Trying (and Failing) to Understand Rousseau

My attention was drawn in an email from RdM to a book about socialism by Igor Shafarevich.  In his foreword to the book, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote:

The doctrines of socialism seethe with contradictions, its theories are at constant odds with its practice, yet due to a powerful instinct–also laid bare by Shafarevich–these contradictions do not in the least hinder the unending propaganda of socialism. Indeed, no precise, distinct socialism even exists; instead there is only a vague, rosy notion of something noble and good, of equality, communal ownership, and justice: the advent of these things will bring instant euphoria and a social order beyond reproach.

“Vague, rosy notions” rang a bell: I have myself written about such rosy visions. But somehow or other, at about the same time as I was reading Solzhenitsyn’s words, I also stumbled upon the words of another socialist:

“Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.” The opening sentence of Rousseau’s The Social Contract not only summarises his entire philosophical system, it also proves how important he still is today.

And I found myself wondering whether those few words really did summarise Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s entire philosophical system. Perhaps they did? Perhaps if you’ve read  “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains,” you’ll have grasped Rousseau in his entirety, and you’ll be able to expound upon him knowledgeably over coffee at dinner parties.

Is there any other philosopher whose ideas have been so neatly summarised? Is there a short pithy sentence which sums up Plato or Aristotle or Hegel or Schopenhauer? I don’t know of any. Most philosophers seem to spend their lives writing enormous books that nobody understands. So perhaps the real genius of Rousseau was to boil his ideas down to a single, immortal sentence. And this alone places him above Plato and Aristotle and all the rest of them. And this demonstrated “how important he still is today”.

However, because I’d just been reading Solzhenitsyn’s remarks on imprecise “vague, rosy notions”, I began to wonder exactly what Rousseau meant by being “born free”. What does it mean to be “born free”? What’s birth got to do with it? And also, what does it mean to be “in chains”?  Did he mean real chains or metaphorical chains? What counts as a real chain? Is a necklace a chain? Is a necktie a chain? Is a wristwatch a chain?

And did Rousseau write in English? I have the idea that he was French. What was the original French? A brief search turned up nothing, and so I put the words through Google Translate and got: L’homme naît libre et partout il est enchaîné. Is that what Rousseau originally wrote? Probably not. And, come to think of it, did Solzhenitsyn write in English as well? I thought he was Russian. Isn’t it more likely that he’d written his foreword in Russian, and I was reading someone’s translation. In fact, it says so at the top: TRANSLATED FROM THE RUSSIAN BY William Tjalsma

Almost everything we read is a translation. Did Jesus really say: ““Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”? Of course not. He probably spoke in Aramaic. Definitely not in English. The same is true of Plato and Aristotle and Hegel and Schopenhauer. They didn’t speak or write English either. And it’s very difficult to translate from one language to another. I have, at various times, attempted to translate Spanish into English, and German into English. And it’s an uphill struggle – particularly when it comes to abstract ideas like ‘freedom’. So we’re probably never really reading translations, but instead mis-translations.

Even Shakespeare’s English needs to be translated into modern English.:

To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.

Who says “canst” these days? And who says “thou”? What Shakespeare really meant was something like:

“Don’t kid yourself, and don’t kid anyone else either.”

English is like a river. As it descends from its source, its babbling brook in Chaucer -“the lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne” -, the river widens and slows and deepens. It meanders, and draws in tributaries, and throws off oxbow dialects. It looks different and even sounds different from one stretch to another. And these rivers of ever-changing language eventually discharge through estuaries into the ocean, which consists of all the languages that have ever been spoken.

But back to Rousseau. What was he trying to say? He seemed to be contrasting freedom with constraint. But what sort of freedom? And what sort of constraint? It’s all rather vague and imprecise, exactly as Solzhenitsyn complained.

But language is always vague and imprecise. As we speak or write, we paint impressionistic pictures with our words. We don’t exactly understand, but we get the rough idea. About 30 years ago, I spent an afternoon inside the Ramesseum near Luxor in Egypt, transcribing hieroglyphs from a wall text onto paper. That evening, armed with numerous books, I set out to try and translate them into English. I managed a word here and a word there, but after several hours I had to admit defeat: I couldn’t understand what the hell it was all about. But eventually my eyes fell upon a passage where I had managed to translate many of the hieroglyphic symbols without managing to connect them into a single unifying sentence. But I knew the text was about a battle (Qadesh), and suddenly a single sentence leapt out at me:

“The pharaoh parts his enemies like the north wind parts papyrus trees.”

And that was a wonderfully evocative image, of the pharaoh as a storm wind bending his enemies aside. I’d finally got it. I’d understood it. I’d managed to translate a single sentence from the middle of the long text. I was elated. But it was the only one I ever managed to translate.

