Rousseau the Rabble Rouser

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: a civilized man, but a ...

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you measure Rousseau against the definition of enlightenment that was popular at his time, he would not appear to be enlightened. The “enlightened” of his time believed education in the arts and sciences would lead to equality and freedom. However, if you measure him against Immanuel Kant’s definition, it is obvious that Rousseau was enlightened.

Immanuel Kant’s definition of enlightenment is as follows:

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own understanding!” (An Answer to the Question: “What is Enlightenment?” Immanuel Kant, 1784)

Kant’s definition means that an enlightened individual would not follow the herd, and may very well have been a rabble rouser.

Rousseau fit that description.

Rousseau, in his studies, was not searching for freedom or equality. He was searching for the truth. And by searching for the truth, he dared to use his own understanding. Rather than follow blindly with the other “enlightened” men of his day, he went beyond their studies. Rather than jump on the negative bandwagon against the enlightenment, he came to his own conclusions about it.

“How can one venture to blame the sciences in front of one of the most scholarly societies in Europe, praise ignorance in a famous Academy, and reconcile a contempt for study with respect for truly learned men?” (Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1750)

This is a quote from a man who had the courage to use his own understanding. Rousseau claimed that the “enlightened” man of his age was a “happy slave,” wearing flowery chains of iron. The public’s education was not making them free or equal, but instead made them complacent and hid the fact that they were neither free nor equal.

Rousseau continued to describe his vision of what would come about as a result of enlightenment: uncertainty, suspicion, uniformity,and dishonorable vices disguised as virtues. Speaking of the Germans, Rousseau said,

“They were not ignorant of the fact that in other lands idle men spent their lives disputing their sovereign good, vice, and virtue, and that proud reasoners, while giving themselves the greatest praise, shoved all other people together under the contemptuous name of barbarians. But they looked at their morals and learned to despise their learning.” (Discourse on the Arts and Sciences)

While his contemporaries celebrated knowledge, Rousseau saw in it all that was bad in his world: “…these vain and futile declaimers move around in all directions armed with their fatal paradoxes, undermining the foundations of faith, and annihilating virtue.” (Discourse on the Arts and Sciences) He went on to lament how, once every great civilization in the past started to be more concerned with fine arts, they lost their edge and were easily dissolved or overthrown. Their citizens became soft and weak.

This lifestyle, in Rousseau’s estimation, also led to moral decay. Citizens shirked their duties, students were not taught right from wrong, and didn’t understand what they should do or how to do it. They didn’t know how to think. And he placed the blame squarely on the enlightenment. “From where do all these abuses arise if it is not the fatal inequality introduced among men by distinctions among their talents and by the degradation of their virtues? There you have the most obvious effect of all our studies, and the most dangerous of all their consequences.” (Discourse on the Arts and Sciences)

No one wants to hear that the course they have embarked upon is headed for disaster. Who but a rabble rouser, a person audacious enough to think for himself, would dare do tell them so? According to Kant, an enlightened man would. According to Kant, Rousseau would.

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