In 1749 Diderot was imprisoned at Vincennes for some offensive passages in his Letters on the Blind. Rousseau wrote to Mme. de Pompadour pleading for his friend’s release, or permission to share his imprisonment. Several times during that summer he made the round trip of ten miles between Paris and Vincennes to visit Diderot. On one such journey he took an issue of the Mercure de France to read as he walked. So he came upon the announcement of a prize offered by the Academy of Dijon for the best essay on the question: “Has the restoration of the sciences and the arts contributed to corrupt or to purify morals?” He was tempted to compete, for he was now thirty-seven years old, and it was time he should make a name for himself. But did he know enough of science or art or history to discuss such topics without revealing the defects of his education? In a letter to Malesherbes, January 12, 1762, he described with characteristic emotion the revelation that came to him on this walk:
All at once I felt myself dazzled by a thousand sparkling lights. Crowds of vivid ideas thronged into my mind with a force and confusion that threw me into unspeakable agitation; I felt my head whirling in a giddiness like that of intoxication. A violent palpitation oppressed me. Unable to walk for difficulty in breathing, I sank down under one of the trees by the road, and passed half an hour there in such a condition of excitement that when I rose I saw that the front of my waistcoat was all wet with tears. … Ah, if ever I could have written a quarter of what I saw and felt under that tree, with what clarity I should have brought out all the contradictions of our social system! With what simplicity I should have demonstrated that man is by nature good, and that only our institutions have made him bad!62
That last sentence was to be the theme song of his life, and those tears that streaked his vest were among the headwaters of the Romantic movement in France and Germany. Now he could pour out his heart against all the artificiality of Paris, the corruption of its morals, the insincerity of its fine manners, the licentiousness of its literature, the sensuality of its art, the snobbishness of class divisions, the callous extravagance of the rich financed by exactions from the poor, the desiccation of the soul by the replacement of religion with science, of feeling with logic. By declaring war on this degeneration he could vindicate his own simplicity of culture, his village manners, his discomfort in society, his disgust with malicious gossip and irreverent wit, his defiant retention of religious faith amid the atheism of his friends. In his heart he was again a Calvinist, remembering with a kind of homesickness the morality expounded to him in his youth. By answering Dijon he would exalt his native Geneva above Paris, and would explain to himself and others why he had been so happy in Les Charmettes, and was so miserable in the salons.
Arrived at Vincennes, he revealed to Diderot his intention to compete. Diderot applauded him, and bade him attack the civilization of their time with all possible force. Hardly any other competitor would dare take that line, and Rousseau’s position would stand out as individual.* Jean-Jacques returned to his lodgings eager to destroy the arts and sciences that Diderot was preparing to exalt in the Encyclop édie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts, et des métiers (1751 f.).
I composed the Discourse in a very singular manner.... I dedicated to it the hours of the night in which sleep deserted me; I meditated in bed with my eyes closed, and in my mind I turned over and over again my periods with incredible labor and care.... As soon as the Discourse was finished I showed it to Diderot. He was satisfied with the production, and pointed out some corrections he thought should be made.... I sent off the piece without mentioning it to anybody [else], except, I think, to Grimm.65
The Dijon Academy crowned his essay with the first prize (August 23, 1750)—a gold medal and three hundred francs. Diderot, with characteristic enthusiasm, arranged for the publication of this Discours sur les arts et les sciences, and soon he reported to the author: “Your Discours is taking beyond all imagination; never was there an instance of a like success.”66 It was as if Paris realized that here, at the very mid-point of the Enlightenment, a man had risen to challenge the Age of Reason, and to challenge it with a voice that would be heard.
The essay seemed at first to applaud the victories of reason:
It is a noble and beautiful spectacle to see man raising himself, so to speak, from nothing by his own exertions; dissipating by the light of reason all the thick clouds by which he was by nature enveloped; mounting above himself, soaring in thought even to the celestial regions, encompassing with giant strides, like the sun, the vast extent of the universe; and what is still grander and more wonderful, going back into himself, there to study man and get to know his own nature, his duties, and his end. All these miracles we have seen renewed within the last few generations.67
Voltaire must have shed an approving smile over this initial ecstasy; here was a new recruit to the philosophes, to the good companions who would slay superstition and l’infame; and was not this young Lochinvar already contributing to the Encyclopédie? But a page later the argument took a distressing turn. All this progress of knowledge, said Rousseau, had made governments more powerful, crushing individual liberty; it had replaced the simple virtues and forthright speech of a ruder age with the hypocrisies ofsavoir-faire.
