Rousseau as a Historian

Jean Jacques Rousseau

Jean Jacques Rousseau (Photo credit: Stifts- och landsbiblioteket i Skara)

Rousseau as a “historian”: what do you make of Rousseau’s use of “conjectural history” in the Discourse (and to some extent the Contract)? Are we to assume that Rousseau really believed in the historical stages he describes? If not, or not entirely, then what is he up to?

Rousseau gives an overview of history as he sees in order to present the reader with the process by which he came up with his conclusions. This approach to rhetoric is very effective in that it allows him to control what information (about history) that the reader has access to and make his conclusions seemed to be the only reasonable ones. I am not saying that he’s necessarily wrong about his historical perspective or anything else for that matter; all I’m saying is that this kind of presentation of historical context/conjectural history for his arguments allows him to buttress his conclusions in a very natural way.

Williams, David. The Enlightenment. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 1999. Print.

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Rousseau’s Well-Considered Project

Graeme Garrard traces the origin of the Counte...

Graeme Garrard traces the origin of the Counter-Enlightenment to Rousseau. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What, exactly, is the “most well-considered project ever to enter the human mind” (Williams, 117)?

In this part of the essay, Rousseau is arguing against the power that the most powerful men in society have. He accuses them of being “greedy, ambitious and wicked” (William 116) and asks them: “do you not know that a great many of your brothers perish or suffer from need of what you have in excess?” (William 117). Rousseau blames these rich powerful men for crushing the individual who is “alone against all” (Williams 117). However, he also points out, in a rather accusatory way, that an individual is also someone who is “alone against all, and unable because their mutual jealousies, to unite with his equals against enemies united by the common hope of plunder” (117). Though individuals were for many years unable to unite with his equals against their true enemies (the greedy rich), they did finally manage to conceive “the most well-considered project ever to enter the human mind” (Williams, 117). This well-considered project is the idea of using one’s attackers’ forces against him, to make one’s adversaries and enemies his defenders, and to give society other institutions that are in favor or the natural rights of man (Williams, 117). In other words, the most well-considered project ever to enter the human mind is the idea that a man unites with his adversaries who are their equals against their true enemies (those who are against the natural rights of man).

Williams, David. The Enlightenment. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 1999. Print.

Magical and Supernatural Beings in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

So-called Church fathers altar (Kirchenväteral...

So-called Church fathers altar (Kirchenväteraltar), outside of the right wing, lower scene: Saint Augustine and the devil—according to other sources: Saint Wolfgang and the devil (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Magic in the story portrayed as if it is part of everyday life. Gawain battles dragons and wolves and we as readers quickly forget that only one of those creatures is real. Green Knight is the main magical being. He loses his head, picks it up and expects Gawain to keep his word. Playing the beheading game must be a lot less scary if you know you cannot be killed. The people in the room, even though they are shocked at first, assume it is magic and witchcraft. Later in the story, Merlin and his magical powers are introduced just as nonchalantly as all the other magical powers throughout the story. In a way, this poem reminds me of  contemporary magical realism literature in which magic is just part of everyday life and no one pays much attention to it.

Anonymous.  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  Translated by Bernard O’DonoghueNew York: Penguin Books, 2007.

Burlamaqui’s Perfect and Imperfect Rights

English: Engraved portrait of Jean-Jacques Bur...

English: Engraved portrait of Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui (1694-1748), a Swiss jurist and philosopher. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Give an example of the difference between what Burlamaqui calls perfect rights and imperfect rights. He posits an important difference but does not provide a specific example.

For Burlamaqui, “perfect rights are those whose implementation can be required to the letter, if necessary going as far as to use force to ensure that they are implemented, or to ensure that they continue to be observed, against those who might want to resist us, or cause us unease” (89). Perfect rights are those rights which are essentially inalienable, ones that we can protect to the death. For Burlamaqui, these rights allow people to use reasonable force against those who threaten “our lives, our property or our freedom” (89). In other words, Burlamaqui seems to be saying that people have the perfect right to protect themselves and their property from any harm. I am not sure, however, what that means exactly. Does that mean that I can shoot and kill a man who grabs my purse on the street? What exactly is his definition of reasonable force? Unfortunately, we are still struggling with these questions today in America. What particularly worries me about his definition is his use of the word “unease” (89). Unease seems to be such a minor discomfort, a discomfort that I’m not sure should give me the right to infringe on someone else’s perfect rights.

An imperfect right is on that can be “legitimately given up” (Burlamaqui 90). His example of this right is a creditor releasing a debtor of his debts, either completely or partially. Burlamaqui states that “a father cannot give up his rights to his children, nor leave them entirely to their own fate” (90). Therefore, the children’s right to their father is an example of a perfect right.

Williams, David. The Enlightenment. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 1999. Print.

