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The road to same-sex marriage was paved by Rousseau

At the heart of the debate over same-sex marriage are fundamental questions about who men are and how we decide what makes us flourish.
Robert R. Reilly | 15 April 2013
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There is more to same-sex marriage than politics. It only becomes plausible if you accept certain assumptions about how to distinguish what is natural from what is unnatural and what is right from what is wrong. The intellectual origins of the debate stretch all the way back to the Greeks, but radical changes in philosophy over the past couple of hundred years accelerated the process. In the essay below, Robert R. Reilly gives some deep background. 

Ineluctably, the issue of “gay” rights is about far more than sexual practices. It is, as lesbian advocate Paula Ettelbrick proclaimed, about “transforming the very fabric of society … [and] radically reordering society's views of reality”.

Since how we perceive reality is at stake in this struggle, the question inevitably rises: what is the nature of this reality? Is it good for us as human beings? Is it according to our Nature? Each side in the debate claims that what they are defending or advancing is according to Nature.

Opponents of same-sex marriage say that it is against Nature; proponents say that it is natural and that, therefore, they have a “right” to it. Yet the realities to which each side points are not just different but opposed: each negates the other. What does the word Nature really mean in this context? The words may be the same, but their meanings are directly contradictory, depending on the context. Therefore, it is vitally important to understand the broader contexts in which they are used and the larger views of reality of which they are a part since the status and meaning of Nature will be decisive in the outcome.

Let us then review briefly what the natural law understanding of "Nature" is and the kinds of distinctions an objective view of reality enables us to make in regard to our existence in general and to sexuality in particular. The point of departure must be that Nature is what is, regardless of what anyone desires or abhors. We are part of it and subject to it. It is not subject to us. Thus, we shall see how, once the objective status of Nature is lost or denied, we are incapacitated from possessing any true knowledge about ourselves and about how we are to relate to the world. This discussion may seem at times somewhat unrelated to the issues directly at hand, but it is not. It is at its heart and soul. Without it, the rest of our discussion is a mere battle of opinions.

Order in the Universe – Aristotle’s Laws of Nature

There are two basic, profoundly different anthropologies behind the competing visions of man at the heart of the dispute over same-sex marriage. For an understanding of the original notion of Nature, we will turn to those who began the use of the term in classical Greece, most especially Plato and Aristotle. To present the antithesis of this understanding, we will then turn to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who eviscerated the word of its traditional meaning in the 18th century and gave it its modern connotation. The older anthropology is Aristotelian, which claims that man is by Nature a political animal for whom the basic societal unit is the family. The newer is Rousseauian, which claims that man is not a political animal and that society in any form is fundamentally alien to him. These two disparate anthropologies presuppose, in turn, two radically different metaphysics: one is teleological; the other is non-teleological, or anti-teleological. Again, the first one has its roots in Aristotle, the second in Rousseau. These two schools of thought provide convenient and necessary philosophical perspectives within which to understand the uses of the words “natural” and “unnatural” as they are variously employed by the proponents and opponents of homosexual acts and same-sex marriage today.

The discovery of Nature was momentous, as it was the first product of philosophy. Man first deduced the existence of Nature by observing order in the universe. The regularity with which things happen could not be explained by random repetition. All activity seems governed by a purpose, by ends to which things are designed to move.  Before this discovery, in the ancient, pre-philosophical world, man was immersed in mythological portrayals of the world, the gods, and himself. These mythopoeic accounts made no distinction between man and Nature, or between convention and Nature. A dog wagged its tail because that was the way of a dog.  Egyptians painted their funeral caskets in bright colors because that was the way of the Egyptians. There was no way to differentiate between the two because the word “Nature” was not available in the vocabulary of the pre-philosophical world.