Sincere friendship, real esteem, and perfect confidence are banished from among men. Jealousy, suspicion, fear, coldness, reserve, hate, and fraud lie constantly concealed under that uniform and deceitful veil of politeness, that boasted candor and urbanity, for which we are indebted to the light and leading of this age. … Let the arts and sciences claim the share they have had in this salutary work!68
This corruption of morals and character by the progress of knowledge and art is almost a law of history. “Egypt became the mother of philosophy and the fine arts; soon she was conquered.”69 Greece, once peopled by heroes, twice vanquished Asia; “letters” were then in their infancy, and the virtues of Sparta had not been replaced, as the Greek ideal, by the refinement of Athens, the sophistry of the Sophists, the voluptuous forms of Praxiteles; when that “civilization” had reached its height it was overthrown at a blow by Philip of Macedon, and then supinely accepted the yoke of Rome. Rome conquered the whole Mediterranean world when she was a nation of peasants and soldiers inured to a stoic discipline; but when she relaxed into epicurean indulgence, and praised the obscenities of Ovid, Catullus, and Martial, she became a theater of vice, “a scorn among the nations, an object of derision even to barbarians.”70 And when Rome revived in the Renaissance, arts and letters again sapped the strength of governed and governors, and left Italy too feeble to meet attack. Charles VIII of France mastered Tuscany and Naples almost without drawing a sword, “and all his court attributed this unexpected success to the fact that the princes and nobles of Italy applied themselves with greater earnestness to the cultivation of their understandings rather than to active and martial pursuits.”71
Literature itself is an element of decay.
It is related that the Caliph Omar, being asked what should be done with the library of Alexandria, answered . . ., “If the books in the library contain anything contrary to the Koran, they are evil and ought to be burned; if they contain only what the Koran teaches, they are superfluous.” This reasoning has been cited by our men of letters as the height of absurdity; but if Gregory the Great had been in the place of Omar, and the Gospel in the place of the Koran, the library would still have been burned, and it would have been perhaps the finest action of his life.72
Or consider the disintegrating effect of philosophy. Some of these “lovers of wisdom” tell us that there is no such thing as matter; another assures us that nothing but matter exists, and no other God but the universe itself; a third group announces that virtue and vice are mere names, and nothing counts but strength and skill. These philosophers “sap the foundations of our faith, and destroy virtue. They smile contemptuously at such old words as patriotism and religion, and consecrate their talents … to the destruction and defamation of all that men hold most sacred.”73 In antiquity such nonsense did not long survive its author, but now, thanks to print, “the pernicious reflections of Hobbes and Spinoza will last forever.” Consequently, the invention of printing was one of the greatest disasters in the history of mankind, and “it is easy to see that sovereigns will hereafter take as much pains to banish this dreadful art from their dominions as they ever took to encourage it.”74
Note the vigor and excellence of those peoples who never knew philosophy or science, literature or art: the Persians of Cyrus’ time, the Germans as described by Tacitus, or, “in our own time, that rustic nation [Switzerland] whose renowned courage not even adversity could conquer, and whose fidelity no example could corrupt.” To these the proud Genevan adds “those happy nations, which did not know even the names of many vices that we find it hard to suppress—the savages of America, whose simple and natural mode of government Montaigne preferred, without hesitation, not only to the laws of Plato, but to the most perfect visions of government that philosophy can suggest.”75
What, then, should be our conclusion? It is that
luxury, profligacy, and slavery have been in all ages the scourge of the efforts of our pride to emerge from that happy state of ignorance in which the wisdom of Providence has placed us. … Let men learn for once that nature would have preserved them from science as a mother snatches a dangerous weapon from the hands of her child.76
The answer to the question of the learned Academy is that learning without virtue is a snare; that the only real progress is moral progress; that the advancement of learning has corrupted, rather than purified, the morals of mankind; and that civilization is not an ascent of man to a nobler state, but the fall of man from a rural simplicity that was a paradise of innocence and bliss.
