Under The Sun

Sunday, April 20, 2003

Jean-Jacques Rousseau became famous when he won the prize offered by the Dijon Academy for an essay on the question whether progress in the arts and sciences had led to progress in manners and morals. Rousseau's answer, as we all learned in high school, was "no". This fact is given in many history classes as supporting evidence for the thesis that Rousseau did not believe in the project of the Enlightenment--did not believe, even, in the value of "culture" at all. That thesis is false.

First, notes Barzun, "it was the Academy, a large group of intellectuals, who raised the doubt"--their posing the question shows that it was on the mind of the age, and that it was not considered obvious. More important, the ideological use to which Rousseau's answer is put--of which more in a moment--obscures the fact that, taken simply on its own terms, it is just plain fact: humans in general are not more moral now than they were in the past. They may or may not be less moral, but Rousseau at the time took no position on that second question; he merely pointed out that "culture" has historically shown no tendency whatsoever to be any freer from vice or sin. We do reject some old errors or systems, of course--human slavery, for example--but our "advanced" thought and technology enable us to make new errors that our ancestors could never have imagined.

The myth that Rousseau was anti-"culture", rather than merely critical of culture, was propagated in part by Voltaire, who was too busy defending the Enlightenment from the church to take kindly to criticism of it from others. Furthermore, people who actually were anti-Enlightenment raised Rousseau as their own banner. But the return to nature, the apotheosis of the "noble savage", was not Rousseau's idea: it certainly did not originate with him--as Barzun says, "primitivism" has been one of the persistent themes of the modern age--and he did not endorse it. He was speaking as a theoretical historian, and his normative point was, again, not positive but critical: "progress" causes new problems, and is not to be exalted as the cure for all ills.

What of the famous line, "Men are born free, and everywhere they are in chains"? The next sentence says: "I will now endeavor to show how they", the chains, "are legitimate." The book is titled The Social Contract; a contract is, indeed, a kind of chain. When Hobbes advocates the same thing, we accuse him--perhaps rightly--of too much chain; Locke we uphold as having struck the right balance. Perhaps Rousseau seeks to leave the chains looser than Locke--and if so perhaps he was right, as the current American turn away from centralized government suggests. In any case he is not a reactionary; he is trying to come to grips with the fundamental political question of his age, and his answer is thoughtful, and still worth considering.

[When my high-school humanities teachers told us about Rousseau--repeating false myths left and right--my response was, "That's stupid. How could any sane man believe that?" According to Barzun, my judgment was correct: none could, and in fact Rousseau did not. For further enlightenment, consult Barzun, From Dawn To Decadence, pp. 382ff., or the works of Rousseau himself.]

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