Rousseau and the mutability of human nature

Jean-Jacques Rousseau is one of those thinkers that is both admirable and terrible. His work is admirable in its depth and range of thought as well as in its lasting significance through its tremendous influence. At the same time, however, it is also terrible in that I believe it embodies the most destructive and false aspects of Enlightenment thought.

For this brief post on the first two books of his The Social Contract, my most recent reading in the Great Books of the Western World reading project, I will confine my comments to only one aspect of that thought, an aspect which I believe is at the heart of the trouble. This is that Rousseau believes that human nature can be changed through the imposition of laws upon individuals and societies. This idea of Rousseau is, of course, a central component of modern liberal thought. Ultimately, it seems to me to be what separates the modern conservative from the modern liberal. The modern conservative is someone who believes that human nature is immutable; the modern liberal is someone who believes that human nature is mutable.

For historical antecedents, the modern conservative might look to those many thinkers, which include most of the great thinkers before the Enlightenment, who believed that the purpose of government and law was to keep a check on the worst aspects of human nature and to encourage the better aspects. It is not that human nature can be changed by the laws, say these thinkers (Plato, for instance, and Aristotle, as well as Aquinas come immediately to mind); it is, rather, that the laws serve to help humans, both as individuals and as societies, control their nature(s).

The modern liberal, drawing largely upon thought since the Enlightenment, believes that government and law can and should mold human nature, even that human beings are creatures without a nature, as the existentialist, surely a modern liberal, might assert. Sadly, out of this belief in the mutability of human nature have arisen all of the many experiments in utopianism of the last several centuries, beginning with the French Revolution and culminating in the Holocaust and in the gulags of the Soviet Union. Each of these was, at its heart, an attempt to alter or to overcome human nature through the imposition of law and the power of government. And each proved itself to be a catastrophic failure.

These attempts at utopianism and at the molding of human nature into some desired form continue today, albeit largely in less genocidal forms. In the world of education, of which I am a denizen, one might point, for example, to the ubiquity of charter school management companies like UnCommon Schools, which present themselves as the Great White Hope which while finally bring about the much-desired perfect egalitarian society. Of course, their need to resort to underhanded manipulation of statistical data and their rote robotic approach to “instruction” (what a poor word for what used to be called “discipling” or just plain “teaching” and “mentoring”) betray the truth of their ineffectiveness and pitiful condescension. As it turns out, one cannot engineer human beings even if you get them while they’re young and mercilessly beat them into the desired shape.

I know that someone will accuse me here of the infamous argumentum ad Hitlerum. That is not, I must assert in my own defense, my intent, however. I do not mean to say that “liberals are like the Nazis because x.” On the contrary, I do not intend to make a political point at all. My intent is merely to discuss, with no doubt too much brevity, the historical development of a fascinating and quite influential, even if false and harmful, set of ideas.

Brown and Garner: Race, Rudeness, and Extortion

I am contrarian by nature. I rarely find myself in the position of agreeing with the most popular positions on any given issue. I often will even argue against my own opinions when I hear them espoused and spouted by others. I am more prone to changing my mind when in the company of those with whom I would be expected to agree than I am in the face of opposition. Argument excites me. There are few experiences I find more enjoyable than a passionate exchange of ideas. Unfortunately for me, there aren’t many of my sort around these days. Instead, it seems most people enjoy screaming into their echo chamber and having their prejudices reinforced by the feedback.

The movement away from meaningful discourse is an interesting facet of the liberal movement in the United States that has taken shape since the mid-20th century. The 1950s and 1960s saw the beginnings of the tenure system in American academia, designed to ensure the continued employment of Leftist college professors during the Cold War as well as the rise of the Student Free Speech Movement, which sought to secure the rights of college and university students to engage in political discourse, mostly though not entirely from the Left, without risking their academic futures. All of this, ostensibly, had the goal of creating an environment on campuses across the country which allow the free and active exchange of a variety of ideas. There was a hope that this dialogue would extend to society at large.

As time has gone on, however, the same movement which began with these demands for academic freedom and free speech have grown increasingly vociferous in their desire to ban alternative ideas from public discourse. Religious speech, in particular, has been targeted for banishment.

