Rousseau’s Discourse On The Arts And Sciences Rousseau’s Discourse on the Arts and Sciences Jean-Jacques Rousseau has been called both the father of the French Revolution and a rascal deserving to hunted down by society (Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, p. 462). His works, controversial in his lifetime, have lost little of their ability to inspire debate in the seceding two hundred years. Although much of this debate has focused on Rousseau’s political theories, his works on morality have not been exempted from the controversy. Much of the controversy surrounding his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences relates to Rousseau’s self-proclaimed role of societal critic.
In this Discourse, Rousseau attacks the rise of empiricism. To him, a world based on knowledge, such as the one proposed in Bacon’s New Atlantis, was immoral and destructive. This view was met with much criticism and disdain. Indeed, by taking such a view, Rousseau attacked the very core of the Enlightenment. However, the Discourse is not only a rebuttal of empiricism.
It is also an intensely personal look into Rousseau. In it, Rousseau’s alienation and nostalgic feelings are clearly revealed. To Rousseau, the past was idyllic: One cannot reflect on morals, without taking delight in recalling the image of the simplicity of the first times. It is a fair shore, adorned by the hands of nature alone, towards which one forever turns one’s eyes, and from which one feels oneself moving away with regret (Discourse, p. 18).
Yet it was not the past itself Rousseau found attractive, but the moral society which could only flourish in the absence of the malevolence created by the arts and sciences. Such was their sinister power, that even ‘savage’ man was more moral than a society full of art and science (Discourse, p. 5 n and Last Reply, p. 83). It was to this moral world that Rousseau yearned to return. For him, such a world was full of virtue and the goodness of ‘rustic naturalness’. Using Fabricius’ voice, Rousseau reveals the depth of his nostalgic longing for a moral world: Gods, what has become of the thatch roofs and the rustic hearths were moderation and virtue used to dwell? What fatal splendor has replaced Roman simplicity? (Discourse, p.
12). At the core of Rousseau’s morality then, was the idea that the simple and the rustic contained all that was good. However, mere simplicity and rusticity did not form the whole of Rousseau’s morality. Indeed neither simplicity nor rusticity was inherently moral. Rather, each became moral only to the extent they precluded man from becoming idle. Idleness created art and science; art and science created more idleness.
Rousseau held, that as this cycle continued, morality would give way to a world in which men devoured men and could not co-exist ..without obstructing, supplanting, deceiving, betraying, destroying each other (Last Reply, p. 85 and Preface to Narcissus, p. 105). Rousseau, though he felt that he lived in just such a world, did not seek to destroy the arts and sciences and so break this cycle of degenerating morality. There could be no positive outcome to stopping the cycle, for society, once corrupted, was beyond redemption (Observations, p. 51). Rather, Rousseau thought that in a permanently corrupted world, the arts and sciences would serve to distract immoral men and divert them from mischief (Observations, p.
51, Discourse, p. 5, and Preface to Narcissus, p. 110 n). Although his nostalgia was thus tempered by the knowledge that paradise, once lost, remains forever vanquished, Rousseau’s sense of alienation remained unchecked. Indeed, even the frontispiece of the Discourse proclaims his alienation, Here I am the barbarian because they do not understand me (Ovid).
Though Rousseau stated that his life was governed by the three values of truth, virtue, and freedom, he found little evidence of them in the world (Letter to Malesherbes II). Rather what he found was Much babbling, rich people, and arguers, that is to say enemies of virtue and of common sense. In return we have lost innocence and morals. The multitude grovels in poverty; all are slaves of vice (Preface to Narcissus, p. 105).
Gone too, was the ability to easily distinguish character by conduct (Discourse, p. 6). In its place was a society senselessly educated, ignorant of duty, and corrupted in its judgements (Discourse, p. 20-21). To Rousseau, though the world contained the appearance of virtue, true virtue itself was missing (Discourse, p. 7).
Surely, Rousseau could not reconcile himself to this world. Yet to dismiss Rousseau as merely a man of virtue alienated by the vices of his time is erroneous. It would be a further error to view his Discourse as being an attempt to eradicate the arts and sciences. Rather, Rousseau’s Discourse is best understood as a reaction against the growing supremacy of art and science which was constrained by neither virtue nor a sense of duty. It was this reaction that formed the base of both his nostalgia and his sense of alienation. At the heart of Rousseau’s reaction to the growing supremacy of knowledge was a rejection of the earlier empiricism of Bacon and, indeed, the Enlightenment itself.
Though Bacon wrote of learning, and Rousseau of arts and sciences, each sought to define the role and impact of knowledge. Each opposed the other completely -two of Bacon’s works, the Advancement of Learning and the New Atlantis are particularly rebutted by Rousseau in the Discourse. In fact, much of the Discourse follows the form of the Advancement of Learning. Bacon raises (and answers) many of the arguments Rousseau will advance in the Discourse: that learning robs man of his military strength; that knowledge creates a love of leisure; that knowledge leads man from virtue. To answer the first argument, Bacon cites the military prowess and knowledge of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Xenophon. Bacon argues that such men prove that life provides time for both scholarly and the military pursuits: ..the strength of the body cometh somewhat the more early, so in states, arms and learning, whereof the one corresponeth to the body, the other to the soul of man, have a concurrence or near sequence in times (Advancement of Learning, p. 181).
