Day 1--August 22
Babylonian Laws I
Babylonian Laws II
Euthyphro and Crito
Nicomachean Eth. I
Nico. Ethics II
Nico. Ethics III
Nico. Ethics IV
Early Rousseau II
Early Rous III
Rousseau's Walks I
Rousseau's Walks II
Rousseau's Walks III
Lisbon Earthquake I
JS Mill I
Mill and Emotions II
Mill and Emotions III
Legal Realism I
Legal Realism II
Brown v. Board
Rousseau's Writing and Ideas (1750-56)
Prof. Bill Long 11/23/06
A Thinker Emerges
The purpose of this and the next few essays is to meet Rousseau in the middle of his life, when he began to write seriously, and understand how he started to define himself vis-a-vis the issues and leading thinkers in mid-18th century France/Switzerland. He didn't pen his first significant work until he was 38 years old (in 1750); within six years, however, he had staked out respected positions significantly different from the grand old man of French intellectual life at the time (Voltaire). We need to understand something about the following five works: (1) Discourse on the Sciences and Arts (1750-51); (2) Writings in the French/Italian music controversy (1753); (3) Discourse on Inequality (1755); (4) Article in the Encyclopedia on "Political Economy" (1755) and (5) His response to Voltaire's questioning of divine Providence in the wake of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 (1756). By the end of this period we not only can see how certain "life ideas" have emerged for Rousseau but we also get his perspective on the burning issues of the time. We also start to understand his tetchy (and touchy!) personality which will, eventually, lead to breaks from almost everyone of importance in his life.
Setting the Context
I think the most important development in European intellectual life by the mid-18th century is the way that talk of God was gradually relegated to a secondary place or, in fact, eliminated altogether. This is quite remarkable in that the Western tradition had assumed for at least a millennium that one couldn't articulate a political or cultural philosophy without reference to God. Indeed, three influential thinkers or actors of the mid-17th century, all born between 1585-1588, John Winthrop, Hugo Grotius and Thomas Hobbes, all devoted considerable pages in their works to the way that their political philosophy was shaped by or responded to Scripture. By the beginning of the 18th century, however, orthodox theology was being replaced in England and the Continent by "natural religion," i.e., the belief that God was active, to be sure, in the natural processes of the world but that this natural religion replaced revealed revelation as the source of political philosophy. Thus, 18th century political philosophers (the most famous of whom to Americans was Thomas Jefferson) could speak about "Nature" or Nature's God" ordaining things, without worrying about covenantal language or biblical practices.
But this idea of "the God of Nature" replacing the orthodox Christian belief in the Trinitarian God as the source of politecal or cultural life was still not fully accepted in mid-18th century France. And it was this signal fact that indirectly led to Rousseau's penning his first work: Discourse on the Sciences and Arts (published early 1751). His friend Denis Diderot (b. 1713), another brilliant man who was the son of a craftsman (Rousseau's Genevan father was a clockmaker), was arrested in July 1749 because of the heretical positions taken in his "Letter on the Blind." He questioned the traditional belief in divine Providence--a belief that still needed at least some kind of recognition in France, and was confined to a prison in Vincennes (the Bastile being full). Lest you think that Diderot was just another "guy," he had, since about 1745, taken on the task of editing what would be the premier intellectual achievement of the 18th century--the 28 volume Encyclopedia (17 vols. text and 11 vols illustrations; the Encyclopedia would appear beginning in 1751 and not be finished until 1772).
