Cultural Criticism of Jean Jacques RousseauJune 27, 2021
Rousseau begins his Discourse on the Sciences and Arts by stating that the achievements of the human mind are laudable; “It is a very noble and beautiful sight to see a person rise upwards by his own efforts, almost creating himself out of nothingness; With the light of the human mind, he dispersed all the dark clouds that covered him and his life.” Considering these sentences, it can be thought that Rousseau will give a positive answer to the question asked by the Dijon Academy, in accordance with the spirit of enlightenment.
However, after these lines, there is a ruthless criticism of science and arts. It seems that he used the first sentences as a reference to the emergence of humanity from the primitive periods in which it was in a difficult struggle with nature. Because, according to him, at the point reached today, advancing science and arts “throw garlands of flowers on the chains that bring people down in their daily lives and stifle the sense of freedom in their hearts for which they seem born. Our mind has needs just like the body; those of the body are the foundation of society; those of the mind are mere embellishments. These ‘ornaments’ only serve to make people love their slavery.”
Rousseau is aware that human nature was not better in earlier times. But he believes that the arts and sciences have produced remarkable changes to make people far worse. According to him, “Before art and literature shaped our behavior and taught us to speak artificially about our feelings, our morals were perhaps crude, rudimentary, but natural. The modern way of life compelled everyone to follow what is fashionable in speech, dress, attitude, did not allow us to follow our own nature, and soon we dared not appear as we are. In the “human herd” everyone behaves completely alike, so we never even know who our true friend is. Human relations are now a complete deception; whereas in earlier times people could easily distinguish each other; this was really an advantage to avoid some of their bad habits. Rousseau also directs the arrows of criticism at the rulers who emphasize people’s love of luxury and the economic aspects of politics: He reminds us that the politicians of the past always talked about morality and virtue, while the rulers of today did not talk about anything but commerce and money. His argument against luxury is that it creates a society that is brilliant but has no permanent value. Because although money buys everything, it cannot buy morality and citizenship.
Rousseau tries to support with some examples from history that progress in the arts and sciences always leads to a decline in morality and the eventual collapse of society. For example, while Egypt was the mother of philosophy and fine arts, it was soon conquered by the Persians, then the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, and finally the Turks. The progress of the sciences was soon followed by the hedonistic attitudes of the Greeks, and as a result, they had to submit to Macedonia. Contrary to these, one can speak of the virtues of the early Persians and Scythians. The Romans first established a huge empire by bringing all the barbarian tribes to their knees, but when they abandoned the Stoic discipline and perished in the relaxation of Epicurean hedonism, they melted away before the virtues of the Germanic tribes such as simplicity, innocence and naturalness.
According to Rousseau, a stable society is based on a set of ideas or values that the majority accept as the rule for their thinking and behavior. Rousseau believed that these ideas could be undermined by philosophy and science for several reasons. First, every society is a union and its uniqueness is a specific set of local values. But science and philosophy seek universal truth. Precisely the pursuit of such universal truth makes local thought something less valuable than truth and thus destroys its authority. To exacerbate this problem, science seeks to emphasize the need for evidence or documentation, whereas dominant ideas on the most important issues cannot be proven beyond a doubt and therefore lose their unifying power. In addition, science always requires a skeptical stance against the entrenchedness of ideas. According to Rousseau, it is belief, not knowledge, that holds the community together. However, both the scientist and the philosopher who seek knowledge avoid belief. Long-term avoidance of belief does not do much harm as long as it is limited to a certain number of people, but it is not easy to remove the damage done by the spread of the skeptical spirit among the people, which reached its peak in the current of skepticism; skepticism will thus undermine public virtue. Rousseau considers the main patriotic virtue when he says public virtue. According to him, the spirit of science is also against patriotism, because the scientist is generally a citizen of the world.