Given the overwhelming success of the Enlightenment as a philosophical and social movement that transformed the world, it is easy to forget that it did not take place in a vacuum of opposition. One of the greatest minds of the era—the Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau—provided a thorough rebuttal of the worship of progress.
Rousseau exploded onto the European intellectual scene with his “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences,” published in 1749. He argues both from history and from rational analysis that progress in the arts and sciences has led us away from virtue, has lessened rather than increased virtue in the world.
Rousseau first turns to historical evidence, arguing that what we learn from the study of the past is that moral decadence always accompanies cultural and intellectual progress. Since the Renaissance, our polite and cultivated society has lost its ancient virtues and strengths. Our social frenzy covers a profound depravity such as overtook Egypt, Greece, and Rome after their transitions from simpler societies to more cultivated and cultured ones.
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Cultural Progress Causes Moral Decadence
“No one will walk over you hurt in a forest in the land of the Iroquois,” Rousseau argued. “They will do it every day in Paris or London.”
“If one compares even contemporaneously,” he argues, “the simple Swiss and the American Indians to the cultivated Europeans, one finds that it is the former who compare favorably in terms of both virtue and happiness. No one will walk over you hurt in a forest in the land of the Iroquois,” he argues. “They will do it every day in Paris or London.”
“And everyone understands,” he writes, “the moral superiority of Sparta in ancient Greece where patriotism and love of country and devotion to duty flourished compared to cultured Athens, which was lost in decadence and vice and egoism.” For Rousseau, that historical evidence is consistent with a rational analysis that shows the linkage between cultural progress and moral decadence.
This is a transcript from the video series Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition. Explore it now, on The Great Courses.
After the hunt and a meal, people were satisfied and relaxed. After the fine dinner in town, people are lazy and bored and prone to vice.
The arts and sciences create and then satisfy artificial vices and human pride, serving luxury and vanity, not our natural needs. Our natural need is hunger. From hunger is food, and there is a great satisfaction to the hunt and a meal after the hunt and much comradeship in the hunt. But, in cultivated societies that have progressed in the arts and sciences, it is not food that people want; it’s gold plates, a private chef, and sauces that impress all the neighbors. The arts and sciences serve our vanity and pride.
They create artificial needs that gnaw at us and separate us from our fellow creatures. There is a natural need for shelter. The arts and sciences create distinctions based upon the magnificence of artificial houses, and one person living perfectly sheltered from the elements despairs that his neighbor lives in a larger or better house. The arts and sciences don’t satisfy natural needs. They create artificial needs that then obsess and govern our life. They lead to laziness and boredom, and the vices attendant upon those. After the hunt and a meal, people were satisfied and relaxed. After the fine dinner in town, people are lazy and bored, prone to vice.
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Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins of Inequality
Rousseau’s “Discourse on the Origins of Inequality” published in 1755, addresses the question of whether inequality, which he sees as the source of so much suffering, is natural or artificial, and he answers that it is not natural. Rousseau draws a lyric picture of a primitive pre-social humanity that informs us of what we have lost as a result of civilization. In the state of nature, where we lived largely as isolated individuals, we were vigorous, naturally healthy, and morally sound. We were governed by self-love and compassion. If we saw a fellow sentient creature, we aided it, and we lived only according to natural instinct without the torment of the passions or the fear of death.
In a social sense, we were neither bad nor good because we were isolated and asocial. There was no ownership of anything, including no ownership of women by men. If one was hungry, one took a fish out of a stream, one took fruit off a tree. The idea of saying; “This is my tree” is absurd; the moment you fell asleep, someone would take what he wanted. There was no property in a state of nature. Natural inequalities were all physical, but they were without serious consequences. A faster person, a stronger person, could take larger or quicker animals; someone else would take slower animals, fish, fruit, nuts, and berries.
“We think that we need our modern society, but it is civilization that produces our ailments. There were many early deaths in nature, the deaths of children who were not healthy or strong, but those who lived were wonderfully fit. That’s what happens in a primitive world; that’s what happens in the animal world. The American Indians are healthier than the Europeans. Do you doubt that? Put the two of them—one European, one Indian—in a forest and see who comes out after two months healthy and, indeed, alive.”
Society was a Mistake
Society is a dominant, coercively triumphant form of human life that sweeps away the morally superior primitive. Civilized societies will always draw into their orbit—conquer, overcome—more primitive though morally superior forms of life.
Human beings lived the natural life, but then there occurred in Rousseau’s sense of things the great tragedy of human history. Out of some perceived ephemeral need to associate, to solve a problem, a temporary one, perhaps—drought, perhaps flood, perhaps too many savage animals—people created a permanent society, and once that line is crossed, there never is any going back because society is a dominant, coercively triumphant form of human life that sweeps away the morally superior primitive. Civilized societies will always draw into their orbit—conquer, overcome—more primitive though morally superior forms of life.
