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Philosophy, Life and Philosophies of Life

Trudy Govier wonders whether the lives of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Mary Wollstonecraft tell us anything useful about their ideas.

When I was an undergraduate, we used to joke about people who asked of philosophy majors, “well, what's your philosophy of life?” We were sophisticated enough, we thought, to know that philosophy was a set of problems, questions, and methods – a specialized subject, technical in its own way, and not to be expected to tell us how to live.

Times have changed. These days there is considerable interest in philosophical teachings about how to lead a life. For all its familiarity, Socrates' dictum that the unexamined life is not worth living retains its importance. The Cynics and Stoics are also fascinating as philosophers of life. Stoic ideas about coping with fear and anxiety seem relevant to our own troubled era. Their conception of feelings of anxiety and rage as based on beliefs, which we can examine and correct, have substantially influenced cognitive therapy today. Though they may not know it, many thousands of people are counseled according to the teachings of Stoic philosophy.

A different sort of example is that of David Hume. Troubled by his own clever skeptical arguments, Hume worried that abstract reasoning could make a person miserable. He suggested that human nature and the pursuit of distractions such as good company and billiards would provide a check on the melancholy and mitigate skepticism. A cheerful companion, well loved by his friends, Hume seems to have lived out his conception of mitigated skepticism highly successfully. His life was true to his theory.

Sometimes when life is true to theory, we look at the life and see flaws in the theory. We wouldn't do it for Hume, whose life was admirable. But consider another case. Immanuel Kant had an inflexible lifestyle characterized by strict rules about work, diet, and getting through the day. To many commentators, the rule-bound and rigid character of Kant's life seems flawed – and the flaws seem characteristic too of his absolutistic and rigorously rational moral philosophy. Another case is that of Ludwig Wittgenstein. His extraordinary puzzlement about small matters and intense struggle for clarity on small points can be seen as a sign of a fanatical and disturbing insistence on purity, and this same characteristic troubled many of his personal relationships.

When philosophers are true to their principles, we may see in their practice some confirmation of their theory – as with Socrates, the Stoics, and Hume. Or, on the other hand, we may find a disconfirmation – as with Kant and Wittgenstein. A different kind of situation arises when philosophers are not true to their principles – when they recommend one thing and do opposite. This sort of situation sets the stage for ad hominem arguments – arguments again the man (or, for moderns, against the person.) As applied to philosophies of life, such arguments go like this: “X says L. But X himself doesn't act according to L. Therefore, L is incorrect.” Such arguments are ad hominems of a special type: they're called tu quoque (you too) arguments. And they're fallacies, according to the textbooks. Common teaching has it that there's a problem of relevance in a tu quoque argument: information about how philosopher X leads his life doesn't either confirm or disconfirm a claim about whether his theory is true.

In such arguments, the premises are not relevant to the conclusion. There's a gap – which is why tu quoque is regarded as a fallacy. The point is easy to grasp if you consider non-philosophical cases. Suppose a fat doctor tells you that if you don't lose weight, you're at risk of having a heart attack. The fact that he is overweight doesn't show that his claim is false. The same can be said of smokers who advise against smoking. Their advice is pretty good, even though they didn't follow it themselves.

When it comes to philosophies of life, though, the matter seems more subtle. Not living up to one's principles looks like hypocrisy, and it does seem to be undermining in some important way. The central idea here is that of credibility. Explaining how best to live requires a certain authority; to be effective, the person has to be a credible source of advice. And for credibility, it may be necessary to live up to one's own ideas. Suppose that philosopher X recommends doing L, but in his own life, he manifestly doesn't do L. Hasn't something gone wrong? What X does with his life does seem to be relevant to his personal credibility, even though it's not relevant to the truth of his claims. Practical consistency is needed for integrity, integrity is needed for credibility, and credibility is needed for authority on questions of living. So a philosopher whose life contradicts his own principles is compromised by that fact. Attacks on his life are relevant to his credibility as a theorist about how best to live.

