Savages are not evil precisely because they do not know what it is to be good.
~ Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Today's column continues my review of Dr. Benjamin Wiker's excellent and timely opus, "10 Books that Screwed up the World and 5 Others that didn't Help" (Regnery, 2008). Here, I will do a critique on the great French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) and his famous treatise, "Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men" (1755).
Interestingly, many of the worlds' great philosophers and intellectuals were atheists and crafted a quasi-autobiographical philosophy based on their own horrific childhood, life experiences and personal policy prejudices. Some of the commonalities among the leading philosophers are these: an absent, cruel or weak father, a predilection toward atheism, materialism, humanism, naturalism, but most notably, an irrational and visceral hatred of the Judeo-Christian traditions of intellectual thought.
Rousseau's early life
Take Rousseau, for example. Below is a summary of his early years that are inextricably linked to his own philosophy rooted in naturalism, humanism and sexual egalitarianism:
- He signed his Discourse, "Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Citizen of Geneva." Though he spent much of his life in France, he never felt comfortable there. Rousseau, because of his radical ideas (provoking the church, the monarchy and the state), was essentially a man without a country.
- Rousseau's mother died a few days after his birth in 1712 when he was then raised by an aunt and his erratic father, an itinerant watchmaker who only stayed with his wife two years before she died.
- A fugitive from justice, Rousseau's father fled the law, abandoning young Rousseau for good by age 10. Rousseau would tragically follow in his father's footsteps, abandoning all five of his children to the orphanage shortly after their births (a virtual death sentence at that time).
- Rousseau was socially awkward, sickly, unstable and, without the guidance of a father, bounced around from job to job. He hated work and despised even the slightest bit of authority; therefore, his education was largely autodidactic (self-taught).
- Rousseau loved romance and crafted his own perverse, sophistic version of natural law where he could take advantage of as many maidens as physically possible with his bizarre, hedonistic notions contained in his "state of nature" philosophy.
Rousseau the philosopher
In 1750, Rousseau entered a writing competition sponsored by the Academy of Dijon. His essay, which won him the first prize, was titled, "Discourse on the Sciences and Arts." The question was proposed: Has the restoration of the sciences and arts tended to purify morals? Rousseau answered "No."
Rousseau believed in the natural goodness of humanity and argued, "The more civilized we become, the more corrupt we become." While the government and laws provide for our safety, they take away our "original liberty," so that we become "happy slaves" with "delicate and refined taste," who have a "softness character and urbanity of customs" that give "the semblance of all the virtues without the possession of any."
Rousseau's second discourse, "Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men," extended his argument made in the first. The question the Academy of Dijon asked was this: "What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by natural law?"
Wiker calls Rousseau's work "a cornucopia of profound confusion." Nevertheless, in this opus we find "the seeds of Romanticism and folk-nationalism, the French Revolution and totalitarianism, Marx and Nietzsche, Freud and Darwin, modern anthropology and Margaret Mead, the sexual revolution and the dissolution of family – all marked with what is characteristically Rousseau: genius and blunder."
Following the theory proposed in the first discourse, Rousseau in the second discourse seeks to trace man's origins to a "state of nature." "The philosophers who have examined the foundations of society have all felt the necessity of going back to the state of nature, but none of them has reached it," proclaimed Rousseau. I wrote an earlier essay on Hobbes' philosophy where this state of nature theory was initially proposed.
Rousseau craftily avoids being accused of heresy by the church authorities with such well-placed disclaimers as "setting all the facts aside" and "must not be taken for historical truths, but only for hypothetical and conditional reasoning." Wiker characterizes this tactic as Rousseau bowing to "Machiavellian duplicity." That despite the historical and anthropological knowledge at the time Rousseau lived in (the mid-1700s).
This important point by Wiker on the actual technique of philosophy brings us to the following observation:
We stress this because it proves to be a pattern for many modern intellectuals. Their imaginations run away with them, and they run away with their imaginations. They fashion a utopia in the distance, either in the mists of the distant past or the sunlit slopes of the distant future. By the power of their words, they drive otherwise sane and healthy men and women to waste their own lives and countless other, sometimes to the ruination of their countries.
Rousseau wanted to throw off the boundaries of all morality, including the rule of law. "The artificial chains of society did not exist in the state of nature"; therefore, "each man there" was "free of the yoke." In Rousseau, one can see the ghoulish shadows of Marx and Hegel arising from the abyss and hear the primeval cry of the communist proletariat – "WORKERS OF THE WORLD UNITE!"
Wiker made the wise observation that "Rousseau and Marx lead in opposite directions, one back and the other forward. What for Rousseau was a sign of decay became for Marx a sign of progress." These two philosophers' views are two sides of the same coin, which when placed into the vending machine you receive the same thing: societal chaos, destruction of the family and genocide.
Wiker concludes his chapter on Rousseau with this prescient observation in the context of his place in the history of political philosophy:
As with Hobbes, we see again the power of fiction. Rousseau's account of natural man was no more real than Hobbes', but following the same pattern, once it became the accepted story of human origins, it thereby exercised the power of a self-fulfilling prophecy. In imagining Rousseau to be right, we have become what Rousseau imagined.
Rousseau, was a brilliant, self-taught philosopher whose ideas for good or evil (mostly evil) have had an indelible impact on future philosophers, intellectuals and political movements, including the American Revolution (which rejected Rousseau), the French Revolution (which embraced Rousseau in part), Darwin, Marx, Hegel, Freud, Lenin, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Mead, Jean-Paul Sartre, the Counter-Cultural Revolution, the Feminist Movement and beyond.
Once at a dinner party, Scottish novelist, historian and sometime philosopher Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), replying to one of the guests who chided Carlyle for thinking about ideas too much, had this succinct response, "There was once a man called Rousseau who wrote a book containing nothing but ideas. The second edition was bound in the skins of those who laughed at the first." Although Rousseau championed the idea of the natural goodness of humanity, in my humble opinion his books and philosophy in total have lead to the utter savageness of humanity.