Toward the end of the Discourse Rousseau checked himself, and looked with some trepidation at the shambles of science, art, literature, and philosophy that he had left in his wake. He recalled that his friend Diderot was preparing an encyclopedia dedicated to the progress of science. Suddenly he discovered that some philosophers—e.g., Bacon and Descartes—were “sublime teachers,” and he proposed that living specimens of the breed should be welcomed as counselors by the rulers of states. Had not Cicero been made consul of Rome, and the greatest of modern philosophers been made chancellor of England?77 Perhaps Diderot had slipped these lines in, but Jean-Jacques had the last word:
As for us, ordinary men, upon whom Heaven has not been pleased to bestow such great talents, … let us remain in our obscurity. … Let us leave to others the task of instructing mankind in their duty, and confine ourselves to the discharge of our own. … Virtue! sublime science of simple minds, … are not your principles graven upon every heart? Need we do more, to learn your laws, than … listen to the voice of conscience? … This is the true philosophy, with which we must learn to be content.78
Paris did not know whether to take this Discourse seriously or to interpret it as a mischievous essay in hyperbole and paradox, tongue in cheek. It was said by some (Rousseau tells us79) that he did not believe a word of it. Diderot, who believed in science but fretted under the restraints of convention and morality, apparently approved of Rousseau’s exaggerations as a needed chastisement of Parisian society; and members of the court applauded the essay as a long-deserved rebuke to insolent and subversive philosophers.80 There must have been many sensitive spirits who were, like this eloquent author, ill at ease in the babble and sparkle of Paris. Rousseau had expressed a problem that appears in every advanced society. Are the fruits of technology worth the haste, strains, sights, noises, and smells of an industrialized life? Does enlightenment undermine morality? Is it wise to follow science to mutual destruction, and philosophy to disillusionment with every fortifying hope?
A dozen critics rose to the defense of civilization: Bordes of the Lyons Academy, Lacat of the Rouen Academy, Formey of the Berlin Academy, and not least the genial Stanislas Leszczynski, once king of Poland, now duke of Lorraine. Scholars pointed out that the diatribe merely enlarged the doubts that Montaigne had voiced in his essay “On Cannibals.” Others heard the voice of Pascal retreating from science to religion, and of course a thousand “doctors and saints” had long since condemned civilization as a disease or a sin. Theologians could claim that the “innocence” and happiness of the “state of nature” from which, in Rousseau’s theory, man had lapsed was only the Eden story retold; “civilization” took the place of “original sin” as causing the fall of man; in both cases the desire for knowledge had ended bliss. Sophisticates like Voltaire wondered that a man thirty-seven years old should have written such a juvenile jeremiad against the achievements of science, the boon of good manners, and the inspirations of art. Artists like Boucher might well have squirmed under Rousseau’s lash, but artists like Chardin and La Tour could have charged him with indiscriminate generalization. Soldiers smiled at the tender musician’s exaltation of martial qualities and perpetual readiness for war.
Rousseau’s friend Grimm protested against any return to “nature.” “What devilish nonsense!” he exclaimed, and asked a thorny question: “What is ‘nature’?”81 Bayle had remarked: “There is scarcely a word that is used more vaguely than … nature. . . . The conclusion is not certain that because ‘this comes from nature, therefore this is good and right.’ We see in the human species many very bad things, although it cannot be doubted that they are the work of nature.”82 Rousseau’s conception of primitive nature was of course a romantic idealization; nature (life without social regulation and protection) is “red in tooth and claw,” and its ultimate law is, Kill or be killed. The “nature” that Jean-Jacques loved, as in Vevey or Clarens, was a nature civilized—tamed and refined by man. In truth, he did not want to go back to primitive conditions, with all their filth, insecurity, and physical violence; he wished to return to the patriarchal family cultivating the soil and living on its fruits. He longed to be freed from the rules and restraints of polished society—and from the classic style of moderation and reason. He hated Paris and yearned for Les Charmettes. Toward the end of his life, in Les Rêveries d’un promeneur solitaire, he idealized his maladaptation:
I was born the most confiding of men, and for forty years together never was this confidence deceived for a single time. Falling suddenly among another order of persons and things, I slipped into a thousand snares. … Once convinced that there was nothing but deceit and falsity in the grimacing demonstrations which had been lavished upon me, I passed rapidly to the other extreme.... I became disgusted with men.... I have never been truly accustomed to civil society, where all is worry, obligation, duty, and where my natural independence renders me always incapable of the subjections necessary to whoever wishes to live among men.83
And in the Confessions he bravely admitted that this first Discourse, “though full of force and fire, was absolutely wanting in logic and order; of all the works I ever wrote it is the weakest in reasoning, and the most devoid of number [prose rhythm?] and harmony.”84
Nevertheless he replied vigorously to his critics, and reaffirmed his paradoxes. He made an exception as a courtesy to Stanislas: on second thought he decided not to burn the libraries or close the universities and academies; “all we should gain by this would be to plunge Europe once more into barbarism”;85 and “when men are corrupt it is better for them to be learned than ignorant.”86 But he recanted no item in his indictment of Parisian society. To mark his withdrawal from it he discarded sword and gold braid and white stockings, and dressed in the simple garb and smaller wig of the middle class. “Thus,” said Marmontel, “from that moment he chose the role he was to play, and the mask he was to wear.”87 If it was a mask it was so well and persistently worn that it became part of the man, and changed the face of history.