Jean-Jacques Rousseau — The Most Important Figure in the History of Philosophy

Portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1766), painted by Allan Ramsay

“The ancient republics of Greece, with that wisdom which was so conspicuous in most of their institutions, forbade their citizens to pursue all those inactive and sedentary occupations, which by enervating and corrupting the body diminish also the vigour of the mind. With what courage, in fact, can it be thought that hunger and thirst, fatigues, dangers and death, can be faced by men whom the smallest want overwhelms and the slightest difficulty repels?” -Jean-Jacques Rousseau, from the ‘’Discourse on the Arts and Sciences’ (1750)

The history of Western philosophy is dominated by convoluted abstractions and thinkers detached from the realities around them. Intellect offers great insights to possessors of it, but also comes with blind spots. These blind spots are more easily identified when the thinker is a professional intellectual whose hands are not occupied by a craft or who lack experience in some trade. The history of career philosophers — those library rats and expatiators of esoteric ‘truths’ — is one of decreasing value since the emergence of academic philosophy as distinct from theology (equally remote). This occurred in the Age of Enlightenment — perhaps the best example of an academic philosopher was Immanuel Kant — an icon of the intellectual with his head in the clouds whose sense of real adventure was so limited that he reportedly never left the area in and around the city of Königsberg. The history of the Age of Enlightenment is one in which philosophy came into its own with the rise of the public intellectual — the figure who was not so remote as to remain cloistered in some monastery or secluded in a lecture hall writing tomes that few would ever read. The figure of the public intellectual, and the public sphere, — which first emerged with Erasmus and the Renaissance Humanists after the development of the printing press — really matured in the eighteenth century.

I wrote an article detailing the emergence of Enlightenment and its relations (partly as a reaction) to the violence of the seventeenth century. In short, the Age of Enlightenment was a via negativa — a veritable Enlightened Age in relation to the preceding century of violence — the Thirty Years War on the Continent, the English Civil War, and the decades-long struggle for Dutch independence. The result of all of this struggle — over eight million casualties in the Thirty Years’ War, widespread destruction, diplomats being compelled (after decades of fighting) that toleration is a practical necessity with regard to freedom of religion, and new ideas about the nature of government from a string of thinkers — Hobbes, Locke, Grotius, Voltaire, and — ultimately the Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778).

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the most important philosopher in history, a beacon of the best — and not so good — elements of humanity, deeply flawed but brilliant, a restless genius who reached for the stars — his political theory — a moral analysis of the nature of moral government — was problematic but also wonderfully insightful. His views were misunderstood, aped, and bastardized by the Jacobins while his human shortcomings were used by his detractors to marginalize his entire life’s work. Rousseau’s Discourse on the Arts and Sciences still stands as a brilliant and nuanced exploration of the link between cultural progress and moral decadence. He grounded his views of the world in his own experiences and built up from there. He avoided what Nassim Taleb calls ‘Platonicity’ — mistaking the map for the territory, giving too much credence to abstract models and not enough to experience. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was, indeed, the most antifragile philosopher in history (with the possible exception of some of the Roman Stoics). He clearly understood this while delineating his views on education in Emile.

“Man is born to suffer; pain is the means of his preservation. His childhood is happy, knowing only pain of body. These bodily sufferings are much less cruel, much less painful, than other forms of suffering, and they rarely lead to self-destruction. It is not the twinges of gout which make a man kill himself, it is mental suffering that leads to despair. We pity the sufferings of childhood; we should pity ourselves; our worst sorrows are of our own making.” -Jean-Jacques Rousseau, from ‘Emile’ (1762)

Rousseau’s ideas do have an anti-civilization bend to them — when the civilization becomes to decadent. He was critical of the effete French society in Paris and looked fondly to his native Geneva (then an independent republic) — though this was not mutual. The leaders of Geneva hated his Social Contract, for example. Decadent cities like Paris fared poorly in Rousseau’s understanding of the antifragile nature of humanity:

“Cities are the abyss of the human species.” -Jean-Jacques Rousseau, from ‘Emile’ (1762)

One cannot deny the massive benefits of the Industrial Revolution and civilization more generally. Indeed, going down this line of thinking, one can see it developing into the Green Anarchism of contemporary philosopher John Zerzan — here Zerzan focus specifically on the corrupting nature of symbols, particularly language:

“The process of transforming all direct experience into the supreme symbolic expression, language, monopolizes life. Like ideology, language conceals and justifies, compelling us to suspend our doubts about its claim to validity. It is the root of civilization, the dynamic code of civilization’s alienated nature. As the paradigm of ideology, language stands behind all of the massive legitimation necessary to hold civilization together. It remains for us to clarify what forms of nascent domination engendered this justification, made language necessary as basic means of repression” -John Zerzan ‘Elements of Refusal’ (1988)

To an extent, at least, on this last point. Ancient Athens lost its edge when it became a decadent city dominated by an effete literati. The Roman Republic declined with the rise of private opulence and public squalor. Heian Japan saw the decline and fall of the court aristocracy as they were too absorbed in Hollywood-style interest in intrigue and superficiality while the more practical samurai gained power in the countryside. The French Enlightenment was a period of potential and turmoil coinciding with decadence, decline, war, and debt. Paris was a major cultural center where artifice reigned supreme. Voltaire — prince of the philosophes (French philosophers) was a political ideologue with a rather strong narcissistic personality — he wrote triumphalist ‘histories’ and heavily edited the will of radical priest Jean Meslier in order to make himself, and not Meslier, the great avant garde thinker.

