So Plato, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Robin Pecknold of the Fleet Foxes and I walk into a bar…and discuss how we can embrace human individuality and the common good of society at the same time.
I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me
– Fleet Foxes, “Helplessness Blues”
‘All of you in the city are certainly brothers,’ we shall say to them in telling the tale, ‘but the god, in fashioning those of you who are competent to rule, mixed gold in at their birth; this is why they are most honored; in auxiliaries, silver; and iron and bronze in the farmers and the other craftsmen…’
– Plato’s Socrates in the Republic, Book III, 415a
Tonight I chose the Fleet Foxes to keep me company while I sat hunched over my laptop and oily spaghetti, pouring more hours into a seminar paper on Plato’s Republic that I hope to use for fall’s graduate school applications.
“Helplessness Blues,” the title track of the Fleet Foxes album, quickly became an major favorite of mine my senior year of college. As the lyrics above help illustrate, the song muses on developing both a personal identity and social purpose. The lines that follow that I don’t include above get to the “helplessness” of the singer’s blues – “But I don’t, I don’t know what that will be,” in reference to his role in a greater social purpose, and “What’s my name, what’s my station, oh, just tell me what I should do.” I believe that many of us have natural desires to not only express ourselves in our work, but also to feel connected to others and even needed by them. But how do we fulfill either of these desires when not only are we a mystery to ourselves but to each other? And when society and any proposed “bigger picture” – the aggregate of these individual mysteries – is only a deeper mystery? How do we understand and trust a “big picture” that society proposes to us, or even one we create ourselves? Even if we can accept a mysterious “machinery serving something beyond us,” how do we become the cog the machine needs? And how can we be a “cog” and an individual “snowflake” at the same time?
Wow. That’s even more questions then I originally planned to ask you.
My initial love for this song was not only for the initial conflict posed in the opening, but the resolution I thought it offered at its conclusion.The final lines of song are reminiscent of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s philosophy regarding “the good life” for the individual. Robin Pecknold sings, “If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m raw,” and the repetition of this phrase paired with the light, slowed melody of the music bring to mind a pastoral scene of a self-sufficient man in harmony with the earth. For me, this evokes Rousseau’s pleasant memories of his isolated life on St. Peter’s Island in Reveries of a Solitary Walker and the countryside rearing and early agricultural lessons he prescribes for Emile (in Emile: Or On Education). In the Social Contract, Rousseau depicts the ideal political structure as comprised interconnected citizens fully participating in the political process, fulfilling their civic duties and aligning their personal desires with the general will of the society in seeking the common good – sort of like cogs in a political machine. However, in Reveries and Emile he explores how the ideal life for the individual human being would be as autonomous as possible, lessening the individual’s contribution to society, but correspondingly lessening his dependence on society. He praises life in the countryside over the stresses of the interdependence of life in Paris, which presses the individual to conform and sacrifice her own will to please others. In other words, I think he would have liked a quiet, independent life working his own orchard.
But, now, while analyzing the Republic, the opening lines of “Helplessness Blues” don’t necessarily sound in conflict at all. Individuals are unique, but so are the “cogs” of a machine. Indeed, a working complex machine owes its success to the intricate, harmonious uniqueness of each of its parts. Rather, the individuality of a snowflake is misleading, as it is ultimately lost once it joins a mass of fellow snowflakes.
Indeed, Socrates’s famous “Noble Lie,” a creation myth devised to develop the hypothetical ideal city described in Plato’s Republic, which I quoted above, intertwines the natural individuality of human beings with social harmony. In order to create the ideal society, Socrates proposes that individuals be classified into three socio-economic groups in accordance with their natural predispositions and drives. The golden people he speaks of are the courageous, intellectual, and socially-minded Guardians who begin their lives as warriors and become wise political leaders with age. The silver are those younger warriors and those warriors who continue to execute the society’s and the guardians’ political imperatives, rather than become guardians themselves. The bronze are those are less concerned with the greater good (Robin Pecknold’s “machine,” Rousseau’s common good or the city’s political and social development), but in pursuing their individual desires and accepting the guardians’ leadership provide a necessary element of society and an satisfactory role for many people. While the individuals of these three groups would function as very different cogs in a well-built machine, Socrates insists that the individuals belong to the class best-suited for their natural abilities and desires. Individuals would be both true to themselves, even reared to embrace their particular natures, and also serve specific, necessary purposes in their city.
I’ll use Socrates’s metaphor about painting to make this a bit clearer. When painting a statue, the colors applied to the body parts must not be treated individually, but in keeping in mind the appearance of the statue as a whole: “‘Don’t suppose we ought to paint eyes so fair that they don’t even look like eyes, and the same for the other parts; but observe whether, assigning what’s suitable to each of them, we make the whole fair'” (Book IV, 420d). In Socrates’ city, the guardians cannot possess private property, which is one of the finest pleasures of the merchant class, but he seeks that the only individuals to be guardians are those who are predisposed to seek the pleasure of leading and developing their society over the pleasure derived from material gain. As he tells the interlocutors, “don’t compel us to attach to the guardians a happiness that will turn them into everything except guardians” (Book IV, 420d). While he develops the ideal city with something beyond the individual in mind, he simultaneously attends to the individualism inherent in human nature.
After all this, I think the Fleet Foxes, Plato, and Rousseau have taught me something very important about individuality. As a kid, I distinctly recall the individuality of human beings often compared to snowflakes. In contrast, “cog” and “machine” sound dystopian and uniform, but these associations aren’t really logically sound. So maybe our narrative on individuality should be closer to Socrates’ – the success of the human race as a whole depends on the cooperation of many unique individuals, differentiated by their particular abilities and drives. When we come together as a society, our uniqueness should not be lost, like that lonely snowflake falling into a blanket of blinding white snow, but embraced as an integral component of something beyond ourselves.