Jean-Jacques Rousseau. If you’ve ever taken a history course that mentioned a little thing called The Enlightenment, you might have heard of this guy.
Despite the outfit he apparently chose to wear while having his portrait taken, it’s understandable that Rousseau may not seem like the most interesting guy in the world. I mean, even his name sounds boring. But his name must seem familiar for a reason, right? That’s because Rousseau was a philosopher during the Enlightenment, one of the peaks of art and science in human history, and, to put it bluntly, the dude did a lot of stuff. He even wrote an autobiography about his crazy life entitled The Confessions. Now that’s a attention-grabbing title if I’ve ever seen one.
I’m not here to tell you Rousseau’s life story cause you can just read it or even hear it from Rousseau himself! You’ll find that he did indeed lead an interesting life: “His life was filled with conflict, first when he was apprenticed, later in academic circles with other Enlightenment thinkers like Diderot and Voltaire, with Parisian and Swiss authorities and even with David Hume.” That’s right; Rousseau had beef with his colleagues and the police. Who would’ve taken him for a bad boy, huh?
Well it turns out that Rousseau was one of the bad boys of his time, known back then as a “counter-Enlightenment” thinker. While most others were rejoicing in the progress of the time, Rousseau took a contrary opinion, published in his first popular work Discourse on the Arts and Sciences. In response to the question posted by the Academy of Dijon, “Has the restoration of the sciences and arts tended to purify morals?”, he responded with a resounding “no.”
If science and art were supposed to be the pinnacle of art and achievement, Rousseau argued, why did the Roman Empire fall? After all, it was the Romans that united Europe under a common rule and allowed for an easy diffusion of knowledge. Rousseau uses this method of historical induction throughout the Discourse, pointing to the fall of Egypt and the decline of Greece as other examples of moral degradation after “progress” was made in the sciences and the arts.
According to Rousseau, we are better off pursuing virtue than we are chasing unattainable amounts of knowledge. Now, I would argue that the two are not mutually exclusive, but I do agree with certain points of his. I’ll leave you with one of those points.
What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile