Rousseau and the Counter-Enlightenment: An Introduction

The history of philosophy contains few errors as specious as the assumption that because an individual (or a group of them) existed during a particular period of time, they are representative of the dominant trends of that time. This is no less true (and perhaps even more true) for an era as rooted at the base of Western intellectual culture as the Enlightenment, and for a philosopher as well-known as Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau demonstrates through the nature of his writings, not to mention through his own admissions in those writings, that while he was contemporary to the Enlightenment, he was actually an avid opponent of it.

Drawing this distinction necessitates not only a solid understanding of Rousseau’s ideology, but also that of the Enlightenment as whole. Outlining what constitutes as “Enlightenment values” is, nonetheless, an arduous and controversial task. The time period in which the Enlightenment occurred extends across two centuries and is filled with numerous thinkers, writers, and other intellectuals – some noteworthy and some not, some building upon the Enlightenment and others detracting from it. The unavoidable result of the sheer mass of intellectual works created during this era is that pinpointing any set of principles and declaring them to be representative of the entire Enlightenment will undoubtedly be met with some level of contention. However, some definitive characteristics are more agreed upon than others, so let it suffice for the time being to adopt some of the least challenged of these values from which a proper comparison can be drawn. Epistemologically, these principles include a belief in the efficacy of reason and scientific inquiry; politically, they include secularism and individualism. This essentialized understanding of the Enlightenment, simplistic though it is, encapsulates some of the most basic features of the Enlightenment, and should serve as an adequate ideological standard for initial measurements of Rousseau’s participation in or dissent from the this movement.[1]

From the outset of his notoriety, Rousseau’s opposition to the Enlightenment was clearly manifest. Rousseau’s First Discourse, which he credits for having made him famous by winning an essay contest from the Academy of Dijon on the question of whether “the restoration of the sciences and arts tended to purify morals,” begins with a quote from Ovid as its epigraph.[2] The quote, which reads, “Here I am a barbarian, because I am not understood by them,”[3] exemplifies Rousseau’s recognition of the intellectual tendencies of his time and that his personal philosophic dispositions place him squarely opposite these tendencies. Further, he prefaces his essay with the admission that he is “[r]unning counter to everything that men admire” in his day.[4]

As honest as these self-evaluations are, the willingness of modern academics to persistently include Rousseau as a characteristic Enlightenment thinker requires us to demonstrate them conclusively, and perhaps the best example lies in the central argument of Rousseau’s First Discourse: “… our souls have been corrupted in proportion to the advancement of our sciences and arts toward perfection.”[5] In Rousseau’s time, but a minute few would argue that the revitalization and advancement of scientific thought in Europe, beginning in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries with the rediscovery of Aristotelian thought and the principles of regularity and causality in nature,[6] was a corrupting force. For Rousseau, the vices of the arts and sciences – uselessness and the facilitation of idleness and malice – were obvious. Deriding the achievements of men like Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon, Rousseau implores such thinkers to reexamine the importance of their studies and conclusions, as they have produced “so little that is useful.”[7]

Rousseau’s indictment of the general usefulness of science, art, and philosophy are fundamentally derived from his ethical premises of altruism, which in turn rest on a metaphysical view of man as an instinctually and emotionally driven being that is insignificant to the species as a whole. According to his Second Discourse, written to discern the origin and moral status of inequality among men, the source of all man’s woes (and the quality which most distinguishes man from animals) is his faculty of self-perfection – his ability to contradict his nature by becoming more than he supposedly is in the state of nature.[8] When man lives in the state of nature, “all his needs are satisfied” by the “natural fertility” of the earth, nature acts in the same manner as the law of Sparta (the ancient society Rousseau most admires[9]) by strengthening those best suited for survival and causing all the rest to perish, and man is “robust, agile, and courageous” to an extent impossible to achieve in civil society.[10] Rousseau finds even the simplest of human inventions – clothing and shelter, for example – to be “hardly necessary, since he [man] had done without them until then.”[11] Further, Rousseau charges these conveniences with weakening man, physically and mentally, and as man becomes more accustomed to these conveniences, man becomes “unhappy about losing them without being happy about possessing them.”[12] Thus, through the faculty of self-perfection, man desires further ease and further weakens himself by seeking it. Only when man performs those tasks that can be accomplished by a single individual without the aid or cooperative efforts of others, Rousseau claims, do men live “as free, healthy, good and happy as they could in accordance with their nature.”[13]

Man leaves this harmonious state of “poverty and ignorance” (in which Rousseau claims that the tribal societies of Africa and America exist[14]) and establishes civil society the moment he invents the idea of property[15] “because property is the true foundation of civil society.”[16] According to Rousseau’s argument, laying hold of property necessarily takes “in excess…from the common subsistence,” beyond what one needs to survive, excluding others from what one has declared his own.[17] To Rousseau, this is evil in and of itself, as it interferes with man’s fundamental ethic: pity, that which he considers the natural feeling that subjects the love of oneself to the needs of another “to the mutual preservation of the entire species.”[18] Rousseau states that from the establishment of property comes idleness and vanity,[19] which leads to the pursuit of luxury and of the sciences and arts that produce it.[20] Rousseau credits this “zeal for raising the relative level” of one’s fortune, derived from vanity rather than real need, as the cause of a “wicked tendency to harm one another.”[21] Thus, quite apart from the value the Enlightenment places upon scientific study, Rousseau considers such study useless insofar as it gives man more than necessary for him to subsist in the state of nature, enfeebling as it weakens the constitution that man would otherwise have in the state of nature, and vicious in that the differing standards of living it produces based upon talents (i.e. inequality in ability not found in the state of nature where such talents were unnecessary[22]) leads to development of preference, then to vanity, and then to the desire in men to cause each other harm for their own advancement.

