NEETs in Enlightenment France

Next up on the French side of things is Denis Diderot's Le Neveau de Rameau or Rameau'sNephew. This edition is available in paperback, hardcover, and on-line. The hardcover edition is well-bound and printed on heavy paper. I can not really speak for the paperback edition. The on-line edition includes much of the music mentioned within Le Neveau. The printed text notes when these musical selections are available. The edition contains an astounding amount number of endnotes, completely with images of many of people and places mentioned. Between the dialogue itself and the endnotes, this edition serves as a kind ofWho's Who of the French Enlightenment. A ton of work and love clearly went in to this edition. Unfortunately, the translation and original French are printed in separate sections, forcing the reader to flip back and forth to do any comparison. The same is true of the endnotes. I really wish publishers would stick to footnotes and side-by-side translations. This edition could be perfect with those simple layout changes. That said, it is the only dual-language edition in existence as far as I know and beggars can not be choosers.

This is an 18th-century fictitious dialogue between an unnamed narrator MOI, or me, and LUI, or him. LUI does most of the talking. He is a cynical man who is down on his luck despite coming from the well-to-do family of the composer Jean-Philippe Rameau. MOI's attempts to defuse his bitter cynicism are feeble. The topics they discuss are numerous so I will have to keep my focus narrow.

One of the topics raised is the notion that those whom history deems "great" men are often failures in other parts of their lives. In other words, the idea is that great men are not good men. For example, it is argued that though Jean-Philippe Rameau was a great composer, he was a dick to his family. Several other examples are given. The explanation for this supposed pattern is that a talented genius must sacrifice other parts of his or her life in pursuit of hisor her craft. But I think the reasoning here is flawed. Few people are well-rounded and equally good at all aspects of life. Why should this be any different for the gifted? Being a good composer is a very different skill set than being a good uncle or father (though we only have the scoundrel LUI's word on Rameau's value as a family man). Being great at certain crafts, like musical composition, suggests a high degree of general intelligence but it does not guarantee it. And high general intelligence does not necessarily imply high morals. Ipersonally believe that very high intelligence helps in developing good moralsbut I have seen slightly-above-average intelligence allow many people to justify their mercenary pragmatism. But, on the whole, I think we are dealing with a difference of degree, not of kind, and not a particularly large difference at that. In other words, great men and average men conduct themselves much the same in many areas of their lives. I think this notion of the bad great man is an illusion of the availability heuristic. LUI knows one bad great man and can name a few others. But elsewhere he praises many other great men. It is easier to keep a mental catalog of the exceptional assholes than the everyday man. And LUI repeats the same mistake with other groups of people. He knows many bad clergymen, therefore all clergy are bad. He knows many bad fellow Parisians, therefore all of Paris is rotten to the core. None of these things implies bad character. LUI's imagination and memory are simply insufficient to properly judge these things.

After LUI is done condemning the geniuses, he later laments that society is too dumb to recognize true genius, himself being one of the true genius. Yet he is very long on the things he could do, if only society would recognize and support him, and short on the things he has done. Likewise, virtually every other unrecognized genius cited, like Voltaire, is famous to this very day. In short, LUI is just a bitter underachiever at best.

Next up on the list will be Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travel. It is not in French but it is the final work that I need to read in the Swift-Voltaire-Diderot volume. Plus, I am really trying to accelerate my reading of the Summa so that I am not spending the next year finishing it. Stay tuned, buckaroos.