According to Henri Frankfort in Before Philosophy, it was Heraclitus who first grasped that the universe is an intelligible whole and that therefore man is able to comprehend its order. If this is true – and only if it is true – man's inquiry into the nature of reality becomes possible. The very idea of “Nature” becomes possible.  How could this be?  Heraclitus said that the universe is intelligible because it is ruled by and is the product of "thought" or wisdom. If it is the product of thought, then it can be apprehended by thinking. We can know what is because it was made by logos. We can have thoughts about things that are themselves the product of thought.

As far as we know, Heraclitus and Parmenides were the first to use the word logos to name this “thought” or wisdom. Logos, of course, means “reason” or “word” in Greek.  Logos is the intelligence behind the intelligible whole. It is logos which makes the world intelligible to the endeavor of philosophy, ie, reason. In the Timaeus, Plato writes, "... now the sight of day and night, and the months and the revolutions of the years, have created number, and have given us a conception of time; and the power of inquiring about the nature of the universe; and from this source, we have derived philosophy, than which no greater good ever was or will be given by the gods to mortal man." Through reason, said Socrates, man can come to know "what is", ie, the nature of things.

Aristotle taught that the essence or nature of a thing is what makes it what it is, and why it is not something else. This is not a tautology. As an acorn develops into an oak tree, there is no point along its trajectory of growth that it will turn into a giraffe or something other than an oak. That is because it has the nature of an oak tree. By natural law, in terms of living things, we mean the principle of development which makes it what it is and, given the proper conditions, what it will become when it fulfills itself or reaches its end. For Aristotle, “Nature ever seeks an end”.  This end state is its telos, its purpose or the reason for which it is. In non-human creation this design is manifested through either instinct or physical law. Every living thing has a telos toward which it purposefully moves. In plants or animals, this involves no self-conscious volition. In man, it does.

Anything that operates contrary to this principle in a thing is unnatural to it. By unnatural, we mean something that works against what a thing would become were it to operate according to its principle of development. For instance, an acorn will grow into an oak unless its roots are poisoned by highly acidic water. One would say that the acidic water is unnatural to the oak or against its “goodness”.

The term “teleological”, when applied to the universe, implies that everything has a purpose, and the purpose inheres in the structure of things themselves. There is what Aristotle called entelechy, “having one’s end within”. The goal of the thing is intrinsic to it. These laws of Nature, then, are not an imposition of order from without by a commander-in-chief, but an expression of it from within the very essence of things, which have their own integrity.  This also means that the world is comprehensible because it operates on a rational basis.

It is by their natures that we are able to know what things are. Otherwise, we would only know specificities, and be unable to recognize things in their genus and species. In other words, we would only experience this piece of wood (a tree), as opposed to that piece of wood (another tree), but we would not know the word “tree” or even the word “wood”, because we would not know the essence of either. In fact, we would know nothing.

Nature is also what enables one person to recognize another person as a human being. What does human nature mean? It means that human beings are fundamentally the same in their very essence, which is immutable and, most profoundly, that every person's soul is ordered to the same transcendent good or end. (This act of recognition is the basis of Western civilization. We have forever since called barbarian those who are either incapable of seeing another person as a human being or who refuse to do so.) Both Socrates and Aristotle said that men's souls are ordered to the same good and that, therefore, there is a single standard of justice which transcends the political standards of the city. There should not be one standard of justice for Athenians and another for Spartans. There is only one justice and this justice is above the political order. It is the same at all times, everywhere, for everyone.

For the first time, reason becomes the arbiter. Reason becomes normative. It is through reason – not from the gods of the city – that man can discern what is just from what is unjust, what is good from what is evil, what is myth from what is reality.  Behaving reasonably or doing what accords with reason becomes the standard of moral behavior.  We see one of the highest expressions of this understanding in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics

As classics scholar Bruce S. Thornton expressed it: “If one believes, as did many Greek philosophers from Heraclitus on, that that the cosmos reflects some sort of rational order, then ‘natural’ would denote behavior consistent with that order. One could then act ‘unnaturally’ by indulging in behavior that subverted that order and its purpose”.  Behaving according to Nature, therefore means acting rationally. Concomitantly, behaving unnaturally means acting irrationally. This notion of reality necessitates the rule of reason.

