Rousseau, Neuhouser, and Me

I picked up Rousseau’s Critique of Inequality by Frederick Neuhouser and read it with sadness and regret. A long, long time ago, way back in New York in the early 1980s, Fred and I were close friends. I left America to move to Spain in 1985 and Fred was the person who accompanied me to the airport. Even though I was not unhappy about leaving New York, I assumed we would always stay close, and that did happen for a few years. But in 1988 Fred found a position at Harvard and his personality began to change: he grew colder, more aloof. We still took meals together when I visited from Spain but I could feel a little difference. By the mid ’90s—when I was about ready to return to the States (California) after a decade overseas—he had cooled even more toward me. Being a Harvard professor—he told me—was inextricably linked to his identity. When he mentioned phenomenally successful students who appeared in The New Yorker magazine a few short years after graduation, I asked him, “Is that hard for you?” and his answer was, “Yes, it would be hard if I weren’t a Harvard professor.” We no longer had meals together, just “a drink” in the presence of others. We said good-bye on Broadway and 110th street only a few blocks from where we first met; we hugged, and I never saw or heard from him again. I found out (because my birth father was a philosopher, too!) that he didn’t get tenure at Harvard and was now at U.C. San Diego. How he’d always hated California and called it stupid! That first year that I lived in L.A., I wrote him several times but heard nothing (I was “ghosted”). Almost twenty-five years have gone by and it’s still hard. I have often theorized to myself that if he’d gotten tenure at Harvard, we might still be friends. But the experience of losing the status that meant so much to him must have been excrutiatingly hard, and I wasn’t the appropriate person, during those wandering-in-the-desert years, to confide in, so he let the friendship lapse.

Thanks to the Internet, I found out that he later worked at Cornell and eventually ended up at Columbia in New York City, just a few blocks from the spot where we first met. I’ve seen him lecture on YouTube. He’s changed a lot. In the old days he used to laugh at older professors for being pretentious stuffed-shirts, and when I watch his lectures I see a pompous stuffed-shirt. I recognize him as the same person, the same look, the same voice, but at the same time not the person I knew. He sometimes lectures with his eyes closed. He does a lot of teenage uptalking (Valley Girl Speak) but mixes it with a trace of German intonation (he’s fluent in German) so it sounds respectable.  It’s sad to look at those videos and ask “What happened?” and it’s sad to read his book, and to suspect what happened: I don’t think my above theory is wrong. His life was changed by Harvard and the departure from Harvard, and I had no place in it. Here are some thoughts about the book and about Fred (but this is not a book review!).

