Rousseau in a Teepee

As with most things, I am of multiple mindsets when it comes to Rousseau.

Firstly, there is a simplicity to his argument that is pretty appealing, and a number of his one liners about society are the type of things someone might post on Facebook to sound compassionate (not me surely) and insightful. A sort of hippie-esque notion that things are better when they are basic, and you can free yourself from a “system” and live according to your instincts. In fact, I actually know someone who did a “back to the land” movement and lives in a Teepee. He is actually a big fan of Rousseau. Sort of ironic because he is reading literary works and thinking complex thoughts in a very un-savagelike way, but there you go. What I’m trying to say is that although Rousseau is definitely complex and is studied in detail everywhere, for me there is one underlying “give up possessions and vanity, live and love simply, everything belongs to the earth” notion that is fairly broad and basic. And to be honest, I really like that notion. Cheesy as it is, I do feel like as we have advanced as a society a lot of things about ourselves has regressed, in terms of both the individual and the community. HOWEVER…

However. Robs lecture did open my eyes to a few things, mainly the MASSIVE AMOUNT OF PRESUMPTIONS Rousseau makes about… well, everything! At times he includes a sort of “history of man” approach in his writing, where for a few pages he will sound scientific and educated. Even after reading his notes, I am now almost fully convinced that he largely made up the history and attributes of mankind to suit his argument. A lot of his assumptions I probably agree with. A lot of them I don’t. Sure, he didn’t know about evolution yet. But that still doesn’t justify the liberties he takes and writes of as though they are fact.

This is the first time i’ve written a blog after the lecture (bad I know) but it’s also useful because I have Robs thoughts in my brain as well. For example, a very interesting question that I still haven’t made my mind up about is this: when do we become human? A biological part of me wants to say that human is just a word for homo sapiens, which is the species we have always been since we moved on from Neanderthal. But Rob argues that Rousseaus argument is flawed because we only truly became human once we started doing all those things that sent us downhill. Consciousness of self in relation to others etc. It begs the bigger question are we as humans fated from the start to failure or was it just a few mistakes along the way the got the whole failure thing rolling.


A Leviathan in the wild

I have a feeling that when Hobbes was a child he got beaten up by a radical anarchist and nobody dealt with it. In order to deal with that childhood trauma he has written a book that could essentially stand the attacks of anyone who doesn’t want to be ruled. To be honest there are simply so many ideas presented in this book that I spent the majority of the time  retreating into myself and making ridiculous metaphors about leviathan crocodiles. I have a lot of questions that I felt like I could not come up with a sufficient answer for, so i’ll just write them here. Like The Prince, I found myself disagreeing on some points of Hobbes argument on the “no…that couldn’t be” basis. Morals do matter to Hobbes, but he approaches them in a way that is just as systematic as any other Hobbesian machine. In the end I was glad he did this, because morals have always been some of the most difficult  things to work an argument around. Strangely enough, seeing human emotions and ideas explained into a machine was actually quite comforting. In some senses, Hobbes is actually very similar to Plato. Everything must be governed strictly, and even if they don’t like it, it is for your own good. Where they differ is with the idea of the leader, and this is where my first question arose: Although Hobbes believes we need a ruler, good or bad, he also talks about universal rights. Is there really nothing we as society ought to do about a bad king, or one that presents us with acts of sudden and violent death that we apparently have a right to not experience? Really, it seems to me like Hobbes idea is not very different from any we have today at all. When people have a revolution, we are temporarily reducing ourselves to a state of nature, although if we are smart, we will have a new preferable leader ready, because we surely need a ruler no matter what. Today, all our electoral policies can, at their bare essentials, be seen as nothing more than an attempt to avoid a state of nature. BUT, if actions are not unjust or just by nature, than how can one tell what is a good leader? I understand that a “good” leader isn’t part of Hobbes argument, however, I still think it is important to understand how his system would work, or… is working today. I have no doubt Hobbes was an atheist. It is almost impossible to separate a genuine belief about how we were made with how we as men should act on earth. He did it though, and I thought he did it well. In short, I agree with what Hobbes is saying. It’s true. Do I like why it’s true? Not sure.

