One the most famous love stories of modern Western culture is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. This is a story not about love, but about what it means to be modern. What does it mean to be modern? Among the many meanings modernity may have, one is that it designates a problem. The problem is how can I be at once an individual and a member of society? The problem comes from the myth of free, autonomous individuals who originally exist in a state of nature in which they are involved in a war of all against all (Hobbes). This is chaos and a lose/lose situation in which everyone in the end dies. The only way out is for these free individuals to freely(!) enter into a social contract. But the moment they sign the contract, they become members of society and must conform to social constraints. Or, as Kant put it, henceforth there is freedom only under the law.
Paradoxically, this means that individuals can only exist when they give up their free individuality and submit to social constraints. But if they do this, and this is the paradox, then they are no longer autonomous individuals, they become products of society, that is, good citizens, family members, etc. Once the contract has been signed, the free individuals lay down not only their weapons, but also their individuality. They tend to disappear as individuals and become typical members of society. This may insure peace, but it has a price. If these free individuals disappear, then who is the social contract (society) for? In order for the contract to be valid and the law not to be mere tyranny, the individuals must be free before the law has been instituted and not only afterwards. But if individuals are free before the law, why do they need the law in the first place?Continue reading