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    The Feelings of Alienation and Nostalgia, and the Controversial Rebuttal of Empiricism in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on the Arts and Sciences

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    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 proposed in Bacon’s New Atlantis, was immoral and destructive. This view was met with much criticism and disdain. Indeed, by taking such a view, Rousseau attacked the very core of the Enlightenment.

    However, the Discourse is not only a rebuttal of empiricism. It is also an intensely personal look into Rousseau. In it, Rousseau’s alienation and nostalgic feelings are clearly revealed. To Rousseau, the past was idyllic: “One cannot reflect on morals, without taking delight in recalling the image of the simplicity of the first times. It is a fair shore, adorned by the hands of nature alone, towards which one forever turns one’s eyes, and from which one feels oneself moving away with regret (Discourse, p. 18).

    Yet it was not the past itself Rousseau found attractive, but the moral society which could only flourish in the absence of the malevolence created by the arts and sciences. Such was their sinister power, that even ‘savage’ man was more moral than a society full of art and science (Discourse, p. 5 n and Last Reply, p. 83).

    It was to this moral world that Rousseau yearned to return. For him, such a world was full of virtue and the goodness of ‘rustic naturalness’. 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 (Observations, p. 51, Discourse, p. 5, and Preface to Narcissus, p. 110 n).

    Although his nostalgia was thus tempered by the knowledge that paradise, once lost, remains forever vanquished, Rousseau’s sense of alienation remained unchecked. Indeed, even the frontispiece of the Discourse proclaims his alienation, “Here I am the barbarian because they do not understand me” (Ovid).

    Though Rousseau stated that his life was governed by the three values of truth, virtue, and freedom, he found little evidence of them in the world (Letter to Malesherbes II). Rather what he found was “Much babbling, rich people, and arguers, that is to say enemies of virtue and of common sense. In return we have lost innocence and morals. The multitude grovels in poverty; all are slaves of vice” (Preface to Narcissus, p. 105). Gone too, was the ability to easily distinguish character by conduct.

    Historically, this estrangement remains. Rousseau has been claimed by both Fidel Castro and Jean Paul Marat as a true revolutionary and damned by the radical Frankfort School for his belief in individualism. Bertrand Russell calls him the father of Romanticism; Ernst Cassirer places him side by side with Kant in the heart of the Enlightenment. Much, too, of Rousseau can be seen in the German and English Idealists.

    Although these claims and counter-claims concern the whole of Rousseau’s work, the Discourse itself and the responses to it foreshadowed much of the confusion that was to come. Such confusion was inevitable-a true critic must be, to some extent, divorced from his world. Perhaps then, the confusion over Rousseau is but a testament to the power and insight of his criticism.

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    The Feelings of Alienation and Nostalgia, and the Controversial Rebuttal of Empiricism in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on the Arts and Sciences. (2022, Dec 12). Retrieved from https://artscolumbia.org/the-feelings-of-alienation-and-nostalgia-and-the-controversial-rebuttal-of-empiricism-in-jean-jacques-rousseaus-discourse-on-the-arts-and-sciences/

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