Reason and morality

This is relevant to man alone because only he possesses free will. He can choose the means to his end or choose to frustrate his end altogether. This, of course, is why "moral" laws are applicable only to man. These moral laws are what natural law means in regard to man. That man can defy moral law in no way lessens the certainty of its operation. In fact, man not so much breaks the moral law as the moral law breaks man, if he transgresses it. In short, when we speak of man’s Nature, we mean the ordering of man’s being toward certain ends. It is the fulfillment of those ends which makes man fully human.

What is man’s end? In the Apology, Socrates said that, “A man who is good for anything…ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong – acting the part of a good man or bad…” The Republic states that “the idea of the Good… is seen only with an effort; and when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and the lord of the light of this visible world, and the source of truth and reason in the intellectual”. Since Socrates, we have called man’s end "the good". This end carries within it an intimation of immortality for, as Diotima said in the Symposium (207a): “… love loves good to be one's own forever. And hence it necessarily follows that love is of immortality”.

The good for man, Aristotle tells us, is happiness. However, happiness is not whatever we say it is, but only that thing which will by our nature truly make us happy. Since man’s nature is fundamentally rational, happiness will consist in the knowledge and contemplation of the ultimate good. (That good, the theologians tell us, is God). Aristotle explains that happiness is achieved only through virtuous actions – the repetition of good deeds. Deeds are considered good and bad, natural and unnatural, in relation to the effect they have on man’s progress toward his end.

So, it is through Nature that we come to understand the proper use of things. The enormous importance of this for our topic is that, since the purposes of things are intrinsic to them, man does not get to make them up, but only to discover them through the use of his reason. He can then choose to conform his behavior to these purposes in a life of virtue, or to frustrate them in a life of vice. He can choose to become fully human, or to dehumanize himself. However, if his choice is the latter, he will not present it to himself in those terms. As Aristotle said, he must see what he selects as a good in order for him to be able to select it. If he chooses to rebel against the order of things, he will present this choice to himself not as one in favor of disorder, but as one for order – but of another sort. He will, as we have said, rationalize: vice becomes virtue. It is to the construction of this other sort of “order”, to this alternate reality, that we now turn. One of its modern architects was Rousseau.

Rousseau’s Inversion of Aristotle

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) turned Aristotle’s notion of Nature on its head. Aristotle said Nature defined not only what man is but what he should be. Rousseau countered that Nature is not an end—a telos—but a beginning: Man’s end is his beginning. He has no immutable nature. “We do not know what our nature permits us to be”, wrote Rousseau in his Emile. A 20th century version of this view was offered by John Dewey, who said: “human nature is not to have a nature”. There is nothing man “ought” to become, no moral imperative. There is no purpose in man or nature; existence is therefore bereft of any rational principle. This means there is no entelechy, no such thing as ‘having one’s end within,’ as Aristotle put it. In fact, reason itself is not natural to man, according to Rousseau – whereas Aristotle said it is man’s very essence. For Rousseau, the roots of reason are in the irrational. Reason is the servant of the passions, not of the truth.

Contra Aristotle, Rousseau asserted that man by nature was not a social, political animal endowed with reason. Unlike Aristotle, Rousseau does not begin with the family, but with an isolated individual in the state of nature, where the pure “sentiment of his own existence” was such that “one suffices to oneself, like God.”  Nature becomes a secular substitute for the Garden of Eden. Yet this self-satisfied god was asocial, amoral and pre-rational. His couplings with women were random and formed no lasting attachment. The family was not natural to him. As Rousseau wrote in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality , “… there was one appetite which urged him to perpetuate his own species; and this blind impulse, devoid of any sentiment of the heart, produced only a purely animal act. The need satisfied, the two sexes recognized each other no longer, and even the child meant nothing to the mother, as soon as he could do without her.” (Rousseau, in fact, abandoned his five children.) The Marquis de Sade expressed a thoroughly Rousseauian sentiment in his novel Juliette, when he wrote that “all creatures are born isolated and with no need of one another”.

