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Philosophy of the Common Man - Jean-Jacques Rousseau

By Edited Apr 18, 2016 0 0

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was more of an anti-philosophe than a pure philosophe, in the sense that some American actors are considered “anti-stars,” such as Clint Eastwood, Jack Nicholson, Paul Newman, to name a few. These actors are “stars” but don’t live the typical star lifestyle or “image.” They stay out of the limelight, may not live in Hollywood, don’t publicly flaunt themselves, and live their lives like normal people. Rousseau was the same; he was a philosophe, but didn’t live the typical philosophe image. He socialized with “commoners” who didn’t have the intellect to discuss philosophy in-depth. He constantly disagreed with many of the ideas of his contemporary philosphes, which made him akin to a rebel. I would call him a “philosophe of the common man.” He felt that many of the theories of his contemporaries were unpractical because they weren’t universal and couldn’t be applied to the common person.

Here’s an introductory quote about Rousseau from Washington State University’s website:  “Perhaps the single most important Enlightenment writer was the philosopher-novelist-composer-music theorist-language theorist-etc. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), who is important not merely for his ideas (which generally recycled older Enlightenment ideas) but for his passionate rhetoric, which enflamed a generation and beyond. The central problem he confronted most of his life he sums up in the first sentence of his most famous work, The Social Contract :

"Man is born free but everywhere is in chains."1

This quote from the Social Contract is striking and profound; it’s universal, yet resonates mostly among the middle and poorer classes. A wealthy noble may actually have a tough time with this statement since he has the freedom that money can buy, and becomes more confused when Rousseau continues: “One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they.” He may also be threatened by the way that Rousseau proposes solutions to the problem, since his philosophy strives to equalize the lower classes, or at least protect their rights and property.

Rousseau rebels against his counterparts once again in his Discourse on Arts and Sciences. He actually critiques scientific progress by revealing the shortcomings of merely advancing without purpose, and covering up problems instead of fixing them at the core. This is a powerful quote from Rousseau (and my favorite): “The mind, as well as the body, has its needs: those of the body are the basis of society, those of the mind its ornaments.

So long as government and law provide for the security and well-being of men in their common life, the arts, literature and the sciences, less despotic though perhaps more powerful, fling garlands of flowers over the chains which weigh them down. They stifle in men’s breasts that sense of original liberty, for which they seem to have been born; cause them to love their own slavery, and so make of them what is called a civilized people. Necessity raised up thrones; the arts and sciences have made them strong. Powers of the earth, cherish all talents and protect those who cultivate them. Civilized peoples, cultivate such pursuits: to them, happy slaves, you owe that delicacy and exquisiteness of taste, which is so much your boast, that sweetness of disposition and urbanity of manners which make intercourse so easy and agreeable among you—in a word, the appearance of all the virtues, without being in possession of one of them.”2

Rousseau argues that the “advance” of science and learning does no good in itself. It merely covers up and protects the systems that keep society in slavery. This may seem contrary to Enlightenment thinking and opposes most other philosophes, but in fact Rousseau’s views represent true “enlightenment.” G.K. Chesterton said that: "Progress should mean that we are always changing the world to fit the vision, instead we are always changing the vision.”3 Rousseau isn’t so much demeaning “progress” as he is demeaning progress “without a vision.” The vision he has is liberty, which will bring about happiness and the common good. Merely learning and progressing in science won’t change the world in itself; society will still go on bound in chains, only the chains may have a different appearance. Rousseau found the hole that needed to be fixed before advances in science and learning could make any dent on the world. In a sense, he completes the enlightenment’s goal by giving it a goal and showing how to make that goal a reality.

Dumarsais offers this statement from his definition of a Philosophe:

“The temperament of the philosopher is to act according to the spirit of order or reason; as he loves society extremely, it is more important to him than to other men to bend every effort to produce only effects conformable to the idea of the honest man…” It is clear that from this definition Rousseau is a philosophe “par excellence” since he formed a philosophy that would be universal and practical, meaning it could change society for the better if put into practice. Dumarsais goes on: “This love of society, so essential to the philosopher, makes us see how very true was the remark of Marcus Aurelius: “How happy will the people be when kings are philosophers or philosophers are kings!”” (p.22 Dumarsais (Kramnick)) If philosophers aren’t kings, the next best thing would be a system derived from philosophers that the kings would have to follow, which is a system that pursues the common good. This is what Rousseau developed. No matter if you agree with his philosophies or not, Rousseau was a great practical thinker who deserves to be called a philosophe.

 

1 http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/ENLIGHT/ROUSSEAU.HTM

2 Rousseau, Discourse on Arts and Sciences. Quote copied from: http://oll.libertyfund.org/?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=638&chapter=71082&layout=html&Itemid=27. Also found on pgs.364-365 in Kramnick, The portable Enlightenment Reader.

3 G.K. Chesterton, Orthodxy. 1908.

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