I am not a scholar of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but what little I know and have read by Rousseau persuades me that he is a very helpful philosopher for understanding our own time and place in 21st century America. His account in the Discourse on the Origins and Basis of Inequality (as well as Emile) of amour-propre–or love of self, sometimes rendered loosely as the need for recognition or validation–is one feature of his thought that offers great insight for our own controversies about identity politics, tribalism, and many other political problems of contemporary political life in liberal democracies.
Here is a new book that focuses on some of these features of Rousseau’s thought and is well worth checking out for the Rousseau novice: The Psychology of Inequality: Rousseau’s “Amour-Propre” (U Penn Press), by Michael Locke McLendon.
In The Psychology of Inequality, Michael Locke McLendon looks to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s thought for insight into the personal and social pathologies that plague commercial and democratic societies. He emphasizes the way Rousseau appropriated and modified the notion of self-love, or amour-propre, found in Augustine and various early modern thinkers. McLendon traces the concept in Rousseau’s work and reveals it to be a form of selfish vanity that mimics aspects of Homeric honor culture and, in the modern world, shapes the outlook of the wealthy and powerful as well as the underlying assumptions of meritocratic ideals.
According to McLendon, Rousseau’s elucidation of amour-propre describes a desire for glory and preeminence that can be dangerously antisocial, as those who believe themselves superior derive pleasure from dominating and even harming those they consider beneath them. Drawing on Rousseau’s insights, McLendon asserts that certain forms of inequality, especially those associated with classical aristocracy and modern-day meritocracy, can corrupt the mindsets and personalities of people in socially disruptive ways.
The Psychology of Inequality shows how amour-propre can be transformed into the demand for praise, whether or not one displays praiseworthy qualities, and demonstrates the ways in which this pathology continues to play a leading role in the psychology and politics of modern liberal democracies.