Rousseau is perhaps the most subtle and complex philosopher to have critiqued the tendency of Enlightenment thinkers, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, to assume too easily that scientific reason would lead to moral virtue and a good life, whether for the single individual or society as a whole. Below are excerpts of Rousseau relevant to the themes of this site. I have also embedded links in the text, bringing you to other related text. Following each quote is a question to ponder. In each question I have embedded a link which brings you to a possible way of thinking about the question. I begin with some suggested rules for reading Rousseau.
1) Pay close attention to the repetition of use of pronouns, and ask “What do they refer to?”
2) Pay close attention to the use of contrast, and do not assume that the stance he is taking for or against one side of the contrast is what may be initially assumed. He may switch stances in the middle of the claim. Always ask: What is the intent of this reversal of stances?
3) He seems to be criticizing something about the modern philosophers. At the same time, he seems to be assigning a role to the Philosopher as a type. How are we to reconcile this apparent contradiction?
4) Always apply Plato’s distinction between “appearance” and “reality” when reading Rousseau, and ask: What is behind the first impression?
“Satyr, you do not know it.” On the faceplate to the First Political Discourse.
Is this a reference to Socratic wisdom and a contrast to the exuberance of the Enlightenment regarding discovering knowledge via scientific reason?
Natural man is entirely for himself. He is numerical unity, the absolute whole which is relative only to itself or its kind. Civil man is only a fractional unity dependent on the denominator; his value is determined by his relation to the whole, which is the social body. He who in the civil order wants to preserve the primacy of the sentiments of nature does not know what he wants. Always in contradiction with himself, always floating between his inclinations and his duties, he will never be either man or citizen. He will be good neither for himself nor for others. He will be one of these men of our days: a Frenchman, an Englishman, a bourgeois…
Perhaps the finest restatement of the contrast between the ‘good man’ and ‘good citizen’ in modern philosophy.
… it is not for having been honored by the approbation of a few Wise men, that I should expect the approbation of the Public: Thus I have chosen my side; I do not care whether I please Wits or the Fashionable. There will always be men destined to be subjugated by the opinions of their century, their Country, their Society. Some men today act the part of the Freethinker and the Philosopher, who, for the same reason, would have been but fanatics at the time of the League. One ought not to write for such Readers when one wants to be beyond one’s century.
Preface to the First Political Discourse, 1750.
Is Rousseau criticizing the moderns for returning to the cave? And what are the personal motives of those who do so?
How sweet it would be to live among us if the outward countenance were always the image of the heart’s disposition; if decency were virtue; if our maxims were our rules; if genuine Philosophy were inseparable from the title of Philosopher! But so many qualities seldom go together, and virtue hardly goes forth with so much pomp.
First Political Discourse, Sec. 11
Nice allusion to Plato’s claim that when it comes to the good, we want the real thing, while when it comes to social relations, we accept that people often have ulterior motives. The remark also seems a subtle critique of Anglo-Saxon political thought.
…. What are we to think of that crowd of Popularizers who have removed the difficulties which guarded the Temple of the Muses, and which nature had placed there are a trial of the strength of those who might be tempted to know? What are we to think of those Anthologizers of works which have indiscreetly broken down the gate of the Sciences and introduced into their Sanctuary a populace unworthy of coming near it, whereas what would have been desirable is to have had all those who could not go far in a career in Letters deterred from the outset, and become involved in Arts useful to society?
First Political Discourse, Sec. 59Is this another allusion to the moderns, taking a stance against returning to the cave? Who does he have in mind in speaking of those who “could not go far in a career in Letters”?
As for ourselves vulgar men, to whom Heaven has not vouchsafed such great talents and whom it does not destine for so much glory, let us remain in our obscurity. Let us not run after a reputation which would escape us, and which, in the present state of things, would never return to us what it would have cost us, even if we had every title to obtain it. What good is it to seek our happiness in someone else’s opinion if we can find it within ourselves? Let us leave to others the care of instructing people in their duties, and confine ourselves to fulfilling our own duties well, we have no need of knowing more.
Who are the “vulgar men”?
