The Politics of Authenticity
The Social Contract
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,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.