Sunday Aug 10, 2003

Civilization’s Noble Savage

As a brilliant, undisciplined, and unconventional thinker, the 18th Century French deistic philosopher and author Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 - 1778) spent most of his life being driven by controversy—back and forth between Paris and his native Geneva. Orphaned at an early age, he left home at sixteen, working as a tutor and musician before undertaking a literary career while in his forties. Although not an immediate success (his first opera failed), the time for his ideas was ripe as unrest and change were stirring in the air of aristocratic arrogance and injustice. The French Revolution began with the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789.

Rousseau sired but refused to support several illegitimate children and frequently initiated bitter quarrels with even the most supportive of his colleagues. His autobiographical Les Confessions (1783) offer a thorough (contagious if somewhat self-serving) account of his turbulent life.

Whether you agree or disagree with him, his influence, good or bad, still infuses literature, philosophy, religion, politics and education. His actual doctrine has become somewhat obscured by the haze of controversy and the sheer mass of erudite criticism surrounds him. Rousseau is responsible for much of the confusion because of the his frequent ambiguity of expression, and also because of his deliberate cultivation of paradox.

The excerpt that follows is from Rousseau by Robert Wokler; Oxford University Press, 1995.

Culture, Music, and the Corruption of Morals

“Rousseau remarks in his Confessions that he had been thunderstruck on reading the notice of the Academy of Dijon in the Mercure de France of October 1749, heralding a competition for the best essay on the question ‘Has the rebirth of the arts and sciences contributed to the purification of morals?’. ‘The moment I read this announcement I saw another universe and became a   different man’, he writes. He had stopped by a tree to catch his breath, moved almost to delirium by a fiery   vision of the natural goodness of humanity and the evil contradictions of our social order, which had kindled in his mind most   of the leading ideas of what would become his principal works,  even though he was never to recapture more than its faint shadow. Yet, while the Discourse on the Arts and Sciences forms the most immediate expression of that vision, Rousseau eventually came to regard it as among the worst of his major writings. The text which   launched his literary career had neither order, nor logic, nor structure, he lamented, and, though it was full of warmth and vigour, it was, on his own testimony, the feeblest and least elegant of his celebrated works. It is also, as was soon to be noted by his detractors, the least original.

“Its central theme is that civilization has been the bane of humanity, and that the perfection of our arts and sciences has been   accompanied by the corruption of our morals. Before we acquired   the skills and attributes of cultured men, and before our patterns   of life came to be moulded by false values and factitious needs, our manners were ‘rustic but natural’. With the birth and dissemination of knowledge, however, our original purity became progressively debased by sophistical taste and custom, by the ‘perfidious veil of politeness’, and by ‘all those vicious ornaments’ of fashion, until our pristine virtue had been wrenched away with the force of an ebbing tide.”

For more about Rousseau, visit Questia —the online library for research.

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