Friday, September 28, 2007

Society And Culture: Who Needs Them?

Y'know, it's funny. Sometimes you read something and think that it is complete bullshit, an utter steaming heap of nonsense the first time you read it. Yet, given this gut reaction, the ideas presented therein won't leave you alone. Well, it happens to me...

Just such a thing happened to me this week when I read Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "Discourse on the Arts and Sciences." I thought, on first glance, his argument was weak, his evidence was worse and the whole thing smacked of sour grapes.

A little background is in order. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) wrote this piece, also called the First Discourse, in 1750 in response to what amounted to an essay contest held by the Academy of Dijon (and, no, it had nothing to do with mustard as far as I can tell). The question that was to be answered was: "Has the restoration of the sciences and arts tended to purify morals?”

Rousseau, in short, answered "no." He argues that societies, such as that of eighteenth century France, that concentrated on the arts and sciences to the detriment of what he calls practical skills, were certainly worse off for doing so. He claims that humankind was much better off before getting entangled with art, science and the whole of what he deems the useless decadence of society and culture in general.

His examples come from history, the most famous being ancient Athens and Sparta. Rousseau states that Athens, who had become complaisant by focusing on art and science, was overrun by the more practical, vigorous and therefore more virtuous Sparta. The larger argument, therefore, was that societies where arts and sciences were the height of culture often get toppled by societies where practical skills and the virtue of the "citizen" are central.

Rousseau won the contest, the prize and started his path to being one of the most influential thinkers (for better or worse) produced by the Western tradition.

Why the knocks against art and science? Rousseau asserts that these pursuits allow people to wear masks that hide their real thoughts, deeds and urges behind a facade of culture and learning. This allows people to lie to each other, causing widespread distrust and the aforementioned decadence. In other words, Rousseau would have hated PBS.

My reaction, as I hinted at above, to this was critical to say the least. He seems to elide over the fact that Sparta was basically a military dictatorship where people weren't free to pursue anything apart from what the state deemed necessary. His other historical examples are equally weak (like claiming that the "savages" of North America had no culture to "poison" them).
This is where the gut reaction came in.

Whenever things that we are always told are good are attacked, no matter how cynical or jaded we claim to be, we always recoil just a little. We are told from youth that culture, arts and sciences are good things and that we should be as interested in them as possible because, well, that's what makes us human. In a superficial way, I guess I can buy that.

What I had more trouble with was when I asked myself the question "what is so damned good about art and science, anyway?" To put it another way "did Rousseau get anything right?" Well, on one score, I think he was dead on.

Think about people you know who consistently beat you over the head with how "cultured" they are. These people who portray the image, in whatever form it takes, that they are "with it," "plugged in" and so far beyond you, you peon, that you would do well to emulate them in your every thought word and deed.

Yeah, a real bunch of assholes, right?

Above, when I say, "in whatever form it takes," that is intentionally broadly defined. These can be people involved in this "scene" or that, discussing/wearing/listening/watching/reading/consuming (really) whatever it may be. These people seem so involved in their "thing" that you must wonder if there is anything else to them. It calls to mind Winston Churchill's famous definition of a fanatic as someone who "won't change their minds and won't change the subject."

And that, friends, is why Rousseau wouldn't leave me alone, though he has been dead for 229 years. He put his finger on people who wear these masks of culture to hide their true selves, which are full of the same fears and hatreds that we all harbor.

Some might say that it is good that we have these masks, or life with other people would become unbearable. Rousseau would say that life with other people is inevitably unbearable and we should rethink the fundamentals of society. That is a discussion for another day.

So, do I agree with Rousseau? Not really, or at least I think he doesn't prove his assertions very well. What I cannot help but notice, though, is how right he seems to be about how people interact with each other.

Is it good that we hide our true selves away?

If Rousseau is wrong, how do arts and sciences lead to a "moral" life?

Can people ever be truly honest with each other?

Are society and culture really as bad for us as Rousseau thinks?

There are no simple answers to these questions. Just because of this, don't be put off of thinking about them.

We owe it to ourselves to consider these questions deeply.

I know I will.

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