Friday, 23 November 2018

On Rousseau’s Attack on the Enlightenment Project

In her Introduction to The Social Contract and The First and Second Discourses: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Susan Dunn, the book’s editor, looks at the reasons which motivated Rousseau to attack the Enlightenment project. Here’s an excerpt:
Astonishingly, Rousseau turned against the entire Enlightenment project. He branded the daring intellectual, scientific, and artistic culture of eighteenth-century France a lie, a vast devolution, a symptom of alarming moral decline. Nothing more than a fake veneer, the century’s worldly accomplishments were all the more perfidious because they masked so effectively the deep corruption of a decadent, unequal society. The quest for knowledge and intellectual advancement was a superficial luxury that, instead of serving society, reinforced its self-indulgence and decay. "We have physicists, geometers, chemists, astronomers, poets, musicians, painters," he remarked, adding tellingly that "we no longer have citizens." 
People, Rousseau was convinced, had been deceived, seduced, and corrupted by the radiance of the Enlightenment. And what was worse, they cherished their corruption, for it seemed to mark the summit of progress and civilization. Everywhere Rousseau saw educated individuals who resembled "happy slaves," preferring the glitter of high culture to true freedom and happiness. The search for knowledge had merely taken on a life of its own, divorced from the real needs of society and citizens. 
Skepticism and vain inquiry attracted people more than a search for a meaningful life. People believed that they knew everything, Rousseau remarked, but they did not know the meaning of the words magnanimity, equity, temperance, humanity, courage, fatherland, and God. Overwhelmed by pretension, affectation, and deceit, the values that create robust citizens and a healthy society—self-sacrifice, sincere friendships, love of country—had disappeared. 
The principles of science and philosophy and the decadent values implicit in the arts on the one hand and the requirements of a healthy society on the other, Rousseau insisted, are irremediably at odds with one another. Whereas science searches for the truth by fostering doubt and undermining faith and virtue, a vigorous, patriotic society, Rousseau contended, requires assent to the principles of its foundation.
Rousseau believed that the Enlightenment project had led to the creation of a decadent society which is obsessed with luxury, prosperity, and a vain and senseless kind of free inquiry—he desired a Spartan society which imposes rules and discipline and demands sacrifices from its citizens. Essentially, he was against all symbols of modernity. His ideas were accepted by the Jacobin Revolutionaries in France, but were rejected by the American revolutionaries across the ocean.

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