Karl Marx, the great critic of economic inequality, had a servant. Doesn't that seem rather inconsistent? And a variant on this same inconsistency persists in our time – the affluent Marxist professor living comfortably in the suburbs, removed from the grit of the working classes.

What, if anything, should we conclude from these inconsistencies between theory and practice? It's tempting to think that if these people were truly convinced of their own theories, they would apply them to their lives and live accordingly. And if they aren't truly convinced of their own theories, why should we take these theories seriously?

A fascinating case to consider in this context is that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In addition to his influential Social Contract, Rousseau is best remembered as the author of Emile, an idealistic eighteenth-century treatise on education. (Or, to be accurate, boys’ education.) Emile has enjoyed enormous influence from its own Enlightenment context right through to the present. “Nature would have children be children before being men,” Rousseau said. The statement may seem commonsensical today, but in its own time it amounted to an original and striking bid for reform. “Love childhood; encourage its sports, its pleasures, its amiable instincts,” Rousseau urged. Boys should be free to play outside, develop their bodies and their interests, and enjoy the fresh air. Consider the boy in the boy; develop his mind and talents, let him explore and play – those were the ideas. For girls it was different; they should develop, not as creative beings in their own right, but as companions and caretakers for men. “The whole education of women ought to be relative to men. To please them, to be useful to them, to make themselves loved and honoured by them, to educate them when young, to care for them when grown, to counsel them, to console them, and to make life agreeable and sweet to them – these are the duties of women at all times, and what should be taught them from their infancy.”

This same Jean-Jacques Rousseau fathered five children with Therese Lavasseur. All were abandoned at a foundling home – a fact sufficiently shocking to disturb even the relatively libertine intellectual community in his own time. Here's the contradiction: Rousseau wrote passionately to advocate a creative and free education for young boys. But at the same time he abandoned his own offspring. The point here isn't that Rousseau raised his children badly; it's that he never did it at all. In the light of this horrifying fact, how could people take Emile seriously?

Amazingly, Rousseau defended himself on the point, insisting that there was no contradiction between what he had done and his theories about education. In fact, the experiences of his life were what led to his educational theory: there was actually a positive connection between the birth and relinquishment of his first son and the writing of Emile. When he and Therese gave up this first child, it was at a time when they were extremely poor. Therese had many desperate relatives who were constantly asking him for money. Her mother was especially demanding – and her brothers had even stolen his few decent shirts. You can almost hear an impassioned and angry Rousseau explaining just how hard his life was at that time. He would tell you that Emile was written because he was sad about giving up this boy and in his sadness, began to consider what it would mean to be a father and arrange the best possible education for a son. If only he could do that and do it ideally well ... what would be the elements of such an education? It was these questions that led to his writing Emile.

A passionate advocate of liberty and equality, Rousseau was an equally passionate advocate of the subordination of women. Women, he thought, were made to be passive and weak. Their main role in life is to please men. They are scarcely capable of reasoning and need to be taught only just enough to protect their virtue in a corrupt society. There was some practical inconsistency on this point: although Rousseau wrote about the natural dependence of women on men, at several stages of his life, he allowed himself to be financially and socially dependent on wealthy older women. On the other hand, he seems to have been rather true to his views on women in his callous treatment of his mistress Therese Lavasseur. She was poor, relatively uneducated, and less powerful than he – and he mostly ignored her interests.

So Rousseau's view on women show both inconsistency and consistency. Interestingly, both seem objectionable. With views this bad, it's hard to win; you're damned if you do and damned if you don't.

Considering Rousseau's enthusiasm for the subordination of women, it's not surprising that the pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft launched a strident attack on his views. Although impressed by some of Rousseau's back-to-nature ideas about exercise, fresh air, and appropriately timed mental development, she accused him of maintaining that half the human race was to be enslaved on behalf of the other half. On her view God had created both women and men with the capacity to think and reason; God, being good, would never have created women as rational beings whose sole function in life was to serve others. Such a thing would be grossly cruel. On the matter of women's nature and role, Rousseau was committed to a theoretical inconsistency, one that amounted to an especially deep and serious mistake.

