TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Rousseau and the Tragic Desire for Unity

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Flaminia Incecchi looks at Alice Ormiston’s “A Tragic Desire: Rousseau and the Modern Democratic Project” from Telos 154 (Spring 2011).

In “A Tragic Desire: Rousseau and the Modern Democratic Project,” Alice Ormiston brings to the fore a figure often neglected in contemporary political theory and that, as the title foreshadows, is Jean-Jacques Rousseau. First, Ormiston—animated by the task of the intellectual historian—traces to Rousseau the discovery of a fundamental clash at the heart of the modern subject, which is that between nature and abstract reason (8). Such tension, Ormiston claims, has influenced, or is present in, subsequent thinkers like Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. Rousseau identifies the clash between nature and reason, and eyeing man’s primitive condition with nostalgia and viewing his modern condition with contempt, he is seeking to resolve such contention in his works. That is performed in many of Rousseau’s works, and it essentially consists in devising forms for the uncorrupted individual to exist in a society that seeks to preserve his original nature. This is what Ormiston dubs the desire for unity. Essentially, it is the desire to create a seamless order between the individual and the community, where the community must leave the nature of the individual intact. Ormiston takes her readers by the hand in a fascinating exploration of the desire for unity in Emile, The Social Contract, Julie, and Rousseau’s autobiographical writings, and how the desire has shaped his life. The aim of Ormiston’s article is to show that the desire for unity is fundamentally tragic and paradoxical. Tragic because it is legitimate but ultimately unrealizable, and paradoxical because we should not abandon the project. Ormiston seeks to demonstrate these points through an exploration of Rousseau’s biography and thought. In Ormiston’s view, illustrating Rousseau’s ideas sheds light on the desire for unity that animates modern democratic thought, in her words: “his political thought shows the clash between the general will, or a reason rooted in conscience and a concern for the good of the whole, and an atomistic and instrumental reasoning” (25).

Most students of political philosophy will recall reading Rousseau in the earliest periods of their intellectual growth and formation. The memory is accompanied by experiencing true intellectual delight in reading a thinker so animated by the faith in human nature. Especially because Rousseau is often covered after Hobbes, who, with his damming remarks on the nature of man, temporarily shakes optimism out of many. Reading Rousseau at university is akin to the feeling Italian high school students experience while reading Giovanni Pascoli, who in all his works is nostalgic of the fanciullino, or the innocent child. In Pascoli’s view, that is essentially what poetry should convey, a re-evocation of simple life and the simple beginnings of man. Ormiston provides a reality check for those who view Rousseau as the eternal romantic, by showing how the desire for unity caused his downfall:

In his final work, Reveries of the Solitary Walker, Rousseau appears to have regained his equilibrium, having given up altogether on any hopes of vindication from the outside world, and having rejected his aspirations toward unity. Yet the peace and tranquility he achieves thereby is starkly limited; we see it only when he has retreated into the deepest recesses of his self, when he has withdrawn most completely from any contact with the outside world. At those moments when he surfaces, at the very point of intersection between his self and society, his voice becomes querulous and accusatory. Thus we still find him lacerated, pained, and tormented. Any memory of contact with the forces of recognition in the outside world grates on a wound that remains as fresh as the day it was opened. Too damaged by his conflict with the world, he could find peace only in isolation and self-meditation. (24)

In the last pages of the article Ormiston fulfills the promise she made the outset, viz. showing how the figure of Rousseau can be instructive to the modern democratic project. In spite of its tragic nature and often tragic consequences, the desire for unity should not be abandoned: “we must accept on the one hand, the legitimacy and validity of the desire for unity and, on the other hand, the impossibility of its total fulfillment” (26). Ormiston therefore, invites modern democratic thinkers to persevere in their dreams and theories of unity, but with a word of caution. It seems therefore, that the modern democratic thinker must still embark on the voyage for unity, but with conscientiousness, for the dream cannot be fulfilled.

I agree with Ormiston’s remarks on the tragic nature of the desire for unity and the view that a healthy society that also fosters unity is akin to Romeo and Juliet: two star-crossed lovers. However, Ormiston should have provided a direction for modern democratic theory that shows how the desire for unity and the disillusionment regarding its fulfillment can be coupled. Perhaps, Ormiston could have suggested embracing a recognition of pluralism, or a more tangible recipe for resisting the belief in unity in practice. While her remarks on what not to believe in excessively are illuminating, I would contend that Ormiston should have mapped an ideal direction for the democratic project.

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