First Political Discourse, Sec. 60.
O virtue, Sublime science of simple souls, are so many efforts and so much equipment really required to know you? Are not your principles engraved in all hearts, and is it not enough in order to learn your Laws to return into oneself and to listen to the voice of one’s conscience in the silence of the passions? This is genuine Philosophy, let us know how to rest content with it; and without envying the glory of those famous men who render themselves immortal in the Republic of Letters, let us try to place between them and ourselves the glorious distinction formerly seen between two great people, that the one knew how to speak well, and the other; to act well.
First Political Discourse, Sec. 61
Compare to Kant:
“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not seek or conjecture either of them as if they were veiled obscurities or extravagances beyond the horizon of my vision; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence.”
Kant, Critique of Practical Reason
The Moderns, since they allow the name of Law only for a rule prescribed to a moral being, that is to say a being that is intelligent, free, and considered in relation with other beings, restrict the province of natural Law to the only animal endowed with reason, that is to say man; but while each one of them defines this Law in his own fashion, all of them based it on such metaphysical principles that even among us there are very few people capable of understanding these principles, let alone of discovering them on their own. So that all the definitions of these Learned men, which in every other respect are in constant contradiction with one another, agree only in this that it is impossible to understand the Law of Nature and hence to obey it without being a very great reasoner and a profound Metaphysician. Which precisely means that in order to establish society men must have employed an enlightenment which develops only with much difficulty and among a very few people within society itself.
Second Political Discourse, Preface, Sec. 6.
Human society viewed with a calm and disinterested gaze seems at first to exhibit only the violence of the powerful and the oppression of the weak; the mind rebels at the harshness of the first; one is inclined to deplore the blindness of the others, and since nothing is less stable among men that those external relationships that are more often the product of chance than of wisdom and that are called weakness, power and wealth or poverty, human establishments seem at first glance to be founded on piles of Quicksand. It is only by examining them closely, only after setting aside the dust and sand that surround their Edifice, that one perceives the unshakable base on which it is raised, and learns to respect it foundations. Now without the serious study of man and his natural faculties, and of their successive developments, one will never succeed in drawing these distinctions and in separating what, in the present constitution of things divine will has done from what human art has pretended to do. The Political and Moral investigations occasioned by the important question I am examining are therefore in every way useful, and the hypothetical history of governments is in all respects an instructive lesson for man. By considering what we would have become, abandoned to ourselves, we must learn to bless him whose beneficient hand, correcting our institutions that would have resulted from them, and caused our happiness to be born from the very means that seemed bound to complete our misery. Learn what the god ordered you to do. And what your place is in the human world.
Second Political Discourse, Preface, Section 12.
It makes no sense to ask what the source of Natural inequality is, because the answer would be given by the simple definition of the word. Still less does it make sense to inquire whether there might not e some essential connection between the two inequalities, for that would be to ask in different terms whether those who command are necessarily better than those who obey, and whether strength of Body or of Mind, wisdom or virtue, are always found in the same individuals, in proportion to their Power or their Wealth. A question which it may perhaps be good for Slaves to debate within hearing of their Masters, but not befitting rational and free Men who seek the truth.
Second Political Discourse, Sec. 3
I see in any animal nothing but an ingenious machine to which nature has given senses in order to wind itself up and, to a point, protect itself against everything that tends to destroy or to disturb it. I perceive precisely the same thing in the human machine, with this difference that Nature alone does everything in the operations of the Beast, whereas man contributes to his operations in his capacity as a free agent. The one chooses or rejects by instinct, the other by an act of freedom: as a result the Beast cannot deviate from the Rule prescribes to it even when it would be to its advantage to do so, while man often deviates from it to his detriment. Thus a Pigeon would starve to death next to a Bowl filled with the choicest meats and a Cat atop heaps of fruits or of grain, although each could very well have found nourishment in the food it disdains if it had occurred to it to try some; thus dissolute men abandon themselves to excesses which bring them fever and death; because the Mind depraves the senses; and the will continues to speak when Nature is silent.
