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Rousseau explained: What his philosophy means for us
The philosopher who praised a simple life and inspired the worst of the French Revolution.
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a Swiss Enlightenment philosopher with some radical ideas.
- He argued passionately for democracy, equality, liberty, and supporting the common good by any means necessary.
- While his ideas may be utopian (or dystopian), they are thought-provoking and can inform modern discourse.
Modern political debates often ask how much democracy we should have and what should, and should not, be subject to a vote. Whenever we discuss these issues, we stumble on the famously tricky philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who argued nearly three hundred years ago for democracy, equality, and the greater good.
Born in Geneva in 1712, Rousseau wrote his first major essay while living in Paris in 1750. He went on to write several major works on politics, education, music, and even botany. However, his controversial ideas made him many enemies, and he was forced to flee France, Switzerland, and Prussia in turn. He died in France in 1778 after many years of wandering and being fairly convinced of a vast conspiracy against him.
His ideas on education, toleration, state sovereignty, democracy, liberty, and equality have proven extremely influential. Here, we'll dive into some of his big ideas and take a look at attempts to put them into practice.
The State of Nature
Like other philosophers at the time, Rousseau was very concerned with what the world was like before the creation of societies. This was very important for political philosophers because it could be used to explain the motivation for creating and supporting a state.
If you, like the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, thought that a life in the "state of nature" was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short," you're probably in favor of anything that keeps the state of nature at bay, no matter how tyrannical or brutal. This is why Hobbes supported a ruler with absolute power, typically a monarch.
Rousseau, however, went the other way. He suggested that the state of nature wasn't all that bad, proposing that the people in it were self-sufficient, fairly solitary by choice, sympathetic to others, and peaceful. With nothing to fight over, they don't fight much. Since morality hasn't been invented yet, they are innocent and incapable of being malicious.
Importantly, people in the state of nature are free in that they can follow their own will all the time, and equal — the various sources of inequality haven't been invented yet.
He argues that it is only when we move into society that human nature becomes corrupted, and many of the vices and evils we know all too well can flourish. He thought that many of the problems society claims to solve, like protection from theft, can only be problems after society, and thus the notion of private property, already exists.
Beyond this, he asks us if the things society provides us are really beneficial in the first place.
In his first significant work, "Discourse on the Arts and Sciences," Rousseau argues that art and science haven't improved most people's moral fiber — a shocking position to hold in Enlightenment-era France. Instead, he suggests that they arose from vices such as vanity and only serve to continue the degradation of morals. Given how many civilizations seem to have reached decadent heights before being brought down by their barbarous neighbors, he questions how desirable they are for other purposes as well.
Private property, another concept made possible by society, earned Rousseau's ire as an institution that encouraged greed and egotism. He expresses how terrible he supposes the invention of private property was in this striking paragraph from the "Discourse On The Origin And The Foundation Of The Inequality Among Mankind":
"The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody!"
The Social Contract
Now, you might be wondering why, if the state of nature is so pleasant and people in it so moral and decent, anybody would ever create a society or join up with one. Rousseau suggests this is a natural evolution caused by the need for individuals to cooperate. Eventually, people will figure out things like agriculture and industry, which require working with your neighbors or creating rules for living near them.
In fear of worst-case scenarios, Rousseau thought that people agreed to societies dedicated to protecting them from threats, real or imagined, that then took away their freedom and protected the inequalities that further led everybody, including the rulers, into vice. He saw this as a cure nearly so bad as the disease, leading him to lament that "Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains."
His alternative is to create a social contract that will allow all members of the society to be as free as they were in the state of nature, that is, to enable them to follow their own will all the time while still living in a society. It will remove the unnatural inequalities that degrade both the rich and the poor. It will ensure that everyone is equal before the law that they create.
To achieve this, he formulates one of the more radically democratic systems of government ever to achieve widespread consideration.
The General Will
The key to Rousseau's social contract theory, and his biggest idea, is a take on the "general will." While he wasn't the first philosopher to talk about it, his conception of it is the most famous and consequential. He posits that any legitimate state must be based on the general will, which is the fundamental source of sovereignty. All laws and actions the state undertakes must be in line with it.
