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Make Your Own Rousseau

The Politics of Authenticity

by Marshall Berman
Atheneum, 384 pp., $8.95

The Social Contract

by Robert Ardrey
Atheneum, 416 pp., $10.00

The invocation of historical figures in support—or derogation—of current political positions is a curious cultural trick. The dangers of anachronism are obvious, and what does a sentence gain in any case by beginning “As Rousseau said…”? The question is an old one, but banal as it is, both Ardrey and Berman provoke it. Both are greatly preoccupied with Rousseau, though both are even more preoccupied with the present. Professor Berman’s book belongs to the history of ideas, and it is explicitly about Montesquieu and Rousseau for almost all 300 pages. But Ardrey, too, owes Rousseau far more than his title; for him Rousseau is the Enemy; he represents everything Ardrey detests—sentimentality, egalitarianism, a blind and herbivore ignorance of evolution’s brutal truths.

Berman’s situation is very different. Like the radical historians of Towards a New Past,1 he aims to write usable history, history which helps us to change the twentieth century as much as to understand the eighteenth. His Montesquieu and Rousseau are strikingly modern, so contemporary that it is hard to believe they haven’t read Hegel, Marx, Freud, and Sartre. But they are, in intention, historical figures too; and this creates a certain tension, as though Berman does not know just how much interpretation the evidence will bear without anachronism or falsification. He is disarmingly honest: “The book has emerged with a rather peculiar structure…. I am not sure what it ultimately ‘is,’ history or theory, but I think it is relevant to both.” The skeptical reader will perhaps still complain that in so dubious a subject as the history of ideas, authors ought to make up their minds on such matters.

The book’s claim is that Montesquieu and Rousseau showed that the major problem of “modernity” is the loss of the self, or inauthenticity, and that the problem demands a political solution. If this is not wholly lucid, it has at least a familiar ring. Montesquieu and Rousseau wrote in response to the rise of modern society, a society which poses a problem of personal identity in the following sense. Traditionally, social roles were allocated at birth, individuals were trained into them by continuous pressure, and the entire social system was legitimated by religious belief. Men were thus provided with ready answers to the questions of who they are, what they are supposed to be doing, and why they are supposed to be doing it. Their hopes and fears are limited, for they know what to expect, and in general they get what they expect. Above all, they were preserved from ambition and anxiety.

But in modern, secular society, roles are achieved—we have to qualify for them—and thus much more a matter of choice. Yet the society that offers the choice now takes away all the old reasons for making the choice. We do not know who to be, what identity to take up; we see that social roles are masks worn for the benefit of spectators. If we or fate had made us wear different masks, we should have been different people; how, then, can we really be anyone? Hence the condition of “existential anguish” which, as Mr. Berman reads him, Rousseau was the first to articulate so distinctly.

Montesquieu does not emerge as tormented in this way in Mr. Berman’s book—a fact which will surprise readers of Franz Neumann. Neumann, who started off Berman’s interest in Montesquieu as the theorist of sexual mores, emphasized the misery behind Montesquieu’s belief that incest was the sole unflawed relationship. But Berman reads Montesquieu’s Persian Letters as a celebration of urban individualism and of the metropolitan society that so distressed Rousseau. Everything Rousseau hated and feared—diversity, change, emotional and sexual inconstancy—Montesquieu defended for its contribution to individual satisfaction. But if it is Montesquieu whom Berman follows in celebrating the metropolis and its culture, it is Rousseau’s anguish that he wants to cure.

This puts Rousseau in a curiously ambiguous role: implicitly, he is made to hint at the morals Berman wants to draw; explicitly, he denies them over and over again. Like everyone else who has ever read Rousseau, Berman sees the source of his misery in the feeling that inequality poisons social life for superior and inferior alike. Whether relationships are sexual, intellectual, or political, they can only benefit either party when they are equalitarian. Yet Rousseau saw that society everywhere was becoming less egalitarian, especially in Paris, where social distinctions were becoming more numerous and more artificial. Wherever there was inequality, there would be deception, vanity, ambition, and anxiety.

But Berman dismisses Rousseau’s utopias as mere fantasy—both the Sparta where individual personality is destroyed for the sake of political unity and the Haut Valais where isolation and simplicity work to cool the social fever. He puts his faith in a new politics, in the revolution which will transform society from a place where we deceive ourselves and others into one where we are true to ourselves in being true to others. He has given a therapeutic interpretation to Marx’s hopes for the society where “the free development of all is the condition of the free development of each.” The writers to whom Berman is indebted are those we expect—Hegel, Erikson, Goffman, Fromm, and Laing, for instance. They help him to produce a fascinating and attractive book. Whether they help him to read Rousseau rather than to read things into Rousseau is another matter.