It was only when through some unexplainable “accident” one man was forced into association with another that his godlike autonomy ended. “Man is by nature good”, said Rousseau, but we have somehow fallen from Nature. What man has become is the result not of Nature but of this “accident”, which also in some way ignited his use of reason.  Rousseau stresses the accidental character of man’s association in society in order to emphasize its unnaturalness and artificiality. It was not necessary. In fact, it shouldn’t have happened. Aristotle taught that you cannot reach perfection by yourself; man needs society and the political order to reach his full potential. The polis is necessary to him. Rousseau asserted the opposite: man begins in perfection, which the formation of society then takes from him.

Here is how Rousseau stated his thesis in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality: “… this state [of nature] was the least subject to upheavals and the best for man, and that he must have left it only by virtue of some fatal chance happening that, for the common good, ought never to have happened. The example of savages, almost all of whom have been found in this state, seems to confirm that the human race had been made to remain in it always; that this state is the veritable youth of the world; and that all the subsequent progress has been in appearance so many steps toward the perfection of the individual, and in fact toward the decay of the species”. 

In his Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, Rousseau purported to show the destructive influences of civilization and “progress” on men, whose “minds have been corrupted in proportion as the arts and sciences have improved”. In his work Rousseau, Judge of Jean-Jacques, he describes himself as having advanced the "great principle that nature made man happy and good, but that society depraves him and makes him miserable....vice and error, foreign to his constitution, enter it from outside and insensibly change him."  Speaking of himself in the third person, Rousseau wrote that “he makes us see the human race as better, wiser, and happier in its primitive constitution; blind, miserable, and wicked to the degree that it moves away from it."

The society resulting from that “fatal chance happening” has corrupted man. This is Rousseau’s substitution for original sin. Through his association with others, man lost his self-sufficient “sentiment of his own existence.” He began to live in the esteem of others (amour propre), instead of in his own self-esteem (amour de soi). In this way man was “alienated” from himself and enslaved to others. This is what Rousseau meant when he said, “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains”. Here we see in Rousseau the origin of Marx’s idea of exploitation, carried through, in more recent times, to Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential assertion that: “Hell is other people”. If hell is other people, then heaven must be oneself.

Nonetheless, Rousseau knew that the pre-rational, asocial state of blissful isolation in the state of nature was lost forever, much as was the Garden of Eden. But he thought that an all-powerful state could ameliorate the situation of alienated man. The closest man can come to secular salvation is to abolish those dependent forms of association which have enslaved him to other men and kept him always outside of himself. He must sever, as much as possible, his relations with his fellow members of society so he can return the sentiment of his own existence to himself. How can this be done?

The state demands complete dependence

Rousseau described the accomplishment of this condition: “Each person would then be completely independent of all his fellowmen, and absolutely dependent upon the state”. The state could restore a simulacrum of that original well-being by removing all of man’s subsidiary social relationships. By destroying man’s familial, social, and political ties, the state could make each individual totally dependent on the state and independent of each other. The state is the vehicle for bringing people together so they can be apart: a sort of radical individualism under state sponsorship.

Rousseau’s program was to politicize society totally and his first target was society’s foundation – the primary means by which men are curbed of that total self-absorption to which Rousseau wished them to return – the family. To destroy the family Rousseau proposed that its primary function of educating its children be taken from it and given to the state. “The public authority, in assuming the place of father and charging itself with this important function (should) acquire his (the father’s) rights in the discharge of his duties”. The father is supposed to console himself with the thought that he still has some authority over his children as a “citizen” of the state. His relationship with his children has metamorphosed into a purely political one.

Rousseau’s attack upon the family and his exclusive reliance upon the state as the vehicle of man’s redemption is the prototype for all future revolutionaries. The program is always the same: society, responsible for all evils, must be destroyed. To promote universal “brotherhood”, the only source from which the word “brother” can draw meaning – the family – must be eliminated. Once society is atomized, once the family ceases to interpose itself between the individual and the state, the state is free to transform by force the isolated individual into whatever version of “new man” the revolutionary visionaries espouse.

