Rousseau: Reason, Desire, and Inequality
“Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains.” So began Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s On the Social Contract, one of the first modern meditations on democracy, autonomy, and self-government, and the rampant inequality found in human society. Standing uneasily amongst his Enlightenment peers, Rousseau disagreed vociferously with his fellow philosophes that reason was a ready tool for human emancipation and justice. Rather, man has used it to become a “tyrant over himself and nature.” For Rousseau, individual reason and psychology are inextricably mixed: humans rationalize injustice in accordance with their desires; reason becomes ideology. What, then, is the solution? Is inequality an inevitable feature of human society? Are humans doomed to domination and oppression? Is inequality fatal to a healthy and functioning democracy? Can reason be harnessed to create an actually just and free society?
In this course, we will examine Rousseau’s philosophical and literary oeuvre in order to understand his account of reason, human psychology, and the origins of human society and inequality. We’ll also explore his attempts to recover and transform reason, at the level of both the individual and the political sphere. How, for Rousseau, is an unjust civil society to be turned into truly a democratic one? What might it mean to “force people to be free”? Is Rousseau’s vision an attractive one, or must it lead inevitably, as some critics claim, to tyranny? How can we understand Rousseau’s notions of inequality and democracy in the 21st century, when inequality has skyrocketed to levels unseen since the late 19th century? Readings will include Rousseau’s famous Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men, On the Social Contract, and the novel Emile, among other works.
Course ScheduleWednesday, 6:30-9:30pm EST
March 03 — March 24, 2021