Berman’s claims are, he says, historical and theoretical; and on both fronts they are vulnerable. In particular, his central claim that “inauthenticity” is a major problem of modern society seems implausible in itself and unhelpful in understanding Rousseau. In the first place, the concept of modernity is sociologically suspect: contemporary society is much less modern and many primitive societies are much more modern than Berman suggests. It is not true, for example, that “almost all of us in the West” live in highly mobile societies. Consider occupation and politics: the children of manual workers overwhelmingly become manual workers, and they acquire the political allegiances of their parents along with their occupational status. Certainly the socially mobile may suffer the pains to which Rousseau was so sensitive; but this is infinitely far from showing that the pains of mobility define our condition.

Nor does “alienation” or “inauthenticity” strike me as the clearest or simplest account of our ills. The “affluent worker” described by Goldthorpe and Lockwood2 certainly has plenty to complain of—long hours, boring work, no prospect of a better life for him or his children. Would curing those ills make him more “authentic” or give him a self he has lost? Unless all evils are counted as threats to the self (as in a trivial sense they always can be), there seems nothing to be gained by saying so.

Conversely, it is hard to see how Berman’s belief that premodern societies allow no room to individuality would survive a reading of, say, Lévi-Strauss’s “The Sorcerer and his Magic.”3 Lévi-Strauss’s hero, Quesalid, is a shaman who starts his career with the utmost contempt for the craft he practices; but as he works, he sees that some therapies are more successful than others, and eventually comes to take pride in doing his job well. None of the people studied by Erving Goffman could provide better grounds for the distinction between “playing” and “playing-at” a social role than Lévi-Strauss’s shaman.

Whatever the sociological validity of the concept of modernity, it is in any case not what Rousseau was writing about. Certainly he wrote about alienation; he even coined the term. But he found the cause of our miseries in the most primitive of societies; in his view the savages who dance beneath the Caribbean trees suffer the pangs of vanity and envy, and when the Discourse on Inequality recommends their condition, it is as a compromise between the gains and losses of progress. It is certainly no utopia. Not even the evils of Paris are new in kind; they are the evils of civilization, and if they are at a high pitch in Paris, it is because civilization is there at its highest pitch. The philosopher Judith Shklar, in her book Men and Citizens, is surely right in stressing the absence of historicism in Rousseau. Perhaps it was a new kind of society which caused Rousseau such pain, but Rousseau himself did not see it this way.

Mrs. Shklar emphasizes Rousseau’s concern with what social life has done to the human heart as much as Berman has; it is the theme of the Confessions and central to understanding their author. But this concern with the human heart gives Rousseau’s politics that “redemptive” strain, that belief that politics must try to save our souls, which has so put him out of favor among liberal commentators. Berman, who espouses the utopian quest and the redemptive style, is oddly silent about their dangers.

After Miss McDonald’s painstaking demonstration4 that none of the French revolutionaries actually read Rousseau, we could forgive Berman for ignoring Professor Talmon’s attacks on “totalitarian democracy.” But what of Isaiah Berlin’s Two Concepts of Liberty, which raises doubts about just that aspect of Rousseau on which Berman relies most heavily—the idea that we possess a “real self,” in obeying which we shall be free? Would Berlin, fearful that the tyrant rather than the liberator will force us to be free, accept Berman’s claim that “the fusion of personal authenticity with revolutionary class-consciousness opened up vast human possibilities, which have been abundantly realized”? Surely we are right to fear that it is just this fusion of the personal and the political which allows such ultimate degradations as Stalin’s show trials.

When Berman disclaims the illiberal strains in Rousseau he makes himself more vulnerable still. As we saw, Berman tries to rid Rousseau of his hatred of diversity. But it is just this diversity that philosophers such as Berlin see threatened by appeals to a “real self.” To talk of a real self hides the fact that we may authentically, and without being “alienated,” desire for ourselves incompatible things, and that we may authentically and genuinely want to do things that distress others. Conflict and anxiety must be built into any world which preserves freedom of choice; against Berman, the liberal thinkers see these ills as more bearable than their cure.

