Understanding Our World through the Mind of Rousseau
By Dr Basheer Ahmed Khan
Garden Grove, CA
The other day I was reading an essay about Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), written by Dr Bertrand Russell in his book “A History of Western Philosophy”. Dr Russell says: Rousseau was a powerful influence on philosophy, literature, taste and manners and politics. Because of his appeal to the heart which in his age was called “sensibility” Rousseau is called Father of Romantic Movement that inferred non-human facts from human emotions. This was essential for a society that lived on facts ignoring emotions.
Rousseau is against traditional values and derives his philosophy from Nature. He thinks that human nature is good and will ultimately lead him to what is right for him. Even though Rousseau is considered to be a Naturalist and believes in return of man to his good nature, he talks about nature negatively in his book “Discourse on Inequality” and considers it only a hypothesis: Nature, he says, is “a state which exists no longer, perhaps never existed, probably never will exist, and of which nonetheless it is necessary to have just ideas, in order to judge well our present state.” Rousseau further says: “Man by nature is good and only by institutions is he made bad”. Rousseau seems to be struggling to rediscover the proverbial wheel of human nature which was lost due to centuries of its neglect at the altar of vain desires of individuals in a society which was averse to disciplining itself.
The paradox in thinking of Rousseau stems from his belief in the universality of nature on one hand and the fact it is torn into shreds by the conflicting and confusing opinions of man imposed through institutions. It is natural that when we try to understand things that are beyond our comprehension we can only have few wild guesses and this can’t make us create a reality based on our thoughts; and that is what our “intellectuals” have been doing to confuse even the intellectual like Rousseau. Those who suggest that man is born with a clean slate and he becomes what he writes on it is true till he finds that what he has written on it is wrong. It is like a child who in its desire for freedom leaves the finger of his dad to enjoy his freedom. When he is lost in the crowd he cries out for his dad. Whether he finds his dad or not depends upon how far he has strayed. Rousseau seems to have strayed too far and so we are with him.
However much we may deny that all human beings are the creation of the same God, the fact will not change by our denial. God who has created us on nature (Ch30 V30) had shown us the way to coexistence for a happy life through His messengers. The powerful and the intelligent amongst us who did not like any restraint on their capacity to gain power and enjoy it as they wanted, distorted the religion and made it to sub-serve their interest. Rousseau, like many of us, is a blind folded man left in a strange land who is trying to find his way to his roots, to his nature. The pity is that those who claim to know the way (Religion) have also distorted the religion to help the prince and establish their priesthood. This fact was alluded to by a monk who was doing penance to understand the truth. When Abdullah Bin Mubarak RA, a famous Sufi Saint of the 9 th century, asked him as to how he is finding his journeyn the monk said: The one who knows God is lucky to enjoy His Worship. But the people like me who do not know Him are trying to find Him and worship Him. And there are people like you who disobey Him even after knowing Him Being conscious of the state of Muslim Society of his time Abdullah Bin Mubarak to the roots (KashafUlMahjoob).
Thousands of years of rivalry between corrupt empires and the morally upright people on the one hand and the corrupt princes and the selfish priests on the other had thrown Europe, and the world along with it, into the Dark Age. When it was touched by the Pristine Islam which reached Spain in the early period of its life, it sowed the seeds of change that resulted in many revolutions. While Europe got its enlightenment, which it was yearning for from the early and genuine Muslims, Muslim masses got embroiled in power and the pleasures associated with it and lost the reality of their religion. Hence they lost Spain.
As Europe was struggling to throw out its gauntlet of medieval chivalry and assume the mantle of civilization there was a big war of ideas between the forces of change and the forces of status quo. In the eighteenth century, Europe faced a similar crisis as Muslims are facing today. Many scholars and thinkers of that age tried to change the trend. Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was one of them who challenged every institution and suggested changes that formed the basis of the world which we live in today. It is therefore essential that we see the world through his mind to understand the good, the bad and the ugly of our time so that we can keep the good and discard the bad and ugly to restore mankind to its nature.
Rousseau is the father of political philosophy of pseudo-democratic dictatorship, which replaced the absolute monarchies prevailing in his time. Rousseau persuaded individuals to concede some of their rights to the elected representative for the ease of governance as a way to change the corrupt monarchies in Europe. Dr Russel writes, “Ever since his (Rousseau) time reformers have been divided into two groups, his followers and those who followed Locke” and who stood for the hereditary rights of the kings. The followers of hereditary monarchies and the participatory democracies cooperated with each other and many individuals saw no incompatibility in it. Sir Russell considers Hitler to be the outcome of Rousseau and Roosevelt and Churchill of Locke. Democracy has now grown up from a mischievous boy to an adult rogue by the contribution of many more evil geniuses in the last two centuries. Today our world is ruled by elected representatives on the support of media, money and mafia. Bureaucracy and military have become pawns in the hands of this troika. Thousands of years of bad rulers and imperfect religion could not give us a point of universal reference to govern and administer justice between citizens and between nations.