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What does society introduce that had not been there in nature? It introduces unnatural forms of relationship that create unnatural relationships. It creates property: “This is mine. You may not take from this part of nature.” It creates a division of labor and mutual dependence. It creates social inequality, the imposition first of the strong, then of the rich and clever, and, to sustain that imposition, it creates arbitrary power that maintains social injustices that we come to think of as natural but that are wholly a creation of culture.
Both master and dependent in this artificial world are the victims of its unnatural needs and social insecurities. Both would be happier living as natural equals.
Both master and dependent in this artificial world are the victims of its unnatural needs and social insecurities. Both would be happier living as natural equals. Both would be happier without the vices and the obsessions of the social world. Both are the victims of insecurity and needs created only by an unnatural society. The attempt to satisfy unnatural artificial social needs has done something awful to human beings, for Rousseau.
It has stifled conscience, natural compassion, and has made us separate from each other, wholly selfish and self-obsessed, and we now find ourselves, as Marx repeated in the nineteenth century, separated from our real nature as a species. But, for Rousseau, that means we find ourselves in a society separated from our God-given nature as a species.
In the wake of Rousseau’s analysis of our ills, the question is, “What do we do now?” Because there is no going back to a pre-social state. For Rousseau, there are two means of partial reparation: first, education, and, second, setting a new moral foundation to politics that will undo the worst of the social state. On education, Rousseau wrote the books of Emile, arguing that we must seek to create the greatest amount of natural learning for the child as an inoculation against social depravity. The goal is direct education by nature, not by men, things, or books. Let children learn from their real experience of attempting to satisfy their real needs in the natural world.
A Solution Through the Reform of Education
Education, Rousseau insists, begins in infancy. He argues against swaddling clothes, and he argues changing the practices of French upper-class culture for breastfeeding, for mothers who raise their own children rather than giving them to wet nurses so that the child from the beginning learns real affection, real relationships, natural relationships, not artificial and purchased relationships.
Do you want to teach a child geography? When he is hungry, take him out and get lost in the forest, and let him have to reason out from nature where the sun rises and sets …
Do you want to teach a child geography? When he is hungry, take him out and get lost in the forest, and let him have to reason out from nature where the sun rises and sets, which way a brook flows, on which side of a tree the moss grows, the topography of the land. Let a child form a strong body and senses, developing confidence in what God gave us to learn with. Develop the intellect by observation and always by promoting reasoning in the service of real needs. Similarly, let the student learn morals from natural consequences. If he breaks a window disrespecting property, have him sleep with the insects, with the heat, the cold, or the rain; the child will learn respect.
Let the child experience mutually beneficial interactions that depend upon real ethical principles and relationships. Avoid religious education until adolescence. What can a child understand about ultimate things? Teach the student a useful honest trade, not a career. Let the student learn to make something, a good that is traded in value because other people truly need it. In short, inoculate the student from the moment of birth against social depravity and send the most natural person possible into the world of men.
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A Solution Through the Reform of Government
Secondly, there is the government. In Rousseau’s work, The Social Contract, he argues that a proper understanding of the nature and basis of government can make moral rather than depraved citizens out of us even in the social state. In most variants of 18th-century social contract theory, John Locke’s and Cesare Beccaria’s in Italy, the social contract is looked upon as a circumstance in which individuals trade the minimum necessary amount of their individual liberty for security in the state. But in Rousseau’s social contract, all individual freedom is given to the state. Unlike Hobbes’s social contract, Rousseau insists that one’s happiness now, in this social contract, can only be one share of the happiness of the whole society.
Think of it as a corporation: Each individual is an equal participant shareholder, in society. The only way the individual can profit and can be happy is by working so that the whole collective entity prospers and is happy. Your equal share of that collective happiness is the benefit you gain from society. In such a model, for Rousseau, politics itself now forces you to work for the well-being of all. When one’s self-interest can only be pursued by pursuing the well-being of all others, society becomes a means to overcome selfishness, alienation, and to permit moral beings to exist in a civilized society.
To achieve that, one must recognize that in politics, only the general will that seeks the interest of all has political authority. Even if a majority of citizens vote for something, if they are a majority seeking individual gain, that is an illegitimate authority within the state. It has no claim; it does not embody the social contract and the general will. Only those who seek the interest of all have political legitimacy and can exercise sovereignty. This has certain profound democratic tendencies. The general will arises from all and applies to all, but there is no legitimacy to an immoral or depraved majority.
Common Questions about Rousseau and the Enlightenment
Rousseau’s political theory stems from his idea of the social contract and his thoughts on the origins of inequality. Broadly speaking, he believed humans were good in the original state of nature, but we have become corrupted by societal forces.
Rousseau is well known for his idea of the social contract. He said, “Men are born free, yet everywhere are in chains.” Humans in a state of nature are good and free, but civil society puts “chains” around us. We give up freedom for society.
Locke and Rousseau were both thinkers during the Enlightenment, and they both came up with theories of government. Locke believed in human progress, whereas Rousseau believed society was a step backward from humans’ original state of nature.