Jean-Jacques Rousseau

“Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) still followed Machiavelli, but he wrote in reaction both to the modern project of technological progress through science (Bacon, Descartes, and the Enlightenment in general), and to the earlier state of nature political theorists, Hobbes and Locke. He was more concerned than all of them with morality; and he added legitimation to power as a great modern political theme (instead of the ancient themes of wisdom and virtue). In his First Discourse on the arts and Sciences Rousseau criticizes the idea that progress in scientific knowledge and technology automatically bring along with them progress in morals. As going from particular to universal, science weakens the citizens’ attachment to their particular country; as yielding useful products, it causes luxury which makes citizens soft, spoiled, and unwilling to sacrifice themselves for the good of their country. For Rousseau scientific knowledge should not be spread to the many who are incapable of understanding it, but should be restricted to the few great geniuses like Newton, Descartes, Bacon, and Rousseau himself, who can. In the Second Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, Rousseau claims that his predecessors never really got all the way back to the primal state of nature: to man as an amiable brute with no language or reason, but with the desire to survive, compassion (i.e. self-pity + a spontaneous unwillingness to harm others). The primal man differs from all other beasts chiefly by reason of his malleability and perfectibility, so that as time went on there evolved the need to calculate (and so the use of reason and language), to invent things, and differences in physique. All these changes are not proper to man by nature but accidents due to the contingencies arising in nature. Eventually there emerges the psychological alienation so that man’s normal and spontaneous and unselfconscious self-love is complicated by a self-conscious love of self in which one’s self-esteem becomes dependent upon others’ estimation of us. Compassion begins to fade out and is replaced completely by this competitive and envious self-love. Meanwhile this psychological alienation is reinforced by economic alienation caused by the lie and robbery-aspect of property, which is the start of civil society for Rousseau. For him the key to the social contract is the replacement of dead compassion by the autonomous (i.e. one’s freely giving oneself the law) harmonizing of one’s particular will with the general will in the working out of direct democracy (in contrast to Locke’s representative democracy in which elected representatives make the decisions that effect public life). The original legislator therefore has to play an important role aided by civil religion in leading individual citizens to freely bring their individual wills and interests and desires into line with the general will; otherwise they have to be compelled to be free for their own good” (Frederick Lawrence, Philosophers and Theologians, Boston College).

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