To counter the argument that knowledge makes man seek leisure, Bacon states that none love business for itself but those that are learned for only the learned love business as an action according to nature, as a agreeable to health of mind as exercise is to health of body. Those without learning love business because of their untrue valours- needs that are personal and not related to the ‘naturalness’ of business (Advancement of Learning, p. 184-185). Finally, Bacon says that, rather than leading man from virtue, knowledge brings man to it. For Bacon, the discipline of learning teaches man to recognize what is real, what is good, and what is evil (Advancement of Learning, p. 184).
Although Rousseau draws the opposite conclusion from Bacon in each argument, his supporting evidence is almost identical to Bacon’s. What to Bacon is made more clear by knowledge, is made more obscure to Rousseau. For Rousseau, virtue is lost and judgement corrupted by the same knowledge Bacon saw as securing virtue (Discourse, p. 21). While Bacon believed that knowledge naturally turned man towards business, Rousseau held that it turned man towards vanity and away from true work (Discourse, p.
17). In his argument that knowledge makes man unfit militarily, Rousseau uses the same examples of Greece and Rome. To Rousseau, the fall of Greece and Rome was caused by the rise of knowledge. Though it would appear that time had given Rousseau the last word on these arguments, such is not the case. In both M.
Gautier’s and M. Bordes’ refutations of the Discourse, Bacon’s arguments are re-stated (Letter to Grimm, and Last Reply). Rousseau answers these re-stated arguments by use of his own examples of Greek and Roman statesmen. Soon the debate became centered not on whether knowledge is good or evil but rather whether Cicero was a hero or a philosopher. It is in this degeneration of the argument that the true disagreement between Rousseau and Bacon surfaces. Neither Rousseau nor Bacon and his supporters could win this type of argument because it did not take into account their fundamental differences on the nature of knowledge. Rousseau believed that knowledge was not natural.
Rather, a simple life filled with activity and governed by a sense of duty most closely approached the natural order. Knowledge was dangerous for it broke man’s ties with society and with other men (Discourse, p. 25). Further, knowledge stood between man and his use of his inherent goodness (Discourse, p. 23-24 and Letter to Malesherbes II). Lastly, knowledge led man away from God (Discourse p. 18 and Observations, p.40-41).
In contrast to Rousseau’s view was Bacon’s belief that knowledge was both natural and God-ordained: [‘Lord God of heaven and earth, thou has vouchsafed of thy grace to those of our order to know thine works of creation and the secrets of them, and to discern… between divine miracles, works of art, and impostures and illusions of all sorts ‘] (New Atlantis, p. 459). Indeed, even the name of Bacon’s fantasy university- the College of the Six Days Works- reflects his belief in the Godliness of knowledge. To further justify the naturalness of learning, Bacon does some nifty gymnastics with the phrase ‘let there be light.’ Those that traffic in knowledge are called Merchants of Light; those who penetrate most deeply the secrets of nature are called Lamps (New Atlantis, p. 489). Certainly, no agreement could be found between these radically disparate views.
Nor could Rousseau and Bacon agree on the validity of a world predicated on either view. For Bacon, a world without knowledge was a dark, uncertain world. Such a world lacked morality and progress. Conversely, Rousseau saw the world of knowledge as equally immoral. Further, to Rousseau, a knowledgeable world was destructive in that it was filled with artificial men expressing artificial thoughts rather than true men of natural thought. Although Rousseau makes the argument that Bacon’s commitment to knowledge works against the nature of man, he does not give it full play.
Rather he seems content to endlessly debate what manner of men the Romans were. Yet had he carried his argument on the need for the naturalness of man to be admitted further, Rousseau would have found the weakest part of Bacon’s theory. Though never used as such, Rousseau’s own feelings of alienation and nostalgia for times never experienced, form a potent attack on the supremacy of knowledge. Rousseau’s alienation was from a society that denied his emotions. By claiming his right to emotion, Rousseau became estranged from both his contemporaries and his world. Historically, this estrangement remains.
Rousseau has been claimed by both Fidel Castro and Jean Paul Marat as a true revolutionary and damned by the radical Frankfort School for his belief in individualism. Bertrand Russell calls him the father of Romanticism; Ernst Cassirer places him side by side with Kant in the heart of the Enlightenment. Much, too, of Rousseau can be seen in the German and English Idealists. Although these claims and counter-claims concern the whole of Rousseau’s work, the Discourse itself and the responses to it foreshadowed much of the confusion that was to come. Such confusion was inevitable- a true critic must be, to some extent, divorced from his world. Perhaps then, the confusion over Rousseau is but a testament to the power and insight of his criticism.