Robinson Crusoe: Ideology

It has been said that every piece of art/media ever made somehow has an ideological standpoint. If it doesn’t change your way of thinking, it could well be reinforcing certain aspects of a dominant social ideology. While reading Robinson Crusoe, that idea is what I thought about the most. After being bludgeoned over the head with the ideas of “proper” religion, “proper” expansion, and “proper” gathering of material goods, I am quite sure that, whether intentionally or not, this book is reinforcing the primary first world ideology of the time, that of the good industrious god fearing capitalist.

One of the most obvious and tiresome ideas was that of God and Providence. All of Rob’s problems apparently come from the fact that he is too forward thinking for God, and does not do what he is supposed to do, which is essentially to sit at home and do nothing. God does not approve of an adventurous mind. This is interesting and sort of goes against my theory in a way, because England was just starting to become active on the whole colonialism scene, and you’d think that the books written in that time would reflect that, instead of providing a sort of warning against it. However, I think the book goes on to deal with this by making Rob happiest in one place doing nothing. Funnily enough this place that he has built starts to look a lot like the home of an industrious, god fearing capitalist. Only once he has made his home as similar to what as “regular” as he can, and only once he starts praying and beginning to really acknowledge the glory of God, only then does he start to be really happy again.

Concerning progress and the amassing of material goods: even though Rob eschews money for it’s lack of value, there is still a tremendous focus on obtaining and hoarding things, as well as building and expanding. In fact, the way Mr. Crusoe goes about his business surviving is a very capitalist method, and I do believe that if this story were written by a Brazilian anti capitalist or something, there would not have been such a focus on making the perfect homestead and then expanding across the island and becoming lord and ruler through industry. This book is written in such a way to promote the idea of “build lot’s of stuff and you will succeed.”  I wouldn’t necessarily say that is good or bad, especially since reading it in this day and age we are already deeply indoctrinated with capitalist- consumerist ideas, he he.  But it is something to notice, in any case.



The Tempest

The way in which all of our texts continue to hit us over the head with the same themes from different angles is actually something really valuable. Whereas I used to think that one could categorize books by their human ideas (e.g. “this book is about justice. This book is about alienation” etc.) I’ve come to realise that these themes, these ideas of justice, monstrosity, sight, power relations, etc. are unavoidable in any book. They are human issues and therefore part of everything we read or write. Perhaps the course was engineered this way, but in The Tempest I particularly notice how all these ideas roll into one play, and in doing so continue to raise a whole bunch of questions.

First of all, the big idea of justice. Prospero seems to have a very subjective view of what is just. I don’t know how Plato would feel about it but I know he would be very dissapointed in how easily it wavers and changes. Prospero is outraged and indignant at the way he was betrayed and cheated by his family. He calls this unjust and expects the audience to agree. His justice is hypocritcal though, particularly in the way he enslaves and treats Caliban the “monster” as well as his enslavement of Ariel until it suits him to release him. Sure, Ariel owes him something (releasing him from the claustrophobic setting of a trees interior) but it doesn’t change the fact that what is just to Prospero is the same thing as what benefits Prospero. And he gets away with it too, just because there is no one, no higher power or contradictory force, to decide what is just or not (other than Prospero himself)

Concerning the treatment of Caliban: he is treated like he is a monster. Is he? Caliban is an interesting character in The Tempest. I find him to be the most interesting. Prospero and Miranda expect him to be honored by their treatment of him, as though the way they taught him human speech and mannerisms are the only thing that brought him up away from a primal cave-like existence. But I wonder if it was his birth necessarily that made him monstrous or whether or not he has become monstrous through his oppression. I think the character of Caliban and the extent of his monstrosity is going to be something important to the discussion of this play.

A couple years ago I watched a film adaptation of The Tempest, never having read the actual play before. I liked it and thought it was well done and all that. Reading the play now I notice some fairly serious differences that I thought were curious. The film followed the script exactly, and was very similar to the original play, except for a few things. Prospero was a woman, a witch instead of a wizard, a duchess instead of a duke. I know this is no film studies class, but it is still curious that a modern adaptation should make this change. It changes everything! It becomes a play about motherhood instead of fatherhood, and a whole plethora of other gender issues arise. The film approached it as a “strong woman against malicious men” angle. Caliban was also an african american, the only one in an all white cast. I don’t know how relevant it truly is, but I thought it was interesting.


