Art and Science: Rousseau’s Discourses and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man

Art and Science: Rousseau’s Discourses and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man

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In his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau addresses a possibility seldom discussed by neither his predecessors nor contemporaries; the idea that the arts and sciences have corrupted man. Prior to the introduction of the arts and sciences, man, in the State of Nature, was natural and easily identifiable. While human nature was still flawed, as has always been the case, there was a degree of security in knowing that a person’s character could be immediately seen and interpreted. Now, as a result of the influence of the arts, there exists a set of rules and behaviors, which serve only to deceive others from knowing a person’s true nature. As a result of this, society, which Rousseau refers to as a herd, are now bound by conformity to act similarly in certain situations.
Societal conformity, rather than change the hearts of men, serves only to conceal the true intentions of individuals. Without such authenticity, the vices of betrayal, fear and blasphemy, rather than appear at face value, remain hidden, yet ever present. Acting under the camouflage of honest sincerity, perpetrated by conformity, vices effectively constrained morality to the point where a person’s actions and feelings are no longer one in the same. Rousseau has been so convinced of this correlation between advancement and depravity that he feels the corruption of humanity to be in direct proportion to its advancements of the arts and sciences. This bold claim, supported by the examples set by the fall of great empires such as Egypt, Greece, and Rome, reveals a curious tendency for great powers to succumb to debauchery and immorality.
Having thoroughly explained his belief that the arts and sciences led to corruption, and, subseq...


... middle of paper ...


...e wished to conform to really was. An answer to this conformity is found in the democratic principles of individuality, solidarity, and hope, which the narrator comes to understand and accept by the end of the novel. While the means to breaking free of conformity do exist, the act of doing so is incredibly difficult, and is wrought with challenges and obstacles. In spite of this, however, by choosing to break free of the conformity established by the arts and sciences, which have led to the degradation of morality and virtue, one gains access to the most useful knowledge of humanity, knowledge of one’s self.



Works Cited

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. "First Discourse." The First and Second Discourses. New York: St. Martin's, 1964. 37-38. Print.


Ellison, Ralph. "Chapter Thirteen." Invisible Man. New York: Vintage International, 1995. 263-67. Print.


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