Public Vision, Private Lives: Rousseau, Religion, and 21st-Century Democracy

Public Vision, Private Lives: Rousseau, Religion, and 21st-Century Democracy

Public Vision, Private Lives: Rousseau, Religion, and 21st-Century Democracy

Public Vision, Private Lives: Rousseau, Religion, and 21st-Century Democracy


Listening closely to the religious pitch in Rousseau's voice, Cladis convincingly shows that Rousseau, when attempting to portray the most characteristic aspects of the public and private, reached for a religious vocabulary. Honoring both love of self and love of that which is larger than the self--these twin poles, with all the tension between them--mark Rousseau's work, vision and challenge--the challenge of 21st-century democracy.


I can tell you the conclusion to this book. The commitments, hopes, and loves of the public and the private life often conflict, causing pain and loss. Yet we should resolve to maintain both of them in spite of potential friction and grief. It is better to cope with the inevitable conflict than to eliminate one for the sake of the other.

By beginning with the end I have not given too much away, as I might if this book were a mystery novel. Rather, like most journeys, the destination draws its meaning and significance from the process of arriving. And what is the journey? An exploration of the tension between our public and private lives—between our obligations to others and our care for ourselves—and the partial remedies that cope with that tension, bringing a measure of human happiness.

I don't remember when I first became interested in the relation between public and private. About twenty years ago, as a young graduate student, I wrote a paper for Richard Rorty on Hegel's and Kierkegaard's depictions of the individual in society. The paper was, above all, long—it was a lengthy trek for me (and no doubt for Rorty as well). Writing this preface occasioned my going through boxes and finding the paper. With chagrin, I discovered that I am still wrestling with very much the same set of issues. Evidently, some journeys require much time—perhaps a lifetime.

My interest in things public and private led to, but did not begin with, the paper for Rorty. Prior to graduate school, I lived for some time in Angoon, Alaska—a town of about five hundred Tlingit Indians and the only settlement on Admiralty Island. There was much to love about Angoon, especially its natural beauty and gentle people. It offered an unencumbered existence in which one could encounter the fundamentals of life—birth and death, food and shelter, society and solitude. The oscillation between public and private often matched the rhythmic cycles of summer and winter, low tide and high, fishing season and net-repairing season. I could tell stories of what might be called a Tlingit way of life: to listen is to participate and to participate is to understand; life is shared, and an aspect of the shared life is the privilege and even duty to seek one's own vision. There was much diversity of opinion and vision, and even friction among contested views. This pluralism, however, was held within a shared framework— a common history, a mutual future, and joint commitments to community, children . . .

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