It is akin to the notion of popular sovereignty, with a few differences.
The general will is the will of the entire body politic, which exists independently of the will of any one member or any group of people that comprise it. It is also not just the sum of individual wills. Because an individual contributes to the general will as a citizen, the general will is, at least partly, their will. It is a universal, generally applied concept and, when done correctly, will be used to create laws that apply to everyone in the community equally.
In principle, a person can follow it and still be following their will, since they helped to forge it. In the ideal case, a person fully understands that the greater good is also in their interest and there is no friction between their interests and that of the community. This is how Rousseau supposes people can be as free in society as they are in nature. However, if the shift between being able to follow the individual will and the general will is one that is quite so easy to make is a point many philosophers have raised.
How we find what the general will even is creates another problem. There are generally two approaches to figuring it out, with a third splitting the difference. All of these interpretations are supported by Rousseau's writing — his style is famously contradictory even when it is working towards a clear point.
The first is a highly democratic model, featuring the citizenry discussing legislation at town hall meetings every time an issue comes up. While magistrates would exist to run the government day by day, they would be elected and duty-bound to follow the will of the people as determined by the debate and votes at these meetings. Minorities will exist, but their participation in the debate assures that they helped forge the general will and that the resulting laws will be good for them, too.
Going the other way, the general will could be a somewhat transcendental thing that just exists for every political group that only some well-educated people can grasp without the help of well-made social institutions.
Rousseau suggests that a "legislator," a person who knows what good laws and morals are, can help people understand what the general will is by either guiding discussion and putting the vague ideas of the people into politically actionable terms, or by assisting individuals to identify with the common cause that is the general will if they are incapable of doing it themselves. In that case, the magistrates would still follow the general will, but it wouldn't be quite as democratically determined.
The hybrid of the two is a procedural model, where citizen-legislators discuss issues and realize why the common good is also their own good when making law.
As an example, imagine a neighborhood association's members discussing what trees to plant. Some of them will realize that their preferred choice of tree is a poor choice when they learn that most of their neighbors are allergic to it. After further discussion, not only do they agree to the new option, they will also end up agreeing that the new choice is in their best interest. They'll be happier when their neighbors aren't grouchy from allergies. The voters want what the community wants because what they want has shifted.
The general will is also very expansive, and a government based on it can do many things that others couldn't justify. While this means a Rousseauan government can do many good things others can't, it also means that it can be uniquely oppressive. The general will could call for abolishing or redistributing private property, press censorship, or mandatory attendance at morality plays among a variety of other harsh mandates. In principle, it could even call for ending democracy if that is in the best interests of the whole.
Whatever it calls for, it does so on everybody equally and because they called for it.
What would living in a Rousseauan society look like?
On the bright side, since the general will has to be applied universally and generally, the society that forms along these lines will be very equal, with the law applying to all citizens in the same way. Major inequalities would be swept away, and there would likely be a significant democratic element to the government, depending on how the people decided to organize the state. It would probably be a small society, as Rousseau feared that a large country would not find the common cause he thought was so important.
The people themselves would share a common cause, be highly educated in how to carry out their various civic duties properly. They would enjoy being able to act freely within a sphere decided by the general will.
However, since the general will can be applied to nearly any facet of life, the people, or the legislator in some cases, may decide to create a very oppressive society devoid of things they don't like or think will lead to vice.
Individual rights only exist as far as the sovereign, the general will, thinks they should. While it is probable that the application of all laws equally means that everyone would have to choose to make it oppressive for themselves; that remains a risk that could come to pass. Democracy might also go out the window, and a monarch who follows the general will could be appointed.
Furthermore, Rousseau suggests that people can be "forced to be free," so even if your interests are quite different from those of the general will, you can be dragged along with it. Some later philosophers, such as Jacob Talmon and Isaiah Berlin, have thus suggested that a Rousseauan state would be a "totalitarian democracy" with the individual always being subject to the whims of the majority or whoever claims to speak for the general will.
Despite the extensive reach that the Rousseauan state would have, he does argue that some limits on what a sovereign can do exist.
