Rousseau, Aristotle, and Freud on Political Narcissism

Rousseau was not a cheerful fellow. According to Terry Eagleton, he'd be even less cheerful if he were alive to see what has happened to the public sphere and educational system in Europe:

... would no doubt have been appalled by the drastic shrinking of the public sphere. His greatest work, The Social Contract, speaks up for the rights of the citizenry in the teeth of private interests. He would also be struck by the way the democracy he cherished so dearly is under siege from corporate power and a manipulative media. Society, he taught, was a matter of common bonds, not just a commercial transaction. In true republican fashion, it was a place where men and women could flourish as ends in themselves, not as a set of devices for promoting their selfish interests.


Young adults, he thought, should be allowed to develop their capabilities in their distinctive way. They should also delight in doing so as an end in itself. In the higher education systems of today's world, this outlandish idea is almost dead on its feet. It is nearly as alien as the notion that the purpose of education is to serve the empire. Universities are no longer educational in any sense of the word that Rousseau would have recognised. Instead, they have become unabashed instruments of capital. Confronted with this squalid betrayal, one imagines he would have felt sick and oppressed. As, indeed, he usually did.

Rousseau's ideas are related to several developmental accounts of society and psyche. For instance, according to Aristotle the goal of a state is a good life for its citizens, whereas the more rudimentary associations out of which it develops are motivated primarily by survival. This division between what we do for the sake of survival (and self-love) and what we do out of love (whether for other human beings or sublimating activities) is a common motif in philosophy and literature. Aristotle's account of political development tracks Freud's account of psychological development, from early "primary narcissism" (in which "ego-instincts" related to self-preservation predominate, and one's libido is focused on oneself); to the full development of "object instincts," including mature, empathetic relationships with other human beings. Similarly, Hegel's developmental account moves from a conscious barely unified through its organization of experience (a la Kant and cognitive psychology) to one deeply integrated through the mirroring of other conscious entities. Mill's distinction between higher and lower pleasures is grounded in this distinction, and so is Nietzsche's dismissal of pleasure as the most important factor in human motivation.

Some of these accounts might persuade us to see a preoccupation with goods originally related to individual survival at the expensive of the social good as regressive and perhaps pathological. These include narcissistic goals, such as prestige, power, and money, as opposed to goals related to our passions (which connect us either to human beings or to their social products, as in the arts and sciences).

Nevertheless, at a cultural level narcissistic goals seem to be widely embraced and encouraged -- often on the pretense of practicality. Many Americans believe that free markets are a model for our political and social organization, and are suspicious of anything (other than religion) that is not obviously materially useful. That includes especially theoretical intellectual pursuits like philosophy.

-- Wes Alwan



  1. Fatima Alwan says

    Wes, perhaps the most critical questions that occupy the minds of many young adults nowadays at the threshold of their academic life are: Which specialty bestows upon me the greatest fortune? and what title grants me more respect in the society?
    Youths gave up on their dreams  (should they have any at all!) and knowledge seeking quests, and are no longer interested in science or art as ends; rather as means to fit their deluded selves in fake niches, which they think are the best for them. That really sounds piteous!!
    Do you think there’s a hopeful solution to this problem?

    • Darren says


      Whilst I agree with your assessment of a vast number of youths, I do not despair that we are losing this current generation newly emerging into or out of academia. I feel I speak with some authority here since I belong to this generation. At 24, I have attended University once already, and intend to again in the coming few years. At the age of 13, I knew that a life obsessed with fortune and wealth was not my aim, despite the fact I would enjoy many of the rewards such a life would offer. I have dreams, high noble dreams, some of which feel to me like they embody the most noble of aspirations of our species. I intend to follow one of my dreams, straight into the body of one of our emerging sciences, and my hope is that I may somehow also fulfil other dreams along the way.

      There is a problem with our generation wanting things which only serve themselves fleetingly and sustain the others in power more permanently, but there will always be dreamers in every generation.

      • Ryan says

        I have to disagree that what our generation is lacking in is dreams. Occupy was a kind of dream, that if we only strongly scolded the wealthy for their bad behavior, they might compassionately choose to change their ways in our favor. This idea that all what holds us back is a lack of good dreams is a dream. Our problems are much more down to earth, half of us young Americans are unemployed, and you can’t even begin to dream when you are unable to take care of yourself. Even when our basic needs are met, ideas are a dime a dozen these days. What you really need is capital investment, which we also do not have for ourselves by comparison with older generations, and so our ideas will not be the ones which come to fruition until the system drastically changes (or they all begin to die off).

        This is where I find a little bit of cold comfort though, because no matter how grim the situation might presently be, the inherent social antagonisms which have motivated our actions up until now always making themselves more apparent by virtue of such rapid expansion also means that society can not stay the same course for very much longer. One way or another there must be change, the question is whether we will make that change happen for ourselves, or whether change will happen to us even while we attempt to hold on to the status quo for as long as possible, kicking and screaming until the bitter end.

    • Vasili says

      I’d say that the fault lies not only with young student’s, but also with Universities themselves, which are going through sweeping reforms both in Europe and US. In the name of practicality, Universities are churning out (instrumental) “excellence” like sausage factories guided by a new neo-liberal manager culture.

      A people who conceive life to be the pursuit of happiness must be chronically unhappy.
      – M. Sahlins

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