194: The First and Second Discourses by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

by Gerard

194: Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The First and Second Discourses. Translated by Roger D. and Judith R. Masters. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1964. 228 pp. ISBN 0-312-69440-7.

The 100s are a mish-mash of philosophy and psychology. Back when Dewey was devised the system, the two fields had a lot of overlap. Psychology had a lot to do with our philosophical conception of the universe and how that affected an individual’s mind. Our current understanding of psychology is a lot more research- and observation-based than those days, but the 100s still stand. And before you can get to modern philosophy, you have to slog through each basic concept, each of which have their own section. Space is 114, time is 115, and causation is 122. Odd psychologies occupy the 130s (dream psychology, handwriting analysis, phrenology, etc.). Regular books on modern philosophy get pushed all the way to the 190s. Today’s book on modern French philosophy falls into 194.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) may not be all that modern by our scale, but he helped Enlightenment France sort out many of the new ways of thinking that came about before the French Revolution. The First and Second Discourses is actually a joining of separately published works. The First Discourse (otherwise known as the “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences”) was published in 1750, while the Second (“Discourse on Inequality”) came out in 1754. Both were submissions to competitions sponsored by the Academy of Dijon.

The First Discourse poses the question: “Has the restoration of the sciences and arts tended to purify morals?” In short, Rousseau argues no. He argues that because so many people are trying to be become scientists, artists, and philosophers, they are getting away from the more useful qualities of being hard-working, honorable, and courageous (which was needed in abundance during this time in Europe). In short, the arts were making society soft. Unless you are a natural prodigy and earth-shatteringly intelligent, he says, go back home and work on your farm.

The Second Discourse responds to the following query: “What is the origin of inequality among men; and is it authorized by natural law?” While the first discourse sought to answer a yes/no question, this one is more open-ended, and requires more arguments (and pages) to answer. He starts by referencing the Social Contract which is an arbitrary and unspoken agreement between the nobility of a given society and his subjects. A long, long time ago, men were naturally equal and lived in small, balanced tribes. Once tribes got too big, they needed a leader and an overseer. At that point, everyone else silently agreed to become followers. Gradually, the disparity between the leader and the followers widened to how it was in Enlightenment France, with a noble (and even divinely selected) king and millions of subjects, living in varying degrees of poverty. Rousseau argues that human inequality occurred at the moment when one man “tricked” the rest of the tribe to become subordinate to him, and we have been duped ever since. To him, this arrangement is decidedly unnatural.

Unfortunately, my 250-year separation from the context and style of the writing made this seem rather stiff and maddeningly slow to get through. But, in the end, it did make me think. Is our current pursuit of science and technology and culture diluting the valor and honor from our society? Or has intellectual prowess supplanted the physical? In our current information-based culture, honor may have a completely different meaning than before.

Also, are we now finally in an era where we try to reverse implicit social inequality? Is there a new Social Contract? I believe there is, inasmuch as modern societies want so desperately never to be like their predecessors. We still need leaders and followers, but as long as there is a moral equality (treating all classes of peoples the same), then social inequality does not need to have a negative connotation. Clearly, this book was full of interesting “noodle-scratchers” that, over time, help us to form a better vision of ourselves and our place in history.