Machiavelli: More Machinery

The thing about Machiavelli is that although I don’t want to agree with what he is saying I do, wholeheartedly. The one key difference between Machiavelli and Plato is that Plato sees men as they ought to be, while Machiavelli sees men as they are, and works with that. I think if one wanted to learn how to understand the flawed mindset of mankind in order to dominate it this would be the book for them. Although the general theme of this book (power at all costs) made me feel uncomfortable, Machiavellis insights on politics, loyalty, and human priorities were depressingly accurate. He knows it is “easy to persuade people  of something, but difficult to change their minds” He knows that men fear punishment more than they honor obligation. Etc. Etc.

He knows all this is “just so” and therefore works it into his plan for an ultimate ruler. The truly uncomfortable part is when you realize the whole doctrine is only trying to continue this idea of self interest. What I mean is this: Machiavelli encourages his ruler to only look after themselves. Even when he encourages this leader to do something for his people, or to be noble and to make agreements, it is only ever to strengthen his position as a ruler. In doing this, Machiavelli seems to forget that the role of a ruler is to ‘look after” his people. Similarly,  killings and deceit are just another part of his system that maintains power. Slaughter and generousity are really no different from each other in Machiavellis eyes, they are each just a tool you can use to achieve the same goal. He recommends you have selfless advisors, but these advisors are here to serve you best. There seems to be more focus on simply staying in power and being “great”, rather than doing something significant for your people.

Because of this focus on the individual ruler and individual success, it is obvious that no two good rulers could coexist. If both were as good as Machiavelli hopes, they would expand across continents until they met each other, and according to Machiavellis ideas, one would always eventually find a way to get the upper hand over the other. That’s just the “way it works” So what Machiavellis plan or rule book would ultimately lead to is a massive dictatorship over a massive empire. World domination even.  If a populace was that big, would all the rules of a perfect leader still apply? Or would some of them erode on themselves and begin to act the other way? Power is a scary thing.



Christopher Columbus

Value. That’s what I found the most interesting about this book. Although i’ve always had this fairly basic idea of the contrast between the new world explorers and the natives of the new world, this book is so full of the concept of value, and questions concerning value that you could, y’know, write an essay on it or something. When Columbus gets to the new world he is surprised to find that the natives are willing to hand over something that could be worth a lot of money in exchange for trinkets. Why is he surprised? Different systems assign different values in whatever way they please: worth is completely relative. I know this is no revelation, but to see it (read it) in action was fascinating. One asks which system is more ridiculous, monetary value in small gold coins or monetary value in things that are ornamental, or, useful. But it really has nothing to do with which is more ridiculous because  it’s entirely based on perception.

When it comes to Columbus and his view of the natives his values get even more convoluted. He values these natives for their use to him and their ability to be converted to Christianity. But like the rest of the book there is and undercurrent of idealism. In this case it is concerning monsters. Columbus writes “I have not found the human monsters we expected” which is great, but I got the feeling that in many ways Columbus wanted to find monsters, or wanted the local people to be monsters. It would add to the romance, the adventurism of his story. In this expedition he really wanted something foreign and different, and in a way no hostilities at the beginning may have come across as a bit of a letdown. When Columbus and his sailors meet the Caribs, the cannibals, the letters really play up their atrociousness and their monstrosity, writing about all the horrendous things they do and such. I think these types of things were largely written for the comfortable white “audience” that waited in Spain, so they could say “Ooh look at that, there’s monsters over there, how foreign and romantic.”

The funny thing is that not much has changed. Humans still like to see those who are actually very similar to them as monsters and something non-human. It makes it easier to control them, kill them, or other nasty things. That’s how wars start.

Columbus himself reminded me greatly of Medea. He’s smooth talking in a whiny sort of way, and his letters are like a phsycological study of human self justification. Again, it comes back to value. “Value me” says Columbus. “Value what i’ve done” Hmm.

There was line about one island that spoke of native people with tails. It is never spoke of again. What the heck! I want to here more about that.

Oh yes, and God is still here, shaping peoples destinies and such. I’m starting to think this guys is more trouble than he’s worth.




Beowulf: Gratuitous monsters

After I have finished diligently reading my texts and sit down to write this blog, I usually feel obligated to create some sort of commentary on the profound subtext. I feel the need to talk about what this REALLY means and why some character is a metaphor for the complexities of life etcetera etcetera. I mean, that is one of the main points of ArtsOne after all, and I like doing it. But sooner or later I have to admit my inner 10 year old self still has just as much power as my university self when it comes to thinking about literature.

