3-4 Week Module
The thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau can be a difficult task for the modern reader. Despite this, we continue to study his works because of the deep intellectual and practical influence he has had in the modern world. Depending on who you talk to, Rousseau receives credit for being an intellectual force behind the French Revolution, Romanticism, Fascism, Communism, and lately even Environmentalism. He cannot be the cause of all of these things, but such a varied reception points to the power of his thought.
We begin this module where Rousseau established his public reputation: Discourse on the Sciences and Arts or First Discourse. In this essay Rousseau establishes himself as the first philosophic critic of the Enlightenment. In political theory, this will take the form of a criticism of Hobbes and Locke. Unlike other critics who attacked the contract thinkers for being either anti-theological or anti-Monarchical, Rousseau attacks the ever-increasing influence of modern science and letters as a threat to human happiness. Science in particular destroys the traditional relationships of religion, morality, citizenship, and family. While he criticizes the spread of enlightenment, however, he also recognizes the material and intellectual benefits that modern political thought has fostered. Our first task, will be to understand this apparent contradiction.
Readings: First Discourse (For lecture preparation or graduate reading: "On the Intention of Rousseau" by Leo Strauss, and Arthur Melzer's "The Natural Goodness of Man" Intro, Chap.1, Chap2)
Multimedia: Romantic Paintings to illustrate the sentiments Rousseau successfully created in intellectual society, and a screening of Dangerous Liaisons to illustrate a society where politics and social climbing have transformed a society once held together by more traditional bonds.
Rousseau's most accessible political writing and his clearest break with the thought of Hobbes and Locke is the Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men or Second Discourse. Continuing his attack made in the First Discourse, Rousseau goes even further by re-defining the "state of nature" in extreme form. In fact, the greatest mistake of the social contract thinkers was in describing the state of nature as if it were inhabited by men who already possessed the inflamed passions of civilized society. Properly understood, we are told, natural man was simple and peaceful compared to the human beings described by others. By establishing the true nature of man as relatively content and benign, Rousseau claims to discover a new basis for political rights and duties that takes account of man's full humanity. It is in the Second Discourse that we see Rousseau's real power to enliven readers to sentiments of the human heart that cannot be explained by the likes of Hobbes. In awakening these sentiments, however, Rousseau also opens himself to the charge of influencing revolutionary forces – blindly intent upon securing natural liberty for all, at any cost.
Readings: Second Discourse (For lecture preparation and Graduate reading include the remainder of Melzer’s Natural Goodness of Man and Perfection and Disharmony in the Thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Jonathan Marks.)
Multimedia: Screening of Fight Club as an illustration of individual alienation and search for meaning in a society no longer capable of understanding human longing.