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Ideas about the responsibilities of the individual Essay

The relatively new notions of the individual and society emerged in the Enlightenment of the 18th century, an era of transition from a world dominated by classical thought, institutional religion, and the aristocracy, to one that was increasingly secular, scientific, and sceptical (Block 3, pg. 166)1.

A prominent exponent of these ideas, Jean Jacques Rousseau discusses these novel notions in his seminal work of 1762, ‘The Social Contract’; therefore, to gain an understanding of the responsibilities of the individual as illustrated by the given examples, it is necessary to consider Rousseau’s ideas of freedom and society as outlined in the ‘Social Contract’, which can then be contrasted to the paintings by Jacques-Louis David and Caspar David Friedrich. Rousseau’s notion of realised humanity centres on freedom.

Indeed, his famous declaration that, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains” (Ibid. pg. 96), implies a belief that individuals live in confusion about the nature and provenance of their freedom. According to Rousseau, individuals perceive themselves to be free in the ‘state of nature’, whereas in reality they are slaves to their appetites and dependent on other people’s actions, reacting to instinct instead of reason (Block 3, pg. 111).

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Therefore, Rousseau offers the opportunity to master our impulses and become truly free by entering into civil society by way of a ‘social contract’. This passage from the state of nature to the civil state produces quite a remarkable change in man, for it substitutes justice for instinct in his behaviour and gives his actions a moral quality they previously lacked” (Ibid. pg. 109). In contrast, Romantic artists stress the importance of imagination and sentiment instead of reason, and Friedrich’s picture of 1818, ‘The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’ (Illustration Book, Colour Plate 60)2, exemplifies this.

This painting seems to invite the viewer to join the subject in reflection of the landscape that stretches out in front of him, arousing a sense of his own freedom and the unity between human and natural being. In joining the civil state, we share in the responsibility to use reason in deciding laws that answer to the demands of the general will, thus becoming ‘sovereign’. Therefore, we voluntarily surrender our individual self-authority to ourselves, as a collective body where “each one obeys only himself and remains as free as before” (Ibid. pg. 103).

Of course, rights cannot be obtained without obligations and, in the social contract, we are free as far as we retain and exercise our right to self-rule (Wokler, 2001)3. In this way, we become wholly dependent on each other collectively, instead of on particular persons or wills. Hence, Rousseau expects his citizens to participate in political decision-making through the creation of legislation (Resource Book 2, pg. 91)4.

Therefore, when Rousseau states that “what the people is asked is not exactly whether it approves or rejects the proposal, but whether it is in conformity of the general will, which is their will” (Ibid. g. 92), he is asking us to live up to our responsibilities as citizens by willing nothing contrary to the general will of society, putting our duties as citizens above our private passions as subjects of the state. David’s painting of 1789, “The Lictors returning to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons” (Illustration Book, Colour plate 41)5, could be seen as the representation of one man’s subjugation to the state as promoted by Rousseau, in which the best interests of society are put before those of the individual.

Stirring, moral subjects celebrating the ancient Greek and Roman virtues of patriotism and heroism were popular themes for the ‘grand style’ paintings of this age. Therefore, by choosing to interpret an emotional time from the story of Lucas Junius Brutus, the day on which he receives the bodies of his sons for burial, having condemned them to death for treason (Resource Book 2, pg. 101), David has selected the scene that best represents Brutus’s patriotism and the outcome of his obedience to the law and the state.

In depicting Brutus sitting beneath a statue bearing the symbol of Rome, he succeeds in portraying the demeanour of a man that has fulfilled his moral and civic duty, whilst the tonal contrast between the brightly lit body behind him and the semi-darkened Brutus, serves to emphasise his role in this tragic episode. Duty to the state is further defined by Rousseau in the following, paradoxical, statement, “If my private opinion had prevailed, I would not have been free” (Ibid. g. 92). In other words, obedience to laws which embody the general will is equivalent to moral freedom, therefore submission to the general will is the price of freedom. That this is a high price to pay is evident in David’s painting. Brutus’s face and body are turned away from the Lictors, who are carrying the bodies of his sons. He refuses to turn and look. Unlike the inconsolable women to his right, his posture is rigid, the left hand gripping the death sentence.

The vacant look on his face betrays his suffering, as evidenced by Livy, “the feelings of the father often struggling with the character of the magistrate” (Livy in Resource Book 2, pg. 101). The stark and dramatic confrontation of the figures emphasises the difference between reason and emotion. David’s work, therefore, broadly illustrates Rousseau’s argument that our responsibility is to bring our particular will into conformity with the general will, because doing otherwise would lead us to confuse existence as natural, independent beings with existence as fully human beings possessing civil and moral freedom.

Whereas David’s art tended to promote the idealised image of the Greco-Roman world, Romantic painters such as Friedrich abandoned the narrative structure of the neoclassical period, preferring to assert emotion and intuition to reason, and exploring natural beauty as a representation of the divine over classical restraint (TV2). More significantly, however, they stressed the importance of the individual over social conformity and compliance (Prooyen, Van. K. , 2004)6. Thus, in Friedrich’s painting, the individual is the focus of the composition; all lines of vision converge upon him, blocking our view of the landscape.

The dark colours of the foreground emphasise his role as the subject of the painting, contrasting with the cool blues and greys of the background. This wanderer has climbed as high as he could, perhaps wanting to reach Heaven; his back is turned away from the viewer, appearing lost in contemplation. Yet, the grey clouds and uninviting mist that obscure the middle ground do not seem to reveal a divine glory, exposing instead fragments of a larger expanse, as if the man is looking down on the world.

Thus, the wanderer stands aloof, perhaps experiencing a reflection of himself in the vastness of the nature that opens up at his feet, a distinctive individual, responsible only to God and himself. The rise of the individual began in the age of Enlightenment. Two principal figures of this age, Jean Jacques Rousseau and Jacques Louis David, outlined the obligations of the individual as irrevocably linked to the general will of society. With the advent of Romanticism, and its emphasis upon individuality and diversity, Caspar David Friedrich would offer a new perspective on this subject: the individual as a limitless and unique human being.

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