POLITICAL THEORY – Jean-Jacques Rousseau – Free Ebook

Modern life is deeply attracted to the idea of progress in the 18th century as European societies became ever richer and more technological, the conventional view was that mankind was firmly set on a positive trajectory from savagery and ignorance toward prosperity and civilization. But there was at least one eighteen century philosopher who violently disagreed and who continues to have very provocative things to say to our own era. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born to an educated watchmaker in Geneva in 1712. when he was 10 his father got into a legal dispute and the family was forced to flee Geneva. From that point on Rousseau’s life was marked by deep instability and isolation. As a young man who went to Paris and there was exposed to the opulence and luxury that was the order of the day in the Ancien Régime Paris. It was a far cry from his birthplace of Geneva a city that was sober and deeply opposed to luxury goods. Then one day in 1749 he read a copy of a newspaper, The Mercure de France that contained an advert for an essay on the subject of whether recent advances in arts and sciences have contributed to what was called the “purification of morals” in other words was the world getting better? Rousseau experienced something of an epiphany. It struck him that civilization and progress had not in fact improved people. Instead they’d exacted a terrible destructive influence on the morality of human beings who had once been good. Rousseau took this insight and turned it into the central thesis of what became his celebrated discourse on the Arts and Sciences. His argument was simple: Individuals had once been good and happy but as people had emerged from their pre social state and join society they had become plagued by vice and sin. In this work and its twin, The Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality, Rousseau went on to sketch what it would have been like at the beginning of history, an idyllic period that he called “the state of nature.” A long time ago when men and women lived in forests and had never entered a shop or read a newspa per the philosopher pictured people more easily understanding their own minds and so being drawn toward essential features of a satisfied life, a love of a family, respect for nature, an awe at the beauty of the universe, curiosity about others and a taste for music and simple entertainments. The “state of nature” was moral and guided by spontaneous pity, empathy for others and their suffering. So what was it about civilization that Rousseau thought had corrupted people and led to moral degeneracy. Rousseau claimed that the march toward civilization had awakened in people and unhealthy form of self-love, amour-propre, he called it, something that was artificial and centered around pride, jealousy, and vanity. Rousseau argued that this destructive form of self love had emerged as people had moved into cities and there had begun to compare themselves to others and created their identities solely by reference to their neighbors. Civilized people had stopped thinking about what they wanted and they felt and merely imitated other people, entering into ruinous competitions for status and money and losing sight of their own sensations. Rousseau is forever associated with a term “noble savage” because it was his work that describe the innocence and morality of our ancestors and contrasted it with modern decadence. At the time Rousseau was writing, European Society was fascinated by the plight the native North American tribes. Reports of Indian society drawn up in the 16th century had once described the Indians as materially simple but psychologically very rich and interesting. Communities with small, close-knit, egalitariam, religious, playful, and martial. However within a few decades of the arrival of the Europeans the status system of Indian society have been revolutionized through contact with a technology and luxury of European industry. Indians now longed for guns alcohol, beads, and mirrors Rates of suicide and alcoholism had risen, communities were fracturing, and factions were squabbling. The modern world had ruined the lives of people who’d once lived happily in the “state of nature.” Rousseau’s interest in natural goodness made him very interested in the idea, though not quite the reality, of children. In 1762 he wrote Émile, or On Education, perhaps the most successful book ever written about how to raise children. Rousseau suggested that children were born naturally good and that the key to raising them was therefore always to prevent their corruption by society. This idea was widely influential. Parents who had before this time seen their children as wicked or at best as blank slates now viewed them as founts of wisdom and tried to give them a childhood full of play and visits to forests and lakes. Rousseau became the inventor of child-centered education. He was also a great proponent of breastfeeding, declaring “Let mothers deign to nurse their children, morals will reform themselves, nature’s sentiments will be awakened in every heart and the state will be repeopled.” It was, he knew, a bit of hyperbole but its spurred a wave of breastfeeding even among the wealthy who had long disdained the practice. Artists rushed to paint and honor the new vogue for breastfeeding. Because Rousseau so closely valued human beings in their original state, it followed that in the novels he wrote, Rousseau also constantly celebrated intense feelings rather than great deeds or social events. In his novel, Julie, written in 1761, Roussseau depicted the excitement and anguish of an upper-class women caught in a love triangle between her sensitive tutor and her boring but socially sanctioned aristocratic match. Rousseau’s contemporaries might have seen Julie as unwise and her feelings as a passing fancy, but Rousseau painted her love in a higher light. He urged us to see its grandeur, depth and honor. In his writings about his own life, Rousseau was similarly romantic or, what one might unkindly call, self-absorbed. In his famous Confessions, one of the first ever autobiographies, Rousseau spend pages exploring his inner life: How frustrating he found shopping, the surprising feeling of tenderness for his ex’s new partner, or the joys of gardening.To him, these weren’t trivial or self-absorbed topics, they were part of an important task: to show is like on the inside. “I have conceived of a new genre of service to render to man,” he boasted, “to offer them the faithful image of one amongst them in order for them to learn to know themselves. Rousseau died in 1778 age 66. His reputation has continued to grow. He was from beyond the grave one of the heroes of the French Fevolution and he became an icon to a great many artists and writers of the 19th century. Rousseau can be considered as one of the founding figures of what we now know as the Romantic Movement, an ideology responsible for valuing the primitive over the civilized, the child over the adult< the passionate lover over the calmly loyal spouse. The modern world despite its addiction to status, machinery, and capitalist values, in many ways continues to be profoundly romantic in its heart. It’s astonishing that so much of what we take to be common sense, or just natural, can directly be traced back to the work of one not always wise but always highly intriguing and provocative thinker.

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