Friday, November 5, 2010

Rousseau on the Horatii

"It is not even true that murder and parricide are always hateful in the theater. It is hard not to excuse Phaedra, who is incestuous and spills innocent blood. Syphaz poisoning his wife, the young Horatius stabbing his not fail to be figures who arouse sympathy." - Letter to M. D'Alembert, p. 33, Cornell University Press

The painting depicted above, "The Oath of the Horatii," though completed in 1784, has been described as iconic of the French Revolution, and a manifestation of Rousseauvian ideals in art. The painter, Jacques-Louis David, was celebrated by Marat as the "painter of the [French] revolution." He even went on to serve a term as president of the National Assembly.

David depicts the three Horatii brothers making an oath to engage in 3-on-3 combat with three brothers from an enemy army (the Curatii brothers), thereby resolving the conflict between Romans and Albans with a minimal amount of bloodshed. The story resonates with Rousseauvian ideals in its elevation of classical heroism - self-sacrifice for the sate.

According to Livy, the elder brother Horatius(the front-most of the three in this painting), came home victorious after the battle only to find his sister weeping at the death of her betrothed (one of the enemy brothers). Enraged that she wept over the death of his enemy, Horatius stabbed her in the stomach, killing her.

It seems that Rousseau would condemn such an act as hateful, as implied in the above quote from his letter to M. D'alembert. In criticizing the theater for making murder not seem hateful, and providing "young Horatius" as an example, he implicitly calls Horatius' actions hateful.

And yet David, in attempting to create a virtuous image (and it would seem he was heavily influence by Rousseau's philosophy) clearly exalts Horatius as a hero in his painting.

In Rousseau's eyes, would Horatius be a hero or a criminal?

Rousseau on the Arts

Why does Rousseau think the Theater is harmful?

The theater (includes various forms of performance-based entertainment) is harmful insofar as "every useless amusement is an evil for a being whose life is so short and whose time is so precious." (p. 16, Letter to M. D'Alembert, Cornell University Press)

The emotions roused by theater are dangerous in that passion should be subordinated to reason. Artists claim that the arousal of diverse emotions can help to balance the passions, but Rousseau retorts that "all the passions are sisters and that one alone suffices for arousing a thousand, and that to combat one by the other is only the way to make the heart more sensitive to them all...the only instrument which serves to purge them is reason...."

Rousseau would also claim that Reason, when introduced into theater, only bores the audience, and no successful spectacle incorporates reasoned, stoic characters.

And yet, the movie Waking Life immediately comes to mind. If you've seen this movie, do you think it counts as an exception to Rousseau's rule about the role of reason in the Theater? There are plenty of movies that feature logical, rational characters - but are these characters ever stoic? Does their portrayal subordinate passion to reason? And do you agree with Rousseau and a long lineage of philosophers that passion should be subordinated to reason? Is it possible they can co-exist within us in a non-hierarchical way?

Perhaps our reason can serve to interpret our passions, and not to quash them down.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Rousseau & Hobbes on Human Nature

"As for me, even if I am again to be regarded as wicked for daring to assert that man is born good, I think it and believe that I have proved it."
-Rousseau, p. 23, The Letter to M. D'Alembert on the Theatre (Spectacle)

Do you think this puts Rousseau in a fundamentally different camp from Hobbes? They take some very similar lines in interpreting the bible - both with regards to the existence of eternal punishment, and in freedom of thought. Both seem to bear a similar respect for Geometry. In fact, it seems clear to me that Rousseau read, and respected Hobbes. And yet, it seems that Hobbes would say man is born bad, while Rousseau would says man is born good.

Why do you think they disagree on this? Do you really think Hobbes would say man is born bad? Or would he say that man is born good, but the necessity of securing power creates a "madnesse in the multitude."