Thursday, August 23, 2012

"The Social Contract" [I-II]: Public Enemies

The first book of the Social Contract was very similar in content to Locke's "Second Treatise". He stressed that no man has any natural authority over another man, that government should be run by the general will of the people, and that men gain protection and community by joining a "social contract" with each other. Rousseau also said that enemies of the general will are enemies of the government (e.g. the people decide that murder is wrong, an individual commits murder, that individual is now a public enemy and his status as a citizen is revoked). This inevitably got me thinking of John Dillinger and how, although Dillinger was breaching the general consensus that stealing is wrong, the charismatic and surprisingly principled ("I guess you could say that robbing banks is my only bad habit") Dillinger often had better standing with the public than the morally ambiguous head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover.

The second book is where Rousseau started to go off the beaten path. Some of the things I found interesting were his opinion on a lawgiver (a person who creates the law of a nation). Rousseau said that a lawgiver must be an objective thinker, must not be in power (lest he creates laws for his personal gain), and is helped by invoking divine inspiration (Rousseau tended to reflect the popular image of an Enlightenment thinker more than Locke did; a good example being his skepticism on Moses' "divinely inspired" law as being true or simply good politics), but this must be accompanied by wisdom or the people won't accept it. He also talked about the importance of having a good proportion between land and population in a country. He says that an excess of land and resources is an invitation to invasion. Canada has one of the largest supplies of fresh water and area of land per capita on earth. I thought (and think) that this is a neat feature of my country, but I can't deny what Rousseau is saying here. My History teacher once compared Canada to a modern day Ancient Egypt, because of the wealth of resources and the defensibility of both (Egypt is surrounded by desert and marsh, Canada is surrounded by ocean... and America). The civilization of Ancient Egypt lasted 3,000 years. Here's hoping Canada will follow in its footsteps.

I happened to read Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities simultaneously with the Social Contract. I was reading A Tale of Two Cities simply because I had heard that The Dark Knight Rises was partially inspired by it, but it worked very well as a companion to the Social Contract. In A Tale of Two Cities the reader sees Rousseau's vision coming to life (A Tale of Two Cities took place during the French Revolution, a conflict that Rousseau's writings helped to create), but it being a scene of Hell rather than of an ascendant utopia. Dickens shows that the general will can err (as Rousseau speculated), especially in times of emotional excitement, as it did when the general will of the people of France  agreed on the mass slaughter of aristocratic men, women, and children.

It's a bizarre fact about me that I dislike revolutionaries and preachiness about democracy and equality. A growing trend in the type of stories I enjoy has social revolutionaries as the villains (Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, Alma Coin and District 13 in Mockingjay, Amon in The Legend of Korra, the Defarges in A Tale of Two Cities, even Syndrome in The Incredibles to a certain degree). Personally, I often find them more interesting and culturally relevant (and, for me, easier to love to hate) than the classic evil tyrant. It's easy to tear down the evil tyrant, because no one in our culture will object. Making social revolutionaries the villain is more risky. Does this make me a public enemy? I hope not. I don't think we should bring back monarchies and I think that democracy is probably the best form of government out there (though, in my opinion, that still isn't saying much), but at the end of the day democracy is just a political system. Political systems that promote social equality won't give us happiness in the long run, won't cure the human condition, and the mindset these politcal systems produce can be used for ill (as C. S. Lewis brilliantly expressed in Screwtape Proposes a Toast and as can be seen in history) as well as for good.  

I frequently get annoyed at the preachiness of equality and tolerance in speeches and stories. Not because I think treating everyone with respect and tolerance is a bad thing (far from it!), but because I think emphasizing these virtues in our culture is preaching to the choir. Modern-day Canada may just be the most diverse and tolerant nation this planet has ever seen. So why don't we start talking about vices we actually face, like materialism, selfishness, hedonism etc.




Saturday, August 11, 2012

"The Second Treatise On Civil Government": Political Idealism

The back cover of the copy of the "Second Treatise" that I read describes John Locke as an "early Enlightenment philosopher". While Locke wrote in many ways like the popular image of an Enlightenment thinker, he carried with him earlier medieval ideas. For example, while he rejected monarchy and the Divine Right to Rule he maintained the belief in a natural order for the world as well as a reverence for God and the Bible as authoritative. He encouraged citizens to revolt against their leaders if they were being treated unfairly and he believed in the Natural Law (the moral law that is written on the hearts of all humanity regardless of race or culture). In other words he walked a middle path between medieval "conservatism" and Enlightenment "liberalism". Politics is one of my weak points both in interest and comprehension, but Locke's lack of conservative/liberal extremity made him strike me as quite a sensible person. It also helped that Locke often drew on Biblical examples to prove his points. Add a little religion and the politics pill goes down easier for me.

Locke's treatises greatly influenced the founding fathers of America and it isn't hard to see why. Locke's writing is full of the "American dream" of democracy: everyone is born free and equal, citizen's right to revolt against a corrupt government, the government should do what is best for the people, citizens should have a voice in government etc.

When thing that struck me when I was reading Locke was how different his approach to government was to Machiavelli's. While Locke wrote about how government ought to be, Machiavelli wrote about how government actually is. Machiavelli is the political realist and Locke is the political idealist. Where Machiavelli says that a prince must be exempt from conventional morality if he is to be successful, Locke asserts that leaders owe subjection to the laws of God and Nature just like anyone else.