Most notably, he expressly states that people have the right to their religion alongside a civic faith that promotes solidarity, that pluralism is inevitable, and that a variety of religions can improve morals. He suggests that toleration should be held sacred. He does not extend this toleration to atheists, however, who he suggests be exiled.
This all sounds a bit unrealistic in any case. Did anybody try to run anything like this?
According to Professor Charles Anderson, the decision-making process of the Quakers during their meetings is very similar to, but not quite the same as, the hybrid model of the general will. The Quakers seek God's will through discussion and end up in agreement on what that is and the wisdom of following it. In practice, it may be as close to that model as anyone has ever gotten, even if it is a religious notion unrelated to Rousseau's philosophy.
On a larger scale, The French Revolution can be viewed as an attempt to apply Rousseau's ideas in a situation where they were never going to work. Famed revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre studied many philosophers, but Rousseau's ideas were the ones that most inspired him. It is said that he slept with his copy of "The Social Contract."
The revolutionaries' Cult of the Supreme Being, a state religion based around a single deistic goddess, is based on Rousseau's idea of civil religion. Both centered on the existence of a deity, an afterlife, and the need for virtue, patriotism, and social solidarity. Robespierre, like his favorite philosopher, thought such a belief system was vital in a republic.
Additionally, Robespierre strongly agreed with the idea that the general will was the basis for state legitimacy and that people could be "forced to be free" by any means necessary if they weren't going along with it. Those who were actively fighting it, namely royalists, could be done away with as a result. This is part of the reason why Rousseau's ideas often get blamed for The Terror.
On a more practical and mundane note, Rousseau was asked to submit ideas for the new constitution being written in Poland-Lithuania. His suggestions were conservative compared to his previous work, suggesting he grasped that his ideas could not be instituted in such a large state or that his previously hard-line stances had softened. Among his ideas that made it in were a federalized system of governance and a representative legislature. He encouraged the Poles to adopt a gradualist system of reform.
This may shed light on what he might have thought of his disciples leading the French Revolution, which occurred after his death.
As with most political philosophy, the real question may be how his big ideas are discussed in our society rather than on if anybody tried to follow his books to the letter. Other philosophers with great influence, like Kant, Marx, and Rawls, all sighted Rousseau as an influence.
Outside of academia, every time we discuss certain topics, like what it takes for a government to be legitimate, if modern society is good for us, or what we think should and should not be subject to a vote; we stumble across topics Rousseau considered and can benefit from his insights.
While a purely Rousseauan society probably isn't practical for many reasons, his writings continue to inform debate in our society, despite their often contradictory and confusing nature.
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Geologists discover a rhythm to major geologic events.
- It appears that Earth has a geologic "pulse," with clusters of major events occurring every 27.5 million years.
- Working with the most accurate dating methods available, the authors of the study constructed a new history of the last 260 million years.
- Exactly why these cycles occur remains unknown, but there are some interesting theories.
Our hearts beat at a resting rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute. Lots of other things pulse, too. The colors we see and the pitches we hear, for example, are due to the different wave frequencies ("pulses") of light and sound waves.
Now, a study in the journal Geoscience Frontiers finds that Earth itself has a pulse, with one "beat" every 27.5 million years. That's the rate at which major geological events have been occurring as far back as geologists can tell.
A planetary calendar has 10 dates in red
Credit: Jagoush / Adobe Stock
According to lead author and geologist Michael Rampino of New York University's Department of Biology, "Many geologists believe that geological events are random over time. But our study provides statistical evidence for a common cycle, suggesting that these geologic events are correlated and not random."
The new study is not the first time that there's been a suggestion of a planetary geologic cycle, but it's only with recent refinements in radioisotopic dating techniques that there's evidence supporting the theory. The authors of the study collected the latest, best dating for 89 known geologic events over the last 260 million years:
- 29 sea level fluctuations
- 12 marine extinctions
- 9 land-based extinctions
- 10 periods of low ocean oxygenation
- 13 gigantic flood basalt volcanic eruptions
- 8 changes in the rate of seafloor spread
- 8 times there were global pulsations in interplate magmatism
The dates provided the scientists a new timetable of Earth's geologic history.
