Monday, April 20, 2009

History 112: Enlightenment I (Q&A)

1. In the Davies text they spoke of Rousseau as a man that overcame a lot and as a man that was a forward thinker about equality and rights. In the excerpt online about his views on women, he sounded like a pompous jerk [for arguing that women needed to be kept in their place]. I was just curious if his views on women were acceptable back then? Was his views typical of the general public, and what about other forward thinkers, did they also agree with his view on women?
2. What were the common folk's opinion on how women should be treated? Also what was the Church's take on this? Were women of "wit" or "letters" looked down upon, as Rousseau thought they should be?

Rousseau was hardly alone in his sentiments even among Enlightenment figures. Not only did they have, by our standards, fairly negative views on women, their advocacy of freedom and reason was built around the premise that women needed to be kept in their place outside of the public sphere. (This is not all that different from Thomas Jefferson saying that “all men are created equal” and still being a slave owner.) This is not a matter of hypocrisy; they meant something very different from what we mean when we talk about freedom and liberty.
I assigned this particular sample of Rousseau’s writing precisely because it is something so offensive to the modern ear. This piece stands in stark contrast to Voltaire’s “Plea for Tolerance” which sounds very modern. Of course as we shall soon see Voltaire is also not a modern. One has to ask was Rousseau really so forward thinking and is it really meaningful to talk about people being forward thinking. You say that Rousseau sounds like a “pompous jerk.” As a product of modern liberalism, I would agree with you. People not trained in the historical method will read Rousseau and pat themselves on the back and think about how “tolerant” and “forward thinking” they are. We, as practitioners of the historical method, on the other hand see this as an opportunity to turn the question on ourselves. Why is it so obvious to us that Rousseau was a pompous jerk; might there be something that we are missing?
The Catholic Church traditionally has a rather funny relationship with women. On the one hand the Church venerates the Virgin Mary along with a slew of female saints. There is, as we have discussed, a long tradition of Catholic female visionaries such as St. Teresa de Avila. This veneration of women, though, has very little to do with real every day women and in fact may have been detrimental to women. If the Virgin Mary is the model of womanhood against which all women are judged, what woman can every hope to come out ahead.

3. Rousseau and Wollstonecraft provide starkly contrasting views on women and their role in society. How did the role of women differ between different social classes in the late 18th century Europe? If a woman wanted to become educated during this time period, what options did she have for doing so?

As we have seen previously “oppressive” societies are not such much oppressive as there being a system that one can play if one keeps from offending the wrong people. (For example Galileo was able to be a heliocentrist up until the moment he made fun of Pope Urban VIII.) If you are an upper class woman, while you would not have direct access to a university education, you would still be capable of getting an education, likely through private tutors and books, and even take an informal part in the public sphere. (In fact much of the Enlightenment takes place in salons hosted by upper class women.)
This was not an option for lower class women. That being said, lower class men also did not have these options either. In a sense lower class women were “freer” since there less restrictions upon them in terms of them being women.

4. How would Rousseau have responded to Mary Wollstonecraft's idea that it is better for everyone when a woman is self-sufficient?

As with most polemical debates, Rousseau and Wollstonecraft are talking past each other. For Rousseau the primary issue is not individual liberty. On the contrary the pursuit of individual liberty is a trap that leads to irrationality and tyranny. One has to submit oneself to the “General Will” and pursue the rule of reason by promoting the welfare of society. Wollstonecraft, like most people in the liberal tradition, thinks in terms of individual liberty.

5. Davies says, "Rousseau and Voltaire were as different as chalk and cheese", but from what I gathered from the reading, they seem quite similar. Rousseau believed that "since the evils of the world are overwhelming, all one can do is to put one's own affairs into order," meaning that you should practice self interest. Voltaire believed that all men should be free, no matter their station. So, in essence, Voltaire wanted common men to practice self-interest through government and Rousseau appealing to the "enlightened elite" encouraged self-interest. In essence, they have the same belief but are applying them to different socio-economic groups...Is this right, or am I missing something?

Rousseau and Voltaire had very different understandings as to the nature of progress and the nature of society. Rousseau believed that the advent of civilization, with the rise of private property, had corrupted human nature. He is the exact opposite of Thomas Hobbes; while Hobbes’ man in a state of nature is a bloodthirsty barbarian, Rousseau’s natural man is completely peaceful and lives at one with nature. Rousseau is critical of the very mechanisms of progress so beloved by the Enlightenment, reason, culture and the state. From Voltaire’s perspective Rousseau was as much an enemy of the Enlightenment as the Catholic Church.

6. How did the Classical Republic form of government not rise in the Renaissance if the Renaissance was a rediscovery of these texts? Were there advocates for this? Why did they not succeed or why weren't there any defenders for Republics?

The Renaissance has Republican governments such as Florence and Venice. And republican governments continued to exist in the eighteenth century in places like the Dutch Republic and the city states of Switzerland. The accepted consensus at the time was that republican governments worked well for small states, but that for larger states one needed a strong central power such as a Monarchy. This assumption has its roots in Aristotle who argued that democracy only works well when you only have a few thousand active participants. The success of the “American experiment” is important precisely because it showed that a republican government could work on a massive scale. This is the underlying theme of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Tocqueville was a French aristocrat who toured American during the early nineteenth century and commented on American life.

7. I did some more research on the Second Treatise and understood that it was best known for popularizing the right of revolution. Some sources also say that the Treatise influenced Thomas Jefferson's "Declaration of Independence". Do you think John Locke would be happy to see his work, his thoughts influenced another document that eventually used against his own country?
8. Reading the Locke text, it reminds me very strongly of the Declaration of Independence, especially in the first few lines and in the method for denying the rights of a king over men as being a good form of government. Being written nearly a hundred years earlier I certainly see it as possible that this document was in mind when the Declaration was written, do we have any evidence as to whether this is the case or no?

The line “life, liberty and property” end up in the Declaration of Independence as “life, liberty ad the pursuit of happiness.” The Constitution puts the word “property” back in. John Locke died decades before the American Revolution. He actually took an active interest in the American colonies and even helped write the constitution for the Carolinas. I must confess that I myself find the use of Locke by the Declaration of Independence to be remarkably unconvincing. (Read past the opening passage of the text and judge for yourself) I doubt if Locke would have found it convincing. This may sound very unpatriotic, but if I had been alive during the Revolution I would have been a Tory, like a third of Americans back then, and would have supported the British. I am a big Anglophile and I consider it rather unfortunate that we separated from England.

9. Norman Davies mentions briefly that "Differences between Western and Eastern Europe were growing" but did not go into details. Can you discuss more about these differences in class?

Davies is actually a specialist in Eastern European history, particularly Poland. So while most textbooks ignore Eastern Europe, he actively tries to incorporate it. Hopefully from reading Davies you will get a picture of Poland that moves beyond the Pollack jokes that we have all grown up with. Over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries England, France and Prussia (which will eventually come to form Germany) are going to industrialize in ways that other countries such as Spain, the Italian states and Russia do not. As such England, France and Prussia are going to take this tremendous leap forward at the expense of other European countries and eventually much of the world. Why this happens is an open question that I hope to discuss in future lectures.

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