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Regretting Rousseau

| Wednesday, August 23, 2017

It is difficult to find a better personal symbol of the ’60s, in both its aesthetic and values, than John Lennon. In his 1971 song “Imagine,” Lennon implores listeners “to imagine” there are “no countries,” “no religion” and “no possessions,” circumstances which, Lennon declares, would lead to “all the people” variously “living for today,” “living life in peace” and “sharing all the world.” Knowingly or not, Lennon and other figures of the counterculture were disciples of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who paved the way for generations of egalitarians, individualists and naturalists who loathed the corruption that civilization and society putatively introduced into mankind’s soul when he began “The Social Contract” by writing “man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” Was Rousseau right? Is man corrupted, degraded and deformed by the forces of society, tradition and culture? Or instead, will the removal of “chains” of state and society from the human lead to the pre-civilized lifestyles described by Thomas Hobbes as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short?” To survey these questions, I will investigate different kinds of freedom to see whether their absolute attainment is positive for man.

The first freedom I will investigate is sexual freedom, mainly through its most potent flowering, the 1960s explosion of free love. For many in this era, the sexual status quo was an oppressive, misogynistic and antiquated relic. Free love advocates held that if we can remove society’s shackles and let human nature run free, particularly towards the pursuit of pleasure, sexual injustice will fade away. However, this is a misconception, because as Camille Paglia writes in her “Sexual Personae,” “society is not the criminal but the force which keeps crime in check. When social controls weaken, man’s innate cruelty bursts forth.” As Paglia continues, “sexual liberation” is “a modern delusion,” for “we are hierarchical animals,” and thus “sweep one hierarchy away, and another will take its place, perhaps less palatable than the first.” What new hierarchy is that? It is one guided by the inherently conflictive nature of sex and the pursuit of pleasure, for Paglia notes “the continuum of sex leads to sadomasochism,” and the free pursuit of sex “expands identity but crushes individuals,” leaving no room for “liberal dignity of the person,” in free love’s hedonism. It is not patriarchal society’s oppression that introduces violence and power relations into sex, but the nature of the act itself. Sex is dangerous in nature, and liberation of it has consequences we don’t like.

The next freedom I will consult with is freedom from tradition. During the 1960s, the old dogmas were replaced with new ones that, in their immaturity, are confused and contradictory and have not created a new cultural tradition, leading to cultural confusion and a loss of direction. Paglia in “The Magic of Images” writes, “I have become increasingly concerned about evidence of, if not cultural decline, then cultural dissipation since the 1960s, a decade that seemed to hold such heady promise of artistic and intellectual innovation,” commenting that “young people today are flooded with disconnected images but lack a sympathetic instrument to analyze them as well as a historical frame of reference in which to situate them.” We ought be more like Tevye, protagonist of “The Fiddler on the Roof,” who understood his need for tradition to keep balanced.

We arrive at the notion of freedom from society. Attempts to free ourselves from social constraints will only add more control and restrictions. In another passage from “Sexual Personae,” Paglia writes “modern liberalism suffers unresolved contradictions. It exalts individualism and freedom and, on its radical wing, condemns social orders as oppressive. On the other hand, it expects governments to provide materially for all, a feat manageable only by an expansion of authority and a swollen bureaucracy.” This inherent tension, highlighted in the conflict between competing conceptions of negative and positive rights, indicates the difficulty of breaking free from society.

The pursuit of perfect freedom appears to be a perilous quest. Paglia summarizes modern society as a place where, having broken free from traditional constraints, “men and women are suddenly free, but freedom is a flood of superfluous energy, a vicious circle of agitation, quest, satiation, exhaustion, ennui.” We have realized, as Paglia argues, that “moral codes are always obstructive, relative and man-made.” We must remember moral codes “have been of enormous profit to civilization,” for without moral codes, “we are invaded by the chaotic barbarism of sex, nature’s tyranny, turning day into night and love into obsession and lust.” Quite simply, humans need sexual mores, social controls, religious rules, cultural conventions and the whole suite of institutions and ideas that structure our behavior, for although they may be occasionally tools of oppression, these barriers from absolute personal freedom are far more constructive of good than they are destructive.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Devon Chenelle

Devon Chenelle is a senior, formerly of Keough Hall. Returning to campus after seven months abroad, Devon is a history major with minors in Italian and Philosophy. He can be reached at dchenell@nd.edu - On résiste à l'invasion des armées; on ne résiste pas à l'invasion des idées.

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