One of the distinctive traits of the Enlightenment was the wide range of domains to which writers turned their attention: all kinds of issues in history, philosophy, literature, religion, politics, economics and the natural sciences were addressed by a new type of versatile intellectual. In particular the project of creating a pioneering “science of man” represented a departure, as human beings were no longer studied in their individual relation to God and nature but in the complex setting of the societies they had themselves created. On the whole, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was not exceptional in developing his reflection across a variety of fields and literary genres. The unique appeal of his contribution came from the vivid intuitions, and the intensity of feeling he conveyed to his readers, turning the philosophical issue of the place of man within society into a captivating existential drama.
In Abandoned to Ourselves, Peter Alexander Meyers places at the centre of Rousseau’s doctrine the transition from a world governed by God’s will to one ruled by the blind mechanisms of society. In Meyers’ reconstruction, having “invented” society, the writers of the Enlightenment failed to find in their creation a source of true emancipation. For Rousseau in particular, man was liberated from the inexorable designs of Providence only to find himself trapped into his inescapable dependence on social interaction and social conventions. Far from securing liberty, modern individualism – the assertion of individual will and the love of self – generated new forms of constraint and enslavement.
Presented in the form of an 18th-century pamphlet, Meyers’ study provides a detailed analysis of the key notions in Rousseau’s work, such as nature, society, morality, will, self-love and happiness. In chapter after chapter, Rousseau’s passionate rhetoric is converted into a vertiginous display of tables, graphs and synopses in a quest to expose the inner structure of the reasoning. Admittedly the aim of this exercise is not to offer a new interpretation of Rousseau’s own contribution. Meyers’ focus is on the present rather than the past, and he seems less concerned with the original concerns of the Genevan author than with producing a modern equivalent of his doctrine (an ambition that might explain his ironically “archaic” style of presentation).
Convinced that “dependence” – in a variety of forms – represents a key universal trait of human experience, Meyers uses Rousseau’s ideas to build a new theory of man’s relation to his social and political environment. In itself this approach is of course perfectly legitimate: it is not uncommon to use a past master as the “medium” of modern philosophical reflection. However, almost 400 pages and several synoptic tables later, the outcome seems rather meagre. Meyers argues that Rousseau’s identification of dependence as the “primary fabric” of social and political relations, and the “generative force of social evolution”, although brilliant and visionary, is still insufficiently developed and detailed. He concludes that the “secular creationism” of the Enlightenment (the substitution of God with society) is inadequate for the needs of political theory today.
While these claims are not implausible, readers would probably prefer to be given some indication of what a more satisfactory approach might look like – and especially of what would be the moral and political significance today of a theory of human dependence. For all the ambiguities and contradictions in his work, Rousseau was at least very clear about the values and principles he stood for. Meyers promises to provide his own views “in much greater detail” in “future publications”. Meanwhile, we are indeed abandoned to ourselves.
Abandoned to Ourselves: Being an Essay on the Emergence and Implications of Sociology in the Writings of Mr. Jean-Jacques Rousseau…
By Peter Alexander Meyers
Yale University Press, 512pp, £45.00
Published 29 August 2013