Those who have doubts about the usefulness of such concepts as authenticity will certainly have doubts about the fashionable claim that the solution to the problem of the self is political. My skepticism, however, does nothing to diminish my admiration for Berman’s discussion of the claim in the context of La Nouvelle Héloïse; it is a remarkable piece of exposition and analysis. But I remain skeptical of the wider claim. Of course Rousseau was obsessed by the interconnection of private and public misery. But he offered no “solutions” other than the destruction of just that individuality Berman wants to preserve. Sparta and the Haut Valais solve the problem of choice only by abolishing it. In fairness it must be said that Berman largely recognizes this. He lapses badly when he claims that Rousseau advocated large-scale economic planning, but usually he perceives that Rousseau detested anything so extensive and would have preferred a society with no economy to plan.

But what of Berman’s message about the revolution we are to make? The answer is unclear. His admiration for Laing and Marcuse stops well short of following them into total and unintelligible despair; indeed, he thinks the revolution is in preparation. The young are “working underground”; they are “getting themselves together.” But how, when, and with what they will launch their revolution we do not learn. More important, we never learn why this revolution will achieve authenticity where so many have failed. For someone who cites Professor Lifton in his footnotes Berman is alarmingly ready to believe that brainwashing, mass conversion, and the adulation of authority will pass us by; but why should they?

Although Berman refers to revolution as a “biological necessity,” he makes little of the claim, and his image of human nature is drawn from philosophical and psychoanalytical sources. Not so Dr. Ardrey’s view of the human animal; for Ardrey’s message is that men have ignored the biological basis of social life and have thus courted disaster. As an ethologist and a playwright, Ardrey sees the clue to the human tragedy in the behavior of animal populations. The book is aptly named, in spite of Ardrey’s antipathy to Rousseau, for he sees “thinking man” as a “depraved animal” and urges us to see wisdom in the dictates of nature.

He states his theme elegantly: “A society is a group of unequal beings organized to meet common needs.” This claim—hardly as startling as its author thinks—is based on two axioms, that “in any sexually reproducing species, equality of individuals is a natural impossibility” and that “equality of opportunity must be regarded among vertebrates as the second law.” Thus equality is impossible; but we may have justice in the form of sufficient social order to protect us all and enough freedom for us to develop our talents. It is, he argues, because human society has broken these rules in striving after equality that we—by which he means urban America—have come to our present plight. What Ardrey wants done about it is not clear, for he is much more fluent at the jeremiad than in offering suggestions for improvement.

Thus, we might expect the emphasis on equal opportunity to lead him toward advocating radical educational changes, designed to discover and encourage new talents. No such suggestion emerges. Indeed, when he does discuss the education of the human young, it is only to side with Professor Jensen’s belief that there is already enough equality of opportunity to show that Negroes are stupider than the rest of us. The open question of whether Jensen’s work is actually any good is dodged under cover of a flurry of rage against the SDS’s foolish attempts to have Jensen fired.

But the rage gives away the secret of what has turned on Ardrey’s adrenalin; over and over again he returns to that preoccupation of the silent majority, “crime in the streets.” Yet for all Ardrey’s claims on behalf of ethology and contempt for the social sciences, his own diagnosis seems unlikely to help. The cause of urban crime, he claims, is the egalitarian’s tendency to feel “greater sympathy with the violator than with the violated”—a mechanical insight unmatched in most sociological literature.

Ardrey claims to show from the evidence of ethology that men are innately aggressive and competitive, that they require stable social hierarchies, strong leadership, and a strong dose of xenophobia. But in spite of his claim to be searching for “predictive hypotheses,” there is a good deal of rhapsodic nonsense mixed in with the ethology. What science validates his view that “the tragedy and the magnificence of Homo Sapiens together rise from the same smoky truth that we alone among animal species refuse to listen to reason”? What sort of predictive hypothesis is: “The city as we know it and shall know it for decades to come, is a giant test created by civilized man which his civilization must pass or fail. There is no reason to believe that we shall pass it. Or for that matter that we shall fail”?

When discussing aggression, he calls it the “inborn force that stimulates the hickory tree…that presses the rosebush to provide us with blossoms…directing the baby elephant to grow up, the baby starfish to grow out, the infant mamba to grow long.” But this is not ethology; it is nineteenth-century philosophy, Bergson’s élan vital or Nietzsche’s Wille zur Macht dragged out of the attic and dusted off.

Not everything is absurd; Ardrey writes with skill and enthusiasm on various animal studies. Innumerable animal watchers will be pleased to see what exciting lives they lead. But it is not clear that Ardrey’s reports are always accurate. He rests much of his case, for example, on Wynne-Edwards’s concept of “group-selection.” This idea challenges traditional theories of natural selection by stressing the role of “altruistic” activities, behavior which does not help the survival of the individual although it does assist that of the group. Thus Thomson’s gazelles have a habit of “stotting,” jumping up and down when they sight a predator; obviously, the individual “stotter” wastes valuable fleeing time, but the herd is alerted and escapes in good time.