The recent grand jury decisions in Missouri and New York, and the subsequent reactions among the media, politicians, activists, academics, and the general public, demonstrate the univocality that has been cultivated by the Left in its suppression of alternative opinions. Only two opinions have been allowed to receive any meaningful amount of air time on the mainstream media outlets, and even of these two possible opinions one has remained the dominant refrain throughout. The metanarrative of American institutional racism and the mythology of perpetual oppression of “minorities” by “whites” (who falls into which category has changed quite a bit over the last century and a half) has undoubtedly been the dominant lens through which all of this is viewed. There has hardly been a news story about the events in New York and Ferguson that has not reminded the reader time and again that the police officers involved were white and the individuals who were killed were black. This constant emphasis on the races of the people involved in the incidents assures that the reader will get the message that race was the principle factor in the incident. The other viewpoint that has been allowed some measure of air time is the simplistic insistence that race was no factor at all, that this is all as simple as “good guys” and “bad guys.” Neither narrative, however, seems to me to capture the full complexity of the issues in either case. As a result, contrarians like me, who see the complexity of every problem and refuse to settle for simple explanations, find ourselves shaking our heads as we read and listen to the statements of those of every political stripe.

In the case of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, race does indeed seem to have been a factor. But the role that race played in this particular shooting is not as simple as the bumper sticker (or protest sign) understanding of its role. Michael Brown was not shot simply because Officer Wilson hated and/or feared black people. Life in the 21st century would be much easier if it were as black and white, so to speak, as segregation in 1950s Alabama. It is not.

Even before all of the testimony to the grand jury was released, I was already able to picture in my mind what almost certainly happened that day in Ferguson. There can be little doubt that Wilson’s words to Brown and his friend as they walked down the street were nowhere near as amiable as Wilson presented them in his testimony. I am a white male and even I, even on my best dressed day, have never had an interaction with a police officer that began with “excuse me, dear sir.” I have had two interactions with police officers in the last several months. In one instance, I was issued a ticket for jaywalking across an empty city street late at night. The officer began our interaction with “where you going?” and, at one point in the interaction, when I admitted that I had not noticed the crosswalk just down the block, he informed me I “must be blind.” Hardly a friendly interaction. Just a few weeks ago, I returned home from shopping to find that my street was blocked off for a marathon. When I asked the officer standing near the roadblock where I should park, he replied simply “not here.” When I asked what time the road would be reopened, he told me, “when it’s done” and walked away without waiting for a reply. In short, police officers in this country are not exactly known for being friendly and helpful.

After Officer Wilson’s undoubtedly rude comments to the men walking down the middle of the street, Brown’s response was certainly not, “Yes, sir,” nor any similarly deferential answer. Instead, his response was, without a doubt, a similarly rude and probably vulgar comment directed at the officer. It is here that we see the root of the problem. Both Wilson and Brown were conditioned by cultures that cultivate and reinforce a form of exaggerated masculinity which can and must be exhibited through vulgarity, rudeness, bravado, and, when these fail, violence. In the case of Wilson, this is the culture of American law enforcement. In the case of Brown, this is the culture of impoverished African-American communities. Both of them had the choice to transcend their respective culture’s expectations, yet both refused to do so. The result is that the one with the most accessible tool for inflicting the greatest amount of harm upon the other “won” the battle of bravado.

The answer to this problem is not to artificially inflate the number of African-American men and women on the police force or in city government in Ferguson or anywhere else. Even a cursory glance at the numbers of applicants versus new hires at police departments throughout the country shows why less blacks are hired than whites for law enforcement work. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch published the statistics for St. Louis County, the county in which Ferguson lies, just two weeks after the Brown shooting. The headline, which was later changed to fit the needs of political correctness, originally read “Qualified black applicants hard to find, chiefs say.” And the article itself showed that such is indeed the case. According to the article, very few blacks apply in the first place and, among those who do, few pass the requisite physical tests and background checks or meet the academic criteria. Do we honestly expect police departments to lower their standards for the sake of political correctness? If you needed brain surgery, would you choose the doctor who aced all of his exams and has a stellar record or one that failed his courses but happens to be a member of a racial minority? The answer is clear to any sane person and it should be equally clear in the case of those we allow to walk our streets with loaded weapons and the ability to take away our freedom.

