Monday, January 21, 2008

Freedom and Virtue

Rousseau, the godfather of victimhood and society-blaming.

Rousseau has an overarching thesis that considers people to be good by nature but corrupted by society. My students like that, since it reassures them that it's not entirely their fault every time they do something bad, but rather that some larger social force "made me do it." And Rousseau articulates the longings in my students for more of a reason to live than competing for who's the best looking and smartest, or who ends up with the most toys.

Yay, Rousseau! But wait ... here comes Rousseau, the moralistic critic of arts and entertainment, the 18th century's Bill Bennett. Theater for him is the most vivid example of popular arts, but also stands for all of them. Today, you would substitute movies/TV/dance music/video games, even the fetish for violence in the nightly newscasts:

Almost everyone who encounters theater wants more and more of it. Worse, Rousseau says, theater "tends everywhere to promote and increase the inequality of fortunes" because it triggers a host of artificial desires. And even when theater is great, and its audience consists of decent people, Rousseau argues, whether or not we're made better by it depends on who we are to begin with. Many of us are made worse by theater precisely because we're introduced to bad ideas we'd never thought of before. The modern media echoes Rousseau's claim regularly, especially after tragedies like that at Virginia Tech: Villains "accustom the eyes of the people to horrors that they ought not even to know and to crimes they ought not to suppose possible."

Theater also engenders in us the fuzzy feeling that we become good people merely by watching other people — none of whom we know personally — pretending to be good or bad people on the stage and then identifying ourselves only with the good ones: "The continual emotion that is felt in the theater excites us, enervates us, enfeebles us, and makes us less able to resist our passions. And the sterile interest taken in virtue serves only to satisfy our vanity without obliging us to practice it."

In short, theater's smoke and mirrors seduce us into substituting art for moral action. And even though theater might keep unvirtuous people in big cities distracted and somewhat in check, Rousseau thinks it causes generally good people to become restless and unhappy with their own lives because it makes their own lives seem, by comparison, boring. In fact, the better theater is, the more inherently debilitating it is to real life. In sum: Theater is slightly good only for bad people, and quite bad for good people.

Laurie Fendrich, a professor of fine arts at Hofstra University who loves to really challenge her students where they live.