One of the attractions of mathematics is that it’s very precise and rational. One plus one is equal to two, and nothing else. And 273 + 571 = 844, not 845 or 843. And so if you can formulate arguments in precise mathematical terms, you can draw precise logical conclusions with complete certainty. Nassim Nicholas Taleb:

“My lifetime motto is that mathematicians think in (well, precisely defined and mapped) objects and relations. jurists and legal thinkers in constructs, logicians in maximally abstract operators, and … fools in words.” (Skin In The Game, chapter 15)

But the mathematical disciplines of probability and statistics are ones in which imprecision and uncertainty are re-introduced. Everything gets blurred again. If there’s a 95% probability of some statement being true, there’s a 5% probability that it’s untrue. It’s almost as if 1 +1 is no longer exactly equal to 2, but is only probably equal to 2.  In this manner, statistics recreates the uncertainties and imprecision of language. No, I didn’t really translate a single hieroglyphic sentence into English: I only probably got it right. And when I left Luxor, I probably flew back to England. And 30 years later, I’m probably still alive.

And what Rousseau’s famous aphorism meant is anybody’s guess. It was almost certainly written in French. But it might as well have been a hieroglyphic text chiselled into the walls of an Egyptian temple. Some people make sense of it immediately. Some never make sense of it at all.

Michael Savage interviews Alex Jones the day after he was banned (interview starts 20 minutes in). This podcast does not appear on Michael Savage’s YouTube channel.

About Frank Davis

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11 Responses to Trying (and Failing) to Understand Rousseau

  1. Andi Bowden says:

    I’ve never understood why the world of (academic) mathematics, the purest of the sciences, tolerates ‘probability’ and ‘statistics’ , they are the antithesis of mathematics.

  2. waltc says:

    What I top of head recall of Rousseau, born free meant born in a “state of nature” –in a way not dissimilar from the Declaration of Independence’s idea of being “endowed by the creator ” with certain inalienable rights, and it was R’s idea that government (in his day, monarchy) stole those rights and enslaved men in the chains of heirarchical rule, and rules. . Where I recall he went wrong was in his notion that man in the “state of nature” was inherently good. Wasn’t his the shtik about “The Noble Savage”? And that Noble Savages could get together and decide (by a tyranny of their majority) what was in the collective good. So–again as I recall w/o consulting google, he had one foot in democracy and one in collectivism.

    I’m open to correction.

    • Frank Davis says:

      Well, presumably he means that in a state of nature, man is not enchained. But does that mean he is free? Is being free the same as not being in chains? I can think of a number of reasons why they are not identical at all.

    • From what I can gather, the key for understanding the rousseauian notion of a “Noble Savage” is in the awareness that a major misundertanding occured, that has been pointed out by Claude Levi-Strauss among others. In a nutshell, when Rousseau discusses the “state of nature”, terms like ‘good’ or ‘noble’ are NOT be taken in a moral sense, those who do so are simply falling prey to a kind of “retrospective illusion”. For a more balanced view, witness this paragraph from The Social Contract (1762): “The passage from the state of nature to the civil state produces a very remarkable change in man, by substituting justice for instinct in his conduct, and giving his actions the morality they had formerly lacked. Then only, when the voice of duty takes the place of physical impulses and right of appetite, does man, who so far had considered only himself, find that he is forced to act on different principles, and to consult his reason before listening to his inclinations. Although, in this state, he deprives himself of some advantages which he got from nature, he gains in return others so great, his faculties are so stimulated and developed, his ideas so extended, his feelings so ennobled, and his whole soul so uplifted, that, did not the abuses of this new condition often degrade him below that which he left, he would be bound to bless continually the happy moment which took him from it for ever, and, instead of a stupid and unimaginative animal, made him an intelligent being and a man”. (my emphases)

  3. Dmitry Kosyrev says:

    “So perhaps the real genius of Rousseau was to boil his ideas down to a single, immortal sentence”. Well, there was one more fellow who, with a single phrase, expressed all his philisophy and became the father of modern conservatism – and, by the way, became our best friend in the fight against TC. And he was English, and the phrase was…
    Oh.
    Now, I’ll plainly murder the great man, since I just cannot find that phrase in English and have to quote from memory (God forbids, translate him back into English). And his English was so elegant…
    This is that phrase, more or less: the French revolutionaries “are so enthralled by their ideas about the shining future for the next generations, that they eagerly sacrifice the present generations”, etc.
    It’s about not only TC, but so many other vermin. It really says everything about revolutionaries.
    And if you want to get some more quotes from Burke that are very relevant to everything we discuss here, try this:
    “In a democracy, the majority of the citizens is capable of exercising the most cruel oppressions upon the minority”.
    Or – about those who do not fight like Frank –
    “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.”
    There is more:
    https://www.azquotes.com/author/2186-Edmund_Burke

    • Dmitry Kosyrev says:

      Sorry. The name is Burke. Edmund Burke.
      And if you really want to understand Rousseau, try to read his biography. Ugliest son of a bitch you can imagine. Dumped his children to orphanages, slandered all the ladies (and some gentlemen) at whose expense he was living, etc. You wouldn’t like him to meet your daughter.

    • Frank Davis says:

      I have read that Rousseau was a pretty nasty piece of work.

      Perhaps one of the best demolitions of anybody I’ve ever seen was that by Stephen Molyneux of Karl Marx the man. It ‘s on YouTube:

      As for Burke:

      “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

    • RdM says:

      But how will we light our candles after we’re sent back to the Dark Ages?
      (for “our own good”, naturally!)

      From your link as well, toward the end.

      The news comes as the EU prepares to ban the sale of halogen lightbulbs at the end of the month.

      The measure, which aims to reduce energy use, means households will be forced to buy more expensive LED lights from September.

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