Rousseau and others theorists were prone to say that in marriage man and women would become one person. That was a ruse, Wollstonecraft objected: clearly the ‘one person' would be the man. If women appeared weak and frivolous, that was only because eighteenth century society had left few opportunities open to them. If upper class women fussed over jewels and lap dogs and flirted with men, it was because they were provided with had nothing better to do. Lack of education was the problem – and contrary to what was said in Emile, girls had as much claim to a good education as boys.

Rousseau can be understood as reasoning from what is to what is ‘natural,' and then from what is ‘natural' to what is right. Using this line of reasoning, one would be led to the conclusion that whatever is is right. And that's no basis for a critical philosophy of the social world. No one merits standing as a philosopher of Revolution if he defends the status quo and advocates the tyranny of one sex over another, Wollstonecraft insisted. It was all false and self-indulgent; Rousseau was inspired by sentimentality and self-love. He sought to design a woman's whole life on a period of passionate love that, for most, would last only a few months. For marriage and children, what counts is not an initial period of sexual fascination but a longer, deeper companionship. Wollstonecraft deemed Rousseau a romantic fool, degrading woman by understanding her as the slave of love. He was not thinking rationally: he was inspired by lust.

Rousseau and Wollstonecraft never met. But you can imagine an angry dialogue between them. She would be scolding him about his ill-treated wife and abandoned children. Then he would talk back in no uncertain terms. And there would be plenty to say: Wollstonecraft herself was the target of many a tu quoque argument. She advocated economic independence for women and their cultivation of reason and conduct of life accordingly. And yet she threw caution to the winds in her relationships with several men, most notably with Gilbert Imlay, an American writer with whom she had a passionate affair as blood was running through the streets of revolutionary Paris. She gave birth to an illegitimate daughter by this man, who later discarded her. While expressing proud feminism in print, she abased herself in person when she begged him to return to their relationship. She attempted suicide out of frustration with her love life. Eventually she married William Godwin, an anarchist philosopher with whom she established a marriage of equals, based on mutual respect, separate households, and separate work. But then she died giving birth to her second daughter, Godwin's child – later to gain notoriety and fame as Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. Wollstonecraft wrote of equality for women, motherhood, and marriage based on companionship and shared knowledge. But it was only toward the end of her life that she fully lived according to norms of equality, and she did not live long enough to fully experience marriage and motherhood and confirm her own ideas through her own life.

Compared to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and judged by contemporary standards, Mary Wollstonecraft may seem a pillar of social virtue. Still, you can't say her life was true to her principles: it was far too turbulent for that. For more than a century after her death, Wollstonecraft was roundly attacked for her love affairs and her passion, understood as being contrary to reason. These attacks seem quite unfair today – but throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, they were taken very seriously. Commentators showed little tolerance for Wollstonecraft's failings. This woman had advised other women to develop their reason, restrain their passion, and develop a life outside the home. When she did these things herself, she got into deep trouble. Is there a message here?

It's rather entertaining to contemplate a dialogue between Rousseau and Wollstonecraft on these matters. Do it and you will envisage an angry debate with lots of personal attacks. Now revisit the tu quoque. It seemed that tu quoque arguments are not always fallacious: credibility is needed for people who make philosophical claims about how life should be lived. Clearly, Rousseau lacked that credibility – and it's arguable that Wollstonecraft lacked it too. Still, if you pursue their claims about sex and society in these terms, discussion plummets to the level of innuendo and gossip. In the end, contemplating the personal failings of philosophers provides no guide to prudence and wisdom, and debating their ideas in these terms is a rotten way to do philosophy.

So far as tu quoque arguments are concerned, it's reason to return to the admonitions of the textbooks. Stay away from personal attacks, and pay attention to the reasons and arguments.

© Trudy Govier 2005

Trudy Govier is the author of many articles and books, including A Practical Study of Argument, Dilemmas of Trust, and Forgiveness and Revenge. The material in this article appears in another form in her forthcoming novel, The Amber Letters: A Philosophical Mystery, (Trafford, 2005) in which a major theme is eighteenth century ideas about women and women's roles.

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