Posts Tagged With: Jean-Jacques Rousseau

I think, therefore I am not good enough?

It's 2015: may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb...

It’s 2015: may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb…

I can’t get started this year. It’s 2015, the year of the sheep, and I feel like a toad. I want to be good this year. But I’m confused. You see, the other night I dreamt I was in a giant maze made of Yorkshire pudding.

...and there was Yorkshire pudding everywhere, everywhere!

…and there was Yorkshire pudding everywhere, everywhere!

It was scary. As I tried to find my way out I kept bumping into famous dead philosophers. Every time I saw one I asked the same question: “How can I be a better person in 2015?” Here’s a summary of what they told me:

Socrates: The first of three Greek blokes with beards, this one asked me why I wanted to be good. I said I wanted to do good things, you know, help others and not be selfish. He asked me why I believed in “good” and “not good”. Then I was stumped. He told me to forget dwelling on right and wrong and try to grow as an individual. Evidently I need to love the universe and my own life within it, but always to question what people tell me. Then, just before he vanished, he stroked his beard and said: “Remember, to be is to do.” I was still confused.

Please, Mr Plato,can I keep my poetry books?

Please, Mr Plato, can I keep my poetry books?

Plato: This old stick was a bit severe. When he found out I loved poetry he turned nasty and told me to throw my poetry books in the river Styx. Poetry is bad for me, evidently, because it’s not “true”, it’s only fiction. He told me everything on earth is imperfect, so I can’t be ‘good’ because ‘goodness’ is an illusion. And all my relationships have to be ‘Platonic’ from now on. Plato’s world sounded a bit strict for me. Luckily I had the Yorkshire pudding to console me.

Aristotle: I had to define ‘goodness’ for this real scientific guy. What is essential about being good, he asked me, what must be always present in an act of goodness, something that cannot be removed from the equation? I said ‘love’. He smiled, and for a second I thought he must like me, at least more than moody old Plato. “So, go forth and multiply”, he said, “with your earthly love”. Great.

"It is too difficult to think nobly when one thinks only of earning a living." Right on, Jean Jacques

“It is too difficult to think nobly when one thinks only of earning a living”, said Mr Rousseau

Descartes: This French guy had a really strong accent. What I think he asked me was how did I know that my ‘life’ was not just one big dream. Good question. “You think, therefore you think you are”, he said. I suddenly realised my dream was happening inside a much bigger one. Hmm. So, the shrew I found in 1967 in Heaton Woods that accidentally died on the way home was just an illusion, like everything else. What a relief!

Rousseau: Another French bloke, Jean Jacques told me to ditch all my possessions pronto and get back to nature. Get naked and live organically. Mankind, in his (or her) natural state is not avaricious and envious, but kind and considerate. So, it would be easy to be good, he told me, when human beings had dispensed with their silly commodity society. Being naturally human again, living in the woods on berries and nuts, would be noble, not savage. Voila!

Friedrich 'Superman' Nietzsche with his walrus 'tache

Friedrich ‘Superman’ Nietzsche and his walrus impression

Nietzsche: Friedrich’s moustache was awesome and made him look like a walrus! He was ranting in German but then toned it down a bit when I approached. He told me to imagine a place beyond good and evil and asked me what I would find there. I said ‘love’ again, and he said “Ja, Heureka!”  Then he told me not to trust language because it was only used to boss people around; I have to will myself to escape from language and ‘morality’ to a distant, metaphysical place where I can be a ‘Superman’. Sounds a bit mad to me. When I left, Friedrich was hugging a horse.

I want to be an existentialist just like you Jean Paul

I want to be an existentialist just like you, Jean Paul

Sartre: Another French guy, this one with inch-thick glasses, a funny eye and a fat cigarette in his mouth. He asked me what exactly I based my decisions on. I said the circumstances. He said those circumstances are always beyond my control, so choosing one way instead of another is absurd. I kind of agreed with him. Then he asked if I had a spare cigarette, preferably Gauloises. He looked really sad when I said no. Before I left, he said “Remember, jeune homme, to do is to be.”

How do you mean do be do be do?

Stranger in the Night: Frankie

All of a sudden I found the exit to the maze, which was lucky because I was stuffed with pudding. But I was still confused and feeling sad that I didn’t have a definitive answer to my question about being good. Then, out of the distance came a shadowy figure who seemed to be singing to himself as he walked towards me. It was Frank Sinatra! “Hey, kid, what’s up?” he said. So I told him about the philosophers and my dilemma. He asked me what had been the best advice so far. I said Socrates told me “To be is to do” and Sartre told me “To do is to be”. Frank agreed that was really confusing. Then suddenly he smiled and said, “Wait a minute, kid, I got your answer!” “Tell me, please!”, I said. “Do be do be do!”, he said. Then I woke up singing Strangers in the Night, which I realised was a great title for my dream.

Categories: Great Minds, Musings | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Passion, politics and personal hygiene in Brazil

Tiririca the clown says: "If elected I promise I will help all Brazilian families... especially mine"

Tiririca the clown says: “If elected I promise I will help all Brazilian families… especially mine”

Today is a big day in Brazil. More than 100 million people will toddle along to their local polling station to cast their precious electronic vote. Today, Brazil’s huge population will not just decide who the next president will be, they also have to choose senators, governors and representatives at a municipal and local level. For weeks, every strip of grassland next to the main roads has been cluttered with billboards, huge photographs of dozens of well-heeled contenders and their electronic numbers. There are no written messages on the pictures, apart from the subliminal and obvious “Vote for Me”, which goes without saying.

