Portrait of the Daily Mail as a political philosopher

I want to share something with you that you may not have seen before.

The text that follows was written, originally, back in the 1950s by the late Sir Isaiah Berlin and, with a number of revisions along the way, was finally published in 2006 in a posthumous volume entitled ‘Political Ideas in the Romantic Age‘.

In this passage from the book, which appears on pages 106-107, Berlin provides an extremely striking description of the 18th century Swiss political philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau:

Rousseau was not a proletarian, he was not a victim of the social order, he was a characteristic member of the respectable Swiss lower middle class who broke away from his milieu, and became a Bohemian adventurer of no fixed occupation in revolt against society, but still with the temperament and beliefs of a provincial petit bourgeois.

This outlook and these opinions in their abraded, inflamed and morbid condition took the form – as so often both before and after him – of a violent, piously philistinic attack on all that is refined, distinguished and unique in society, against that which could be considered in some sense withdrawn, esoteric, the product of exceptional elaboration or unique endowments, not immediately intelligible to the casual observer. Rousseau’s furious onslaughts upon the aristocracy, upon refinement in the arts or in life, upon disinterested scientific enquiry, upon the lives and characters of all but the most immediate purveyors of objects useful to the average man – all this is not so much the cry for justice or understanding on the part of the representative of the insulted and injured helots, as something far more familiar and less respectworthy: the perennial distrust of moral or intellectual independence and freedom on the part of those suspicious representatives of the middle class who found their voice in Rousseau, and who became progressively more influential in the nineteenth century – the believers in a solid, somewhat narrow, morally respectable, semi-egalitarian, privilege-hating, individualistic ideal, with its respect for work, success and the domestic virtues, its sentimental materialism and intolerance of differences – in short the great middle class of the nineteenth century, which becomes the enemy and the butt of all the revoke writers of that period, and which has survived so much more powerfully in America than in Europe today. Rousseau, so far from being the protagonist of the artist or the sans-culotte or the preacher of moral freedom, turns out to be an early and indeed premature champion of the lower middle class – the common man of our century – against not merely the aristocracy or the masses, but against the upper sections of the middle class, with its artistic and intellectual aims and demands and ideals, which prosperous peasants and industrious artisans – the ‘common’ men – obscurely feel to be a menace to their own more conventional, more deeply traditional, more rigidly set moral and intellectual values and decencies, with their solid protective crust of prejudice, superstition and faith in the sound, the kindly and the commonplace, concealing beneath a solid surface an elaborate network of social sensibilities and snobberies, passionately clung to, and a jealous consciousness of precise status and position in a profoundly hierarchical society. Rousseau is a poor, or rather deliberately self-blinded, sociologist, who threw dust in the eyes of many generations by representing as a rustic idyll or Spartan simplicity – the immemorial wisdom of the land – what is, in fact, an expression of that small-town bourgeois and class-conscious outlook, admittedly in an abnormal and diseased condition, which made him peculiarly aware of the vices and errors of the last days of a collapsing feudal order, and peculiarly blind to the deficiencies of that social outlook and those ideas which his own fiery genius did so much to enthrone in their place. In short, he was a militant lowbrow and the patron saint of the enemies of intellectuals, long­haired professors, avant-garde writers and the intelligentsia – the advanced thinkers – everywhere.

The most striking thing about this passage is that – save for the odd biographical detail – one could quite easily replace the name ‘Rousseau’ with that of Paul Dacre, any one of maybe thirty to forty current Conservative MPs and several Tory MP’s, or with the name of just about every significant figure associated with the US Republican Tea Party movement and this passage would still make perfect sense and fit the values and ideas of your chosen protagonist like a very expensive hand-crafted glove.

That’s a pretty scary thought, isn’t it?

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  • Mr. Jolly

    Well, I’m not convinced:

    “Palin was not a proletarian, she was not a victim of the social order, she was a characteristic member of the respectable American lower middle class who broke away from her milieu, and became a Bohemian adventurer of no fixed occupation in revolt against society, but still with the temperament and beliefs of a provincial petit bourgeois.”

  • Gareth

    Ahem

    “Save for the odd biographical detail”

  • This idea needs further work. It would also appear that Unity, sterling as they may be, has not read much Rousseau (perhaps none at all). 

    Firstly, the actual quotation is wildly inaccurate with regards to Rousseau’s thoughts. Take this:

    “of a violent, piously philistinic attack on all that is refined, distinguished and unique in society, against that which could be considered in some sense withdrawn, esoteric, the product of exceptional elaboration or unique endowments, not immediately intelligible to the casual observer.”

    The idea that Rousseau is against ‘all that is refined’ can be disproved by the simple procedure of reading just about any page of his Confessions.

    Rousseau did rail against members of the bourgeoisie, because he felt that they were too moralistic/snobbish, particularly with regards to his Therese. They held Rousseau in contempt for having a lower-class wife in a way that never occurred to the aristocrats that Rousseau later met. Indeed, in the Confessions, who does Rousseau claim, towards the end of his life, that he felt most relaxed in the company of? That’s right, an aristocrat, a man so far above him socially, that it meant they could have a friendship that was not tainted by the self-interest of either party. It seems to me that Rousseau finds friendship to be ideal in precisely this mode, and it contrasts with Diderot and the rest, who were only ever seeking to use him for their own advantage. In our modern lives, we often feel the opposite, that a ‘true friend’ is somebody we can impose ourselves upon, who would ‘do anything for us’, but it seems to me that the type of friendship Rousseau describes is a valid alternative, and, besides, what he most resents about a lot of his so-called friendships, is precisely the social obligations they subjected him to, without consideration to his meagre purse (tipping servants, hiring carriages, etc).

    Secondly, Rousseau considers each person’s character when assessing them, but a part of that assessment is how much a person permits themselves to be constrained by society’s demands. When a person permits society to impact upon the purity of a friendship, Rousseau feels this to be a grand betrayal. I would say that in the Tea Party rhetoric, there is a corresponding idea that the purity of your ideology is the extent to which you constrain your individual demands so that the superrich can practice business and accumulate capital without restraint. Slightly different, I think you’ll agree.

    Lastly, it appears more that Bachmann, Palin, and the Tea Party types are simply engaging in a type of theatre, where they rail against educated ‘elites’ because the constituency they are trying to sway are the lower orders. John McCain, son of a father/grandfather who were both Admirals, married to a Coors heiress, owner of 10+ houses in various parts of the planet, also had a go at criticising the elites. Rousseau also may stand accused (as all of us might) of posturing, of being the hero of his own great dramatic production, The Life of Rousseau (and he is often cited as critical in the development of biography), but a crucial difference remains – the fact that Rousseau never said or wrote his words while running for political office. Indeed, his own efforts to avoid politics often landed him in even deeper political trouble, but this once again reflected both twin truths, 1) that the political sphere was penetrating further and further into life, and 2) that this fact was not a reason, in and of itself, to not put up resistance.

    I write this comment not to show I am right, nor clever, but simply because I have a deep admiration for Rousseau’s writings, particularly the Confessions, and I feel that this quotation does him an injustice, and to then carry things further and compare him to Paul Dacre! It shall not stand uncontested!

    Love from Taipei City