Tick, tick, boom
Credit: New York University
Putting all the events together, the scientists performed a series of statistical analyses that revealed that events tend to cluster around 10 different dates, with peak activity occurring every 27.5 million years. Between the ten busy periods, the number of events dropped sharply, approaching zero.
Perhaps the most fascinating question that remains unanswered for now is exactly why this is happening. The authors of the study suggest two possibilities:
"The correlations and cyclicity seen in the geologic episodes may be entirely a function of global internal Earth dynamics affecting global tectonics and climate, but similar cycles in the Earth's orbit in the Solar System and in the Galaxy might be pacing these events. Whatever the origins of these cyclical episodes, their occurrences support the case for a largely periodic, coordinated, and intermittently catastrophic geologic record, which is quite different from the views held by most geologists."
Assuming the researchers' calculations are at least roughly correct — the authors note that different statistical formulas may result in further refinement of their conclusions — there's no need to worry that we're about to be thumped by another planetary heartbeat. The last occurred some seven million years ago, meaning the next won't happen for about another 20 million years.
Research shows that those who spend more time speaking tend to emerge as the leaders of groups, regardless of their intelligence.
If you want to become a leader, start yammering. It doesn't even necessarily matter what you say. New research shows that groups without a leader can find one if somebody starts talking a lot.
This phenomenon, described by the "babble hypothesis" of leadership, depends neither on group member intelligence nor personality. Leaders emerge based on the quantity of speaking, not quality.
Researcher Neil G. MacLaren, lead author of the study published in The Leadership Quarterly, believes his team's work may improve how groups are organized and how individuals within them are trained and evaluated.
"It turns out that early attempts to assess leadership quality were found to be highly confounded with a simple quantity: the amount of time that group members spoke during a discussion," shared MacLaren, who is a research fellow at Binghamton University.
While we tend to think of leaders as people who share important ideas, leadership may boil down to whoever "babbles" the most. Understanding the connection between how much people speak and how they become perceived as leaders is key to growing our knowledge of group dynamics.
The power of babble
The research involved 256 college students, divided into 33 groups of four to ten people each. They were asked to collaborate on either a military computer simulation game (BCT Commander) or a business-oriented game (CleanStart). The players had ten minutes to plan how they would carry out a task and 60 minutes to accomplish it as a group. One person in the group was randomly designated as the "operator," whose job was to control the user interface of the game.
To determine who became the leader of each group, the researchers asked the participants both before and after the game to nominate one to five people for this distinction. The scientists found that those who talked more were also more likely to be nominated. This remained true after controlling for a number of variables, such as previous knowledge of the game, various personality traits, or intelligence.
How leaders influence people to believe | Michael Dowling | Big Think www.youtube.com
In an interview with PsyPost, MacLaren shared that "the evidence does seem consistent that people who speak more are more likely to be viewed as leaders."
Another find was that gender bias seemed to have a strong effect on who was considered a leader. "In our data, men receive on average an extra vote just for being a man," explained MacLaren. "The effect is more extreme for the individual with the most votes."
The great theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg passed away on July 23. This is our tribute.
- The recent passing of the great theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg brought back memories of how his book got me into the study of cosmology.
- Going back in time, toward the cosmic infancy, is a spectacular effort that combines experimental and theoretical ingenuity. Modern cosmology is an experimental science.
- The cosmic story is, ultimately, our own. Our roots reach down to the earliest moments after creation.
When I was a junior in college, my electromagnetism professor had an awesome idea. Apart from the usual homework and exams, we were to give a seminar to the class on a topic of our choosing. The idea was to gauge which area of physics we would be interested in following professionally.
Professor Gilson Carneiro knew I was interested in cosmology and suggested a book by Nobel Prize Laureate Steven Weinberg: The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe. I still have my original copy in Portuguese, from 1979, that emanates a musty tropical smell, sitting on my bookshelf side-by-side with the American version, a Bantam edition from 1979.
