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Aug 10, 2013


Rousseau uses the development of the arts and sciences as a way of describing the fall of man from a "golden age" of a "state of nature". He explains:

When there is no effect, there is no cause to seek. But here [discussing the arts and science] the effect is certain, the depravity real, and our souls have been corrupted in proportion to the advancement of our sciences and arts toward perfection. [1] 

Therefore, he has drawn a direct link between corruption and the arts and sciences. It seems to me, however, that although he talks of cause and effect, they are quite confused in this work. Powers, writing in 1962, quoted an unnamed American historian who noted:

serious students of [Rousseau's] political philosophy are in complete disagreement as to what he meant. [2]
And Hope Mason is just as blunt:

if we read the Discours without benefit of hindsight it is hard to discern any complete philosophy. [3]

Rousseau's basic point is straightforward: man is corrupt and the arts and sciences have played a role in that corruption. He states in the First Part:

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. [4]

This suggests that Rousseau believes arts and sciences make conformists of us all. He would go further and use the term 'slaves'. And it is the study of arts and sciences that causes us to be "mean, corrupt and miserable." [5] Therefore, he believes that arts and sciences corrupt morals and they are the direct cause of man’s downfall. In the Discourse, he specifically blames certain sciences:

Astronomy was born of superstition, eloquence of ambition, hatred, falsehood, and flattery; geometry of avarice; physics of an idle curiosity; and even moral philosophy of human pride. Thus the arts and sciences owe their birth to our vices; we should be less doubtful of their advantages, if they had sprung from our virtues. [6]

The arts also come in for criticism. Without "...useless writers and litterateurs… society would be more peaceful and morals less corrupt." [7]

Therefore, Rousseau is clearly making the point that arts and sciences have had a corrupting influence. They are explicitly the cause of corruption. But later he writes: 

It is thus that the dissolution of morals, the necessary consequence of luxury, brings with it in its turn the corruption of taste. [8]

Now, it appears that luxury is the cause of corruption. Earlier, he wrote:

The waste of time is certainly a great evil; but still greater evils attend upon literature and the arts. One is luxury, produced like them by indolence and vanity. Luxury is seldom unattended by the arts and sciences; and they are always attended by luxury. [9]

This is a very curious passage, in which Rousseau seems to be arguing that both the arts and sciences and luxury are the product of indolence and vanity. Therefore, indolence and vanity now appear to be the cause of corruption, and the advancement of the arts and sciences the effect. Moreover, luxury is also described as being a corrupting influence on arts and sciences. It is therefore both cause and effect.

However, as Powers points out, there is a further contradiction. Rousseau believes that everything is radically dependent on politics. [10] Thus, "the arts and sciences and their relationship to morals could only be indirect." Powers goes on:

In his Discourse on the origins of inequality, he went to the root of the matter: the original difficulty was not the arts and sciences, but was the order of inequality, which they reflect and embellish. [11]

So now it appears that inequality, which is a by-product of politics and which is merely reflected and embellished by arts and sciences, is the cause of corruption.

At the root of this seeming confusion is Rousseau's contention that pride is the real cause of man's downfall. Everything else arises from that. Campbell and Scott note:

Human pride is the source of "all" human learning, and the cause of its corruption. [12]

They continue:
However beautiful the spectacle of the advancement of the sciences may be, Rousseau asks his readers to consider their deleterious effect upon public morals. [13]

And here, as always, Rousseau comes back to his view of civilisation and his central point, that man has fallen from his ideal state and become corrupted:

We cannot reflect on the morality of mankind without contemplating with pleasure the picture of the simplicity which prevailed in the earliest times. [14]

It is important to understand that Rousseau is not talking about a return to a golden age. He is not saying that the "state of nature" is an aspiration and it would be preferable for us to renounce our civilisation and our learning and our self-awareness. That is not possible: the fall has already happened and what has happened cannot be undone.