Such behavior would be hard to explain if the mechanism of natural selection were war to the death between “selfish” individuals, each bent on survival for itself; yet there are alarming overtones of teleology in the suggestion that animal societies organize their breeding and other activities to favor group survival. It is, of course, this second suggestion that attracts human eugenicists like Ardrey; but in taking it up he misrepresents the resources of the “orthodox” genetic theory.

If the “orthodox” theorist asks how a rare gene for altruism can come to predominate, his answer is that it will do so if the death of one carrier enables more than one carrier (on the average) to survive. Thus the “altruist” needs to save two immediate relations, since they each have a fifty-fifty chance of carrying the gene, or four half-brothers, eight first cousins, and so on. Such a mechanism of “kin-selection” explains both altruistic behavior and another phenomenon much emphasized by Ardrey, the absence of altruism outside the mating group. For indiscriminate altruism would have had no inherent tendency to increase the numbers carrying the gene and would have died out quickly. Ardrey’s continuous insinuations that Wynne-Edwards’s critics are old-fashioned and unsophisticated hardly add to one’s confidence in his reporting.

The greatest of Ardrey’s weaknesses is that he does not understand the full extent of his commitments. If we are to apply the principles uncovered by the ethologists to the study of human societies, then, as a matter of logic, we ought to be able to specify what human behavior we want to explain, what animal behavior we regard as analogous to it, and where the analogy breaks down. Thus Ardrey refers to the different ways in which old and young take precedence at the “kill” among lions and hunting dogs. Such precedence is directly related to the prospects of survival of pride and pack.

But can we compare a system of precedence of this kind with the economy of an industrial society—which is also a system for distributing the necessities of life? What, for example, are our “survival goals”? Do we have any choice in what they shall be? Is it not possible to envisage different systems of distribution, say by price and by physical rationing? Of course, any system will have unwanted and perhaps unalterable consequences, but in what sense does “nature” dictate answers to us? Unless we can begin to answer such questions, we cannot take Ardrey’s claims seriously. He does nothing to show that he knows how hard a task his is; and he does not help matters by dogmatizing about human societies in a way he would never allow himself when discussing the baboon.

It is hardly plausible to hope that ethology will much simplify our understanding of human society, for ethology is itself in difficulty just where it needs to provide more complicated explanations. If men turn out to share more social characteristics with animals than we used to suppose, it will not be because men are simpler to understand than we thought, but because animals are harder. Ardrey compounds confusion by trying to enlist Chomsky among those who think that human beings do not differ significantly from other animals. But this oddity occurs because Ardrey does not distinguish two different theses. The first, held by Chomsky, is that there is an innate basis to much human behavior, and especially to human language; the second, repudiated frequently by Chomsky, is that this basis is similar in man and the lower animals. What Chomsky demands is a biology expanded to account for human uniqueness; what Ardrey offers is a philosophy contracted to deny that uniqueness.

After this, it is not surprising to find how feeble is Ardrey’s assault on Rousseau. Like other anti-egalitarians, Ardrey dislikes the idea of equality too much to think about it clearly. Otherwise he might have seen that when Rousseau considers the matter he readily admits that society needs to allocate men to different tasks and that a wise allocation will match tasks to abilities. What Rousseau complained of was the absurdity of the allocation in civilized societies, where the young ruled the old, the weak the healthy, and the foolish the wise. That greater merit deserves greater esteem was another platitude he saw no cause to deny; indeed, The Social Contract is rich in devices to make men outshine one another in their devotion to the public good. Like Ardrey, Rousseau saw nature as a source of impersonal rules, such as men might have followed if they had been no more self-conscious than the rest of the animal world. But, like the other Fall, the acquisition of self-consciousness cannot be reversed; to wish otherwise is what Berman, quite rightly, denounces as a cop-out.

  1. 1

    Towards a New Past, edited by Barton J. Bernstein (Pantheon, 1968).

  2. 2

    The Affluent Worker, by J. H. Goldthorpe, D. Lockwood et al. (Cambridge, 1968-1970).

  3. 3

    Structural Anthropology (Allen Lane, 1968), pp. 175-178.

  4. 4

    Rousseau and the French Revolution, 1762-1791, by Joan McDonald (Oxford, 1965).

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