- The Psychology of Inequality: Rousseau's "Amour-Propre" by Michael Locke McLendon
The current popularity of college rankings and the multiplication of talent acquisition specialists reveal a bureaucracy preoccupied with finding the crème de la crème of society. These features, according to some, constitute the democratic impulse of modern societies, which are wont to reward merit and individual worth. The recent college admissions cheating scandal, however, alerts us to the corruptible nature of merit in the landscape of American higher education. Michael Locke McLendon's timely work, The Psychology of Inequality: Rousseau's Amour-Propre, invites us to examine the enduring myth of meritocracy—the concern with being the best—through the lens of aristocracy. The leading passion of amour-propre (an egotistical self-love) thus stands as the root of both classical and modern inequality.
According to McLendon's analysis of Rousseau, modern democracies are plagued by aristocratic dispositions, which encourage men and women to enter into competition with one another in the pursuit of excellence. The atomizing effects of neoliberal societies can thus be understood as remnants of aristocracy in modern culture. McLendon thus draws attention to the false distinction between democracy and aristocracy through a fine-grained analysis of Rousseau's views on human psychology, politics, and social organization.
By forming the basis of personal identity, the valuation of talent and merit shows the pitfalls of an honor culture that leaves average people in the lurch. McLendon quotes a striking passage from the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality in which Rousseau links the birth of love with the first appearances of inequality and public esteem:
In proportion as ideas and sentiments follow upon one another and as mind and heart are trained, the human Race continues to be tamed, contacts spread, and bonds are tightened. People grew accustomed to assembling in front of the Huts or around a large Tree; song and dance, true children of love and leisure, became the amusement or rather the occupation of idle men and women gathered in a crowd. . . . The one who sang or danced best; the handsomest, the strongest, the most skillful, or the most eloquent came to be the most highly regarded, and this was the first step at once toward inequality and vice.1
It would have been interesting to consider the section of the Essay on the Origin of Languages that complements this description (the Essay on the Origin of Languages was conceived by Rousseau as "at first only a fragment of the Discourse on Inequality that I cut out of it as too long and out of place").2 The Essay on the Origin of Languages describes the rise of group gatherings where young men and women met by water sources to sing and dance:
There were held the first fêtes, feet leapt with joy, the impressed gesture no longer sufficed, the voice accompanied it with impassioned accents, pleasure and desire mixed together made themselves felt at the same time. There finally was the true cradle of civilizations, and from the pure crystal of the fountains rose the first fires of love.(406) [End Page 505]
The invention of the performing arts (song and dance) coincides with the appearance of love. When reading the Essay on the Origin of Languages in conjunction with the Discourse of Inequality, we can also infer that the performing arts introduce inequality, as not all can sing and dance with the same ability. Does romantic love feed off of amour-propre, then? An extended discussion of the passions presented in the Essay on the Origin of Languages would have been welcome in McLendon's commentary on inequality and amour-propre.
Chapter 1 places Rousseau in dialogue with the classical tradition. McLendon hones in on Sophocles' tragic hero, the warrior Ajax, as the paradigm of the aristocratic psyche. McLendon contrasts the honor-obsessed (to the point of death) Ajax, who ends up committing suicide out of shame, to the democratic Odysseus, who is practical, moderate, and compassionate (agreeing to give burial rites...