Rousseau on property (part 2) and on the arts

June 28th was the 300th anniversary of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s birth, and Terry Eagleton wrote a reflection in The Guardian dated the day before that. He discusses Rousseau’s view of property in the piece:

In this, he was a notable precursor of Karl Marx. Private property, he wrote, brings war, poverty and class conflict in its wake. It converts “clever usurpation into inalienable right”. Most social order is a fraud perpetrated by the rich on the poor to protect their privileges. The law, he considered, generally backs the strong over the weak; justice is largely a weapon of violence and domination, while culture, science, the arts and religion are harnessed to the task of preserving the status quo. The institution of the state has “bound new fetters on the poor and given new powers to the rich”. For the benefit of a few ambitious men, he comments, “the human race has been subjected to labour, servitude and misery”.

He was not, as it happens, opposed to private property as such. His outlook was that of the petty-bourgeois peasant, clinging to his hard-won independence in the face of power and privilege. He sometimes writes as though any form of dependence on others is despicable. Yet he was a radical egalitarian in an age when such thinkers were hard to find. Almost uniquely for his age, he also believed in the absolute sovereignty of the people. To bow to a law one did not have a hand in creating was a recipe for tyranny. Self-determination lay at the root of all ethics and politics. Human beings might misuse their freedom, but they were not truly human without it.

Here’s my earlier post about Rousseau and property.

Laurie Fendrich also wrote a piece on Rousseau, discussing Rousseau’s criticism of and involvement in the arts. Interestingly, her description of Rousseau’s critique of the theater is a lot like James K.A. Smith’s of Augustine’s concerns. Fendrich says that Rousseau was drawing on Plato, so I imagine that he was a common influence for both Augustine and Rousseau.

You may have noticed that I’ve been posting a lot about Rousseau lately. Just to clear things up, I’m not a fan. Most of his ideas are bad. But since I assigned The Social Contract for modern Western Civ this summer I’ve been trying to learn more about him. And, as Eagelton notes, he’s been very influential in political thought, literature, and the concept of “the modern self.”

Hat tip for Eagleton and Fendrich articles: Andrew Sullivan



  1. That sadly characterizes much of my schooling: studying influential works regardless of its present utility or even validity.

    I’m no expert but maybe Adam Smith would be worth studying as a contemporary. Unfortunately, The Wealth of Nations is a voluminous monster that I’ve only read excerpts of, but I came across The Condensed Wealth of Nations which might prove useful.

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