In his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau addresses a possibility seldom discussed by neither his predecessors nor contemporaries; the idea that arts and sciences have corrupted man. Prior to the introduction of the arts and sciences, man, in the State of Nature, was natural and easily identifiable. While human nature was still flawed, as has always been the case, there was a degree of security in knowing that a person’s character could be immediately seen and interpreted. Now, as a result of the influence of the arts, there exists a set of rules and behaviors, which serve only to deceive others from knowing a person’s true nature. As a result of this, society, which Rousseau refers to as a herd, are now bound by conformity to act similarly in certain situations.
Societal conformity, rather than change the hearts of men, serves only to conceal the true intentions of individuals. Without such authenticity, the vices of betrayal, fear and blasphemy, rather than appear at face value, remain hidden, yet ever present. Acting under the camouflage of honest sincerity, perpetrated by conformity, vices have effectively constrained morality to the point where a person’s actions and feelings are no longer one in the same. Rousseau has been so convinced of this correlation between advancement and depravity that he feels the corruption of humanity to be in direct proportion to its advancements of the arts and sciences. This bold claim, supported by the examples set by the fall of great empires such as Egypt, Greece, and Rome, reveals a curious tendency for great powers to succumb to debauchery and immorality.
Having thoroughly explained his belief that the arts and sciences led to corruption, and, subsequently, conformity, Rousseau then begins to explain in detail how it is that such scholarly pursuits led to corruption. In the beginning, all of science and art stemmed from vain human desires, such as superstition, greed, pride, and flattery. The sciences, therefore, find their origin in human vices, rather than virtues. Practitioners of the scholarly arts, as a result of their study, destroy the traditions and religions of their homelands, debasing that which has held true for generations. Luxury, a product of scientific advancement, is certain to follow, which further degrades virtue, courage, and honesty.
Ultimately, as a result of the arts and sciences, men are conformed into accepting a societal standard which no individual is wholly capable of reaching. Though moral standards of honesty and integrity remain, albeit nominally, individuals are content to sacrifice them in their pursuit of knowledge and luxury. As a result of this, man is no longer an individual, but an invisible unit of society, made identifiable only by what he can do, rather than by his own character. With there no longer existing any such reward for integrity and honor, society effectively sacrifices them, resulting in moral apathy. Rousseau,...