Inspired by Steven Weinberg
Books can change lives. They can illuminate the path ahead. In my case, there is no question that Weinberg's book blew my teenage mind. I decided, then and there, that I would become a cosmologist working on the physics of the early universe. The first three minutes of cosmic existence — what could be more exciting for a young physicist than trying to uncover the mystery of creation itself and the origin of the universe, matter, and stars? Weinberg quickly became my modern physics hero, the one I wanted to emulate professionally. Sadly, he passed away July 23rd, leaving a huge void for a generation of physicists.
What excited my young imagination was that science could actually make sense of the very early universe, meaning that theories could be validated and ideas could be tested against real data. Cosmology, as a science, only really took off after Einstein published his paper on the shape of the universe in 1917, two years after his groundbreaking paper on the theory of general relativity, the one explaining how we can interpret gravity as the curvature of spacetime. Matter doesn't "bend" time, but it affects how quickly it flows. (See last week's essay on what happens when you fall into a black hole).
The Big Bang Theory
For most of the 20th century, cosmology lived in the realm of theoretical speculation. One model proposed that the universe started from a small, hot, dense plasma billions of years ago and has been expanding ever since — the Big Bang model; another suggested that the cosmos stands still and that the changes astronomers see are mostly local — the steady state model.
Competing models are essential to science but so is data to help us discriminate among them. In the mid 1960s, a decisive discovery changed the game forever. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson accidentally discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB), a fossil from the early universe predicted to exist by George Gamow, Ralph Alpher, and Robert Herman in their Big Bang model. (Alpher and Herman published a lovely account of the history here.) The CMB is a bath of microwave photons that permeates the whole of space, a remnant from the epoch when the first hydrogen atoms were forged, some 400,000 years after the bang.
The existence of the CMB was the smoking gun confirming the Big Bang model. From that moment on, a series of spectacular observatories and detectors, both on land and in space, have extracted huge amounts of information from the properties of the CMB, a bit like paleontologists that excavate the remains of dinosaurs and dig for more bones to get details of a past long gone.
How far back can we go?
Confirming the general outline of the Big Bang model changed our cosmic view. The universe, like you and me, has a history, a past waiting to be explored. How far back in time could we dig? Was there some ultimate wall we cannot pass?
Because matter gets hot as it gets squeezed, going back in time meant looking at matter and radiation at higher and higher temperatures. There is a simple relation that connects the age of the universe and its temperature, measured in terms of the temperature of photons (the particles of visible light and other forms of invisible radiation). The fun thing is that matter breaks down as the temperature increases. So, going back in time means looking at matter at more and more primitive states of organization. After the CMB formed 400,000 years after the bang, there were hydrogen atoms. Before, there weren't. The universe was filled with a primordial soup of particles: protons, neutrons, electrons, photons, and neutrinos, the ghostly particles that cross planets and people unscathed. Also, there were very light atomic nuclei, such as deuterium and tritium (both heavier cousins of hydrogen), helium, and lithium.
So, to study the universe after 400,000 years, we need to use atomic physics, at least until large clumps of matter aggregate due to gravity and start to collapse to form the first stars, a few millions of years after. What about earlier on? The cosmic history is broken down into chunks of time, each the realm of different kinds of physics. Before atoms form, all the way to about a second after the Big Bang, it's nuclear physics time. That's why Weinberg brilliantly titled his book The First Three Minutes. It is during the interval between one-hundredth of a second and three minutes that the light atomic nuclei (made of protons and neutrons) formed, a process called, with poetic flair, primordial nucleosynthesis. Protons collided with neutrons and, sometimes, stuck together due to the attractive strong nuclear force. Why did only a few light nuclei form then? Because the expansion of the universe made it hard for the particles to find each other.
What about the nuclei of heavier elements, like carbon, oxygen, calcium, gold? The answer is beautiful: all the elements of the periodic table after lithium were made and continue to be made in stars, the true cosmic alchemists. Hydrogen eventually becomes people if you wait long enough. At least in this universe.
In this article, we got all the way up to nucleosynthesis, the forging of the first atomic nuclei when the universe was a minute old. What about earlier on? How close to the beginning, to t = 0, can science get? Stay tuned, and we will continue next week.
To Steven Weinberg, with gratitude, for all that you taught us about the universe.
Long before Alexandria became the center of Egyptian trade, there was Thônis-Heracleion. But then it sank.