Second Political Discourse, Part I, Sec. 15
It is not so much… the understanding that constitutes the specific difference between man and the other animals, as it is his property of being a free agent. Nature commands every animal, and the Beast obeys. Man experiences the same impressions, but he recognizes himself free to acquiesce or to resist; and it is mainly in the consciousness of this freedom that the spirituality of his soul exhibits itself: for Physics in a way explains the mechanism of the senses and the formation of idea; but in the power of willing, or rather of choosing, and in the sentiment of this power, are found purely spiritual acts about which nothing is explained by the Laws of Mechanics.
Second Political Discourse, Sec. 16
Why is man alone liable to become imbecile? Is it not that he thus returns to his primitive state and that, whereas the Beast, which has acquired nothing and also has nothing to lose, always keeps its instinct, man again losing through old age or other accidents all that his perfectibility had made him acquire, thus relapses lower than the Beast itself? It would be sad for us to be forced to agree that this distinctive and almost unlimited faculty, is the source of all of man’s miseries; that is it the faulty which, by dint of time, draws him out of that original condition in which he would spend tranquil and innocent days; that is it the faculty which over the centuries, abusing his enlightenment and his errors, his vices and his virtues to bloom, eventually makes him his own and Nature’s tyrant.
Second Political Discourse, Sec. 17
Regardless of what the moralists may say about it, the human understanding owes much to the Passions, which as is commonly admitted, also owe much to it. It is by their activity that our reason perfects itself; We seek to know only because we desire to enjoy, and it is not possible to conceive why someone who had neither desires nor fears would take the trouble to reason. The Passions, in turn, owe their origin to our needs, and their progress to our knowledge; for one can only desire or fear thing in terms of the ideas one can have of them, or by the simple impulsion of Nature…
Second Political Discourse, Sec. 19
General ideas can enter the Mind only with the help of words, and the understanding that grasp them only by means of propositions. That is one of the reasons why animals could not form such ideas, nor ever acquire the perfectibility that depends on them. … Every general idea is purely intellectual; if the imagination is at all involved, the idea immediately becomes particular. Try to outline the image of a tree in general to yourself, you will never succeed; in site of yourself it will have to be seen as small or large, bare or leafy, light or dark, and if you could see in it only what there is in every tree, the image would not longer resemble a tree. Purely abstract beings are either seen in this same way, or conceived of only by means of discourse. Only the definition of a triangle gives you the genuine idea of it: As soon as you figure one inf your mind, it is a given Triangle and not another, and you cannot help making its lines perceptible or its surface colored. Hence one has to state propositions, hence one has to speak in order to have general ideas: for as soon as the imagination stops, the mind can proceed only be means of discourse. If, then, the first Inventors could give names only to the idea they had already had, it follows that the first substantives (nouns) could never have been anything but proper names.
Second Political Discourse, Sec. 30
Above all, let us not conclude with Hobbes that because he has no idea of goodness man is naturally wicked, that he is vicious because he does not know virtue, that he always refuses to those of his kind services which he does not believe he owes them, or that by virtue of the right which he reasonably claims to the things he needs, he insanely imagines himself to be the sole owner of the entire Universe. Hobbes very clearly saw the defect of all modern definitions of Natural right: but the conclusion he draws from his own definitions show that he understands it in a sense that is no less false. By reasoning on the basis of the principles he establishes, this Author should have said that, since the state of Nature is the state in which the care for our own preservation is least prejudicial to the self-preservation of others, it follows that this state was the most conducive to Peace and the best suited to Mankind. He says precisely the contrary because he improperly included in Savage Man’s care for his preservation the need to satisfy a multitude of passion that are the product of society and have made laws necessary.
Second Political Discourse, Sec. 35
It is reason that engenders amour proper, and reflection that reinforce it; reason that turns man back upon himself; reason that separates him from everything that troubles and afflicts him: It is Philosophy that isolates him; by means of Philosophy he secretly says, at the sight of suffering man, perish if you wish, I am safe. Only dangers that threaten the entire society still disturb the Philosopher’s tranquil slumber, and rouse him from his bed.
Second Political Discourse, Sec. 37