Rousseau & the First Discourse

This was a paper written for Professor Curtis Stokes at Michigan State University for my MC 370 class (taken for the 2nd time).

Note: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the First Discourse: on whether the restoration of the Sciences and Arts has contributed to the purification of morals.

In Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s First Discourse, the blame he puts on the Arts and Sciences for contributing to the lack of morals and virtues in his modern society is very relevant today. Just look in the morning paper to see the variety of morals that are diminishing. We have people killing other people to support hallucinatory habits. Corporate takeovers and monopolies controlling the market are commonplace. We constantly see the religious right and other morally right peoples try and persuade our government to correct our immorality. Wear your seat belt. Don’t do drugs. Don’t let this big mean company hurt my innocent little company. How did most of these things come about? They were by-products of the arts and sciences. All stems from education. We are taught that we must have a good education to succeed in the world. Perhaps it’s the education that is really the root of all of this evil and purging of our morals. After reading both Rousseau’s First Discourse and his Preface to “Narcissus” it becomes clear that Rousseau abuses the arts and sciences in the former and becomes a defender for them in the latter if they are taken in moderation and not idolized.

In Rousseau’s First Discourse, it is not “Science… [he] abuse(s) … it is Virtue [he] defend(s) before virtuous men (page 5).” He defends virtue in an era where education of arts and sciences is precedent to being good. Time and time again, Rousseau gives argument after argument how the sciences and arts have led to men preferring luxury over hard work and a moral living. He claims that Arts and Sciences rarely exist without luxury, and luxury cannot exist without them (16, 18). What is it that most of us want? Is that what education really teaches us? How to want expensive things? Why are we in college? We want the good life. We want the nice car, the great house on the beach, the apartment in the city. We want to do better than our parents, and our parents want us to do better than them. We want to support our children better than our parents supported us. We want to have more toys and gadgets to make our lives easier and more pleasurable. Our parents want to spoil our grandchildren, as good grandparents do. All of these things are luxurious. Do we really need the nice car, the house on the beach, the apartment in the city, and the fun toys and electronic gadgets to make life easier? Are they necessary to a healthy life? Rousseau would argue no. Rousseau is very admirable of the vulgar or rustic man, although they wouldn’t have the ability to comprehend his writings, he loves their simplicity. Their lives aren’t complex, and they innately understand what virtue is by acting on it and not explaining it. Rousseau claims that in the modern society, people do a lot of talking about virtue, a lot of analyzing it, but they fail to understand and act on it. Only the common rustic man can really live the virtuous life, for once corrupt you are doomed to always be corrupt. The educated man is corrupt once learned from the corrupt education institutions. Rousseau states that “until the Romans had been content to practice virtue; all was lost when they began to study it (13).” It isn’t difficult to find examples of Rousseau’s arguments in our world today. As humans are innately good, we recognize hints of immorality. Therefore we despise the learned wealthy cooperate financier for his ruthlessness. We despise the all-knowing politician for his corruptness. We despise the intelligent scientist who cloned Dolly the Sheep for corrupting our morals. We despise so many people who are learned because they degrade our morals in society today. What good has our education done but to make us want more of what we don’t really need? Do we really need the $300,000 dollar a year job to support our futuristic families and ourselves? Can’t we get by on $40,000 or maybe even $10,000? If there’s a will there’s a way, right? (Unless we don’t really want to be virtuous.) Do we really need any monetary compensation? Can’t we get along in the wilds of Canada picking berries and sleeping under trees? We’d have the barest of necessities, just enough to survive on. We wouldn’t care about the newest, fastest car that has come to the market. We would only care about our survival, and the survival of our friends and families. We wouldn’t need an institutional education because we’d be surviving on instinct to survive.