  • Fred, being fluent in German and an expert on Hegel and Fichte, was always “supposed” to stay in the realm of German thought and letters, but what happened? Since leaving Harvard, he has written not one but two books on Rousseau (I’ve only read the second) and they both have to do with status and the quest for recognition. Very doubtful that this is a coincidence. His elevation to Harvard and his later loss of his perch there were life-changing experiences, and thus began his interest in Rousseau (who is required reading for most undergraduates and with whom he must already have been quite familiar). Let me backtrack. Recently I’ve become interested in Enlightenment thinkers and especially Rousseau. This is what led me to Fred’s book. The Second Discourse is all about how humankind started in a theoretical “state of nature,” went through a kind of “Golden Age,” and then ended up in our present situation where status plays such a negative part in our lives (especially in many First World countries). Rousseau and Fred don’t use the term status at all but this is what it amounts to. The term Rousseau prefers is amourpropre, a kind of self-love that didn’t exist in the “state of nature” but developed when men and women stood in front of their huts and thought about things like “Who can dance better? Who can shoot an arrow better? Who’s prettier? Who’s more accomplished?” And from there things pretty much went downhill. According to Fred, “Rousseau isolates amourpropre—a passion to be looked at, to be highly regarded, to acquire public esteem or respect—as the principle source of social inequality.” Back in the old days in New York, Fred talked about his craving for recognition and attention from people, but he hated this aspect of himself, especially because as a Marxist, such vanity went against his egalitarian principles. Then he rose to Harvard (the pinnacle of civilization), where he found esteem, but was lowered again in the world with his departure. I believe that Fred turned to Rousseau to painfully and comprehensively ruminate on the whole concept of amourpropre as the motor which has driven not just Fred but many if not most of us (definitely me too!), whether it be in the arts or sciences or in a company or at a university (where people compete for tenure). So much for the autobiographical impetus behind the fascination with Rousseau.
  • Rousseau’s Critique of Inequality is a long, laborious and intricate book (not a difficult one, exactly). It’s considerably longer than Rousseau’s original treatise. I don’t have the expertise or space to go into it in depth, but, given the ubiquitousness of amourpropre, does Rousseau offer any way out, any hope at all? These aren’t self-help books (here I’m referring to Rousseau’s treatise and Fred’s dissection of it). It’s all speculation and theory, but the long and short of it is: Rousseau concludes (according to Fred) that a certain amount of relatively benign (not “inflamed”) amourpropre is inevitable in our present societies as long as it doesn’t get too out of control. In our present societies and even in much more idealized societies or situations (which Rousseau goes on to develop in The Social Contract and Emile) a certain dose of “amourpropre light” is all right as long as it doesn’t harm other people too terribly much. I can’t remember exactly, but I think Fred does mention, indirectly, very competitive academic institutions where inflamed amourpropre gets a bit out of control. The way I see it, Fred’s Rousseau envisions a kind of Dutch or Scandinavian model of culture where amourpropre exists but in moderation, unlike in the U.S.A. or Britain or France.
  • Here’s a thought Fred dwells on: Is it enough that I’m okay and you’re okay and we are both equals? That would be nice, but according to Fred the whole amourpropre urge includes the drive to be not just equal but better than one’s peers. It’s not keeping up with the Joneses; it’s proving one’s superiority to the Joneses. Here’s Fred: “It remains an important question whether these political measures [as in The Social Contract] by themselves constitute a sufficient solution to the entire range of problems generated by social inequalities and inflamed amourpropre. The answer to this question turns in part on whether winning equal respect in the political sphere is sufficient to satisfy completely the longings of even non-inflamed amourpropre. There is plenty of evidence in the Second Discourse to suggest that this is not the case…Rousseau refers to amourpropre as a ‘universal desire for…preferment and a frenzy to achieve distinction.’” And yet, if this “frenzy” can somehow be tamed a bit, then it won’t be so bad? So: Obama’s pomposity instead of Trump’s monstrosity?
  • Just one or two more thoughts. Early in the book Fred makes a fascinating point: “[P]ossessing a good—wealth, prestige, power, or authority—is inseparable from someone else being disadvantaged by the other’s possession of it; the goods that make up the stuff of social inequalities are goods that can be enjoyed only ‘to the prejudice’ of another.” I don’t think he goes on to elaborate on this later in the book (I could be wrong). So my high school classmate Canin’s selling thousands of books in many languages is somehow not just “better than” me but actually existing at my expense? Jim Carey’s having millions of Twitter followers is somehow coming at My expense? I never, until now, thought of Canin or Carey as taking away from me, but I guess (on this theory at least) they are.
  • A word about Fred’s style. As I said, it’s complex and very analytical (in the Anglo tradition, though he is explicating a Continental thinker). I never found it difficult and since the topic is fascinating I followed almost everything with relative ease. But I object to the way he writes (as opposed to “thinks”). Couldn’t he have learned something from Rousseau’s prose? Of course, then he wouldn’t be “analytical”: he’d be “sloppy,” as Rousseau was (very sloppy). It would be unacceptable to write in a more literary way. Or, in Fred’s language: “inacceptable.” I realize “inacceptable” is a valid word (somewhere, in some circles), but please tell me one good reason for using it instead of “unacceptable”! Later on, he says “non-compossible.” Microsoft Word has never heard of this word. Why couldn’t Fred simply have said “incompatible”?  And on page 195 occurs Fred’s worst assault on the English language: “universalizability.” Okay here I recognize there probably is no exact synonym, but couldn’t he have put it another way? Does he actually use that word during lectures? Even my birth father Frank Verges, who published many papers but never (sadly) wrote a book, was a better writer than Fred, with many colorful and smart turns of phrase…On the other hand, perhaps this kind of writing (while too technical for Harvard?) is just the kind that is expected and valued almost everywhere else. He has to write this way to please his higher-ups and impress his lower-downs. So he is participating in a strict kind of caste system that I doubt Rousseau would have approved of at all. Rousseau got to where he was because of the elegance of this style (not just the thoughts themselves). Fred inhabits a very different world. Rousseau might have looked at Fred’s life and work and said, “That is a man in chains.”  ………And yet, for all that, I did get a lot out of the book. There is fascinating material here and it is written in the thorough, logical (not beautiful) style that allows no confusion, as in First I’m going to discuss A, then B, but before getting to C I will delve into certain aspects of both A and B as they pertain to X (studied in the previous chapter…) As Fred explained to me when I visited his Harvard office in ’94, he had good reasons for writing in the precise, dry way he did because to write in another way would mean not capturing his precise points and would be a kind of showing off. (NB: My critical tone does not reflect the way I ever felt at the time, but only in the wake of his distancing and later estrangement. When a person is still a friend and “on our side” or “in our camp” we permit many things and sweep others under the rug. Friendship strives to be blind.) So I guess I understand. It’s a pity we have never, over the last quarter century, been able to discuss any of these matters at our leisure in the Hungarian Pastry Shop or over breakfast at Happy Burger or at Tom’s Restaurant or walking through Central Park on an autumn day, as we did so many years ago, way back when we were young adults. Ah well…

 

 

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