Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Rousseau's Walk

I'm teaching Romanticism this semester, and we started off today with Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Reveries of the Solitary Walker (Reveries du promeneur solitaire) (1776-1778).

I have a love-hate relationship with Rousseau.  I love some of his ideas, but I really hate his misogyny (obviously), and his self-absorbed paranoia.

It's no joke: by the end of his life, Rousseau was terribly paranoid, and the Reveries reads like a 10-mile testimony to that fear.  At the same time, however, Rousseau was persecuted for his philosophy and his home was attacked by an angry mob, so... I can't fault him entirely for being so nervous. 

One of the more interesting of his Reveries occurs on his Fourth Walk, when he reflects on the notion of lying.  In his earlier autobiographical memoir, The Confessions (1769), Rousseau tells the story of a lie that has haunted him for years: as a young man, while staying at the home of Madame de Vercellis, Rousseau steals a pink and silver ribbon:
Though several things of more value were in my reach, this ribbon alone tempted me, and accordingly I stole it. As I took no great pains to conceal the bauble, it was soon discovered; they immediately insisted on knowing from whence I had taken it; this perplexed me -- I hesitated, and at length said, with confusion, that Marion gave it me.
He realizes (of course) that what he has done is wrong, but in retrospect, Rousseau makes the rather odd argument that
friendship for her was the immediate cause of it. She was present to my thoughts; I formed my excuse from the first object that presented itself; I accused her with doing what I meant to have done, and as I designed to have given her the ribbon, asserted she had given it to me. When she appeared, my heart was agonized, but the presence of so many people was more powerful than my compunction. I did not fear punishment, but I dreaded shame...
Although he argues that, having confessed his guilt, he no longer needs to discuss the incident again, in the Reveries, he once again refers to it and once again meditates on when it is justifiable to tell a lie.

Interestingly, Rousseau never suggests that we shouldn't tell lies: he openly admits that we all lie and that we all will--the issue is, when do lies become unjust and dangerous?  We're not obliged to constantly tell the truth, but we are obliged to be wary of using lies for our own advantage.

On the one hand, Rousseau suggests that, if the truth serves no use or purpose, well, then... no worries.  You can lie without compunction.  If I ask you if you like my dress and you really don't, but it serves no purpose to tell me otherwise, then you can tell me you love it.

The problem is, how do you know whether or not the truth is "useless"?  As Rousseau argues, "if the obligation to speak the truth is founded solely on usefulness, how can I set myself up as a judge of this usefulness?  Very often one person's gain is another's loss, and private interest is almost always in conflict with public good" (67).

In the end, Rousseau is forced to hedge the issue a bit.  On the one hand, we can argue that a person's intentions can serve as an index of whether or not a lie is justified: if the person thought it was a "useless" truth and lied accordingly, s/he is not necessarily guilty of a "bad" lie.

So, you didn't like my dress, but you didn't think there would be any harm in pretending you did.  You never dreamed I would wear it to an important job interview and on a date too... As Rousseau points out,
for falsehood to be innocent, it is not enough that there be no deliberate harmful intent, we must also be certain that the error into which we are leading our fellow-men can harm neither them nor anyone else in any way whatsoever.  It is only very rarely that we can attain this certainty; consequently it is only very rarely that a lie is completely innocent. (69)
The problem with judging intentions, Rousseau argues, is that it is easy to misjudge intentions: we can assume we know why someone told a lie, when in fact, we don't know all of the circumstances and the context surrounding it.

In the end, Rousseau resorts to a key component of his own philosophy: the idea that we possess an innate or "natural" sense of virtue and, left to itself, this "instinct" will guide us to do what is right.  The incident involving Marion was a cautionary one that taught Rousseau the dangers of even the most innocent lie.

Or so he claims.  Because Rousseau's reflections and reveries ultimately raise more questions than answers. Resorting to his own fine-tuned sense of what is right, Rousseau nevertheless continues to confess and testify to a range of incidents in which he plays fast-and-loose with the truth.

At the end of the day, I think Rousseau's self-scrutiny teaches us that, contrary to his own philosophical tenets, the idea that we can simply know in our own hearts that we are "good" and mean to be "truthful" is ultimately not enough.  While the innocence of a lie may become clearer in the light of one's intentions and subsequent actions, at the end of the day, a viable moral framework has to depend on something other than one's own sense of innate goodness.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."