In this paper I first explain the concept of self-tyranny in Rousseau’s “Second Discourse” and then in Plato’s “The Republic”. Drawing upon “The Republic”, I then tackle Rousseau’s conundrum regarding how to escape from his description of self-tyranny, by showing that even though the transformation from Natural Man to Civil Man seems to bring self-tyranny, it actually offers the only possibility of escaping it.
At the beginning of Rousseau’s “Second Discourse”, in the state of nature, Man’s behavior is only driven by two forces: self-preservation and pity (Preface, ). Perfectibility, combined with the need to adapt to one’s environment, leads man to develop more complex technology and societies (Part 1, ). Once he invents agriculture and metallurgy, he reaches a point where he can no longer ensure his self-preservation on his own, and he requires other people to survive (Part 2, ). Because of this need, a number of secondary social desires arise in him: to be well-regarded by his peers (amour-propre), to have a high social status; to be a useful member of society, etc. As perfectibility leads the way to innovation and progress, and man becomes more and more dependant on other humans for his survival, so does his need for their recognition grow (Part 2, ). In Civil Man, his needs for social recognition and integration can go so far as to overpower his initial drives for self-preservation and pity. This can lead to situations such as people over-working themselves to death (desire for being a successful member of society overpowering the drive for self-preservation), or people killing other men just because of glory and reputation (amour-propre overpowering pity) [Note IX].
Thus, even though all the new needs that we encounter in Civil Man appeared initially to help satisfy the fundamental ones, their original purpose was lost, and they became detrimental, promoting a regime of self-tyranny upon the soul of Civil Man. Rousseau himself acknowledges this self-tyranny, but does not seem to be willing to escape from it (Note IX, ), even though he clearly considers the time before it as the “happiest and most lasting epoch” and “the best for man” (Part II, ). In order to show why Rousseau is right in not wanting to revert to the so-called “golden age” lifestyle, and to offer a clear way out of this self-tyranny, we must make use of Plato’s ideas.
The first step in explaining the notion of self-tyranny in “The Republic” is to understand how the soul is organized according to Plato. He divides the soul into three parts: the calculative part, the spirited part and the desiring part (“The Republic”, 441a). The calculative part is reason, and we can group the spirited part and the desiring part both under the general term of inclinations. The spirited part contains the inclinations pertaining to mastery, victory, honor and the likes while the desiring part is formed by the countless other inclinations that are left (hunger, thirst, sex drive, etc.).
By following the desiring part or the spirited part over the calculating one, the part that is followed can become its own tyrant. This is because both the desires and the spirit can easily be deceived, and thus need the calculating part to guide them. (586c). To give an example outside of “The Republic”, if one should feel a strong thirst and thus have a desire to drink, and he would drink randomly without using his reason, drinking any water he sees on the street, or saltwater if he leaves near the sea, he would not only damage his health, but he would also defeat the nature of his desire. For his desire stemmed from the need to drink potable water, not any kind of water. Thus, blindly following one’s desire, without using reason, could lead to doing things in opposition to what the true nature of what the desire required. Since reason is the only part of the soul that can pursue truth, it should naturally be the one that leads. Only reason can show the path to how to truly satisfy your desires and your spirit (587 a).
By not accepting the calculating part as the master of the soul, man will inevitably fall into the chains of self-tyranny, since he does not know how to fulfill the true nature of his inclinations. But it is not enough for the calculating part to rule in order to escape self-tyranny. The calculating part must also be “turned” into the right direction (518). If you have a philosophic nature, you need to pursue the forms (the top part of the divided line) [485 b], and if not, then you should acknowledge your limitations, and follow the advice of those who can achieve true knowledge (474 b, c). Only then will you be able to be true to your nature (586c).
Plato is thus able to give a very powerful solution out of the self-tyranny that Rousseau has shown us. By making reason the master and turning it towards philosophy, we are able to escape from our chains. Not only that, but also instead of returning to subsisting on “grass and acorns” (“Second Discourse”, note IX), we would be able to maintain our modern social and technological life, and thus have the best of both worlds. But before we move forward we must acknowledge the limitations of this solution. The main assumption for using reason to escape tyranny is that we can reach final truths (the forms) [490 b]. If that is not the case, then there is never a complete escape from our chains. There is always the risk of self-tyranny. If we are not able to reach definite answers, the next best thing that we could hope for is the possibility to continuously get closer to the truth (like the laws of physics, which are better and better approximations of how Nature works). Then, even though we could never completely unshackle ourselves completely, we could at least loosen the chains. If continuously getting closer and closer to the truth is also not possible, if in the philosophical inquiry about a concept one is destined to arrive at answers, which might be opposite or totally not related to each other, if in the morning red is blue and in the evening blue is red, then the whole possibility of ever being true to our inclinations disappears, and we are always condemned to self-tyranny, regardless if we are Natural Men or Civil Men. With these three levels of possible freedom from self-tyranny in mind, we are can move forward and apply Plato’s theory to Rousseau.
We are ready at this point to support with arguments Rousseau’s choice to not return to the “golden age” (“Second Discourse”, note IX, ). Even though it appeared initially that self-tyranny was established only after secondary social needs overpowered primary needs, it was actually there all along from the beginning. It was there all along because there was no proper calculative part to guide the two primary drives (self-preservation and pity). In order for reason to be able to guide the desires, it needs to be able to reach the top part of the divided line, where the forms reside. In order to do that, reason needs dialectic. Dialectic is a dialogue between at least two people, in which one they try to reach the truth by means of argument (534 c). A man by himself cannot do dialectic. He needs other people. But since the core characteristic of the “golden age” is that each man was entirely self-sufficient, it is fundamentally incompatible with dialectic, with philosophy, and with knowing the truth. If man cannot know the truth, than he cannot guide his desires and his spirit, which are easily and often deceived, and thus is condemned to self-tyranny. The “golden age” is actually a prison, which locks the men in it in a continuous state of self-tyranny, without any possibility to escape, unless they abandon their self-sufficiency and start depending on others for their philosophical needs.
In order to have a hope of escaping the self-tyranny of following the wrong inclinations, one needs to leave the “golden age”. In this regard, the transformation of Natural Man towards Civil Man has actually been a road towards liberation, not servitude. Even though the tyrannical chains might have multiplied around man, his strength to break them has increased at an ever-faster rate. Civil Man has embraced the power of dialectic, and is educated and more intelligent than Natural Man. He has the ability to travel all over the world and expose himself to a myriad of images, sights, thoughts and ideas (the four levels of the divided line). Therefore, he can perceive and aspire to a much larger number of forms than Natural Man. The forms are out there, waiting to be grasped, all Civil Man needs to do is to extend his hand.
But does he want to? Some people have a philosophic nature, and the arrangement of their soul is in the proper order since birth. They’ve always been curious, always inquisitive, never satisfied. But as Plato says, those people are rare (495 b). Most people are ruled by their inclinations, and as the allegory of the cave shows, motivation is going to be an issue. Like a heroin addict not able to escape the yoke of pleasure, some people might think they are happy and satisfied, and will not want to be awakened from this illusion (517 a). But, as is the case with the heroin addict, the man who knows better, and can see that the addict’s true desires have been perverted towards something else, is obliged to help him and if need be, forcefully turn him towards the truth.
“The truth will set you free”