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Anxiety, Depression, and Political Philosophy

May 21, 2014

There is a deep connection between the human experience as we know it and philosophy as we are capable of developing it, as well as how it has progressed through history and shaped the structure of society and our relation to the world in general.


In this post I want to focus on the experiences of anxiety and depression and begin to elucidate the ways that these experiences are connected with political philosophy as well as the social phenomena development makes possible. I want to begin to make clear that the feelings of anxiety and depression are integrally related to the development of democracy, though not exactly codeterminate, if only because democracy itself is not a stable concept and to greater or lesser degrees could be considered to have no real precident in history.


A quick note before I begin, due to the constraints of developing this idea within a blog post, it is not my intention to give a complete descriptions of the origins and developments of the democratic ideal, nor is it my intention to give a complete description of the experiences of anxiety or depression. It is my sole intention to begin to make an elucidation of how these experiences can be seen as integrally related.


I will begin my discussion with the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was spurred on to write by what he saw as great problems with the modern project, in particular the notions that science and the progress of civilization could bring happiness and completion to the individual. He saw science and art as contributing towards decadence in humanity, as well as luxury being a prerequisite for science and the arts, as free time and resources are both needed for their creation and progress. In his mind this formed a cumulative cycle of knowledge and necessity. (These ideas have their fullest expression in his work Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts.)

As a reaction against this trend, Rousseau’s final recourse was to take refuge in nature, to contemplate deeply the experience of passion, or feeling within nature. (This is most definitively expressed in his final work Reveries of a Solitary Walker.)

Between these two works, which are fittingly his opening and closing works, he wrote The Social Contract, which was his attempt to reconcile what he saw as the pure and uncorrupted essence of natural man with the corrupting influence of society. (A brief note, he saw property as being the basis and the raison d’être for society, as well as the basis for inequality, luxury, and the sciences, and so on…)


Among many contributions Rousseau made to political theory in The Social Contract, the one I want to focus on most specifically, which forms one of the cornerstones of liberal and democratic thought, is the way he developed the social contract theory . The social contract theory was originally postulated by Hobbes on the basis that humanity’s primal instinct is self-preservation, and that humanity forms together in a “social contract” for the sake of that preservation.

Rousseau switched the basis of human striving from self-preservation to the desire for freedom, namely the freedom to live ones way as one sees fit. Inherent in Rousseau’s idea that freedom formed the basis of human striving was the notion that humans create their own ideal of freedom, and thus seek to express that ideal through their actions thus creating the narrative and meaning of their existence. (You can also see here a precursor to existentialism.)

Rousseau then went about reworking the theory of the social contract by attempting to reconcile the striving for freedom with life in society that naturally restricts freedom. The solution Rousseau proposed for this problem was what he called the “general will”, where the entire body of the citizens contribute their individual wills which together become subsumed into the “general will”.

(A little side note, this idea can be seen as an influence in Freud’s theory of the death instinct in which one postulate was the desire to die in one’s own way, so that the drive to self-preservation was superceded if the constraint of necessity threatened to limit freedom to the point of it becoming unattainable.)


It is not very far now to see how this all ties into the experience of depression and anxiety, especially for those familiar with existentialism and the emphasis it puts on anxiety. Anxiety and depression in this sense is the drive of freedom in the individual to create their own meaning, but coming into conflict with social rules and expectations.

For example, when someone experiences social anxiety, they are experiencing a dislocation between what is expected of them in a social interaction (mainly because of preconceived expectations) and their own desire for freedom and the conception of the self and action inherent in their individual notion of freedom.

The tie in to democracy is that inherent in democracy is the notion that the people possess the soverignty to decide what form the society should take, and so it is by the freedom of their will to make that decision for themselves that the collective will is formed in a combination of the individual wills (generally channeled through the voting process.)


This is also a key reason why many adherents to anarchism see anarchism as the only real and viable form of democracy, to be without imposed authority, leaving open to the individual the ability to conceive of their own ideal of freedom. It is also a reason that a number of anarchists advocate collectivism, generally if they see themselves as part of an “anarcho-communist” tradition, because Marx was highly indebted to Rousseau, and collectivism is a development of Rousseau’s notion of the “general will”, where the will of the individual is ceded over to the collective.


I hope that gives a bit of an understanding as to where the experiences of anxiety and depression stem from in our modern democracy. As with most issues facing humanity, I don’t think there are any easy answers. As with many posts on this blog, again my personal advice would be to seek openness and understanding with others, but as I said in my last post you can be open to others as a public interactant without ceding over your individual soveriegnty. What I mean by that is, you might find people who express views and desires that go entirely against your own beliefs, and you have every right to keep those people at a distance if that is what you choose, but when you veer towards an opinion of non-acceptance you are initiating the kind of social rules which are the basis of control.

It is your own choice what you feel about social control, it has been a natural part of human society since its origins. I should point out that it doesn’t only take the form of those who desire peaceful behaviour controlling those who have destructive tendencies, it can also be present for example when someone has an image of themselves as being an embodiment of high fashion and so is intolerant of those they consider boorish or plain… as well as a variety of other instances.


I might add that on the other hand, Leo Strauss, as I mentioned at the end of my last post, advocated a return in philosophy to a search to universal and unchanging laws of nature. These would lay the foundations for what is ultimately “right” or “good” for humanity and human society. He got this tendency from the “ancients”, in other words particularly the Greeks, Plato and Aristotle. But it should be noted that these universal distinctions of right played a definitive role in the past of justifying social stratification. That is, the nobles are on the top because they possess the highest degree of rationality and virtue, and the peasants are at the bottom because they are slaves for their passions and must be guided by the higher echelons of society.

Those ideas are present in much of Plato and Aristotles thought, see the Republic of Plato and the Politics of Aristotle. You will also notice that when they describe the different “regimes” or forms of government, they describe an “aristocracy” to be the “rule of the virtuous”, and that is pretty much the embodiment of that idea.


From → Exposition

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