Honor in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

English: "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight...

English: “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, from the Cotton Nero A.x manuscript (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, honor and chivalry are somewhat related concepts. Chivalry appears to be something of a social, public concept while honor is something of a private and personal concept. Gawain is bound both by social and private pressures. Social pressures and customs require him to maintain the esteem of King Arthur’s court and therefore keep his word and act in a chivalrous manner while he travels. Private pressures require him to keep his word and act in a polite, valiant, and honorable manner to maintain his personal honor. Gawain’s honor is tested right from the beginning of the poem. He gives his word in the beheading game and intends to keep it even though it is obvious that the Green Knight tricked him (he did not die when Gawain beheaded him). Gawain continues to keep his word even though his journey is lonely and dangerous.  “He [Gawain] rode far from friends, a forsaken man, scaling many cliffs in country unknown” and “had death struggles with dragons, did battles with wolves” (48). His persistence is an illustration of his honor.

Anonymous.  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  Translated by Bernard O’DonoghueNew York: Penguin Books, 2007.

Role of Reason in Burlamaqui’s Notion of Natural Right

What do you take to be the role of Reason in Burlamaqui’s notion of natural right? That is, what role does reason serve in his overall argument about natural right? How does his utilization of reason differ from the way Kant envisions the role of reason?

Burlamaqui defines a right as an obligation, and states that “right and obligation are two correlative terms… one of these ideas necessarily imply the other, and you cannot conceive of a right without conceiving of a corresponding obligation” (88). For him, a natural right is one that belongs “originally and essentially to man,” one that is inherent in man’s nature “by which he experiences the condition of being human, independently of any particular act on his part” (Burlamaqui 89). However, given that he views natural law as “a law that God imposes on all men,” Burlamaqui’s views of natural and acquired rights are linked to notions of religious morality. For example, “It is beyond doubt (and everybody is in agreement about this) that the efficient cause of the laws of nature, and of the obligation that they engender, is the will of the Supreme Being” (Burlamaqui 99). In other words, for Burlamaqui God is the “supreme rule of conduct in everything connected with society…” (Burlamaqui 99).

As a result, Reason does not play a large role in Burlamaqui’s notion of natural rights. For him, goodness is tied to being guided by God and religion. Therefore, individuals not guided by God and religion would then be evil or not good. Later in his essay, Burlamaqui states that “reason then tells us that creatures of the same rank, of the same species, one with the same faculties, have a general equal common rights so that they can live together, and share the same advantages we are thus obligated to regard ourselves as being naturally equal, and to treat each other as being so” (99). Though Burlamaqui links Reason to equality, his own definition is very exclusionary. In other words, the only people who he considers as being generally equal are those who are just like him (God fearing and good). Therefore, instead of making an argument for the natural rights of all men, he argues for the natural rights of certain (good) men.

Burlamaqui views God as a paternal figure, “a master who possesses inherently the sovereign right to command men, to prescribe rules of conduct for them, and to impose laws on them” (94). Since his entire view of society is based on man’s relationship with God, his views on natural rights and the rights of the state are also very patriarchal. This approach to the state is very different from the one that Kant and Mendelssohn put out. Both Kant and Mendelssohn undermine the powers of hierarchy and of the state in order to foster more freedoms in society. Thought Kant argues for the needs of guardians to guide souls within a society, he does not argue for a sovereign ruler who rules like God (essentially like a dictator).

Williams, David. The Enlightenment. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 1999. Print.

Chivalry and Heroism in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, chivalry is very important. For example, when Gawain rises from the table during the feast, Gawain is respectful and courteous: “let me rise from this bench and stand with you there, to move from this table without giving offence, if there’s no objection from my lady the queen, I’ll take over for you before all the court” (33-34).  While Gawain is the epitome of a chivalrous hero, King Arthur and the Green Knight also exhibit respect for chivalrous deeds. For example, when the Green Knight first arrives, Arthur introduces himself and invites him to join them. “Sir knight, you are certainly welcome. I am head of this house: Arthur is my name. Please deign to dismount and dwell with us till you impart your purpose, at a proper time” (30). Furthermore, in addition to acting chivalrously, chivalry is also mentioned directly. In response to Arthur’s offer, the Green Knight states: “But my intention was not to tarry in the turreted hall. But as your reputation, royal sir, is raised up so high, and your castle and cavaliers are accounted the best… The most warlike, the worthiest the world has bred, most valiant to vie with in the virile contests, and as chivalry is shown here, so I am assured…” (30). It is King Arthur’s fame and the chivalry of his court that has brought the Green Knight to his door. He notes this fact in his statement, “at this time, I tell you, that [chivalry] has attracted me here.”

Anonymous.  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  Translated by Bernard O’DonoghueNew York: Penguin Books, 2007.