Entering a Modern Society
Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality is a large critique of modernity. Rousseau questions who we are as men, and what we want as men: psychological questions that are applicable throughout multiple generations.
What exactly are the political and psychological effects of modernity on society as a whole? It seems like Rousseau wants us to look back to man in his state of nature, discounting the rule of any authority. Rousseau describes this modernity as human beings’ continuous needs, in order to better themselves in light of others in society. The opinion of the majority is vitally important to one’s well being in society. Rousseau goes on to say that this is the very principal that has shaped inequalities among groups of peoples. I find this particularly interesting because this very principle is evident in our society today. Take, the University of Michigan, for example. As society becomes increasingly “modern,” perhaps in terms of technology, fashion, and social trends, as students we are surrounded by peers. It is only normal to compare one’s self to someone else, and ask, ‘have I fully modernized; am I with the times?”
What exactly does this do to a society? What effects does it have on the success of a student? These are two questions that I find myself asking, which I cannot help but realize are similar to questions that have been asked by Rousseau hundreds of years ago.
In seeking an answer, it may be beneficial to look at another of Rousseau’s writings: The Social Contract. In this work, he answers the question of: how does one achieve “freedom” in a civil society? Could this freedom be related to one’s ability to break free from caring about the opinion of others in a society? Rousseau, explains, that in the state of nature, we are granted the opportunity to live a restraint-free lifestyle. The entering of a social contract, takes away this restraint-free lifestyle, as one, at that point, subjects himself to a community where each individual follows the same patterns of rules. Despite the loss of physical freedom, individuals are able to gain a different kind of freedom: the freedom to think rationally amongst a community where morals are obtained, and desires are less impulsive. It seems like Rousseau is making a distinction between us as humans, and animals. Humans have this ability to enter the civil society, whereas animals, do not possess such a choce system.
How would Rousseau evaluate us as individuals in a communal society in this modern era? I believe that he may not describe us as “free” individuals in every sense. With the rise of technology, came the decline of human face-to-face contact. Does this lack of communication diminish our ability to build morality? And further, have we been too largely affected by the media and consumerism? There seems to be a distinction between conforming to society, and being an active member in society.
Rousseau describes a system of community where individuals would want to be together so that they would have the ability to grow and learn from one another. Citizens in his ideal society agree to take part in it so that together, everyone should able to gain a mutual benefit. Its only easy to believe that, in this particular modern age, we have lost the spirit of the community. Can we fix this, or must we accept that the world has changed?