Digression on Diderot's "Problem"
Diderot's "Letter on the Blind," ("Lettre sur les aveugles, a l'usage de ceux qi voient) appeared on June 9, 1749. It might seem strange that he would be thrown into jail for writing about blindness, but the thing that got him arrested was his description of the death of the blind professor of mathematics at Cambridge, Professor Saunderson. Saunderson was supposed to have said many irreligious things at his death, and then expired with the following words, "O God of Newton and Clarke, have pity on me." This invocation of a less than orthodox God was problematic and led to Diderot's arrest and imprisonment. The "Letter" appears in a fairly full translation, though it leaves out the account of Saunderson's death, in Moyneaux's Question by Michael J. Morgan, pp. 25-58. Why would Morgan have left out that most interesting discussion? Because the aims of the book were different: to try to show how the 18th century dealt with philosophical and psychological questions about the nature of blindness. If the blind man, for example, with tactile knowledge of what a sphere or cube was, would regain his sight, would he be able without more to recognize immediately the sphere and the cube? Just as identical twins served to disabuse Augustine of any belief in astrology, so the practical problem of a blind man regaining his sight actuated a major philosophical discussion in the 18th century. It implicated, above all, that century's theories of psychology and especially the efforts of 18th century philosophers to give an account of perception based on the empiricist principles of John Locke.
Back to Our Narrative
Well, as I said, Diderot was arrested in mid-1749. Rousseau, living 12 miles distant from Vincennes, was one of Diderot's closest friends at the time, and vowed to visit his friend in his confinement. Let me be more precise in this. Diderot was arrested on July 24, 1749. Though the tactics of the police in raiding his apartment at 7:30 a.m. might leave something to be desired, we must remember we were in the "Ancien Regime." The authorities, however, knew how far they could push things. Whereas they might be able to put to death a maniac who cursed Christ in a religious service, they were aware that an educated man like Diderot had friends who would intercede for him. Intercede they did. On August 21 he was released from his cell, with an October 21 letter, the lettre de cachet, granting him complete liberty (Morgan, 28). A biographer of Rousseau, Havens, mentions that Diderot was transfered from the Donjon at Vincennes to a neighboring chateau on August 21, with a promise not to escape and with permission to have visits from friends. A condition of his release to this rather luxurious "half-way" house was that he admit authorship of the letter (he had prevaricated when first asked) and that he promise to cause no further trouble. When Rousseau then heard that his friend had been moved from the solitary confinement of his Vincennes cell, he set out to see Diderot on August 25, 1749 (Havens, 50). Rousseau would often go on foot and arrive exhausted and dirty. As time went on, however, he decided to take reading material along with him so that he could take breaks on the arduous trek to Vincennes. In one of his visits to Diderot, he noticed an announcement in Le Mercure de France of a prize contest offered by the Academy of Dijon for the best essay on the subject: "Did the Renaissance in the Arts and Sciences Contribute to Purifying Morals?"
Winning the Contest
Rousseau's imagination was stoked by the question, and he hastened to compose an essay by the deadline of April 1, 1750. Instead of taking what Rousseau thought would be the popular position (that the arts purify morals), he opted for the other position: that in fact there was deeper virtue and greater morality in ancient societies than in present ones, and that the forces of civilization often corrode rather than improve morals. Using the voice of the ancient Roman Fabricius (the rhetorical device is technically called prosopopoeia), Rousseau argued for the glories of the rustic and rural past, the simplicity and authority of Sparta over Athens and primitive Rome over Imperial Rome. But it isn't simplicity itself which is virtuous; men in those times also abandoned idleness for wholesome work, and savored truth rather than the false delicacies of his day. In the final analysis, Rousseau didn't disdain the arts and sciences; he simply argued that their proliferation didn't necessarily improve morals. In making his argument, he was no doubt trying to goad his most famous contemporary, Voltaire (b. 1694, so 18 years older than Rousseau), who typified the refined spirit of elegance and enlightenment of the progressive thinkers of mid-century France/Switzerland.
Though many praised Rousseau's trenchant criticism of the arts, Voltaire almost spat out his disapproval. From his lofty position at the Court of Frederick the Great in Berlin, Voltaire wrote patronizingly:
"I am hardly in a position, at the court of the King of Prussia, to read themes composed by school boys for prizes offered by the academy of Dijon."
But he obviously read Rousseau's work, for he went on to say:
"I saw here a man who started by hating the abuse of the arts and came in the end to hate the arts themselves," quoted in George R. Havens, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 56.
With this auspicious start to a literary career, we can hardly wait to see how it evolved!
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long