Seeming to be

Lemme throw a quote at you and see if you can guess when it was written: "The citizen, constantly beside himself, knows only how to live in the opinion of others and it is from their judgment alone he derives the sentiment of his own existence."

When I read that, I thought, "Wow, this guy has just nailed Facebook in one sentence", the only problem being "the guy" is Jean Jacques Rousseau and "the sentence" comes from his 1754 work Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men aka "The Second Discourse".

What it does show you, though, is how little has changed in the 250-odd-years since Rousseau first gave us his thoughts on the dreaded "bourgeois" ... that'd be me and you.

Speaking in his lecture series "Political Philosophy", Yale University's Professor Steven B. Smith teaches that, in Rousseau's opinion "in society, we only live through the gaze of others, through what others think of us".

"Our own 'sentiment of existence', comes entirely from the judgment of those around us. The bourgeois is someone who lives in and through the good opinions of others, who thinks only of himself when he is with other people and only of other people when is by himself," Smith said.

"Such a person is duplicitious, hypocritical and false," Professor Smith said. "This is the true discontent of civilisation, this is what our perpetual restlessness and reflectiveness have made of us ... this is the particular misery that civilisation has bequeathed us."

How's that for some brain chewing gum?

I feel smarter just typing that.

However, Rousseau's musings were not new thoughts, by any means, even back in 1754.

In Plato's The Republic (circa 380BC), held by many scholars to be the greatest book ever written, Socrates opines that seeming is bad, being is good; in other words, appearing to be something you're not is a meaningless life. 

A couple of thousand years later, Niccolo Machiavelli counselled the opposite in his tome The Prince (circa 1532) - at least for would be rulers - writing: "It is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them.

"And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite," Machiavelli wrote.

Personally, I have no desire to rule others but this is not to say you must hold that ambition to be duplicitious, to seem but not be or to garner your "sentiment of existence" from the opinions of others.

You could argue all day - or across centuries - about which is the better way to live your life, but when I glaze over, gazing at the carefully portrayed "lives" of others - whether that be on Facebook, Twitter or press releases, it strikes me that "seeming" is far more important to many people these days than actually being.

Some would say, "who cares?", to which I'd offer you another snippet from Rousseau, who wrote: "How everything, being reduced to appearances, becomes mere art and mummery; honour, friendship, virtue, and often vice itself, which we at last learn the secret to boast of; how, in short, ever inquiring of others what we are, and never daring to question ourselves on so delicate a point, in the midst of so much philosophy, humanity, and politeness, and so many sublime maxims, we have nothing to show for ourselves but a deceitful and frivolous exterior, honour without virtue, reason without wisdom, and pleasure without happiness."

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Sam de Brito's latest novel Hello Darkness is in bookstores now. You can follow him on Twitter here. His email address is here.