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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The First Moonbat

The father of the modern Left, Rousseau, was a highly paranoid neurotic whose personal life resembled the trajectory of a cannon ball through a salon.  One of the most celebrated men of his age, he achieved prominence denouncing the artifice of civilization over the alleged purity of primitive "natural" man, and rejecting reason for emotional whim.  In politics he was the first advocate of modern totalitarianism.  His personal charm earned him many powerful friends, many of whom he then denounced:

The book opens with a memorable scene in London, on March 18, 1766, when the "quarrel" (a word that hardly does justice to that affair) erupted. Rousseau, a renowned exile from his own country (Emile had been pronounced heretical by the Archbishop of Paris), was living in England courtesy of Hume, who had escorted him from Paris three months earlier and had arranged accommodations for him in London. Now, Rousseau, tiring of London (another corrupt city, he decided, like Paris), was on his way, again through the efforts of Hume, to Wootton Hall, the estate of Hume's friend, Richard Davenport, in the north of England. He was spending the night in Hume's apartment when he realized that Davenport, wanting to spare him some of the expense of the trip, had secretly contributed to the coach fare.

Assuming that Hume knew of this subterfuge, Rousseau burst into the drawing room in a frenzy of indignation and outrage, accusing Hume of deceiving and humiliating him, treating him like a child or a "beggar on alms." Taken aback by the ferocity of the attack, Hume tried, in vain, to engage him in reasonable conversation. Rousseau was implacable until, after almost an hour, he suddenly leaped into Hume's lap, threw his arms around his neck, and covered his face with tears and kisses.

As always, Burke had Rousseau's number, even if his friend Hume - too good natured a man - did much too late:

This was the Rousseau that Edmund Burke, anticipating the Terror, saw as the evil genius of the Revolution. Burke also saw the relationship between Rousseau the man and Rousseau the philosopher. Reading Rousseau's admission in the Confessions that he had fathered five children, each of whom he had promptly turned over to the foundling hospital, Burke was moved to decry the philosopher who was so wanting in natural parental affection while professing the most exalted ideals. "Benevolence to the whole species, and want of feeling for every individual," "a lover of his kind, but a hatred of his kindred"--this, Burke said, was the "philosophic instructor," the "moral hero" of the Revolution, who counseled the "regeneration" of man while sacrificing the real man, the human being.

Ever wary of the floating abstractions, Burke saw that Rousseau's professions of love and virtue were simply that, empty rhetoric.  A man who would abandon his own children to a foundling hospital - a kind of orphanage - was no friend of mankind.   In the eighteenth century, leaving children with these "hospitals"  was nearly a death sentence, given their very high infant mortality rate.  Before abortion became medically safe - relatively speaking - the foundling hospital was a common manner of disposing of unwanted children.  That most people pay greater attention to charming rhetoric and vague emotions, is in abundant evidence from the often hypocritical positions of celebrities and the election of the current US President.  The hard headed approach earns few friends, until the slaughter and terror return.

Posted by Richard Anderson on March 31, 2009 | Permalink


And thus concludes Western Standard's demonstration of the ad hominem fallacy.

Posted by: Robert Seymour | 2009-04-01 3:01:48 AM


LOL!!!! I was just about to post the same thing, but you beat me to it! You also said it better than I probably would have. Kudos!

Posted by: Fact Check | 2009-04-01 6:20:36 AM

Are the assertions true, or not?

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-04-01 6:47:09 AM


Check the link and read any biography of Rousseau. Even my left-wing professors in university thought him beyond the pale.


No, not ad hominem. Rousseau's ideas are pretty well known. I was pointing out that, like many modern leftists, his personal life fell well short of his professed beliefs. This is not accidental. His personal life reflected his ideas. He cared for mankind, but not for individual men. Ideas do have consequences, both personal and national.

Posted by: publius | 2009-04-01 7:16:02 AM

It is that Publius is dismissing the man's ideas because of personal behaviour. That is classic ad hominem.

