Our Old Friend Jean-Jacques

 Posted by on 15 August 2005 at 8:06 pm  Uncategorized
Aug 152005

I think that Andrew Sullivan’s guest blogger Walter Kirn is channeling Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In response to the 1755 Lisbon earthquake that killed tens of thousands, Rousseau wrote to Voltaire:

I do not see how one can search for the source of moral evil anywhere but in man’s freedom and perfection–which are also his corruption. As for our physical pains: if sensate and impassible matter is, as I think, a contradiction in terms, then pains are inevitable in any world of which man forms a part–and the question them becomes not ‘why is man not perfectly happy’ but ‘why does he exist at all?’ Moreover, I think I have shown that most of our physical pains, except for death–which is hardly painful, except for the preparations that precede it–are also our own work. Without leaving your Lisbon subject, concede, for example, that it was hardly nature who assembled there twenty-thousand houses of six or seven stories. If the residents of this large city had been more evenly dispersed and less densely housed, the losses would have been fewer or perhaps none at all. Everyone would have fled at the first shock, and would have been seen two days later, twenty leagues away and as happy as if nothing had happened. But we have to stay and expose ourselves to further tremors, many obstinately insisted, because what we would have to leave behind is worth more than what we could carry away. How many unfortunates perished in this disaster for wanting to take–one his clothing, another his papers, a third his money? They know so well that a person has become the least part of himself, and that he is hardly worth saving if all the rest is lost.

You would have liked–and who would not have liked–the earthquake to have happened in the middle of some desert, rather than in Lisbon. Can we doubt that they also happen in deserts? But no one talks about those, because they have no ill effects for city gentlemen (the only men about whom anyone cares anything). For that matter, desert earthquakes have little effect on the animals and scattered savages who inhabit such spots–and who have no reason to fear falling roofs or tumbling buildings. What would such a privilege mean to us? Will we say that the order of the world must change to suit our whims, that nature must be subject to our laws, that in order to prevent an earthquake in a certain spot, all we have to do is build a city there?

Ah yes, if only we humans weren’t so corrupt as to gather ourselves into cities, such disasters would never befall us! Consider the similarity of that message to Walter Kirn’s recent post on terrorism:

TERROR FROM MONTANA: I’ll start with something that’s been bugging me but that I haven’t had a forum to write about: this idea, almost universally agreed upon, that Americans mustn’t let terrorism change our way of life. I disagree. Our way of life had its problems before Osama appeared, and we probably could have stood to change it then, but now that we have the added impetus of being collectively attacked in ways that we never dreamed about in past years, I think it’s high time that we did a few thing differently that maybe we should have done already

Like, say, spread out a little geographically. I live in Montana, way out in the country, near towns that have been abandoned and depopulated and could use a few resources from the threatened cities that have made themselves sitting ducks for sabotage by building their infrastructures so dense and tall that a pellet gun could knock them over. There’s a price for supersaturating small areas with people, wealth, and technology, and now we’re paying it by trying to secure in thousands of ways targets that are inviting as they come. This folly of rebuilding the World Trade Center proves that we’d rather be proud and stubborn than safe. Here we go piling up the blocks again just to show how bloodied but unbowed we are instead of learning our lesson and reshaping things. It’s not the de-urbanization of the cities that I’m dreaming about here, it’s the re-urbanization of the towns — places where strangers can easily be spotted and people can’t be vaporized by the hundreds merely by stuffing a few bombs into some backpacks.

Maybe I don’t sound serious. I am. At least in this respect I am: responding to terrorism with inflexibility isn’t going to work, I fear, and unless we start entertaining notions as wild and possibly half-baked as situating our treasure and our people in places where they don’t invite assault we’re not only daring the bad guys to bring it on, we’re forgetting that the beauty of our society is that it can mold itself to new realities rather than march in lockstep like the Redcoats toward all-too-predictable catastrophes.

Kirn differs from Rousseau in some important respects. Unlike earthquakes, terrorists can be eliminated — yet Kirn wishes us to accommodate ourselves to them instead, as if they were a fact of nature. So the call to large cities for small towns is not motivated by primitivism but by a cowardly refusal to fight the enemy.

If that’s depressing, you can liven your spirits by reading this famous bit from Voltaire, written shortly before the Lisbon earthquake, about Rousseau’s essays The Discourse on the Origin of Inequality among Men and The Essay against Civilization.

I have received, sir, your new book against the human species, and I thank you for it. You will please people by your manner of telling them the truth about themselves, but you will not alter them. The horrors of that human society–from which in our feebleness and ignorance we expect so many consolations–have never been painted in more striking colors: no one has ever been so witty as you are in trying to turn us into brutes: to read your book makes one long to go on all fours. Since, however, it is now some sixty years since I gave up the practice, I feel that it is unfortunately impossible for me to resume it: I leave this natural habit to those more fit for it than are you and I. Nor can I set sail to discover the aborigines of Canada, in the first place because my ill-health ties me to the side of the greatest doctor in Europe, and I should not find the same professional assistance among the Missouris: and secondly because war is going on in that country, and the example of the civilized nations has made the barbarians almost as wicked as we are ourselves. I must confine myself to being a peaceful savage in the retreat I have chosen–close to your country, where you yourself should be.


Update: Mark Wickens was kind enough to alert me to the fact that it wasn’t Andrew Sullivan blogging, but rather his guest Walter Kirn.

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