The idea that increased knowledge and human improvement go together became fundamental to the Enlightenment. Rousseau not only rejected this idea but proclaimed the opposite, stressing the simplicity of nature over the artificiality of society, feeling and faith over doubt and rationalism, and the freedom of individual genius over hard and fast aesthetic rules. In Discourse on Arts and Sciences, Rousseau affirms that sophistication has always led to moral corruption, and argues little good and moral value comes from the pursuit of art.
High civilization makes societies become enfeebled; sociability makes men false to each other and to themselves. This apparent paradox, and the rhetorical force with which Rousseau argues it, prompts dozens of refutations. In the course of replying to them, Rousseau comes to think more deeply about the causes of what he holds to be social corruption. The source of evil is inequality and dependence. Man is naturally good, and has only been made bad by social relations, vanity, and pride. Rousseau’s philosophy expressed the negative human transformation of a positive self-love he called “amour de soi” into pride, or “amour-propre.
” Amour de soi represents the instictive human desire for self-preservation, combined with the human power of reason. In contrast, the unnatural and artificial amour-propre forces man to compare himself to others, thus creating unwarranted fear and allowing men to take pleasure in the pain or weakness of others. Neither this distinction between self-preservation and pride, nor the rejection of a malevolent supreme as the sole cause of human degradation originated with Rousseau; his philosophy merely contributed to a wave of thought started long before.
Rejecting religious dogma and superstition, thinkers of the “Age of Reason” applied a new emphasis on empiricism and rationality to their thought, like John Locke who believed in experience laid the essence to learning. Rousseau later applied Locke’s philosophy to his own, creating an influential masterwork, Emile, on proper methods for educating children that included a sensuous natural upbringing. With the foundation laid by Descartes, Galileo, Copernicus, the emergence of modern science and the scientific method, the eighteenth century saw a new approach to human experience and understanding.
A wave of change swept across European thinking, exemplified by the natural philosophy and scientific discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton. The publication of his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica provided a provable and a coherent system of natural law that easily made useful predictions about Nature; this glimpse into the cosmic rulebook set the tone of for much of what followed in the century. The idea of uniform laws for natural phenomenon mirrored the greater systematization in a variety of studies; the Enlightenment saw itself as looking into the mind of God by studying creation and mining the basic truths of the world.
With the concept of scriptural revelation becoming superfluous in the Enlightenment, the spirit of empirical observation encouraged the seventeenth-century natural philosophy of Benedictus de Spinoza and his Ethics, which expounded a monistic view of the universe where God and Nature were one; Thomas Hobbes, who contended that people in a state of nature ceded their individual rights to a strong sovereign in return for his protection; and Locke, who declared that the state of Nature is the source of all rights and unity, and the purpose of the state is to protect, and not hold back, the state of Nature.
Despite scientific proof and emphasis on rationality, the Enlightenment view of the natural world still included many doctrines of the Church. Rousseau’s continuation of this newfound natural philosophy proved not only controversial and highly refuted but also revolutionary in nature. In Rousseau, his writings not only anticipated specific movements and ideas, but their general tone and fundamental principles influentially determined the broad movements of feeling and thought in the second half of the eighteenth century.
One of Rousseau’s most pervasive philosophical themes remained Nature, helping instigate the shift in European sensibility from the desire to “tame” nature, to make it bear the imprint of man’s design, towards the appreciation of the wild, the untouched and the terrifying in nature, as later became defining characteristics of Romantic literature. In Nature, just as the pre-Enlightenment philosophers and scientists observed the potential for deeper understanding and order, religious, social, and political, Rousseau saw the potential for a restoration of humanity through a reconnection with the natural world.
In 1754, this understanding became the basis of Rousseau’s great second discourse. The Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men begins by depicting man in the state of Nature. For Rousseau, unlike previous juridical theorists such as Hobbes and Locke, man in Nature lives an isolated, rudimentary, “immediate,” and happy life, endowed with two instincts: “amour de soi” and “pitie” or sensibility to suffering in other creatures. Then, by chance or Providence, humans start coming together.
Permanent families and verbal language increase social relations, leading to economic and moral dependence, social injustice and hubris. Civilized humans inevitably adopt the amour propre to compete successfully with each other. As Rousseau states: “In a word, there is competition and rivalry on the one hand, conflicts of interest on the other, and always the hidden desire to gain an advantage at the expense of other people. All these evils are the main effects of property and the inseparable consequences of nascent inequality” (Duggan, 2001, 166).
Rousseau completes his history of human development with the establishment of large political societies and laws to maintain them. Far removed from the state of Nature that allowed humans full expression of their compassion, society institutionalizes inequality, injustice, and greed: “[A] devouring ambition, the burning passion to enlarge one’s relative fortune, not so much from real need as to put oneself ahead of others, inspires in all men a dark propensity to injure one another” (166).
By the middle of the eighteenth century, the philosophy of Rousseau expanded the ideas of natural religion and freedom as the natural state of human existence. In his 1762 work, The Social Contract, Rousseau expanded on the ideas of Hobbes and Locke, each proponents of natural contract theories, but defined his own clear version of the contract that humanity has with Nature. Rousseau’s contract theory starts with the opening declaration, “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.
One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they” (Rousseau, 1967, 56). Rousseau believed that in order to live in society, human beings agree to an implicit social contract, which gives them certain rights in return for giving up certain freedoms they would have in a state of Nature. The rights and responsibilities of individuals are the terms of the social contract, with the sole purpose of the state responsible being enforcement of the contractual terms.
The people may change the terms of the contract if they so desire; rights and responsibilities are not fixed or “natural. ” More rights always entail more responsibilities, and fewer responsibilities always entail fewer rights. Rousseau argues that only by surrendering to the general will can an individual find his fullest freedom. The general will, essentially directed toward common good, Rousseau believed, is always right. The citizens of a united community exchange their natural liberty for something better, moral liberty.
In Rousseau’s theory, political society is seen as involving the total voluntary subjection of every individual to the collective general will, creating an unspoken social contract which becomes the sole source of legitimate sovereignty and something that cannot but be directed towards common good. Rousseau’s idealistic words, “Liberty, Equality, Sovereignty” became the cry of revolutionaries in France, and the sentiment echoed in the American Constitution.