Sunday, January 13, 2019

Jean-Jacques: The Early Life and Works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau 1712-1754 VII

A second competition was announced by the Academy of Dijon in 1753. The question this time was "What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by Natural Law?" Of course, Rousseau immediately began writing, and, although he didn't win on this occasion, he managed to produce his best essay to date. It was here that he set out his "natural man" theory for which he is best known today. Rousseau was usually a lyrical and literary writer, but he closely consulted Diderot, and the essay has a more scientific ring to it. In what might be called a pre-Darwinian description of the evolution of mankind, he articulated how humans evolved from less-sophisticated animals. He argued that, at some time in the distant past, man was morally good in comparison to his current state. The change began when agriculture became popular, along with the concept of private property. Eventually, man had to earn his living by wages, subjecting himself to the will of others, and society imposed new rules, such as monogamy, in order to maintain order. Rousseau argued that this was a corruption from the earlier state in which man was happy. The essay was published and drew much public attention. He sent Voltaire, an acquaintance but not a friend, a copy. Voltaire was then enjoying a bourgeois life and was not about to have his lifestyle challenged. In characteristic wit, he replied:

I have received, Monsieur, your new book against the human race, and I thank you. No one has employed so much intelligence to turn us men into beasts. One starts wanting to walk on all fours after reading your book. However, in more than sixty years I have lost the habit.

Besides Voltaire, the younger encyclopédistes of Rousseau's set were generally rationalists and not amenable to the religious undertones of the essay. Despite this, it was widely read and contributed further to Rousseau's fame.

In the summer of 1754, Rousseau traveled to Geneva with Thérèse and visited family members and old acquaintances. In order to do so, he had to renounce Catholicism and become a Calvinist again. Because of his celebrity, the Genevans made this easy for him, despite his living arrangements with Thérèse. The moral laxity of Paris was not accepted in Geneva, but Rousseau was able to meet the requirements simply by stating that Thérèse was his nurse. They enjoyed the summer and early fall there, spending much of their time walking outdoors before returning to Paris in October.

This brings to a close the first of three volumes. Although there is more detail here than necessary, I am enjoying the richness of the description. Though I don't take Rousseau completely seriously as a thinker, the information is useful for understanding the history of ideas. What I like about Rousseau is that he wrote from the heart, and that his ideas lack the opacity that pervades most academic writing. It is interesting to me that basic questions such as the rights of individuals and the meaning of equality have scarcely advanced since the eighteenth century. Academic writing usually consists of a regurgitation of what someone else said, and along the way the meaning of the original thought becomes lost. It is shocking how few original thinkers there have been throughout history, and when you find one like Rousseau, it is difficult, despite his limitations, not to marvel at his rarity. The valuable lesson from Rousseau is not primarily conceptual: it is his articulation of the visceral feeling that he had in response to nature and his repulsion to the aspects of civilization that made him feel ill-at-ease. Such observations do not generally arise in the circles of modern academics or intellectuals. When I think about my life, the most absurd and unsatisfactory aspects of it were usually related to my status as an employee. My caveat regarding Rousseau is that going back in time is not a real solution to human happiness. If other species are "happier" because they are not conscious in the same sense that we are, then so be it. I don't think that most people would like to revert to a lower state of consciousness even if they could. Nevertheless, I agree with Rousseau in his rejection of an economic system that subtly enslaves some people to others. Of course, the solution to such a problem was well beyond the scope of what Rousseau could hope to offer the modern world, but I have always felt that the state of being an employee is an unpleasant subjugation that I would have avoided if it had been tenable. Rousseau lacked the sophistication to provide a comprehensive outline of the shortcomings of modern capitalism, but he had the right reaction. Unfortunately, such questions also seem to be beyond the scope of contemporary writers such as Thomas Piketty – thus it is difficult not to admire Rousseau as a powerful writer.

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