September 02, 2010

Freedom and chains

"Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains."

Those are the opening lines of The Social Contract, a very influential work by the 18th century philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).

Those words express a long held belief on the political left that attributes our unsavory characteristics--such as greed, lust for power, servility, etc.--to the corrupting influence of society. If that was the case, then presumably a new social environment would yield new and better people.

The radicals of the French Revolution tried to wipe the slate clean and create a republic of virtue. The Terror unleashed on their opponents was seen almost as a salutary public health measure which both educated the people and wiped out decadent aristocrats.

The Revolution at various points wanted not merely to change old laws but to remake the calendar, the system of weights and measures, and even replace the old religion with cults of Reason and the Supreme Being. The year 1789 became Year One; the months were renamed, the seven day week was replaced by "decades" of ten days. Most of those measures, with the exception of the metric system, didn't last too long.

Neither did liberty, equality and fraternity for that matter.

The history of that and other radical revolutions suggests that while society certainly can have a corrupting influence, the human animal has its own evolutionary baggage that may always be an obstacle to perfect social harmony. That doesn't excuse any particular social injustice and isn't an argument for not trying to improve things, as conservatives might argue. But it is something to keep in mind. One must work with the materials at hand.

SPEAKING OF EVOLUTION, a controversy over the origins of altruism is raging these days.

JOB CUTTING CEOS are doing just fine. That's a relief.

ONE IN SIX AMERICANS are relying on anti-poverty programs.

OLD OR NEW? This Gazette editorial argues that the Tea Party is just the latest example of an often repeated pattern.



Hollowdweller said...

The creators of Southpark once said that part of their idea for the creation of Cartman and his friends stemmed from hearing people sort of mischaracterize children as pure, unselfish and untainted by society when in their experience kids were even more evil and selfish than most adults.

El Cabrero said...

Yeah, I think Freud and Augustine both were right about that one.