The societies were in such a bad state that the generation of Rousseau not only questioned the prevailing values but even revolted against them challenging everything from the existence of God to the need of morality. This is evident from the fact that Rousseau was awarded by The Academy of Dijon in 1750 for his essay which he wrote against the proposition “Have the arts and sciences conferred benefits on mankind?” Dr. Russel writes about this essay thus: Rousseau’s answer was in negative. He said that art and science were the enemies of morals by creating wants. They are a source of slavery to put chain on those who go naked. Rousseau was for Sparta but against Athens, says Russell. He admired “Noble Savage” whom sophisticated Europeans could defeat in war. Science and virtue, he thought, were incompatible. Rousseau thinks that astronomy comes from superstition and astrology; eloquence from ambition, geometry from avarice; physics from vain curiosity; and even ethics has its source in human pride.
Even though man had lost his spiritual nature and become a social animal behaving worse than them, Rousseau did not lose hope of restoring man to his nature. In his book “Discourse on Inequality” Rousseau considers ‘Nature’ as a hypothesis and a state which exists no longer, perhaps never existed, probably never will exist and of which nonetheless it is necessary to have just ideas, in order to judge well our present state.” Despite this denial of nature, Rousseau believes “Man by nature is good and only by institutions is he made bad”. Rousseau did not get any award for this discourse which he got on the debate.
“Natural law should be deducted from the state of nature, but as long as we are ignorant of natural man it is impossible for us to determine the law originally prescribed or best suited to him. All we can know is that the wills of those subject to it must be conscious of their submission and it must come directly from the voice of nature,” says Russell.
We chose to ignore the originally prescribed law given to the prophets by the voice of their nature and polluted it to suit our interest. The free thinkers made us believe that all behavior is natural. Scientists came forward to justify these thinkers through the theory of genetic makeup absolving man of any responsibility for his revolt against nature and natural behavior and thus made him immune to correction. We have opened the floodgates of moral anarchy under the skewed concept of freedom to achieve our selfish short-term goals and make no attempt to understand the “true nature” of our “nature”.
As our interests are personal and different, both as individuals and as societies and nations, we protest and resent the natural inequality between us and are unable to fight the institutionalized inequality authorized by conventions. We are postulating new philosophies and strategies, establishing new institutions, and espousing new regimes with the hope of ending the institutionalized inequality, but as we are ignoring the experiences of the past in postulating these philosophies and strategies we are only compounding our problems instead of solving them. Furthermore our attempts to Romanize or regionalize all human thought has left little room for us to understand the beauty and ugliness of these thoughts to synthesize our own universal reality about the true nature of various thoughts for a better life in the Global Order that we are attempting to create. We have left this job to some misguided and selfish intellectuals who have the capacity to enforce their thought by virtue of their control over all narrative.
Rousseau hoped to evolve non-human facts through human emotions and expected that these facts would influence human emotions to act sensibly. Unfortunately we have drifted even further in the past two hundred years and are not able to define corruption even after suffering the factual consequences of it destroying our economies and our countries and our world (World Apart Nov 12, 2015). The soldiers of the army of a neighboring country “helping” Somalia are reported to be selling in black market the essential food items given to them for relief effort. No wonder that we are always short of funds for relief efforts and most of the countries are in huge debt and the world is slipping from instability into chaos and we are still not able to define what is corruption and how to end it.
It is not the time for semantic quibbling or knit-picking to fix blames, but for introspection and self-correction. We will not get good governments without good religion and we can’t get good religion without honest and sincere governments. An ex-Foreign Minister of France has drawn this distinction between French Secularism and American Secularism thus: French Secularism wants to defend the state from religion while US secularism wants to defend the religion from the State (GPS Nov 22, 2015). It will be in the interest of both France and USA that they defend religion from the State and also defend State from bad religion which is being used to polarize people by selfish politicians and priests to establish their leadership.
State and Religion are both essential for any society and they should be like the two properly balanced wheels to move the cart of society on the path of peace, progress and prosperity. A universal order can’t be based on brute force, politicking or frivolous pastimes. It needs ideas and actions that are beneficial universally.