POLITICAL THEORY – Jean-Jacques Rousseau


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 Austin regime 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

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