Essays On Rousseau

Rousseau is referring here, in melodramatic fashion, to the fact that the essay he wrote for the competition set him on a course that ran against the grain of the Enlightenment and provoked, so he believed, the philosophes to engage in a relentless conspiracy against him.

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I don't have time in this chapter to explore the full complexities of the Enlightenment as a prelude to measuring Rousseau's reaction against it.

Nor do I have the space to examine Rousseau's entire oeuvre -- most of which would be relevant to the task in hand.

' He claims that 'At the moment of that reading I saw another universe and I became another man' (Rousseau 1798: 294).

Rousseau tells us that Diderot 'exhorted me to give vent to my ideas and to compete for the prize. All the rest of my life and misfortunes was the inevitable effect of that instant of aberration' (Rousseau 1798: 295).

Instead, I will begin by sketching out the defining assumptions of the on the supposition that the massive project undertaken by Denis Diderot (1713-1784) and Jean le Rond d'Alembert (1717-1783) can be taken to epitomise the French Enlightenment.

I will then focus on Rousseau's 'First Discourse' -- the (published in January 1751) -- and on his polemical contributions to the critical controversy that the First Discourse provoked in the following three years., then, was premised on the supposition that knowledge of the sciences, the arts, and the crafts was compatible with, and indeed led to, virtue and happiness, and that such knowledge ought to be disseminated as widely as possible to 'the men with whom we live'.The assumption that education would enable future generations to become more virtuous and happier entailed a further assumption about the possibility of human progress and perfectibility -- an assumption that Kramnick calls 'a leitmotiv of the Enlightenment' (Kramnick 1995: xiii).In the Second Discourse, as Cranston points out, 'Rousseau outlined a theory of the evolution of the human race which prefigured the discoveries of Darwin; he revolutionized the study of anthropology and linguistics, and he made a seminal contribution to political and social thought' (Cranston 1984: 29).It is possible, then, to see Rousseau as both a key voice in the dialogue that was the Enlightenment and as a figure who entered into one of the most searching critical dialogues with the Enlightenment.Rousseau scholars have been strangely reluctant to consider his relationship to the Enlightenment (Hulliung 1994: 2), and some of the most influential twentieth century formulations of the Enlightenment clearly had difficulty with Rousseau.Isaiah Berlin's anthology (Gay 19) homogenises the philosophes as a single, admittedly quarrelsome, family and represents their 'persecution' of Rousseau as simply an extreme family quarrel; as a consequence, Gay fails to register the radical challenge that Rousseau's writings posed for the French Enlightenment (Gay 1967: 4-7).For Diderot, human progress would be promoted through an unflinching rational analysis of the cherished ideas and authorities of the past: All things must be examined, debated, investigated without exception and without regard to anyone's feelings. We must ride roughshod over all these ancient puerilities, overturn the barriers that reason never erected, give back to the arts and sciences the liberty that is so precious to them. We have for quite some time needed a reasoning age when men would no longer seek the rules in classical authors but in nature (in Kramnick 1995: 18). In it, d'Alembert celebrates the achievements of Francis Bacon (1561-1626), René Descartes (1596-1650), Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and John Locke (1632-1704) as the major pioneers of the Enlightenment.Although he was 'born in the depths of dark night', Bacon's insistence on 'the necessity of scientific experimentation' made him the first 'to prepare the light of reason which gradually and by imperceptible degrees was to illuminate the world' (in Kramnick 1995: 8).But he also figures the arts and sciences as a means of maintaining and sweetening the political repression of despotic government: While the Government and the Laws see to the safety and the well-being of men assembled, the Sciences, Letters, and Arts, less despotic and perhaps more powerful, spread garlands of flowers over the iron chains with which they are laden, throttle in them the sentiment of that original freedom for which they seemed born, make them love their slavery, and fashion them into what is called civilized Peoples.Need raised up Thrones; the Sciences and Arts have made them strong.


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