Rousseau PAPER

Rousseau PAPER - 1 Joaquin de Rojas 23 February 2007...

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Joaquin de Rojas 23 February 2007 Western Cultural Tradition VII-VIII Rousseau – Discourse on the Arts and Sciences Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s first Discourse is filled with penetrating insights on the questionable values that were expounded in 18 th century European culture. His enlightenment contemporaries like Immanuel Kant proposed that all individuals should “dare to know” in order to free themselves from their “self imposed immaturity” and attain happiness (Kant: 41). Such notions were indeed absorbed and exercised in contemporary Europe, as is acknowledged in the First Discourse; but by alluding to historical and current events, Rousseau proposes that their absorption has actually led to the debasement of societies. Rousseau’s arguments may be sprinkled with ambiguous connotations of words like “virtue” and “vice,” but he nevertheless manages to demonstrate how the pursuit of knowledge produces a noxious air of vanity and luxury that distracts a city’s citizens from their proper duties and moral virtue. But what exactly does Rousseau esteem as virtuous? Since he never defines “virtue” or “vice” directly, their meanings must be deduced by separating what he seems to value from what he admonishes. The philosopher explains that virtue “never appears amid [the] great pomp” of the opulent man and that “Finery is alien to virtue, which is the strength and vigor of the soul” (Rous: 218). Such men living in opulence also live in idleness and “misuse of time,” which is branded as “a great evil” (218). Conversely, Rousseau venerates the rustically clothed plowman because he lacks “those vile trappings which would hinder the use of his strength and were invented, in most cases, only to hide 1
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some deformity” (208). Later on, Rousseau will mark this deformity in the many artists, poets, and scholars of his time. Along with condemning indulgence in luxury as “corruption of taste” (219) and a signal of vice, Rousseau explains how modern social conventions and manners only serve to hide a people’s true feelings and motives. The phenomenon makes true friendship among neighbors impossible because “suspicion, resentment, fear, coldness, reserve, hatred, and betrayal are always hidden behind that uniform and treacherous veil of politeness” (209). Throughout the entire Discourse, Rousseau describes his society as replete with two-faced scoundrels whose sole goal in life is to attain fortune and glory through flattery and deceit. He regards these people as caught up and enslaved by their urban environment’s all-pervading drive towards vanity. Rousseau’s idea of virtue, in contrast, is most distinctly conveyed in his portrayal of some “unrefined” civilizations, particularly that of the ancient Spartans. Unlike the sumptuous civilization of the Athenians, the “‘very air of [Sparta] seems to inspire virtue’” (212). The Spartans were taught, above all else, to uphold military discipline and
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Rousseau PAPER - 1 Joaquin de Rojas 23 February 2007...

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