Another reading of Rousseau's discourse

Discourse on the Sciences and Arts (1st Discourse) and Polemics (Collected Writings, Vol 2) - Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Roger D. Masters, Christopher Kelly, Judith R. Bush

I have now read this discourse a second time, and also having had the benefit of listening to a couple of lectures on Rousseau, and reading it in light of Immanuel Kant, I have come to understand his arguments a lot more. I do not think Rousseau is being satirical in this discourse, rather I believe that what he writes here suggests that he is being deadly serious.

The question that Rousseau raises is whether education is a dangerous element to our society and as I reread the tract I have come to understand that Rousseau was quite prescient in predicting the flaws within our social structure. We also need to remember that the problems that Rousseau was raising was not some future prediction but problems that he could see in French society at that time.

Now Kant, in his pamphlet entitled 'What is Enlightenment', says that enlightenment is being able to think for oneself without having to defer to another person's opinion to make your decision. In the example that I used previously, it is like making the decision to ask a girl out on a date and rather than simply asking her, going and asking all of your friends whether you should ask her out on a date. Now, Rousseau attacks education in that it does not teach us how to think but rather to regurgitate what has been told to us by our teachers. In fact, the problem with modern education is not that we are taught to think, but rather that there are all these people out there wanting us to pay them money so that they can teach us how to think.

The problem is that being able to think for oneself is dangerous because by being able to think for ourselves give us freedom. After I read 'What is Enlightenment' I handed it to a friend. The reason I did that is because I read the first paragraph of the tract and it so blew me away I felt like I should give it to him. The reason I did so was because he had gone to an 'insecure beta male' (a term that another of my friends uses) to ask for advice (which I believed was a really bad thing) at which point this particular guy suddenly sunk his claws into him and took control of his life. It is not the question of bad advice, it is that by going to the wrong person for advice can end up enslaving you to that person.

This is what Rousseau is on about. At the beginning of his tract 'The Social Contract' he writes 'Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains'. In this discourse he writes 'up until that time Romans had been content to practise virtue; everything was lost when they began to study it.' Here he suggests that by adhering to a code of morality you in the end become enslaved by it, but in reality this code of morality is not actually virtue, but it is virtue that is taught to us and in turn it is expected by us, and that in the end we become enslaved by it.

Christ teaches in a broad stroke 'love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength … and love your neighbour as yourself' and then humanity comes along with a large set of rules to tells us how to do that. When the Bible talks about virtue, it talks about characteristics, such as love, joy, peace, patience, while the church teaches us what it believes these things are (that is, it studies virtue). Granted, while our society tells us that we should not walk around the street naked (and Rousseau goes as far to suggest that clothes were originally developed to hide deformities, and we even see in the Bible that clothes were invented to hide our shame) to go against that norm is probably not a really good idea.

I mentioned previously that I do not believe that Rousseau is entirely correct in his examples, until you remember that it is indeed true that the Persian Empire was overthrown by a bunch of barbaric savages (and remember one of Alexander's chief tactics was to simply charge the king rather than to fight some set piece battle). We see the same thing in Vietnam and in Iraq. The might and sophistication of the American military was brought to a halt by a group of rag-tag insurgents, and it seems that that is the new tactic that is now being used against the West.