If not already apparent, Rousseau exhibits the same distaste for reason and knowledge in general as he does for the sciences. Supposedly born from the same idleness and vanity as the sciences to no greater use, the employment of reason towards intellectual pursuits is just as disdainful from the perspective of Rousseau as are the sciences. But here there arises a minor difficulty: Rousseau appeals to reason (e.g. “… from frivolous sciences there would come a pack of prejudices equally contrary to reason, happiness and virtue”[23]). This, however, is far more easily attributed to Rousseau’s recognition of his audience (other intellectuals during the Enlightenment) and of the necessity of using reason to convince that audience, even in arguing about what he considers to be the destructive nature of reason.[24]

As reason, human knowledge, and enlightenment progress, Rousseau believes that so too do the industries which lead to idleness, vanity, and so on.[25] In the state of nature, Rousseau argues that man possesses “in instinct” all he needs to live; “in a cultivated reason, he has only what he needs to live in society.”[26] In mocking figures like the mythical Prometheus who brought knowledge of fire to mankind,[27] and in commending figures like Socrates who preached the value of ignorance,[28] Rousseau makes clear his aversion to reason, going so far as to suggest that the factors which perfect human reason and consequently bring man out of the state of nature also lead to the deterioration of the species.[29]

From that last point, Rousseau’s stance on the final Enlightenment value of concern in this essay introduces itself. Rousseau’s arguments are not rooted in individualism as is the Enlightenment itself, but are instead rooted in the belief that the good of the species (i.e. all of mankind) is superior to that of the individual. Of course, appeals to the “common good” throughout the Enlightenment were far from uncommon, but Rousseau distinguishes himself from the rest in the degree to which he extends this premise. Predating Marx’s notion of the species-being by almost a century, Rousseau suggests that citizens should be “influenced rather early to regard their individuality only in its relation to the body of the state and to be aware, so to speak, of their own existence merely as a part of the entire state, [so that] they might finally come to identify themselves in some way with this greater whole”[30]  (Marx even quotes Rousseau to make his corresponding point about the species-being[31]). Rousseau continues by arguing that “the reason of each man is not left to be the sole arbiter of his duties,” that the state should provide public education in a manner such that “the state remains, and the family dissolves,” and that children should be “imbued with the laws of the state and the maxims of the general will… taught to respect these above all things.”[32]

Based on his antagonism to the dominant and perhaps least contentious values of the Enlightenment, this initial examination of Jean-Jacques Rousseau suggests that he ought not to be considered an Enlightenment philosopher. Rather, his philosophic conclusions suggest that he would be more properly categorized, as a resilient strain of anti-Enlightenment thought, bridging the gap from the Middle Ages to the revival of collectivist political philosophies of the nineteenth century in the form of Hegel and Marx. Though further study and argument are required to conclude this definitively, Rousseau’s prayer from his First Discourse is a strong indication that further inquiry will substantiate the assertion that Rousseau, though contemporary to the Enlightenment, was external to it:

“Almighty God, thou who holds all spirits in thy hands, deliver us from the enlightenment and fatal arts of our forefathers, and give back to us ignorance, innocence, and poverty, the only goods that can give us happiness and are precious in thy sight.”[33]


[1]. Surely, there are several other values which could reasonably be included on this list (e.g. natural moral law, natural rights, republican liberty and equality, etc.), and while Rousseau’s stance on said values ought not be overlooked, these would require a deeper level of explanation in justifying that they are “Enlightenment values,” as opposed to merely popular trends occurring during the Enlightenment, than is appropriate for the context at hand. Further, they are not necessary for this initial evaluation.
[2]. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The First and Second Discourses, trans. Judith R. Masters and Roger D. Masters (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1964), 30-31.
[3]. “Barbarus hic ego sum quia non itelligor illis.”
[4]. Rousseau, The First and Second Discourses, 31.
[5]. Ibid., 39.
[6]. Joel Kaye, Economy and Nature in the Fourteenth Century: Money, Market Exchange, and the Emergence of Scientific Thought (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 226.
[7]. Rousseau, The First and Second Discourses, 49-50.
[8]. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, trans. Donald A. Cress (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1992), 25-26.
[9]. Rousseau, The First and Second Discourses, 43.
[10]. Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, 19-20.
[11]. Ibid., 24.
[10]. Ibid., 48.
[13]. Ibid., 51.
[14]. Rousseau, The First and Second Discourses, 42.
[15]. Ibid., 44.
[16]. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Political Economy [abridged],” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project, trans. Stephen J. Gendzier (Ann Arbor: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library, 2009), http://hdlhandle.net/2027/spo.did2222.0000.121 (accessed January 21, 2013), par. 14.
[17]. Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, 55-56.
[18]. Ibid., 38.
[19]. Ibid., 48-49.
[20]. Rousseau, The First and Second Discourses, 50.
[21]. Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, 54.
[22]. Ibid., 53.
[23]. Ibid., 68.
[24] The same can be said of his frequent, though often false, appeals to the sciences in support of his own claims or in the scientific manner in which he analyzes various aspects of music, like tone, in Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopedia. Though he is employing science to make his point, it does not alter the intent of his argument, that is, to demonstrate the general harm posed by science.
[25]. Ibid., 47.
[26]. Ibid., 35.
[27]. Rousseau, The First and Second Discourses, 47-48.
[28]. Ibid., 44.
[29]. Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, 43.
[30]. Rousseau, “Political Economy [abridged],” par. 11.
[31]. Karl Marx, “On the Jewish Question,” The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1978), 46.
[32]. Rousseau, “Political Economy [abridged],” par. 12.
[33]. Rousseau, The First and Second Discourses, 62.

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