Jean-Jacques Rousseau has been called both the father of the French Revolution and a rascal deserving to hunted down by society (Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, p. 462). His works, controversial in his lifetime, have lost little of their ability to inspire debate in the seceding two hundred years. Although much of this debate has focused on Rousseau's political theories, his works on morality have not been exempted from the controversy. Much of the controversy surrounding his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences relates to Rousseau's self-proclaimed role of societal critic. In this Discourse, Rousseau attacks the rise of empiricism. To him, a world based on knowledge, such as the one proposed in Bacon's New Atlantis, was immoral and destructive. This view was met with much criticism and disdain. Indeed, by taking such a view, Rousseau attacked the very core of the Enlightenment.
However, the Discourse is not only a rebuttal of empiricism. It is also an intensely personal look into Rousseau. In it, Rousseau's alienation and nostalgic feelings are clearly revealed. To Rousseau, the past was idyllic: "One cannot reflect on morals, without taking delight in recalling the image of the simplicity of the first times. It is a fair shore, adorned by the hands of nature alone, towards which one forever turns one's eyes, and from which one feels oneself moving away with regret (Discourse, p. 18). Yet it was not the past itself Rousseau found attractive, but the moral society which could only flourish in the absence of the malevolence created by the arts and sciences. Such was their sinister power, that even 'savage' man was more moral than a society full of art and science (Discour...
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... emotion, Rousseau became estranged from both his contemporaries and his world.
Historically, this estrangement remains. Rousseau has been claimed by both Fidel Castro and Jean Paul Marat as a true revolutionary and damned by the radical Frankfort School for his belief in individualism. Bertrand Russell calls him the father of Romanticism; Ernst Cassirer places him side by side with Kant in the heart of the Enlightenment. Much, too, of Rousseau can be seen in the German and English Idealists. Although these claims and counter-claims concern the whole of Rousseau's work, the Discourse itself and the responses to it foreshadowed much of the confusion that was to come. Such confusion was inevitable- a true critic must be, to some extent, divorced from his world. Perhaps then, the confusion over Rousseau is but a testament to the power and insight of his criticism.
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