Publius is right that Rousseau was a terrible man whom his contemporary philosophers detested. He was cruel, especially to children.

But the worth of philosophical ideas are to be judged in the light of reason, not his personal behaviour.

Marx was a good family man. Does that communism is good theory?

Posted by: Robert Seymour | 2009-04-01 8:00:55 AM

I would delete the post. No harm. No foul. Forgive and forget.

Posted by: Robert Seymour | 2009-04-01 8:16:49 AM

The trouble with philosophy, Robert, is that it's very hard to judge by the light of reason. Much of it is speculative; much of it is subjective. In spite of its professed objectives, it is more akin to spirituality than to logic.

If faced with the same facts, two men of similar intelligence and deductive reasoning ability should arrive at similar conclusions. Philosophy colours this by adding personal experiences and ruminations to the equation. While arguably this makes for more well-rounded, better-educated hypotheses, it's also inherently empirical and anecdotal, which are anathema to the scientific method.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-04-01 8:46:14 AM

P.S. It has often been observed, by me and by others, that the type of person we today call a liberal is indeed a hypocrite, inasmuch they prefer to spend other people's money on their grandiose ideas, rather than their own. The moral dilemma posed by supporting blood for marijuana but not blood for oil does not help either.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-04-01 8:53:45 AM

So, in a nutshell the argument is that the forest is all that matters, the trees gain their identity from their "being " as a part of the forest and their individual growth is irrelevant.

Ergo, the banks are all that matters because their existance defines the economic activity of the idividuals who are their depositers and the private harms done to debtors and depositers is acceptable for the health of the forest (banks).

Guess the boys and girls at the G20 are big fans of Rousseau. Talk about the inversion theory of morality.

Posted by: peter | 2009-04-01 8:54:45 AM

Well, Robert has already covered this ground.

I would only add the following: leftists make the same move. How many times have you heard "Conservative X is a hypocrite; therefore, X's ideas are wrong/not worth listening to"?

For example: Newt Gingrich had an affair. Therefore, we don't have to listen to him criticize Bill Clinton.

Or: Sarah Palin's daughter had a child out of wedlock. Therefore, we don't have to listen to Palin about family values.

Or: Bill Bennett has a gambling problem. Therefore, we don't have to listen to him about virtue.

Or: Ayn Rand had a shitty personal life. Therefore, we don't have to listen to her about anything.

(This last one probably gets closest to the case of Rousseau, insofar as we assume that both figures were trying to live as exemplars of their own ideas.)

Examples abound. If it's wrong for the left to "argue" like this, it should be wrong for us, too.

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2009-04-01 10:39:05 AM

I agree with Terrence. This is nothing more than an ad hominem attack on Rousseau and, by some stretch of logic, the "left".

I am a great admirer of Thomas Jefferson, despite the fact that he owned slaves. His political philosophy of liberty and smal government is still true.

I am a great admirer of MLK Jr., despite the fact he may have been a womanizer. His non-violent approach to civil rights was still the best way.

I am a great admirer of Christopher Hitchens, despite the fact he is a mean drunk and an apologist for war. His honesty in dealing with water boarding and his uncompromising atheism are still true.

I suppose such personal criticisms would be more relevant if they had anything to do with the principal at hand.

So, for instance, criticizing Sarah Palin's stance on "abstinence only" sex ed is relevant, when her own family is an example of the policy not working.

Rather it is best to debate the philosophical points of Rousseau, or the policy stances of Palin, rather than resort to a series of ad hominems coupled with guilt by association, topped of with a smattering of non sequitors. All to try to prove that, because Rousseau was an idiot in his personal life, we should therefore not listen to the "left" (whom ever they are) since Rousseau was the originator of the left (he was?) and many of them have equally screwed up personal lives (they do?).

Rather, tell me what is wrong with the philosophy expounded by Rousseau.