He says that in becoming civilised we have renounced freedom. Man is innately good, but civilisation forces him into badness. He states: "Nature made man happy and good, but society depraves him and makes him miserable." [15] Powers notes:

He believed that no human faculty was bad by nature. He did believe that amour de soi "is the only force which will make men act. Self-love (amour de soi) which is good and innate, degenerates into pride (amour propre), which is evil and which is acquired." Thus he believed that man, naturally good, becomes bad. [16]

What caused this degeneration of amour de soi into amour propre? Partly, of course, it is the arts and sciences. As Campbell and Scott note:

The sciences investigate the causes of natural phenomena traditionally attributed to divine power, and they corrupt morals by undermining the faith and public-spiritedness upon which Rousseau suggests popular virtue rests. "Science spreads and faith vanishes." The paradigmatic natural science in this regard is physics, which Rousseau specifically identifies as the product of "vain curiosity." [17]

Campbell and Scott also note:
[Rousseau's] remark that such individuals [those who should be allowed to study the sciences] must "feel the strength to walk alone" suggests that it is less their genius than their independence from popular trends and opinion that enables them to pursue the sciences without corruption. [18]

Thus, certain individuals may transcend the dangers of study, but only if they can stay true to their inner beliefs and not be swayed by vanity or pride – playing to the gallery or seeking to impress and become famous. Only a very few can do this. Rousseau concludes his Discourse by saying:

As for us, ordinary men, on whom Heaven has not been pleased to bestow such great talents; as we are not destined to reap such glory, let us remain in our obscurity... Why should we build our happiness on the opinions of others, when we can find it in our own hearts. [19]

For most of us, we lost our chance to be free when man turned from his state of nature. This was inevitable. Shklar summarises Rousseau's position thus:

By nature men are freed, but left to their own devices they will inevitably enslave each other... the spontaneous march to inequality and oppression in which all men participate. [20]

But Rousseau still appeals to the noble savage in us all. "Let us leave to others the task of instructing mankind in their duty, and confine ourselves to the discharge of our own," he writes. [21]

There is in much of Rousseau's work this conflict between the personal and the public. He himself was fiercely independent. "First of all I want my friends to be my friends, and not my masters,"[22] he wrote. As Shklar notes, "in the end he concluded that his need for personal liberty was such that he was simply not made for civil society."[23] This is instructive, because it goes to the heart of the contradictions in Rousseau. He observed how mankind had to behave, because they had no alternative. To succeed, men conformed. They were motivated by self-interest. Essentially, man was a social animal, and social living led to inequality. Inequality led to pride, which corrupted man.

The noble citizen, however, which as Powers notes was Rousseau's ideal,[24] and not the unattainable noble savage, could live outside such pride and vanity, could withstand the pressures of society. This could only be done, however, because such people were capable of living in themselves. Powers describes Rousseau’s position thus:

The savage lives in himself, the sociable man always outside of himself, unable to live except in the opinions of others. [25]

Rousseau believed civilisation corrupted, and could only corrupt. The only way to avoid it was to seek a completely individual path, but few men were capable of this. The opportunity to create an ideal state of nature was lost and could not be regained.

1. Jean Jacques Rousseau. Discourse on the Sciences and Arts. p 123
2. Richard Howard Powers. Rousseau’s “useless science”: dilemma or paradox. French Historical Studies, Vol. 2, No 4. (Autumn 1962), p 450
3. John Hope Mason. Reading Rousseau’s First Discourse. Studies in Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 249, p 251
4. Discourse, p 120
5. Ibid, p 141
6. Ibid, p 130
7. Ibid, p. 131
8. Ibid, p 134
9. Ibid, p 132
10. Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Confessions.
11. Powers. Op. cit., p 459
12. Sally Howard Campbell and John T. Scott. Rousseau’s politic argument in the Discourse on the Sciences and Arts. American Journal of Political Science, vol 49, No 4. (Oct, 2005), p 822
13. Ibid., p824
14. Discourse. p 134
15. Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Dialogues. Paris; Gallimard, 1995 v 1 p 934
16. Powers. Op. cit., p 452
17. Campbell and Scott. Op. cit.., p 824
18. Ibid.
19. Discourse, p 142
20. Judith N. Shklar. Rousseau’s images of authority. The American Political Science Review, Vol. 58, No. 4 (dec 1964), p 919
21. Discourse, p 142
22. Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Correspondence generale de Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Paris, 1924-1932. Vol III, p 44
23. Shklar, op. cit., p 920
24. Powers. op. cit., p 467
25. Ibid, p 465 

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