The Reading Room

Rousseau’s Discourse on the Arts and Sciences

Rousseau’s life was marked and marred by controversy and persecution. Though his lifestyle was somewhat sordid, as recounted in his Confessions, it was his ideas that were treated as most dangerous by his contemporary intellectual foes, leading to the condemnation and burning of his books. 
Though the best-known source of the ire towards him was his non-traditional religious ideas, such as the famed Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar from his Emile, it was his award-winning Discourse on the Arts and the Sciences, or what is called his First Discourse, that would propel him to renown. It was this discourse, further, that Rousseau claimed contained from his earliest intellectual life, at least in rough form, the root of all his ideas going forward, namely the natural goodness of man and the corrupting influence of society upon him. 
The First Discourse responds to a question posed by the Academy of Dijon on “whether the restoration of the sciences and the arts has contributed to purifying morals.” Of course, in the heyday of the Enlightenment, the Academy’s question seems designed to provoke praises of the sciences and arts, to prompt essays that explain just how and how greatly the restoration of these fields of learning have improved the human condition, both materially and, more importantly, morally. 
A signal of Rousseau’s position comes immediately at the beginning of the essay proper: He modifies the question. Where the Academy asked if the restoration of the arts and sciences has had the effect of purifying morals, seemingly expecting a “yes, of course” answer, Rousseau begins his essay as follows: “The question before me is, ‘Whether the Restoration of the arts and sciences has had the effect of purifying or corrupting morals’” (emphasis mine). Where the Academy assumed purification, Rousseau introduces the possibility of corruption, and indeed proceeds to argue that the “restoration” of the arts and sciences in what we call the Enlightenment has had the obvious and undeniable effect of corruption rather than purification, weakening the character and the bodies of men rather than strengthening them.
Rousseau’s basic claim is that new art, new science, and the products of both, which we colloquially call technology, all allow us to dissemble, to appear to be different than we are. They mask and teach us to mask our true character and intent. They further introduce conveniences and luxury to life that directly sap us of our natural strength and make us dependent on the new luxuries we come to crave. Desires we never previously had now must be satisfied for us to feel content or happy. 
In suggesting that technology provides us easy methods of putting up good appearances that hide our true character, Rousseau is plainly correct, and helpfully anticipates many conversations we are still working through today about appearances in the digital age. But he is also speaking into a much older conversation. The distinction between “seeming” and “being” lies at the heart of Plato’s project, for example, and makes up a significant portion of Socrates’ argument in his Apology. Socrates asks his jury not to judge him based on the beauty of his words, but on their truth, not to pass judgment on his own appearance or the appearance of persuasiveness in clever arguments, but rather on the fact of the matter, to aim at truth and justice. 
But what is reality when it is everywhere masked by the ornamentation of the arts and sciences? What sorts of people do we create when we teach them to value external appearances more than internal character? “Art,” Rousseau says, has “moulded our behaviour,” has “reduced the art of pleasing to a system” such that in casual conversation and social life we put on a face to please and perhaps deceive. This means that “we never know with whom we have to deal,” for the person in front of us is never truly as they appear to be.
We can further see the “evil origin” of the arts and the sciences “reproduced in their objects,” Rousseau argues. The arts serve the luxurious; jurisprudence exists because of injustice, and history concerns itself primarily with the sordid aspects of history such as wars and assassinations. We might port Rousseau’s insights into the present by arguing that the science that produced nuclear power also produced the atom bomb, or that our shapely and shiny Apple products rely on the physically and mentally degrading work of those overseas, far from our sympathetic eye. Our developments and advancements make things appear quite sane and sanitary, but the surface appearances might mask something quite terrible. 
Luxurious living produces an enervated human being, Rousseau argues, sapped of the strength that he would develop outside of this life in society. Mankind thus actually degrades though he appears to progress. “Modern warriors who are so scientifically trained,” Rousseau says, are rendered useless by a “little sunshine or snow, or the want of a few superfluities.” Rousseau’s analogies to precarious physical strength again go back to Plato at least: in the physical education of the Guardians of the Kallipolis, Socrates tells us in the Republic, we ought to strive for a robust general education rather than a precise, machine-like training regimen that reduces men to weakness if their meals or training days are disturbed. In other words, Plato and Rousseau argue together, where nature trains men to be broad, general, and robust, the sciences and arts make machines of men, and fragile machines at that, whose works can be gummed up with the slightest inconvenience. Morally and physically, then, the arts and sciences have corrupted rather than purified.
Rousseau’s First Discourse bears reading today for its perennial crankiness, its contrarian opposition to the things many people intuitively hold dear. Rousseau himself expected outcry against his essay to be great and was apparently surprised to be awarded the prize in the Academy’s essay competition. But in a world with far more advanced progress in the arts and sciences, it seems hardly a wonder that Rousseau’s skepticism found and continues to find an audience. Still today we might lament that “The question is no longer whether a man is honest, but whether he is clever,” that we praise things for their apparent veneer of beauty but not their true usefulness, that skill and craftiness are rewarded rather than virtue. As long as we continue to wrestle with the effects of progress in the arts and sciences, Rousseau’s nagging skepticism of the corrupting influence of society will continue to shock and offend, but also attract and persuade.