Is there any deed more shocking, more hateful, more infamous than the willful burning of a library? Is there any blow more devastating to the core of human civilization? In the mid-eighteenth century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau startled - and excited - his readers by praising Caliph Omar, who in the year 650 ordered the incineration of the glorious library in Alexandria.
In his first important work, The Discourse on the Sciences and Arts (1750), also known as the First Discourse, Rousseau held that the search for knowledge was so socially and morally destructive that book burning and the subsequent return to ignorance, innocence, and poverty would be a step forward rather than a step backward in the history of civilization. He was convinced that only cultural and material regression could accompany the movement of society toward morality. The entire rational enterprise of the Enlightenment found itself unexpectedly under fierce and principled attack.
When Rousseau burst upon the intellectual scene, the philosophers and writers of eighteenth-century France had for decades been passionately engaged in an audacious, innovative project: the questioning and dismantling of all the traditional underpinnings of their society. Their daring charge entailed exposing to the light of reason all preconceived ideas, supernatural dogmas and superstitious beliefs, all political and social assumptions. Intellectuals were challenging the theological foundation of monarchy, the privileges of the aristocracy, the doctrines of Catholicism. Having wiped their intellectual slate as clean as they could, men of letters in France embarked upon the bold plan of using human reason to address people's needs: how they should live, govern themselves, organize society, and conceive morality. Their goal was a rational society dedicated to equality, freedom, and happiness. Life had become an intellectual adventure, and people were optimistic that they could shape their own destinies.
Rousseau had once participated in this luminous and probing culture. He too had wanted to embrace all knowledge; he too had known the joy of intellectual curiosity, the bliss of creativity. Mingling and collaborating with artists, musicians, philosophers, and writers - the great philosophe Voltaire, the composer Rameau, the versatile man of letters Diderot, the witty playwright Marivaux, the philosophe Fontenelle - he had reveled in the aristocratic world of brilliant salons, where luxury, elegance, and genius combined to make life a joy for the mind and the senses.
But his fascination with the sophisticated world of the Enlightenment was also colored by bitterness and resentment, the result of his humiliating experience in 1743 working as the secretary for the French Ambassador in Venice; by his disappointments in life, especially his dismay in 1745 at not having received more recognition for his part in a musical collaboration with Voltaire and Rameau; and by his own deep insecurities and demons, his paranoid feeling that he was the target of various cabals conspiring to undermine and discredit him. Suddenly his eyes bore into the heart of this dazzling culture. He judged. He condemned. Behind the splendid facade, he concluded, lay a world that was superficial, corrupt, and cruel.
Astonishingly, Rousseau turned against the entire Enlightenment project. He branded the daring intellectual, scientific, and artistic culture of eighteenth-century France a lie, a vast devolution, a symptom of alarming moral decline. Nothing more than a fake veneer, the century's worldly accomplishments were all the more perfidious because they masked so effectively the deep corruption of a decadent, unequal society. The quest for knowledge and intellectual advancement was a superficial luxury that, instead of serving society, reinforced its self-indulgence and decay. "We have physicists, geometers, chemists, astronomers, poets, musicians, painters," he remarked, adding tellingly that "we no longer have citizens."
People, Rousseau was convinced, had been deceived, seduced, and corrupted by the radiance of the Enlightenment. And what was worse, they cherished their corruption, for it seemed to mark the summit of progress and civilization. Everywhere Rousseau saw educated individuals who resembled "happy slaves," preferring the glitter of high culture to true freedom and happiness. The search for knowledge had merely taken on a life of its own, divorced from the real needs of society and citizens.
Skepticism and vain inquiry attracted people more than a search for a meaningful life. People believed that they knew everything, Rousseau remarked, but they did not know the meaning of the words magnanimity, equity, temperance, humanity, courage, fatherland, and God. Overwhelmed by pretension, affectation, and deceit, the values that create robust citizens and a healthy society - self-sacrifice, sincere friendships, love of country - had disappeared.
The principles of science and philosophy and the decadent values implicit in the arts on the one hand and the requirements of a healthy society on the other, Rousseau insisted, are irremediably at odds with one another. Whereas science searches for the truth by fostering doubt and undermining faith and virtue, a vigorous, patriotic society, Rousseau contended, requires assent to the principles of its foundation.
What then is the mission of the intellectual in society? The proper, socially useful role of philosophers and men of letters, according to Rousseau, was not to spread mistrust, not to make piecemeal proposals for incremental reform, not to seek fame and glory for themselves through their intellectual acrobatics, but rather to offer, as he himself would, a radical prescription for the complete social and political overhaul of the nation and for the moral regeneration of its citizens.
In his mind's eye, he saw, in the place of a decadent culture that valued superficial luxury, prosperity, and free though vain inquiry, a muscular, Spartan society that imposed rules and discipline and asked its citizens for sacrifice. In such a polity, virtuous citizens would have no need for futile intellectual pursuits. Indeed, Spartan virtue itself is anti-intellectual. Derived from the Latin word for "man," vir, virtue implied not just moral goodness, but rather strength, courage, and, above all, self-sacrifice and self-discipline.
Even so, Rousseau was not suggesting that French men and women rush out and torch the libraries of France - or copies of his own book. On the contrary, in an already unhealthy, decadent society, science and philosophy might, to some extent, be useful. Certain great individuals - such as Bacon, Descartes, Newton - might serve as guides for humanity, and a few others might be permitted to follow in their footsteps and even outdistance them. In an already corrupt society, the arts and sciences, harmful for "average" people, could, in the hands of a few people of genius, perhaps bring some true enlightenment to all.