Posted by: Mike | 2009-04-02 8:49:28 AM

Oh and "moonbat"? Please, is it 2004 again?

Posted by: Mike | 2009-04-02 8:50:17 AM

I think it is a very important effort to highlight gross hypocrisy, which is not an ad hominem.

The more important point, which was missed by everyone above, is that his personal conduct does suggest his incompetence as a philosopher. It wasn't that he had a "shitty" personal life, it was that he showed a habitual criminal indifference to the lives of others. His philosophy reflected that same sort of indifference. This is more than a coincidence.

Rousseau was not a scientist, but a political and social philsopher. Surely one of the prerequirements for such a task is to have some understanding of how actual human beings function. He never did, as his behaviour demonstrates. This is like a particle physicist not knowing how to use an electron microscope, or even what it was.

This is a consistent pattern on the Left, not something incidental. A comtempt for men while glorifying mankind. Everything for the collective, nothing for living breathing men. Burke's point was extremely valid then, and remains so. He wasn't just a bad father, he effectively killed his own children (five of them). Then spent a career trying to tell other people how to educate their children (Emile)!

It isn't that Rousseau was an awful man, therefore his ideas are invalid, it's that his ideas are one of the reason he was an awful man. Again, this is a pattern. Rousseau is one of its originators.

Posted by: Publius | 2009-04-02 9:36:21 AM

Oh and "moonbat"? Please, is it 2004 again? - But you're willing to excuse terms like "so-con," "neo-con," and "wing-nut," am I right? I realize liberals would just as soon forget that year, but we're not going to let you.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-04-02 10:15:47 AM


"It isn't that Rousseau was an awful man, therefore his ideas are invalid, it's that his ideas are one of the reason he was an awful man."

You didn't really argue for that point, though. You assumed his ideas were bad, then picked out one awful aspect of his life, and concluded that the awfulness of that aspect of his life was a function of the awfulness of his ideas.

(That's a charitable reading, because it seems to avoid the ad hominem charge; going in the other direction, concluding that his ideas are bad because his personal life was bad is obviously not going to work.)

Here's a parallel argument:
1. Ayn Rand's arguments were awful.
2. Her personal life was awful.
Conclusion: One reason her personal life was awful is because her arguments were awful.

Is that a good argument? No. Because it's missing a premise like this one:

"The awfulness of her life was a function of the awfulness of her ideas."

You have something similar:

"His philosophy reflected that same sort of indifference."

But, of course, I can't just throw that into the argument. It needs support. And the following is inadequate:

"Rousseau was not a scientist, but a political and social philsopher. One of the prerequirements for such a task is to have some understanding of how actual human beings function. He never did, as his behaviour demonstrates."

Suppose his behavior does demonstrate this -- that Rousseau didn't understand human beings. That might indicate we should be wary of his ideas. Still, it would be better just to show the errors in the ideas.

In any event, I thought you were claiming Rousseau simply had a callous disregard/indifference for human life, not that he was stupid about how humans work. The evidence is that he was callous, not stupid.

A political philosopher could understand human beings adequately enough to philosophize, and yet be so utterly indifferent to the welfare of individuals so as to make him a terrible person -- but not necessarily wrong in his philosophical thinking. To draw that conclusion, one would have to actually grapple with the ideas.

Objectivists tend to think that everyone who has awful ideas is an awful human being, and vice versa, but that's silly. Surely we can do better than that.

I agree with Mike on this: we have to go back to the ideas and leave out the personal attacks.

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2009-04-02 12:46:01 PM


I wasn't writing a philosophical treatise, it was a blog post and an aside. I don't back down from what I said, but essentially your evaluating it from the standards of a more detailed work. I wasn't launching a full blown critique of the works of Rousseau, just some observations on the man and his ideas.

The point, however, still stands. His conduct was not incidental, as it sometimes is with thinkers. The man and the ideas were awful and not for unrelated reasons.

Posted by: Publius | 2009-04-02 1:14:15 PM

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