Rousseau's Discourse on the Arts and Sciences Essay

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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
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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 and sciences and so break this cycle of degenerating morality. There could be no positive outcome to stopping the cycle, for society, once corrupted, was beyond redemption (Observations, p. 51). Rather, Rousseau thought that in a permanently corrupted world, the arts and sciences would serve to distract immoral men and divert them from mischief

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