Monday, May 9, 2016

Everywhere in chains

"Man is Born Free but is everywhere in chains" is the opening line to Rousseau’s Social Contract. It was not meant as hyperbole, but rather as a statement of the self-evident fact that participation in civilized society requires us to abnegate the lion’s share of our personal freedoms.

John Gray, in his book The Silence of Animals suggests that there is something "fishy" about Rousseau’s statement by relating it to an analog that is literally about fish, something Gray calls an "ichthyophil" take on Rousseau. Suppose Rousseau’s statement is changed to "fish are born to fly, but everywhere they swim." And, further, suppose that you use the fact that there are certain fish that appear actually to fly for short distances as evidence that even though fish are water-bound for the present, they are continually striving toward flight. Of course this is absurd. Fish are water beings, with a host of finely-tuned adaptations that make them specifically suited for life underwater. They were born for no other purposes than the ones they in fact pursue during the courses of their subaquatic lives. Fish are precisely what they are meant to be.

But why, Gray asks, should we humans be different from other animals? Why is it that we are not what we are meant to be, that we are born for freedom but are everywhere living as slaves? Civilization is obviously a human creation. To claim civilization as some kind of anti-human mode of existence seems as absurd as claiming that fish aren’t really meant for a life underwater. Termites build termite mounds, humans build cities. Fish move in schools, antelope in herds, ants and bees in colonies; and humans occupy violently guarded, bureaucratically structured systems of power and authority. Surely civilization is a natural part of the human design. Civilization is the human analog to the fishes’ water.

But this doesn’t feel quite right to me.

The logic of Rousseau’s statement might be attacked from a slightly different direction, and one that takes a more parsimonious route than Gray’s fish analogy. Man is an abstraction. Mankind—the species—is not born in a literal sense. And it makes little sense to say that man as an abstract category can be free, sad, strong, or any other adjective designed to describe the condition or circumstances of an individual agent. Individual men and women can be free or not. It is, however, a mistake to say an entire species is in possession of a characteristic that can exist only in concrete form in some proportion of individual members.

But this approach seems artificially dismissive of what feels to be a truly substantive set of issues—most notably the fact that you and I are not at all free.

There is a third possible take on Rousseau, one that has the potential to redeem at least a small measure of the original intent of his statement, perhaps (although it might render the rest of his Social Contract a moot exercise). Consider man in the abstract sense of the term, as the human species, and interpret born as a metaphor for the evolutionary emergence of humanity. Man was indeed born free in this metaphorical sense. The human species emerged in the complete absence of violently imposed hierarchies of power and authority beyond those found in simple (and perpetually shifting) primate dominance relations, and has spent the bulk of its existence as a species in this primordial state of freedom. But now, and for only the last few millennia—a relative blink of an eye—the overwhelming majority of humans on the planet are forced to live in ways that reflect a profound absence of freedom, living lives that are far, far removed from the hunter-gatherer egalitarian prototype.

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