I open the books of law and morality, I listen to the sages and the philosophers of law, and, imbued by their insidious speeches, I am led to deplore the miseries of nature, and to admire the peace and justice established by the the civil order. I bless the wisdom of public institutions and console myself about my humanity through seeing myself as a citizen. Well instructed concerning my duties and my happiness, I shut the book, leave the classroom and look around. I see wretched peoples moaning beneath a yoke of iron, the human race crushed by the fist of oppressors, a starving and enfeebled crowd whose blood and tears are drunk in peace by the rich, and everywhere I see the strong armed against the weak with the terrifying power of the laws.
All this takes place peacefully and without resistance; it is the tranquility of the companions of Ulysses shut into the Cyclops cave and waiting their turn to be devoured. One must tremble and keep silent. Let us draw a permanent veil over these horrible phenomena. I lift my eyes and I look into the distance. I notice fires and flames, deserted countryside, pillaged towns. Ferocious men, where are you dragging those wretches? I hear a terrible sound. What a confusion! What cries! I draw closer and I see a theatre of murders, ten thousand men with their throats cut, the dead trampled by the hooves of horses, and everywhere a scene of death and agony. Such is the fruit of these peaceful institutions. Pity and indignation rise up from the the depths of my heart. Barbarous philosopher: try reading us your book on the field of battle.
Tuesday, August 01, 2006
Rousseau on civilization
I took a class on Rousseau for my undergrad philosophy degree and I was struck with the lyrical prose Rousseau fired like hot lead. A passage mentioned on Crooked Timber reminds of how prescient he could be and how his insights are eternal: