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Book Review of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Basic Political Writings

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View on the Arts and Sciences and Their Impact on Humanity's Morals and Virtues

This article is a short essay evaluating Rousseau's general view on the arts and sciences and their impact on humanity's morals and virtues. As Rousseau admits in the Preface to his discourse, he has chosen to argue against the view accepted by Enlightenment in favor of ignorance in the interest of society, morality, and virtue. His basic thesis is that the arts and sciences (for future brevity I'll refer to arts and science as A&S) must not be used to determine social mores and individual virtues. Just as the quote used at the outset of his first discourse, "We are deceived by the appearance of right," and he later goes on to add, "fineries, elegance, and pomp," create the idea in society that they are in the right (2-4). Rousseau has proposed that the Enlightenment fostered a false sense of manners and virtues, hidden beneath a "deceitful veil of politeness," made up of "suspicion, offenses, fears, coldness, reserve, hatred and betrayal" (4-5). People had confused appreciation for complex ideas, philosophies, and arts with good mores and virtues, " . . . in a word, the appearances of all the virtues without having any" (4).

Portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778)
A Contradiction.

Rousseau uses an interesting and somewhat confusing approach in his writing style. In reading this Discourse, he appears to contradict himself in his role at the beginning of the paper and the role he represents in the end of the paper. At the outset of the Discourse, he states his efforts are to continue writing and provoking thought, and yet by the conclusion of his paper he includes himself as one of the people who will just "remain in obscurity" (21). Furthermore, Rousseau initially seems to be completely thrashing the A&S, however by the end of his discussion, he appears to not outright condemn the arts and sciences, only that they have been used and abused to replace or degrade basic fundamental mores contrary to those inborn principles of justice and virtue he otherwise called conscience (Rousseau describes this concept in The Creed of a Priest of Savoy).

Rousseau takes aim at science and philosophy as incompatible in origin, exercise, and effects with the well-being of society. Rousseau contends that people created the A&Ss to fill a need. A need to fill the void of time left by lives of leisure.

"The misuse of time is a great evil," he says, and “. . . luxury seldom thrives without the sciences and the arts, and they never thrive without it" (12).

This excessive leisure time available to mankind is part of the cause for pondering mysteries of man and nature (11). This pondering is unnecessary and counter-productive to the individual and society, as Rousseau argues vehemently in this Discourse. Furthermore, he contends that the arts and sciences perpetuate and expand luxury inevitably giving more time for the study of those same evils. The more individuals learn and the more they think they know, the more complex they try to make things or the easier they are led astray. These needs previously mentioned are often more desire than actual need. These needs are too often the need or desire for power, control, and personal recognition and the A&Ss subsequently are used to fulfill this hunger, not always for society's benefit (20-21). The result of these needs of the mind was the justification for the creation of the arts and sciences (3). Furthermore, this pursuit of power, glory, and other such personal ego feeding efforts created an inherent doubt in the practitioner's efforts.

Doubt, Truth, and Science.

When Rousseau stated "Science presupposes and fosters doubt," his contention is that the real or whole truth is not accessible by science, more specifically philosophy. Therefore the search for truth can lead to false ideas that contradict or create doubt. In Rousseau's explanations of the nature of society, he promotes the idea that society is based on foundations rooted in faith or beliefs which may or may not be proven in the eyes of science or philosophy. This then is one of Rousseau's major concerns, science questioning the basis of society's beliefs and or planting the seed of doubt when there should be no question, only reliance in faith. In praising ignorance, Rousseau is stating that the belief in social principles that have held society together in the past is more important than the search for unattainable truth. Searching and preaching so called truths for personal gain that in turn may hurt society, then, appears to be a key fear of Rousseau and one of the messages behind his discourse.

Rousseau presents the idea that those who have made "inferior" attempts to dabble in the A&Ss may have better served society in more "productive" services such as, "cloth makers" (20). For those that are not "exceptional" leave the thinking to those that are gifted. Stick to the simple things and the basic virtue that fulfill your role in society. Those ordinary/inadequate teachers may do more to "constrict understanding" or miss lead students/followers (20).

