March 23, 2015

The Forgotten Genius Who Created The Modern World

"I do not care to please either the witty or the fashionable. At all times there will be men destined to be subjugated by the opinions of their century, their country, their society . . . One must not write for such readers when one wants to live beyond one's century." — Rousseau, Discourse on the Arts and Sciences

In 1750, a bashful, unassuming, "citizen of Geneva" named Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote a now scarcely remembered essay for a contest, and it completely altered the course of history. Yet despite its current obscurity, as the preface quoted above predicts, the untimeliness of the ideas contained within continue to be felt even today, 264 years later.

The contest, held by the Academy of Dijon in France, asked: Has the restoration of the Sciences and Arts [during the Renaissance] tended to purify morals? Europe, at the time, was in the midst of the Age of Enlightenment, and one would think, the "opinions of their century" would have made the answer to this question obvious: Yes, of course, the revitalization of the Sciences and Arts have made us better people. However, this is not what Rousseau proclaims, and to the dismay of "the witty and the fashionable" everywhere, he was awarded first prize for it.

Rousseau, too, is quite aware of this contradiction, asking at the outset of the discourse, "How can one dare blame the Sciences before one of Europe's most learned Societies, praise ignorance in a famous Academy, and reconcile contempt for study with respect for the truly learned?" But, the thing is, it's not the Sciences that he wishes to denigrate, but rather Virtue—sublime Science of simple souls—that he hopes to defend. Yet despite his anticipation of "universal blame [for] running counter to everything that men admire today," his essay spread through Europe like wildfire, turning him into an instant celebrity, while redirecting the trajectory of all "enlightened" thought that came after him.

It was an amazing feat, especially for a dilettantish, roustabout, with no formal education, who published nothing of note till almost his 40th year. But what could he have possibly said that struck such a resonant chord with the public?  

Much like our own day, 18th century Europe was engaged in a "Culture War," and was divided by a bitter dichotomy of seemingly irreconcilable worldviews: the religious establishment vs scientific atheism/secular humanism. Rousseau had actually been heading to visit his friend Diderot—imprisoned for hinting in one of his writings at natural selection and materialism—when he first saw a notification for the contest that would bring him fame and eventually empower him to bring this debate to an end—well, at least a d├ętente.

So how does one "reconcile contempt for study with respect for the truly learned"?

Well, you see, Rousseau is not against Science, as such, praising highly men such as Bacon, Descartes and Newton as "preceptors of the human race." Rather, he is against the vanity and ambition for distinction and novelty that, he believes, inevitably come with its formal establishment—its institutionalization.

First off, scientific progress cannot flourish without the freedom of a loose and luxurious society that has money to invest in it (generally acquired through ill-gotten means: conquest and slavery). Secondly, in order for some to devote their time to abstract theorizing, others must work to provide a surplus for them to consume, creating inequality between citizens. And worst of all, after Science does establish itself as a respectable vocation, prizes are awarded to those who come up with the most useful or interesting theories. Not only does this pervert what ought to be the real motivation of Science—the disinterested search for Truth—but it also encourages scientists to distort their research to gain prestige and money or misrepresent findings to support political causes. Basically, the formula goes something like this:

Science corrupts Society, and in turn Society corrupts Science.

In opposition to this picture of degeneracy, Rousseau holds up the model of the ancient republics of Greece and Rome, who instead of studying Virtue, actually practiced it. He rails against modern thinkers, such as Hobbes and Mandeville, who "suggest that there are neither virtues nor vices and that moral good and evil are chimeras." This, as he would later write, is the cause of the Bourgeois, the man of calculation, who evaluates all situations in reference to how it will serve himself. In the old republics, duty to the common good was number one, whereas the new order of the day is duty to oneself. 

Rousseau's alternative to this mess was a complex pastiche of ancient Virtue and modern Science that was roundly embraced by the majority of Europeans caught between the two factions—the fundamentalists and the scientists—which, until recently, allowed the two to live together fairly peacefully. Yet this reconciliation has never been entirely satisfactory, and his ideas have been used to justify everything from direct democracy to communism to fascism to religious utopias and everything in between. The last 250 years of history have been the playing out of both his mistakes and his successes, as they have shaped all our philosophic, political, scientific and religious conversations. And I believe it is only through a re-examination of Rousseau that we can truly break free from the problems of the Enlightenment which he was the first to articulate. 

For an introduction to more of his thought and some other biographical information, check out an article I wrote on him last year.  The Forgotten Genius Who Created The Modern World   

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