Sunday, February 17, 2013

Goethe and Rousseau


Yesterday I made chili, and, what do you know, it actually tasted like chili. In between I was reading Rousseau, mostly in connection with the 18th-century roots of modern utopian thinking, on which I will be giving a paper at a conference in September.


 My reading up until now suggests that two of the major utopian ventures in the 19th century, those of Robert Owen and Charles Fourier, were influenced principally by the "rationalists" among the Enlightenment. This rationalism is graphically expressed in the architecture of the Owenite and Fourier settlements.

And in particular in the writings of Robert Owen, one gets the feeling that he believed that once people "saw the light" concerning social ills they would immediately convert to a rational program of amending these ills. Edward Bellamy, clearly inspired by such rationalism, wrote a novel, Looking Backward: 2000–1887, in which all the ills of a future society had been eliminated. The life of this new society, however, in the words of William Morris, was that of a "machine life." Morris writes of Bellamy: "His only idea of making labour tolerable is to decrease the amount of its by means of ever fresh developments in machinery."

Preparing the ingredients
 (Virginia Woolf, reviewing in 1918 a novel entitled A Practical Utopia, wrote that "too much stress seems to be laid upon the development of electricity and too little upon the development of humanity. ... It is comparatively easy to imagine a town clear of smoke, or dinner raised by touching a switch, or an entire house run by a competent engineer in the basement.")

I bring in Morris because he had a different vision of utopia, which he described in his review of Bellamy's novel. namely, a society in which every citizen felt himself to be responsible for and interested in the details of its administration, in which "the business of life" was not shuffled off "on to the shoulders of an abstraction called the State," and in which "variety of life" was as much society's aim as "equality of condition."

The vegetables are cooking
This is a long way around of getting to Rousseau and Goethe, but Morris's utopian vision was a "small state solution," and the "romance" he wrote portraying it, News from Nowhere, was influenced by the "creative" Rousseau, a man of the heart and passions. It was this Rousseau that had an effect on the Sturm und Drang Goethe. This morning I finished rereading Rousseau's 1750 essay on the effect of the arts and sciences upon morals. What a screed! But Werther's criticisms of "scholars" and the imagery of virtue and innocence in Lotte's quasi-idyllic life in The Sorrows of Young Werther certainly owe a lot to Rousseau's prelapsarian projections. Idylls and utopian literature have much in common, lacking the so-called evils of civilized life against which Rousseau anathematized.

Goethe would seem not to have taken Rousseau's writings on political theory into account, e.g., The Social Contract (1762), although he must certainly have known of these writings, especially after the French revolutionaries claimed Rousseau as one of their own. The opening of Article 6 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen certainly draws on Rousseau: "Law is the expression of the general will." Because of the excesses of the French Revolution it may have followed that Rousseau himself was to blame. After all, had he not written in The Social Contract: "Individuals become citizens by surrendering their private interests and opinions to the 'general will'"?

Almost ready to eat
Rather than presaging totalitarianism, the term "general will" reminds me instead of Adam Smith's use of the term "invisible hand." Smith meant by this the process by which markets automatically channel self-interest toward socially desirable ends. Rousseau's amour propre and pitiƩ were the sentiments in humans that also allowed them to think beyond their private interests and, instead, in terms of others and thus the interests of all. (I was interested to see that the editor of my Rousseau edition claims that ethically the "General Will" is "one and the same as Kant's concept of moral rationality.") Of course, Rousseau also inveighed against money and trade as contemporary perversions of morals. He would not have understood that markets can be moral. (More on this another time.)

Goethe was not a political thinker like Kant or Rousseau. He was a practical man, hardened by work in the administration of the duchy. His own ideas on a future in which people would not be at war or enmity were contained in the concept of "world literature." But more on that later, too.

1 comment:

Johna Till Johnson said...

Whoa, Elizabeth, you're keynoting! Way cool.

Are you going early (or staying late) to enjoy the Pacific Northwest? And are you getting any paddling done?

I'm fascinated by your description of William Morris's definition of utopia as:
"a society in which every citizen felt himself to be responsible for and interested in the details of its administration, in which "the business of life" was not shuffled off "on to the shoulders of an abstraction called the State," and in which "variety of life" was as much society's aim as "equality of condition."

I'm not sure about he means by "variety of life" versus "equality of condition", but the notion that individuals should be self-governing (rather than governed by "the state") is, of course, one reason that in founding America there was such a strong notion of local government. I worry that we're losing that, somewhat, in this century---people don't want to do for themselves, they want "the government" to do for them. Which government? Oh, you know, THE government....

And I don't mean to sound all Tea Party here...I just tend to agree with Morris that things go better when people assume that running their societies is THEIR job, not the job of some faraway abstraction.