Born Free?

jean jacques rousseau

Two historical figures born about a thousand years apart, have played a crucial role in establishing what might be called the mental architecture of the Western world in 2018. One, Benedict of Nursia, has been designated as patron saint of Europe while the other, Jean Jacques Rousseau, might equally well be named as the patron saint of modern liberalism. Though they differed in many ways they both seemed to share a desire to cut to the chase so we can deduce some fundamental things from the way they chose to open their respective seminal works, the Rule and Du contrat social.

Rousseau began with “Man is born free, and he is everywhere in chains.” From this we can deduce the mental image of what a human is which informs the personal outlook of many Westerners and the political prescriptions of their governments. Briefly it is this, a person is by nature an independent, autonomous creature who will, if not restricted by artificial and oppressive chains, flourish precisely as an individual. The task of a liberating society is to knock away all of these chains which restrict so that the human freed from them can achieve the happiness which is not only their right but their natural state. Natural because it derives from what they essentially are from the moment of their birth (though not, apparently, from the moment of their conception.)

Assuming this to be true one would expect that the more such chains are struck off the happier a society would become, if the happiness of a society is considered to be the sum total of the happiness of the individuals who make it up. Since Rousseauian ideas have dominated the governance of Western societies since at least the 1960’s we should be seeing exponential rises in happiness among the Western population. Interestingly, in fact, there has been a far greater growth in the consumption of antidepressant or anti-anxiety medications and a significant rise in the self-prescribed use of substances like alcohol, cannabis and narcotics. In these ways Westerners deal with the absence of happiness rather than its growth.

Faced with the experience that a desired course of action fails to produce a desired outcome we can either revise our opinion about our original policy prescription or we can double-down on that prescription and demand that it be applied more and harder. Humans being what they are have tended to go for option two since it involves less self examination and no admission of being mistaken. In effect what this results in is that every time an old chain is struck off suddenly and unexpectedly a new chain is discovered which apparently was there all along but invisible. So, for example, legalising homosexuality revealed the oppression caused by same-sex couples not having legal recognition for their partnerships, and resolving that problem revealed the oppression caused by same-sex partners not being able to marry. Likewise ending the oppression suffered by women because of a lack of equality of opportunity serves to reveal the oppression they suffer because of a lack of equality of outcome (since only sexism can explain why more men favour some occupations and more women favour some others.)

The necessary result of all this is a never ending sequence of liberal hyperactivity. Since the desired outcome, personal happiness, is never produced as a result of the desired policy then more campaigning is required to take the policy up to the next level blithely unaware that there will be an infinite number of levels because the initial assumption upon which the whole model is based is deeply flawed.

Which brings me to St Benedict. The first word of his Rule is ‘listen.‘ The implications of this can be understood if we consider this passage from the philosopher Iris Murdoch-
If I am learning, for instance, Russian, I am confronted by an authoritative structure which commands my respect. The task is difficult and the goal is distant and perhaps never entirely attainable. My work is a progressive revelation of something which exists independently of me. Attention is rewarded by a knowledge of reality. Love of Russian leads me away from myself towards something alien to me, something which my consciousness cannot take over, swallow up, deny or make unreal.”

What Benedict is saying is that to become who we intend or wish to become we must learn from, and therefore accept the authority of, others. Man (male or female) in other words is never born free but is always born situated. Life is not a struggle to make the world recognise our innate individuality but a process of becoming an individual exactly and precisely through the contacts which we make with others, the things they teach us, the validations which they offer or refuse (sometimes with good reason) to offer us and so on.  To be a human is to be in human society and if it affords us opportunities it also gives us restrictions and there is no a priori reason to suppose that the restrictions are always inimical to our development as individuals whereas the opportunities are always helpful. It may well happen that on occasion it is the other way around. Being forced, for example, as a child to learn Russian may open us as an adult to be moved and entranced by the lyricism of a Turgenev or a Chekov in ways which we would miss if we only read them in translation.

The contribution which Benedict, through his Rule and its associated monastic order,  made to our Western mental architecture was to ensure that the treasures of Classical Greek and Roman thought were preserved and transmitted across the generations through a period of great turmoil. More than that the monks maintained an uninterrupted European tradition of intellectual discourse, that is, the habit of talking about and writing about (the monks also preserved literacy) abstract ideas. This discourse, although assuming multiple different forms and mutations, has been continuous since the time of Socrates until now, in no small part because of St Benedict. Rousseau was a beneficiary of this tradition from which we see that he was dependant on Benedict but that Benedict was in no way dependent on Rousseau. More generally we can say that every rousseau is dependent on a benedict but that no benedict is dependent on a rousseau. By which I mean that it is those who engage with the world as beneficiaries of the authority of their predecessors and as social creatures who recognise that their individuality is in large measure a product of group dynamics who transmit onwards a legacy from which others benefit and within which they can flourish. By contrast those who primarily aim to fend the world of from themselves as being primarily a source of oppression produce for themselves and for their disciples a world of misery.

thoughtfully detached has a Facebook page.

My *other* blog is thoughtfully catholic.

I found the Iris Murdoch quote in ‘The World Beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction‘ by Matthew Crawford which is well worth reading.

The picture is of Jean-Jacque Rousseau by Vintage Illustration Vectors


3 thoughts on “Born Free?

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  1. I think much depends on what’s defined as a “chain” and what’s seen as an anchor in reality.

    I’m one of ‘those crazy kids’ who grew up in the 1960s. I thought the ‘outmoded morality’ represented by post-WWII America’s middle and upper classes made little sense then. I’m not pleased with how some reforms turned out: but still think reforms were needed.

    Decades later, I recognize some of the lunatic notions preached by the old-school folks had (distant) roots in natural law. And that’s another topic.

    Maybe the crazy kids will do a better job, next time around. There’s hope for that, I think.


    1. The flaw in any scheme of organising or of reorganising human society is that it involves humans. No matter how much wisdom or perfectly applied reason there is any any system at its beginning the attrition inflicted upon it by the human propensity to turn everything to immediate short-term personal advantage will warp and distort it completely out of shape. This leads to a profound reaction of intense desire to scrap the whole thing and start again from year zero. Necessary change combined with a necessary continuity which retains the original insights of wisdom and reason is a much more counterintuitive approach and consequently one that is rarely undertaken.


  2. 🙂 It’s good to see someone who understands that change can be necessary if charity and justice are to be served. And who also understands human limitations. Like Job 5:7 says, we make our own trouble, sure as sparks fly upwards.

    I don’t expect perfection. But I find considerable comfort: seeing that, throughout history, folks have kept thinking ‘we can do better,’ and tried to do just that.

    Taking samples at longish intervals, on the order of centuries to millennia, I see strong indications that we occasionally succeed: not perfectly, but noticeably.


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