Having found myself caught up in all the excitement and, as an outsider, mystified by all these names, numbers and bland photographs, I naturally consulted my colleagues and students to discover how they were going to choose their next political leaders. To my chagrin I discovered that the vast majority of these “delegates” are unknown; anonymous faces with numbers to match. In fact, it wouldn’t be stretching the truth to suggest that many people will vote for the person who, from their photographic portrait, appears to be the most sincere and reliable. I won’t say “trustworthy” as Brazil has a shameful history (one which runs right up to the present) of corruption in politics at all levels, leading most voters to adopt a cynical attitude to the electoral proceedings. It looks like a case of “meet the new boss – same as the old boss”, as The Who’s Pete Townsend  aptly put it in his ironically titled song, Won’t Get Fooled Again.

That's Dilma the president at the top...but who are the rest?

That’s Dilma the president at the top…but who are the rest?

What a daft system! Surely nobody should be voting for someone they have never heard of. But then that is the nature of metropolitan politics where huge numbers of people live together and know next to nothing about how their city is run. It may sound idealistic, but wouldn’t it be great to get to know your candidate, to sit down and have a little chat? Only then would you know if this was the kind of person who best represents your opinions. Not only could you broach all those touchy subjects like poverty, education and corruption, you could get a feeling whether this candidate was understanding, humane, kind – somebody worthy of your vote. You could also check whether they have bad breath and expect you to pay for the drinks (obviously a no-brainer).

The biggest issue, as I see it, is how to make our societies fairer: how to engender more equality of wealth and opportunity. The simple solution – to tax the rich and give to the poor, Robin Hood-style, is surely way too simplistic. Wouldn’t that just make rich people not want to work anymore and, at the same time, make poor people lazy? Well, it depends. Like all political ideals, the answers lie somewhere deep in the darker realms of philosophy. The bigger question is: are we human beings basically good-hearted, sharing, caring creatures, or are we selfish individuals out to get everything we can for ourselves and our precious families? More to the point – shouldn’t all those candidates with the big beaming faces know the answer to these quandaries?

Hobbes: without state control you would be a brute

Hobbes: without state control you would be a brute

Of course they should! So, here’s the thing – all the candidates should be made to sit a philosophy exam and the results made public before the election. You see, I’m full of great ideas! But hang on a minute – do I know myself what the philosophers say about human nature? Well, erm, let me see…

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679): Here we have a very influential English pessimist who wrote in his impressive tome Leviathan that human life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” without the powers that be keeping tight control on everybody. That’s because human beings have a natural tendency to fight with everybody else in the name of self-preservation. What Hobbes called “every man against every man” or what we call today, proverbially, “dog eat dog”. (Oh dear…not a good start!)

Jean-Jaques Rousseau (1712-1778) “Man was born free”, Rousseau famously proclaims, “and he is everywhere in chains.” Sounds familiar? Well, the Frenchman’s invention of the term “noble savage” might also ring a bell. But what does he mean? Well, unlike Hobbes, Rousseau is a bit of a romantic. He believes that in our true “natural” state, human beings do not know good and evil; in fact our ignorance of vice makes us unable to do bad things to others. Men and women are naturally peaceful and “passionate”. (Now this is more like it…sounds lovely!)

Adam Smith (1723-1790)

Adam Smith in Edinburgh: 'Just start up a business and everybody will be better off...honest!'

Adam Smith in Edinburgh: ‘Everybody is better off with Capitalism’

This Scottish economic philosopher has got a lot to answer for, my friends. He believed that yes, man is selfish, but that self-interest will actually benefit everybody else. Sounds dumb? Well, Smith argues in The Wealth of Nations that the creation and maintenance of business practices will benefit the whole of society, from the managing director to the cleaner who scrubs his floor. This is the thinking that spawned “neo-liberalism”, a free-market, no-holds-barred economic system which ultimately led to the chaotic global financial crisis we saw just a few years ago. Aggressive capitalism, Adam Smith-style, surely does not benefit everyone. How could it?

Karl Marx (1818-1883) My homeboy, in case you hadn’t guessed, this infamous German revolutionary believed that humans are naturally sociable “self-expressive animals who need one another to survive, but who come to fulfillment in that companionship over and above its social usefulness”, according to Marxist professor Terry Eagleton. Humans are political creatures, in the sense that we always have to organize ourselves and work together in order to produce the things we need. The problem is, in the advanced capitalist societies of today, little people don’t get a chance to voice their opinions or have the power to change the mighty economic system.

The very noble savage

The very noble savage

Which brings me back to the Brazilian elections today. Everyone I have spoken to here has very strong opinions about their beloved country. Brazilians are passionate about politics and have a wealth of ideas about how the country’s institutions need to change. How, for example, the cynicism of corrupt, selfish politicians can be traced back to a woefully underfunded education system which fails to enlighten schoolchildren about the crass limitations of consumerism and economic self-interest.

Luckily, being an ex-pat, I don’t have to vote today, but if I was Brazilian, I would be rooting for the candidate who regularly visited all the areas (including the very poor) of his or her constituency to actually speak with the people; to meet the voters – as many of them as humanly possible. That is true political representation. I would also be tempted to vote for someone who was stunningly attractive, of course – as long as they had read all three volumes of Das Kapital!

Categories: Brazil, Global Crisis, Great Minds | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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