The artificial family

Here is the point of huge significance for our subject. If the family is artificial in its origins, as Rousseau claimed, then it can be changed and rearranged in any way the state or others may desire. It is simply a shift in convention, a change in a cultural artifact. We can revise human relations in any way we choose. Whoever has sufficient power may make these alternations to suit themselves. There is no standard in Nature to which they must adhere or by which they can be judged. If we do not have a Nature, then there could not possibly be a problem with homosexual acts or same-sex marriage – or with many other things, as well. Pointing out that there has never been such a thing as homosexual marriage in history is superfluous to this point of view since man’s “nature” is malleable. It is the product of history. History moves on and man changes with it. Or rather man can change himself according to his desires, as long as he has the means to do so. Since things do not have ends in themselves, they can be given ends by whoever is powerful enough to do so.

This is the philosophy of the Sophist Callicles in the Gorgias, when he says to Socrates: “the fact is this: luxury and licentiousness and liberty, if they have the support of force, are virtue and happiness, and the rest of these embellishments—the unnatural covenants of mankind—are all mere stuff and nonsense” (492c). With the support of force, virtue becomes whatever you choose. It is not conforming your behavior to the rational ends of Nature, but conforming things to your desires. Reason becomes your instrument for doing this. For Rousseau, man is a creature of desire and appetites, to which his reason is subordinated. Rousseau’s host in England, David Hume, wrote in A Treatise on Human Nature: “Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions and may never pretend to any office other than to serve and obey them”. Reason is not, then, the means by which man reaches his end in the knowledge and contemplation of the good. It is a tool for satisfying the passions. The inversion of Aristotle is complete.

Natural laws or natural rights?

A modern day version of Callicles would not speak as frankly as he did to Socrates. He would cloak his inversion of natural law in the language of “natural right”, so that it might seem to be the same, while actually being its opposite – just as did Rousseau. If you are an active homosexual, you claim a “right” to sodomitical acts and same-sex marriage. Though “natural right” sounds like natural law, it is not, as Fr. James Schall has explained, at all similar. “Modern natural right theory”, he writes, “is a theory of will, a will presupposed to nothing but itself. In its politicized formulation, it has been the most enduring and dangerous alternative to a natural law that is based in the ontological reality of what man is.

Once natural right becomes the understood foundation of political life, the state is free to place any content into it that it wants, including the rewriting or elimination of natural law. The older constitutional tradition thought that the state was itself both a natural result of man's nature and, in that capacity, a check on the state. But if man has no ‘nature,’ he is freed from this restriction. Modern natural right means that nothing limits man or the state except what he wills. He can will whatever he can bring about whether or not it was held to be contrary to natural law.” Nothing less than this is what is playing itself out in the same-sex marriage struggle.

Though not directly speaking of Callicles or Rousseau in Salt of the Earth, the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said something that characterizes this school of thought: “the idea that ‘nature’ has something to say is no longer admissible; man is to have the liberty to remodel himself at will. He is to be free from all of the prior givens of his essence. He makes of himself what he wants, and only in this way is he really ‘free’ and liberated. Behind this approach is a rebellion on man’s part against the limits that he has as a biological being. In the end, it is a revolt against our creatureliness. Man is to be his own creator – a modern, new edition of the immemorial attempts to be God, to be like God.”

This is the anthropological and metaphysical perspective within which the same-sex marriage movement makes its case. To accept same-sex marriage means to accept the entire perspective from which it comes, including the assertion that “human nature is not to have a nature”. But natural law is nothing other than what it is to be a human being. Its rejection is a denial of humanity, of what is

Robert R. Reilly is the author of The Closing of the Muslim Mind. He is currently completing a book on the natural law argument against homosexual marriage for Ignatius Press. 

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