In 1750, Jean-Jacques Rousseau won the prize at the Academy of Dijon for his essay answering the set question, “Has the restoration of the arts and sciences had a purifying effect upon morals?” Rousseau’s answer, in what came to be known to posterity as the First Discourse, was a resounding, if also a prolix, No. “Our minds,” said the sage of Geneva, “have been corrupted in proportion as the arts and sciences have improved.”

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How’s that for challenging expectations? Rousseau excelled at that. Common, unenlightened people might think that the arts and sciences are beneficent because they elevate the spirit and lighten the burdens of everyday life. Rousseau, a beneficiary of centuries of human ingenuity, came to tell them that the arts and sciences are dangerous distractions from virtue, which he urged his readers to pursue with single-minded devotion. “Virtue! Sublime science of simple minds . . . . Are not your principles graven on every heart? Need we do more, to learn your laws, than examine ourselves and listen to the voice of conscience?”

In this artfully turned piece of rhetoric, Rousseau disparaged men who “know how to speak” in favor of those who “know how to act aright.” “Let men learn,” he intoned, “that nature would have preserved them from science, as a mother snatches a dangerous weapon from the hands of her child. Let them know that all the secrets she hides are so many evils from which she protects them.”

Take, for example, the art and science of printing, which Rousseau argued was a baneful invention. “The frightful disorders which printing has already caused in Europe,” he wrote in his widely disseminated essay, will convince responsible sovereigns “to banish this dreadful art form from their dominions.” But presumably not until after everyone had had the benefit of reading this bulletin by J.-J. Rousseau.

Opinions differ on whether Rousseau was being ironical. We conclude that he was not, not quite. As always with Rousseau, it is difficult to take the measure of that self-involved, exotic hothouse that was his mind. Where did brashness end and delusion begin? That he was proud of being cleverly contrarian we do not doubt. Rousseau’s earnestness, compounded with his narcissism, lent even his most extravagant pronouncements a patina of conviction if not, in the cold light of day, plausibility. Ancient Sparta, he assured us in his paean to that horrible totalitarian state, furnished “eternal proof of the vanity of science,” while Athens he indicted as a hotbed of vices, “a seat of politeness and taste,” philosophy and arts that “serve as models to every corrupt age.”

For people who will say anything, nothing you can say will matter.

How does one respond to such stunners? Stammering incredulity is a common and indeed an appropriate first response. Did Rousseau’s acquaintance David Hume have him in mind when he cautioned against the folly of trying to argue with men who were not “candid reasoners”? For people who will say anything, nothing you can say will matter.

Rousseau has had many heirs, especially on the affluent Left, where conspicuous beneficiaries of civilization congregate to disparage its advantages, especially for others. We think of Green activists jetting on their private planes to Aspen in order to fulminate against those evil people who maintain large carbon footprints. As with Rousseau himself, it is often difficult to know how to take their pronouncements. We thought of this recently when we stumbled across an essay in The New Republic called “Paleo Politics: What made prehistoric hunter-gatherers give up freedom for civilization?” When we say that the essay was written by the perennial wunderkind Jedediah Purdy—the author, most recently, of After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (“Anthropocene”? Alas, yes.)—you will not wonder at the Rousseauvian contrast between freedom, on the one hand, and civilization on the other.

In this essay, Purdy—who was homeschooled in West Virginia before undergoing the rigors of Harvard College and Yale Law School and ascending to a professorship at Duke—enthusiastically recommends the work of James C. Scott, whom he describes as an “eminent and iconoclastic political scientist.” Purdy touches on several of Scott’s books, but his focus is on his latest, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. Very deep. Whig historian that you are, Dear Reader, you probably assumed that the cultivation of grain, the domestication of animals, the invention of writing and spread of literacy, and the rule of law were liberating steps on the ladder of civilization, just as you probably think that the development of cities and the end of a nomadic existence were good things.

Against the Grain would not be the success it is, nor would Jedediah Purdy shine with his guru-like sheen, were such “condescending myths” the burden of their narrative. On the contrary, Purdy, like Scott, asks us to jettison the received story. “What if,” Purdy asks, “early civilization was not a boon to humankind but a disaster: for health and safety, for freedom, and for the natural world? [“For the natural world” is a nice, enviro-sensitive touch.] What if the first cities were, above all, vast technologies of exploitation by a small and rapacious elite?” Above all!

As Purdy points out, Scott draws on the work of “big-picture historians” (really, the picture is enormous) such as Jared Diamond to upend our usual notions about the development of civilization. The cultivation of grain was such an important historical marker not because it helped feed people but because it could be planted in easily countable, and therefore easily taxable, rows. It was the same with literacy. Really, at bottom, it was all about the state keeping track of inventories for the purpose of taxation, control, and exploitation (a favorite word). Cities, too, were vehicles of oppression. “[T]he first cities,” Purdy writes, “were not so much a great leap forward for humanity as a new mode of exploitation that enabled the world’s first leisured ruling class to live on the sweat of the world’s first peasant-serfs.” Cue an allusion to academia’s favorite nineteenth-century fabulist, Karl Marx: “Outside the walls, by contrast, a fortunate savage or barbarian might be a hunter in the morning, a herder or fisherman in the afternoon, and a bard singing tales around the fire in the evening. To enter the city meant joining the world’s first proletariat.”

Well, cities have had a bad rap since Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and builded the city of Enoch. “Big-picture” thinkers like Purdy and Scott extend the negative judgment to civilization tout court: “Once the exploitation machine called civilization was running, it was self-perpetuating.”

And of course it is not just civilization that gets a large negative sign inscribed in front of it: the denizens of the civilized world partake in the blanket condemnation as well. By contrast, “barbarians,” those foragers outside the city walls, are bathed in romance. They are “charismatic figures,” their “hierarchies were flatter and perhaps looser [“hierarchy” is a negative epithet in this world], and, compared to laborers on the grain corvée, they seem free.” Unfortunately, Purdy tells us, the “golden age of the barbarians” ended around 1600, when those rough beasts “sold out to the state” and became “slavers and mercenaries.”

Homely facts are not as thrilling as Rousseauvian daydreams.

So here we are, trapped in what Purdy calls the “infrastructure state,” saddled with the “inherited logic of our exploitation machine.” It’s not all bad news, however. Purdy ends by invoking “political projects to remake this world in gentler and more inclusive forms, so that it can house more kinds of lives.” You might have thought that the progress of civilization to date has been a huge process of mollification and that the more sophisticated and cosmopolitan a place is the more varied are its inhabitants.

But that’s merely empirical reality. Such homely facts are not as thrilling as Rousseauvian daydreams. In The Social Contract, Rousseau gave a little frisson to readers by telling them that “Man was born free, but is everywhere in chains.” It wasn’t true, of course: in fact, neither part of the sentence is true. But it appealed to certain people, especially those who agreed with Rousseau’s later argument that the wretched mass of mankind, enslaved without even being aware of the fact, had to be “forced to be free” and that the only way to accomplish that was by “changing human nature itself, transforming each individual . . . into part of a much greater whole.” The twentieth century, God help us, saw several large-scale efforts to do just that. We might have thought that those bloody experiments would have taught us about the advantages of civilization and the dangers of real barbarians, as distinct from the imaginary creatures fielded by thinkers like Scott and Purdy. It is with some sadness, though, that we conclude that no lesson is ever direct or harsh enough to dissuade a truly committed “big-picture” Rousseauvian.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 4, on page 1
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