If we want to increase the number of blacks on the police force as well as end these types of altercations between police and the members of the community, we must work to undermine the cultures of bravado, including both within law enforcement and within poor minority communities. In the case of the police, the best way forward may be to ensure that officers live within the communities they police, even if they are a minority within that community, and that they get to know the people of the community. To insist on professional behavior among police officers doesn’t seem too much to ask. Police officers must be reminded that they are here to protect our communities, not to occupy them.

In addition, our society in general is need of a reaffirmation of the virtues of authentic masculinity. The demonization of masculinity has given boys and men no way of developing their inherent traits in a positive, creative direction. African-Americans have suffered most from his demonization. Black masculinity was feared, hated, and suppressed throughout the Antebellum and segregation eras. The popular early 20th century film Birth of a Nation, for example, presents black masculinity as a dreadful threat to the modesty of white women. The end of official institutional oppression of the black male in the United States, unfortunately, coincided with the rise of a new form of feminism which demonized masculinity more generally. The result of centuries of suppression and denial of black masculinity is the exaggerated masculinity apparent in, for example, the lyrics of rap artists, who tediously detail their strength, virility, and wealth. It will require a great deal of work to undo the damage, but it is possible to take real and effective steps now.

Boys and men must not be told, as is currently the predominant refrain, that their masculinity is inherently bad. They must not be taught to hate and suppress natural male aggression and energy. On the contrary, they should be taught from a young age to control and direct it properly. The very word “virtue,” which has been replaced in large part by the decadent notion of “values,” entered English from the Latin word for manliness. Virtue is manliness purified, controlled, and properly oriented. Boys must be reminded that their strength does not exist for the purpose of imposing their will on those who are weaker, but for the sake of helping those who cannot help themselves. Every strength is a responsibility, boys (and girls) must be told, to those who do not have that strength. Teaching boys that respect, responsibility, and humility are manly virtues and that dressing and conducting oneself in an intelligent, courteous manner is becoming of a gentleman will do a great deal to change the current climate of social interaction, not only between police and community members, but more generally.

I spent some time thinking about the shooting of Michael Brown after the grand jury decision. The question I pondered for several days was would I have shot, if I were in the same situation? The only honest conclusion that I could reach is, if the situation could not have been avoided, and I believe it could have been had either man decided to behave in a manner befitting manliness: I would have pulled the trigger. I don’t know how many times I would have done so, but I would have done so. If a man who outweighed me by nearly 100 lbs. and was several inches taller than me was charging at me aggressively, as multiple eyewitnesses claimed he was, I don’t see any alternative. It is best, however, that we not put ourselves in that position in the first place.

I would like now to turn briefly to the case of Eric Garner and the more recent grand jury decision in New York. There seems to me to be an aspect of this case that is of the utmost importance but that has been almost entirely ignored in most discourse I have observed thus far. Whereas most of the popular narrative highlights race as the central issue, I believe the issue of government extortion is far more central. What we have here is not a case of racism, but of the government skipping several steps in its usual approach to its tactics of extortion.

Cigarettes, they say, are bad for your health. As a result, the government has decided to add a steep and ever-increasing tax to the cost of cigarettes. Last time I was in New York City, a little over a year ago, a pack of cigarettes costed more than 10 dollars in the Bronx. In instituting this extortion racket, the state has far overreached its purposes and purview to fine you for doing something that is bad for your health. The state is an institution created for the purpose of protecting your life, liberty, and property from other people. It is not the business of the state to punish you for doing things that might hurt your own health. That is the job of parents.

The liberal nanny-state, however, insists that mommy-knows-best. They hope that through continually raising the cost of smoking, the number of smokers will decline. The underlying philosophical principle here finds its roots in the early 20th century’s progressive movement and its notion that men can be perfected through social engineering. With the right laws in place, says the liberal social engineer, man can finally be perfected.