“Voltaire possessed the manuscript for more than 25 years before deciding to publish it anonymously in 1761 in Switzerland, in the form of extracts. In total he only published ten per cent of the original text, removing the materialistic and revolutionary chapters and retaining only the deconstruction of Christianity. In addition, he changed the end of Meslier’s will, pretending the priest was a deist like himself.” -Morgane Guinard

Rousseau was a bit of a nut — lashing out at friends like Hume — but he was probably the most authentic intellectual to ever walk the Earth. His body of works constitute a warts-and-all picture of a flawed man whose greatest ideas were not always fleshed out with the idea that they would be perfectly feasible. In this sense, one can view Rousseau rather like Leonardo da Vinci. Just as Leonardo spent years working on all sorts of machines (notably flying machines), and most did not work. So too, did Rousseau spend his life developing brilliant ideas, grounded in practical observations, which did not pan out. Rousseau presents us moderns with an account based in honest introspection whereas Voltaire presents us with dishonest artifice (admittedly, with a good style of writing). While Voltaire was innovative in some of his writings and forward-thinking in arguing for toleration, he was an ardent monarchist who thought of the common people as ‘the rabble.’ He was very much in favor of top-down, Enlightened monarchy.

Rousseau’s politics are harder to grasp. In his Discourse on Inequality (1755), Rousseau unintentionally laid the groundwork for his most famous political work — The Social Contract (1762). Rousseau delineated the negative aspects which developed out of early civilized society in a hypothetical state of nature grounded in his own experience of humanity and working backwards. Rousseau focused on the corrupting nature of civilizations. His work stands as a monument to the Enlightenment at its most self-critical — a necessary antidote to those high and mighty thinkers who see their own works as lights in the path to progress. Rousseau had taken up the task of exploring the link between cultural progress and moral decadence in an earlier essay — the Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (1750).

Rousseau was chiefly concerned with the nature of inequality in his discourse of 1755. He argued that natural inequalities in the state of nature are quite small and relatively insignificant. The problem with advanced civilizations is that they magnify these inequalities to such absurd extents. He also mentions the negative health implications of modern societies. These points are significant because the antifragile nature of humanity is a biological, psychological, anthropological, and historical reality. Utopias are impossible — they are to politics what perpetual motion is to mechanics — complex, interesting, but staggeringly useless and futile attempts to achieve the impossible. Just as perpetual motion machines cannot be realized because they violate one or more basic laws of physics, so too utopias fail because they do not consider basic elements of human nature. Fyodor Dostoevsky detailed this quite brilliantly in his Notes From Underground:

“Shower him with all earthly blessings, immerse him so completely in happiness that bubbles dance on the surface of his happiness, as though on water; grant him such economic prosperity that he will have absolutely nothing else to do but sleep, eat gingerbread, and concern himself with the continuance of world history — and that man, out of sheer ingratitude, out of sheer devilment, will even then do the dirty on you. He will even put his gingerbread at risk and deliberately set his heart on the most pernicious trash, the most uneconomical nonsense solely in order to alloy all this positive good sense with his pernicious, fantastic element.” — Fyodor Dostoevsky

Rousseau did not detail the negative elements of human nature to the same degree as Dostoevsky, or Hobbes (the political thinker Rousseau is often contrasted with) and his outlook contains notable flaws because of this. However, his perspective is just as valuable centuries later because it highlights essential elements of the human condition as they relate to society, culture, politics, autobiography, education, and even anthropology.

The Age of Enlightenment was an age of intellectual giants, an age which gave birth to the practical Industrial Revolution, saw the publication of one of the most important books of general knowledge in history (Diderot’s Encyclopedia), and paved the way for the modern world. The intellectuals of the Enlightenment were not so much beacons of light along the path to modernity as insightful figures in a battered world they had inherited from the previous centuries of religious warfare. Practicality, grounded in the scars of the past, coupled with the development of early empiricism played a much bigger role. The Anglo-American Enlightenment shone brighter than that of the French. The French salon scene brought together interesting individuals but offered little practicality beyond Diderot and Rousseau. Voltaire was a great novelist but a pretty lousy public thinker beyond his advocacy for toleration. Interesting to think that the greatest philosopher of the French Enlightenment was not French — Jean-Jacques Rousseau proudly called himself ‘citizen of Geneva,’ the city of his birth and still considered him home.

Rousseau understood the value of simple living, the value of experience-based education (as opposed to learning by rote or through only books), the antifragile nature of humanity, and critiqued what one can call a dirty bourgeois existence of those wish to insulate themselves from reality. Entrepreneurship is a noble endeavor, as is a working class existence. What is less noble, however, is being a member of that superficial and inchoate mess of people between the two (who often have nothing but contempt for the two). I know not what Rousseau would have thought about the entrepreneurial spirit (though the temperament is the same as that of artists, psychologically speaking) — he was critical of inequality (how minor differences between people could be magnified in societies to such extreme degrees). What is needed is both a separation of political and moral perspectives as well as a way to reconcile the ingenuity of human endeavor (grounded in antifragility) and an experienced vision which cherishes the simple pleasures and aesthetic appreciation associated with Wabi-Sabi.

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