Was Rousseau a philosophe? Was Rousseau a philosophe? According to the Wikipedia definition of a philosophe, “philosophes were a new approach to learning that encouraged reason, knowledge and education as a way of overcoming superstition and ignorance. ” 1 The underlying goal of a philosophe was the concept of progress. Through the mastery and explanation of the sciences, humanity could learn to harness the natural world for its own benefit in order to live peacefully with one another.
Rousseau’s ‘Second Discourse’ does exactly that: It is an incredible re-creation of the concept of how man existed in a perfect state and ultimately led themselves towards voluntary enslavement.
I believe it was Rousseau’s purpose to make the world understand the transformation that had occurred in an attempt to get humanity to revert back to a level of equality and co-existence that had once occurred naturally. The Second Discourse starts by illustrating pre-civilized man and his need to procure only the ‘bare essentials’ to fulfill a need for survival.
This idea of the noble savage is what he referred to as the happiest state of humankind: a middle state between completely wild and completely civilized. As his paper evolves, Rousseau shows rapid development for emotional and social change. Pity was one of the key principles that Rousseau identifies as existing prior to reason. He states that all humans feel a strong distaste on seeing the suffering of another sentient creature. Rousseau argues that because humans feel this impulse of pity towards others they will not willingly mistreat other creatures unless their own self preservation is at stake.
Self preservation is the other key principle which Rousseau attributes to his idea of Natural Right. The desire to preserve oneself is the only thing that can drive one being to harm another, but only in extreme circumstances. Through the evolution of man and the occurrence of village festivals, ideas such as competition were introduced. This caused what Rousseau called “Amour proper”; an acute awareness of, and regard for, oneself in relation to others. There was now a need to compete with fellow man in these competitions in order to be perceived better amongst his fellow man.
Whether it was to dance better, sing better, or even look better, important was now given to more superficial items, instead of on matters of survival. According to Rousseau, this was an incredibly harmful psychological transformation which was linked to the further degradation of human reason, and which ultimately led to fully formed political societies where material wealth dominated. Man’s perfectibility, his ability for “self improvement”, continued to shape his developments and the developments of his environment. These adaptations can be attributed to the development of reason and language.
Men began to interact with, and rely on one another on a more personal level. These interactions gave rise to new emotional responses which led to fear, deceit and personal gain. At the same time that human reason develops, and enlightenment emerges, man is corrupted and undergoes a decline from his original condition. Mental corruption occurs as man becomes subject to a new system of. His corruption is evident in the attention he now pays to the opinion of others, his loss of basic pity for other creatures, and his general dissatisfaction with life.
As Rousseau puts it in Part two of the Discourse, modern man has “nothing more than a deceiving and frivolous exterior, honor without virtue, reason without wisdom, and pleasure without happiness”. While the semi-civilized man continued to look inward for his values and happiness, the fully civilized man continued to look for happiness through material wealth and status. The result was moral corruption. Rousseau describes the resulting civilization as having been developed from fear and greed. The system of needs that enslaved modern man made him inauthentic to both himself and to those around him.
He cannot behave in an authentic way towards his fellow man, because he is continuously thinking of new ways to deceive them, while boasting his own image and security. As a result, it was ultimately up to man to create a “Social Contract”, or set of laws, in order to protect himself from his fellow man. Man would rather sacrifice a piece of his own freedom in exchange for his own security; and in the words of the great Ben Franklin “Those who desire to give up freedom in order to gain security, will not have, nor do they deserve, either one. 2 The central argument of Rousseau’s ‘Second Discourse’ is to show that man’s civilization came at the cost of freedom and individuality. Rousseau tried to explain the human invention of government as a contract between the governed and the authorities that governed them. People were willing to give up their rights and freedoms to a higher authority because of their beliefs that those authorities would protect the very rights that they were so quick to give away. There can be no other definition of a philosophe than one who chooses to investigate the reasons for human behavior in order to shed light on where it has gone wrong.
Rousseau chose this quote from Aristotle to preface his work: “What is natural has to be investigated not in beings that are depraved, but in those that are good according to nature. ” How can man investigate and understand what is good and natural in nature when he lives in such a way that he cannot even see that he is being un-natural and unjust even to himself? And nothing, no matter how justified, is more un-natural than human inequality. Inequality was the central problem that Rousseau confronted through most of his work, which he sums up in the first line of The Social Contract: “Man is born free but everywhere is in chains. This central idea which played such a significant role during the Enlightenment, is alive even today both in the role of politics and religion. A major achievement of the age of Enlightenment was the breaking down of the barriers that existed either between man and state or man and church. It would seem that even through all of the progress throughout the centuries, we are not much farther along than we have been. Corruption is still given free reign while both economic and social inequality continue to run free.
Rousseau was indeed a philosophe for pointing out the injustices that existed between men and for providing a framework towards understanding and overcoming it. The past, for Rousseau, is a way to understand our present so that we can evolve together towards a single, common future. Works Cited 1. “Philosophe. ” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 2008 2. “Benjamin Franklin” WikiQuote: Benjamin Franklin. 2008 3. “Discourse on the Origin and the Foundations of Inequality among Men”. Jean-Jacques Rousseau. 1754. 4. The Portable Enlightenment Reader. Isaac Kramnick (Ed. ). (1995). New York: Penguin Books.
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