The Discourse on the Sciences and Arts won first prize in the Dijon Academy's intellectual competition, a contest that had asked writers and philosophers to respond to the question, "Has the revival of sciences and arts contributed to improving morality?" With Rousseau's friend Diderot having arranged for the essay's publication, the Discourse took Paris by storm, becoming a best-seller. Were people merely captivated by Rousseau's contrarian viewpoint and fascinated by harsh criticism of their radiant and celebrated culture? Or were they intrigued by his surprising, anachronistic resurrection of Spartan concepts of virtue, self-sacrifice, and duty?
Already in the seventeenth century, the shrewd aristocratic writer of maxims, the duke de La Rochefoucauld, had criticized the high culture of France, noting that "luxury and excessive politesse in states are a sure sign of increasing decadence, because as all individuals become attached to their private interests, they turn away from the public good." And in 1748, the great political philosopher Montesquieu had also condemned the "manufactures, commerce, finances, wealth, and luxury" of the modern world for displacing civic and political virtue. But Rousseau's attack on modernity was far more consistent and ambitious - and more psychologically acute - than that of the other philosophes, and it is he alone who can be credited with composing the jolting introduction to one of the most original, provocative, and far-reaching challenges to Western society ever undertaken.
The first seeds of a powerful, world-historical Revolution had been planted. The "paradoxes" of the First Discourse exploded "like a bombshell," wrote the English economist and philosopher John Stuart Mill. "Rousseau produced more effect with his pen," Lord Acton said, "than Aristotle, or Cicero, or St. Augustine, or St. Thomas Aquinas, or any other man who ever lived." Of all the great philosophes of the French Enlightenment - Montesquieu, Diderot, Voltaire - it was Rousseau who would have the most profound and enduring impact on history, not only on the Revolution in France but on almost all modern, democratic movements for political liberation. He was the most radical political theorist of his times, the most utopian. But it was also Rousseau who unwittingly set the stage for the totalitarian states of the twentieth century, for "one-party democracy," and for communitarianism gone haywire.
How can this paradox be explained?
ROUSSEAU'S DISCOURSE ON INEQUALITY
Three years after composing his First Discourse, Rousseau leaped at the chance to add a further dimension to his political philosophy. The Dijon Academy was proposing another intellectual competition. This time the subject concerned the origins of inequality. Rousseau's entry, his Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of Inequality Among Mankind (1753), also known as the Second Discourse, occupies a pivotal place in his thought. On the one hand, it looks back to the Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, giving a historical and theoretical explanation for the decadence and corruption he diagnosed in eighteenth-century French society. On the other hand, it looks forward to his next great work, The Social Contract, by suggesting the necessity of finding an alternate, healthier path along which society and citizens can evolve.
Why had inequality become so rooted in society, Rousseau asked himself. How had such a wide variety of people, poor as well as rich, come to accept or profit from outrageous social and economic disparities? How did we arrive at our present condition?
In order to fathom the different causes of inequality and analyze the successive stages in its development, Rousseau decided to play the role of theoretical anthropologist, hypothesizing about the lives that people might have led in the "state of nature," before social relations and organized society molded and corrupted human behavior. Rousseau admitted that the "state of nature" he imagined might never have existed. Still, such theoretical conjecturing was necessary, he insisted, to "judge properly of our present state."
Rousseau tried to let his imagination go back in time as far as he could to envision human beings stripped of even the most primitive social relations, stripped even of language itself. In an act of impressive intellectual originality, he pared off all accretions, all the wants, needs, habits, skills, beliefs, emotions, and values that one develops in society, revealing the "bare bones" of the human being.
A century earlier, the English political theorist Thomas Hobbes had also hypothesized about the "state of nature." In one of the most famous sentences of his classic text Leviathan (1651), Hobbes had maintained that human life in the state of nature was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Though people were free and equal, they were engaged in perpetual warfare with one another.
Now it was Rousseau's turn to sketch a portrait of life in the state of nature, and he would present a very different picture of primitive human beings. He envisioned the state of nature as a kind of dormancy period. People were free and equal, he theorized, but they lived mostly solitary lives, feeling little need for others. Though they had sexual relations with one another, they formed no lasting bonds. There existed among them neither cooperation nor conflict.
They lived entirely in the present, experiencing only spontaneous drives. Still, they felt a harmony with the world because their desires never exceeded their needs and because they were able to satisfy both needs and desires immediately. They were independent and devoid of aggression toward one another. Were they happy? Perhaps. But their moral and rational faculties remained largely asleep. Though they did have an "instinct" for pity for the suffering of others along with a "survival instinct" of their own, they were for the most part untouched by morality. Neither love nor friendship nor family nor thought nor speech impinged upon their primitive solitude. These early humans were all potential and virtuality.
The notion of a state of nature was a useful fiction. It furnished Rousseau with theoretical "evidence" for claiming a radical dichotomy between our present demeaning condition and the Eden we left behind. Here was an original standard against which all future human dislocation could be measured.
This vision of the state of nature, moreover, provided Rousseau with a basis for his belief in human "perfectibility." Now he could argue that if modern individuals appeared corrupt, unequal, and enslaved, it is society - not human nature - that is to blame. Thus a remedy to the situation might be found. Because of people's vast rational and ethical potential, it was possible and reasonable to propose an alternate route for their social, political, and moral development. This was the challenge Rousseau accepted: he was convinced that it was his mission to chart that course, not backward to the state of nature, but forward toward a more rational, social, and moral Eden.
Given our equality and freedom in the state of nature, why did inequality come to define the human condition in most societies? How would Rousseau explain entire civilizations under the spell of servitude and the yoke of despotism?
Very early in human history, according to Rousseau's hypothetical scenario,
people began to work and collaborate occasionally with one another.
Excerpted from The Social Contract and The First and Second Discourses by JEAN-JACQUES ROUSSEAU Copyright © 2002 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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