Seat belt laws are one of the simplest examples of this social engineering at work. Seat belts save lives, as they say. Because they save lives, the state will come and take away your money if you do not wear one. If one refuses to buy into this decadent understanding of the purpose of the state and so hand over one’s money to the state, the state will then take away one’s freedom. And, finally, if one attempts to defend one’s freedom against the encroachment of the state, one will be executed by the state. In other words, rather than defending life, liberty, and property, as the state was originally intended to do, the state will deprive you of all three in succession because it does not like your personal habits.

Certain representatives of the state decided to fast track this process for Eric Garner. He refused to give the state his money, so they attempted to take away his freedom. With a single, non-violent gesture of the arm and the plea, “please don’t touch me,” he refused to submit to the forces of the state who were attempting to strip him of his freedom. In the process of forcefully depriving him of his freedom, the officers involved, miscalculating the physical abilities of Garner, accidentally executed him before the officially mandated time.

I believe Garner’s statement “please don’t touch me” would be a more apt rallying cry for the protesters than their current chant of “I can’t breathe” and especially more cogent than the frequently heard chant of “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” The former is not Garner’s defining moment and the latter perpetuates a clear fabrication on the part of Brown’s accomplice in his brutish activity before the shooting. It is “please don’t touch me” which sums up well the message that protesters should be disseminating. The crux of both the Brown case and, in particular, the Garner case, is a state that has overstepped its bounds by viewing its purpose as the improvement of mankind and its method as the imposition of power. “Please don’t touch me” is a fine bumper sticker and it fits well on a protest sign. Protect me, but “please don’t touch me.”

As I always do when I voice my opinions, I invite you to voice yours in the comments here as well. In the spirit of an authentic, non-hypocritical contrarianism, I offer my wholehearted welcome to those who disagree to disagree vociferously, but reasonably.

Primary Source: Selections from the Twelve Tables (ca. 450 BC) (Introduction to Western Civilization 4.4)

The earliest attempt by the Romans to create a code of law was the Laws of the Twelve Tables. A commission of ten men was appointed in about 455 BC to draw up a code of law binding on both patricians and plebeians. It would be the job of the consuls to enforce this law. The commission produced enough laws to fill ten bronze tablets. The plebeians were not satisfied, so a second commission of ten men was appointed in 450 B.C. and two additional tablets were added. Below are some selections from the Twelve Tables.


1. Monstrous or deformed offspring may be put to death by the father.

2. The father shall, during his whole life, have absolute power over his children. He may imprison his son, or scourge him, or keep him working in the fields in fetters, or put him to death, even if the son held the highest offices of state.


2. The provisions of the will of a paterfamilias [head of the household] concerning his property and the support of his family, shall have the force of law.


7. Holders of property along a road shall maintain the road to keep it passable; but if it be passable, anyone may drive his beast or cart across the land wherever hechooses.


1. Whoever publishes a libel shall be beaten to death with clubs.

12. A person committing burglary in the night may be lawfully killed.

13. A thief in the daytime may not be killed unless he carried a weapon.

23. Perjurers and false witnesses shall be hurled from the Tarpeian Rock.

26. Seditious gatherings in the city during the night are forbidden.


Review Questions

 1. What kind of power does a father have over his son?

2. What is the responsibility of someone who owns property along a road?

Primary Source: Exodus 20:1-17 (The Ten Commandments) (Introduction to Western Civilization 2.7)

1 And God spoke all these words, saying,

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

“You shall have no other gods before me.

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.

 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

 12 “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

 13 “You shall not murder.

 14 “You shall not commit adultery.

 15 “You shall not steal.

 16 “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

 17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

Moses and the Law (Introduction to Western Civilization 2.6)

Abraham’s son, Isaac, married a woman named Rebekah. Isaac and Rebekah had two sons named Jacob and Esau. Jacob had a total of 12 sons. When a famine struck in the Middle East, Jacob and his large family moved to Egypt. There, they were welcomed by the Pharaoh of Egypt and given land to settle on. As time went on, however, their numbers continued to increase. Eventually there were thousands of Abraham’s descendants, called Hebrews, living in Egypt.