Another interesting similarity between Rousseau and our modern day society, is his claim of lack of citizenship. He argues that “we have Physicists, Geometricians, Chemists, Astronomers, Poets, Musicians, Painters; we no longer have citizens; or if we still have some left, dispersed in our abandoned rural areas (24)…” What do we have today but Scientists of all sorts, physicists, chemists, and astronomers. We have Mathematicians, and musicians; we have artists who specialize in painting and poetry. How many times do we hear how awful a country is? How often is it said that people are not proud to be from their birth country? We have a lot of inhabitants that choose different paths, but despise where they come from. As far as our abandoned rural areas, what job is disappearing very quickly? Recently a town next to my hometown of Greenville held its annual Applefest. Oddly, there were no apple orchard representatives. There was one scheduled, but it could not come for it went out of business a few months earlier. Our nation’s farms are being sold for expanding cities and corporate mergers. An honest man’s wage is getting harder to come by. Rousseau would be saddened that there has been no real improvement in our morals.

In the “Preface to Narcissus” Rousseau defends himself against his critics by claiming that it wasn’t all sciences he is against, just when one pours all of his energy into defending and expanding them without a thought for the common good. He feels that Science taken abstractedly is wonderful. However, one needs to be better rounded. Do not devote all of your energy into them. Take the good and move on (97). Rousseau’s argument in the First Discourse was very strong. He put a good case against the Arts & Sciences in his defense of virtue. His attempts to save face in “Preface” are weak at best. He raises many good points and he does clarify the overall argument, however, he seems to sidestep the replies and comments to the First Discourse like a well-staged politician. Despite his meager retreat to please the critics, Rousseau still had good points about Sciences and the Arts and modern Society.

“What a strange and ruinous constitution, where having wealth invariably makes it easier to get more, and it is impossible for the man who has nothing to acquire anything (101).” Isn’t that true of our modern day society? Single mothers dependent on welfare rarely get out of this cyclical system. If, and when they do, it is usually by marriage. Sometimes that is not even enough and both parents’ end up struggling together. How wrong is it that a rich man can get richer (Bill Gates before the anti-trust suits) and by bigger gadgets and things, while the poor man must beg for food so he can live to see another day? How awful is it where our children aren’t learning and are dying malnourished (third-world countries around the globe)? Isn’t it backward to live in a society that encourages learning but fails to teach people to care? A society that proclaims freedom and equality for all while we have people sleeping on park benches because they lost their house or were abandoned by their parents. We speak the learned languages and philosophies of the Ancients, yet fail to act virtuous.

“What have we gained from all this? Much chatter, rich men and argumentative ones, that is to say enemies of virtue and common sense. In return we have lost innocence and morals. The multitude grovels in poverty; all are the slaves of vice. Uncommitted crimes dwell deep inside men’s hearts, and all that keeps them from being carried out is the assurance of impunity.” (101)

In “Preface to Narcissus”, Rousseau makes a stronger argument against corrupt men who cannot distinguish between good and bad, while he is much more favorable towards the Arts and Sciences. It’s as if the Arts and Sciences are the unwitting accomplices in the corrupt man’s plight to torture the civil and virtuous man. Rousseau does offer a small solution while acquiescing to the problem.

“It is no longer a matter of getting people to do good, but only of distracting them from doing evil, they must be kept busy with trifles to divert them from evil deeds; they must be entertained rather than sermonized.” (104)

Here, Rousseau gives an example of what today would be called your local YMCA, United Way, or any other Keep Kids Off the Street Organization. Keep people entertained at ball games, charity events, working on their gardens, or enhancing their crafts. Keep them busy with things they enjoy, and they will cease to do evil. If this pattern continues for many generations, maybe a virtuous lot will be born again.

Rousseau’s First Discourse is very relevant, no matter how emphatically he claims it was feasibly argued in his Confessions. Of everything Rousseau has to say in his First Discourse, the most important thing we should get out of it is a warning. If we continue on our paths of seeking riches instead of a form of salvation, if we continue to use the arts and sciences for evil by enhancing laziness, our society will be doomed. We should do useful things with our arts. Create things to be used usefully such as better farm equipment and building things with our hands, not things that abuse the human body and soul such as television (because it leads to apathy). Once we find the perfect harmony between the Arts and Sciences and virtuous living, this will be our hope and a virtuous man will again be born.

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