"If a few men must be permitted to devote themselves to the study of the sciences and the arts, it should only be those who feel the strength to venture forth alone in their footsteps and to overtake them. It is for this small number to raise monuments to the glory of the human mind. But if we want nothing to be beyond their genius, nothing must be beyond their hopes." (20)

Rousseau saw the A&Ss as creating rules, mores that were self-justifying: I must like or want this art or school of thought because society says (other men say) that this is good and in order to fit-in you must do and feel the same. This line of false reasoning creates morals and virtues that are no longer simple truths of character for men to live by. Since society exists to support the individual, individuals wanting to be part of that group should do and accept that which the group calls good or appropriate.

Military Virtues.

When life was simpler and our "mores were rustic but natural," man saw themselves in measure of character "which we no longer value, sparing them many vices" (4). As Rousseau presents, wherever and whenever the arts and sciences flourished true mores and virtues diminished and were replaced by the false. The effect of this according to Rousseau, was a weakening of the once strong nations so much so that the nations of more pure and simple virtues easily toppled the former (6). This is why Rousseau appreciated military virtues. They were (and still are) based on personal character traits leading to conformance and cohesion to a social (military) order.

Soldats Révolution Française
Military virtues focus on unity of purpose, obedience, loyalty to the leadership, and uniformity of rules.* All these things focus on the duty of the individual in their responsibility to support and hold the group together towards achieving common goals. However, youth (in Rousseau's time and view) are taught "everything but their duties" (16). Both minds and body are neglected as to the training and knowledge that is really needed (16). The world prizes the successful artist and the scientist more so than the virtuous citizen (17). "One no longer asks whether a man has integrity, but whether he has talents; not whether a book is useful, but whether it is written well. Rewards are showered upon the wit, and virtue is left without honors" (17).

Illustration for John Milton’s “Paradise Lost“

Rousseau's language is particularly harsh relating to his contention that Enlightenment is antagonistic towards religion. He attacks science on the grounds that it is detrimental to religion, and Rousseau is clearly pro religion as a tool or means of social bonding. He goes as far as making one of the more striking and disheartening thoughts a philosopher/writer can make when he states in this Discourse that literature contradicting the commonly accepted religious texts of a community is better to be burned. This is obviously an extraordinary thing to say during this period of time.

Are things really different today?

If asked, most societies would agree that politeness, fair play, and compassion are virtues and morals. However, in practice, doing the right thing often means doing whatever it takes to win. Boldness, audacity, aggressiveness, risk taking, an ability to manipulate others, exceptional success in business, entertainment, and in sports are what the people really appreciate and aspire to emulate. People are still measured, first by possessions, position, and success in business, entertainment, or sports, before they are measured by anything Rousseau would consider real virtues and morals. Simplicity in life is relative to the time we live in and fundamental virtues are generally the same based on the social climate. As to the search for truth or proof, it is often an attempt to validate and strengthen a belief(s). If we are successful, we revel in our proven truth, no longer just a belief, but now a fact. If it is not proved false, we have lost nothing: We will continue with the belief based on faith or common social acceptance. If we prove the belief false, then we are freed from the false belief or idea.

Rousseau was not completely condemning the A&Ss, as it first appears, he was condemning their use by men towards results that threaten or degrade society and the social mores and virtues that bind it. For those participants that have learned to combine learning and morality (Rousseau referring to men such as Bacon, Descartes, and Newton) he bestowed high praise (17-18). Rousseau's view was that when those of true wisdom and talent are permitted to advice and influence Kings and Rulers with their only reward being the satisfaction of "contributing" to the "happiness of the people to whom they have taught wisdom," only then will we see what can be done by virtue, science, and authority, enlivened by a noble emulation and working in concert for the felicity of mankind" (20).

The Final Word.

There are many more points that can be either drawn from or inferred by Rousseau's first Discourse. However, for the sake of brevity and focus, this paper provides an evaluation of the key thesis and supporting major points of contention presented in this Discourse. Rousseau's basic thesis is that the arts and sciences must not be used to determine social mores and individual virtues. Even the ever-popular Enlightenment activity of metaphysical inquiry Rousseau particularly found offensive; he believed religion to be a particularly important social bond. As stated earlier, in the wrong hands, the arts and sciences have a downside: Humanity's mores and virtues can, and in his view, had become corrupted by the misuse of knowledge, false reasoning, and self-absorbed efforts towards personal gain that, as a result, endangered the foundations of society.



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  1. Jean-Jacques Rousseau The Basic Political Writings. Trans. and Ed. Donald A Cross. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co. , 1987.

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