The point is, Beowulf is gratuitously cool. I think later i’d like to talk about how such a classic, now cliched type of story attracts our attention, but for now i’d like to talk about whale beasts! And underwater battles! And dragons! And sword fights! Maybe I identified with this style of descriptive poetry, maybe I am a sucker for this type of  imagery. Whatever it is, the idea of a hero diving under the water on a stormy ocean to kill nine (NINE!) sea monsters still makes me want to find a stick and run around the forest killing imaginary foes.

This leads me to some more respectable ruminations. Beowulf is proud and confident. He eschews weapons for bare hands. He is the original hero. Again, we see a hero getting rewards and fame using his brute strength. But there is an intersting contrast between him and Hrothgar. Hrothgar is an old man who can’t defend his kingdom. He is helpless in the face of challenge. And yet he is still portrayed as a “good king.” It is not strength that makes him good, but wisdom and kindness. If I had to pick a theme for this tale, i’d say it centres around ideas of young and old, and how we carry ourselves as time passes. The poet seems to place more value on the feelings of pride and bravery than pure strength in itself, and while he recognizes that Beowulf is strong, he spends more time on his heroic nature than is actual physical nature.

And there is depth here, without a doubt. Often old Hrothgar will take half a page at the end of a battle or before a feast to reflect on the danger of having too much power, the fragile nature of life, and other such ideas. All his premonitions and predictions come true, and although they were nice, I was sometimes left wondering what they were meant to accomplish in the broader storyline. Beowulf dies, and some wars will probably happen. People will continue to get power and then die. Is this story just a cool story with monsters? Are we MEANT to take more from it? I’m not sure.

God is still around too. Everything Beowulf does is aided by (one) God, and made possible by God. It seems we’ll never shake this God fellow.

See you tomorrow!


Oedipus Rex: Arrogance is Blindness

These short, twisted, tragic plays really are brilliant. First Medea, then Oedipus The King. After a meandering doctrine such as Plato’s, I sometimes feel like I get just as much (albeit very differently) from Sophocles, in less than 100 pages.

Although Oedipus Rex is it’s own distinct play, i’ve started to notice a number of similar themes running through the Greek tragedies. I suppose this is not too surprising, considering the way in which all these playwrights had convened under similar laws and times. However it’s still interesting to note recurring ideas. They all seem to gain a more worldy significance. Anyway, a prominent one is the dramatic shift from greatness to pitiful shame and general awfulness. Just like Medea or Jason, Oedipus begins as a self regarding person, in this case a king, with a history of pride and power. (killing a whole caravan because one fellow hit him with a staff.) He presents himself as caring about his citizens and willing to do anything for their well-being. When blamed for a murder, however, he is quick to put fault on anyone else. Even though he doesn’t know his crime, he runs on the assumption that he cannot, could not ever be wrong. It must be somebody else.

Like Medea, and like a vast amount of other stories, there is also some clever commentary on the state of mankind. There is a line on page 215 that I read over more than once. “What should a man fear? It’s all chance, chance rules our lives… better to live ate random.” This connotes to the cliche, modern day saying of “things happen”, but something about this play being written in the 400’s BC gives it some added weight. This develops into what was my favorite part of the play: grappling with the idea of fate and destiny. Part of the play seems to be saying you can’t escape it. Despite out best intentions, fate will play out just as it has been prophesized. But there is something a bit more subtle that is even more interesting. I may be misled, but the ideas of fate and ones own actions, ones free will, seem to be blended together in what I feel is an important way. Oedipus is given choices, and his arrogance drives him to make the “wrong” decisions. These decisions lead to utter ruin. Is Sophocles saying that our arrogance is what, in the end makes us blind? When Oedipus stabbed his eyes out at the end, I think Sophocles was simply making a metaphor real, making sure we really got it. I think Sophocles is saying that arrogance and power can make one “blind.”


Republic: Part 2

During the second part of Republic, I always had the Nietzche quote in the back of my mind, the one that says Plato is scared of the human reality and therefore hides behind is mathematical logic. I think Nietzche was on to something. Although I still find Platos arguments as unagreeable as when I read the first half, there are a few new things that i’ve noticed, and things that stuck with me. There were times it seemed Plato was slipping up. There were even certain things I found myself agreeing with.