Although the Egyptians had welcomed them at first, they started to fear the Hebrews because there were so many of them. They thought the Hebrews might someday outnumber the Egyptians and take over their country. The Egyptians decided to make the Hebrews into slaves. Even as slaves, though, the Hebrews continued to increase in numbers. Finally, the Pharaoh of Egypt ordered that all Hebrew baby boys should be killed immediately after they were born. He thought that by doing this he could stop the growth of the Hebrews and prevent them from taking over Egypt.

It was at this time that, in about 1400 BC, that Moses was born. To save him from the command of the Pharaoh to kill all Hebrew baby boys, his mother wrapped him in a blanket, placed him in a basket, and floated him down the Nile River. It just so happened that a daughter of the Pharaoh was bathing in the river at that time and saw the basket. She grabbed up the basket and decided to adopt the baby boy she found in it.

Moses was raised as a son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He knew, however, that he was really a Hebrew and he loved his people. One day, he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave. Moses was so angry at what he saw he attacked the Egyptian and killed him. Because he had killed an Egyptian, Moses ran away and went to live in the wilderness.

He lived there for a very long time, away from the cities of Egypt. He married a woman whom he met there and became a shepherd. While he was out in the field one day, however, he saw a very strange thing. There was a bush off in the distance that was on fire but was not burning up. He walked over to take a closer look. As he approached it, he heard a voice command him:  “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Moses obeyed and removed his sandals. The voice from the burning bush then told him “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Moses was surprised and afraid. The voice continued speaking. God told Moses that he was to go back to Egypt and tell the Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go free.

Moses was scared, but he obeyed the voice anyway. He went to the Pharaoh and told the Pharaoh that God had ordered him to set the Hebrews free. The Pharaoh laughed at Moses and refused to allow the Hebrews to go. To convince the Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go, God sent a series of ten plagues on the Egyptians. Each time, Moses was sent by God to warn the Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go, but each time the Pharaoh refused. The ten plagues were:

  1. The water of the Nile River turned into blood.
  2. There were many, many frogs all over Egypt.
  3. The Egyptians were plagued with lice.
  4. Flies were everywhere and getting into everything.
  5. The cattle of the Egyptians became sick and died.
  6. Egyptians caught a disease that caused boils, large pus-filled bubbles, to appear on their skin.
  7. A storm that rained down hail and fire struck the land of Egypt, destroying things it fell on.
  8. A huge swarm of locusts ate up the crops and trees of the Egyptians.
  9. The entire country was dark as night even in the middle of the day.
  10. Finally, each of the first born sons of the Egyptians died.

Before the final plague, Moses warned the Hebrews to mark the doors of their houses with the blood of a lamb so that death would know which houses belonged to Hebrews. In that way, only the firstborn sons of the Egyptians would die and not the sons of Hebrews. Jews still celebrate this event today. The holiday is called Passover because on that day death passed over their houses and struck the Egyptians instead.

After this final plague, Pharaoh finally agreed to let the Hebrews go. As the Hebrews began their journey out of Egypt, though, the Pharaoh changed his mind. He led his army to chase down the Hebrews. He wanted to take them back to slavery. As Pharaoh’s army approached them from behind, the Hebrews were approaching the Red Sea. Moses called on God and raised his arms. When he did this, the sea split in two and allowed the Hebrews to walk through. Once the Hebrews had gone through, Moses put his arms down and the sea closed. Pharaoh and his entire army drowned.

Safely out of Egypt, Moses led the Hebrews to Mount Sinai. There, he went up on the mountain to speak with God and find out what the Hebrews should do next. He was up there so long the people thought that he had died. When he came back down to give them the Ten Commandments, Moses found the people worshipping a golden calf instead of God. For this, the Hebrews were forced to wander in the desert for 40 years before they were allowed to go to the land that God had promised to Abraham.

Eventually, Moses was able to lead them to this Promised Land and Joshua, a faithful follower of Moses, led the Hebrew army to conquer it. At least, the Hebrews were allowed to settle in the land that had been promised by God to their ancestor Abraham. They built cities there and began to follow the law that Moses had given them from God.


Review Questions

 1. Shortly before the birth of Moses, the Pharaoh ordered all newborn Hebrew boys killed. How did Moses’s mother save him from this command?

2. What sea did Moses part so the Hebrews could cross over?


Vocabulary Words

 Famine – a time when food becomes very rare