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Entering a Modern Society

November 18, 2010

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?

5 Comments
  1. youngkhalifa permalink
    November 18, 2010 3:55 PM

    I agree that technology has significantly altered and decreased face to face interaction by allowing humans to communicate through other mediums such as cell phones, skype, e-mail, etc. This takes away from the immensely valuable feedback peers offer mainly on one’s behavior but also some feedback on appearance. So where do people turn for feedback in the age of technology? The media. How the media portrays life is taken as the norm and out of the inherent human desire to fit in and feel accepted the viewers conform to these standards. The problem with this(ignoring that the media usually shows a very different world than what we live in) is that viewers most readily and easily pick up on physical properties and if they do pick up on the behaviors being projected by the media, the behaviors are usually an unrealistic extreme. This causes a warped concept of what the world is like to someone influenced by the media and how their peers will percieve them. This breaks down typical human interactions and shared feelings because each person interacting is in a state of hyper-scrutiny of themselves and the other persons. So in response to your final question I believe we cannot go back to Rousseau’s idea of community because the media is now accepted as the replacement of that community but in reality it just estranges all the members that belong to that communicate from everyone else.

  2. Sara Mitchell permalink
    November 18, 2010 11:52 PM

    I think this a great post and valid points were made. Going off of the last point made about whether or not we can fix the loss of spirit in the community, I believe we cannot. One of Rousseau’s ideas is that humans can only move forward, they cannot go back to a simpler period once they have advanced. This applies to the loss of spirit in the community due to modernity and rise of technology. The negative effects that have come with the expansion of technology cannot be reversed. The damage has been done and may even continue to get worse as the world continues to progress.

  3. arjunindianhongkongkid permalink
    November 19, 2010 2:29 AM

    Great post. But I believe Rousseau would not think that modernism has ruined our communal sense. According to Rousseau, “The first advances enabled man to make more rapid ones. The more the mind was enlightened, the more industry was perfected” (397) Rousseau promotes progress as progress enhances communal engagement, and as society progressed we began to live together and to this day, with facebook, internet, are we not keeping up with our community better? Sure, we are not “living together” literally but we are living together metaphorically. We have attained the “sweetest sentiments known to mankind: conjugal love and paternal love” (397). It is important to note that in any era, Rousseau would blame the problems of society to “Reason as it engenders egocentrism” while “Reflection strengthens it” (391), so modernity has paved pathway for so much reflection as we are even at this very moment, reading blogposts, reflecting on other people’s thoughts, and the reason for that is modernity.

  4. adamarcher permalink
    November 19, 2010 10:02 PM

    I believe that the decline of face-to face contact has not hindered the development of community and the spirit of shared relationships. In the trade off between talking in person and e-mailing, facebooking (Yes, I verbed it . . .) and other electronic communication, there is still a great deal of interchange between the two or more people in communication, and although this electronic communication may not be as rich in some respects, the fact that it is possible when such communication would otherwise be impossible does more than enough to make up for the aspects of communication lost in the exchange. The subtleties of face-to-face must not be underestimated, tiny movements and changes in vocal intonation make or break a conversation, believe me, I know. However some aspects of electronic communication allow for more richness of interchange than even personal conversation. Via the internet we can share a video or a song with a friend, we can post a link to an article, or we can scan pictures taken halfway across the globe almost instantaneously. None of these things would be possible with only archaic face-to-face communication.
    Should personal forms of communication become so uncommon that the very nature of relationships are permanently altered, this would be a travesty, but I think that ultimately new forms of communication will serve only to enhance those we have been using for millenia.

  5. changmc permalink
    November 21, 2010 9:49 AM

    I think that technology has hindered our want and need to have face to face contact with one another. But instead, as stated in the post above, it has given us the ability to make contact with someone across the globe when contact would be otherwise impossible or extremely slow. In terms of government, I do believe that technology provides us with more benefit than it does with disadvantage. In the Social Contract, Rousseau specifically states that the ideal rule would be over a domain not too big or small. I figure that America would fit more in the category of the former. Since the ideals of community are impossible the context that we are given, technology gives people the chance to communicate, educate, and participate in society.

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