I’ll begin with the things I don’t agree with. I earmarked page 134 as a “dangerous” page. Here Plato brings together his ideas on selective breeding. What is really curious to me is this: Plato previously states that he wants his citizens educated, and to be knowledgable about how the city works. The idea is once they understand the philosophy, they’ll see why things have to be done and they’ll accept that it is for the greater good. And yet, Socrates/Plato proposes to keep the selective breeding secret from the people. So does Plato not have faith in his own philosophy? Sometimes his class system seems to go against his idea of a whole harmonious entity.On the same page he also condones infanticide, and that tends to send up some red flags as well. He goes on to critizise the education system, and I think some of his criticisms are valid. At one point, however, he states that education isn’t about giving a person sight, but instead directing where they look. This is interesting and I think most people today, in our society at least, would believe the opposite.

When it comes to Plato’s criticism of democracy, I actually found myself agreeing with a lot of it. Although HIS doctrine is just as likely to fail, the flaws he points out are legitimate, I think. He predicts huge gaps between the rich and poor. Todays society is proof that this can occur. It seems that in his system, one gets to the “top one percent” through wisdom, skill, and physical competence. That sounds better right? Hmm…. Well, the wisdom and skill part is fair enough I suppose, but at the same time that was the idea behind the free 1st world democracies, and I don’t think Plato would like those.

The definition of a tyrant was interesting because it was very human. Tyranny is associated with flattering others to get something or hanging out with people who flatter you. Someone with a tyrannical nature “lives his whole life as either a master to one man or a slave to another, never getting a taste of true freedom or friendship.” I’m sometimes guilty of hanging out with people because they tell me i’m great, and i’ve also been very kind to people who I thought could get me somewhere. But i still think this statement is one of Socrates wiser ones.

There is one other thing Plato and I can agree on. I believe that if mankind didn’t have as many choices to make they would probably be happier.

See you tomorrow!



Platos Republic: Logic and George Orwell

I’m really enjoying reading the Republic right now. I like reading things I disagree with because I can feel clever with my sort of pseudo-intellectual criticism. However, it was only  at around books 4 and 5 that I began to look really closely at what i’m sure is going to be discussed a lot in the next week, and that is the very Orwellian, fascist-esque (that’s not a word is it) nature of Plato’s perfect city. The whole book reads as a very well planned doctrine, and I imagine Plato hunched over a writing desk, getting excited imagining people using it as a model for all the real cities in the future. Socrates demonstrates an interesting logical tactic, and there were a number of ideas near the beginning that had me agreeing and such, but as I progressed into this book a lot of things began to come together in an ominous way.

In the eyes of Socrates (and therefore Plato, I would guess) an ideal city is based on strict censorship of stories, ideas, religion, music, and citizens relations. The Guardians must “guard as carefully as they can against any innovation in music and poetry or in physical training that is counter the established order.” and “considerable use of falsehood and deception for the benefit of all they rule.” This in itself is an immense, massive, gigantic issue that so many people have grappled with forever: Does one group of people know what is best for the group below them? Can benevolent dictatorships ever work, even if the leaders truly believe they?

One main difference in Socrates idea as opposed to a regular fascist state, and something that could be seen as a conflict in his ideology, is that he wants his citizens to be knowledgeable. If they are knowledgable, they will understand that the way they are living is the way that is best for them. This, like a vast majority of arguments I read in “The Republic” is a realistic idea in theory, but when you factor in that humans are, well, human, it seems fairly realistic. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Sometimes I felt like Socrates assumed were too human, and that our humanity is so standard and ongoing that it can become some sort of formula. I do agree that as a race we humans have become fairly predictable, and looking at similar cities to the one Socrates creates, I can predict that this one might fail.

Soon enough I got to selective breeding, the use of terms like “superior and inferior class”, and the idea of parentless children being controlled by the state. My sentimental self wanted to say something cliche like “what about love?” The last thing I thought was interesting was the fact that this “perfect city” is still going to be one of war. hmm. I’m of a particular mindset right now about this book, but i’m only halfway and it’s likely that during our discussion my opinion will radically shift. That’s what’s been happening the last few classes, in any case.

I really look forward to it