, and one’s libido is focused on oneself); to the full development of “object instincts,” including mature, empathetic relationships with other human beings. Similarly, Hegel’s developmental account moves from a conscious barely unified through its organization of experience (a la Kant and cognitive psychology) to one deeply integrated through the mirroring of other conscious entities. Mill’s distinction between higher and lower pleasures is grounded in this distinction, and so is Nietzsche’s dismissal of pleasure as the most important factor in human motivation.