Rousseau's Early Works (1750-56) II
Prof. Bill Long 11/23/06
Winning the Contest; Other Early Writings
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.
Next Literary Efforts
A little-known fact about Rousseau is that for many years of his life he made his living at copying music, pure and simple. He charged 10 cents a page, and often worked at the rate of about 1500 pages per year. The meticulous work of copying music enabled him, he said, to keep his mind free to develop his ideas--ideas that certainly made him one of the unique thinkers of his era. Indeed, Rousseau always saw himself as an absolutely unique individual, a position that alternately impressed and drove away his friends.
His second writing is to be explained as a result of Rousseau's love of music. He had composed plays and even a comic opera in the previous decade, and at the end of 1752 one of his pieces, a one-act comedy called Narcissus, or the Man in Love with Himself (How autobiographical is that?) was performed in Paris. Though it was received with polite approval, Rousseau attacked his own work. Perhaps convinced by the argument in his essay just published--that the arts had not improved morals--Rousseau discouraged people from attending his play. Yet, ironically, he continued to write musical pieces, which were preformed in 1753. His play entitled The Village Soothsayer achieved some success.
Toward the end of 1753, however, he decided to stir the pot more by publishing an essay entitled "Letter on French Music." In this essay he expressed a strong preference for Italian over French music. He had lived in Italy in the 1740s, and so his opinions were based on observations from that decade. As one of his biographers says:
"he chose to write in a combative and abusive style which could only anger, not convince, his opponents. French singing, he charges, is a 'continual barking,' its harmony is 'brutish'....The whole is a cacophony," Havens, op. cit., at 59.
Then as if to enflame tempers further, he published a supposedly facetious letter late in 1753 in which he openly critized the Royal Opera's orchestra. The violinists are mere "scrapers of catgut," for example. The resultant uproar almost resulted in Rousseau's exile from France. Intervention by a powerful friend, however, quieted the storm.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long