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...