Rousseau: First and Second Discourses

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.

1-1.5 Weeks

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.

2-3 Weeks

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.

  • 5/5 Stars

Module Items

books Books
  • The Discourses and Other Early Political Writings by Rousseau

    This is the definitive version of the First and Second Discourse for the non-Rousseau specialist. In addition to comprehensive notes for each, this collection contains Rousseau's own responses to his critics: explaining his intentions for many now famous passages and…

  • The Natural Goodness of Man: on the System of Rousseau's Thought by Arthur M. Melzer

    Best resource for an overall account of Rousseau's thought. Melzer attempts to explicate the logic and argument that runs throughout Rousseau's seemingly disparate and notoriously difficult texts. This should be a primary resource for beginning Rousseau scholars and serves as…

  • Perfection and Disharmony in the Thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Jonathan Marks

    The author argues that the key to Rousseau's thought and the explanation for the disparate secondary literature is Rousseau's attempt to capture the complex nature of human life. Human nature is disharmonious, even in Rousseau's purified state of nature.

  • The Red and the Black by Stendhal, translated by Burton Raffel

    The Red and the Black is a portrait of Julien Sorel, a young working class boy who finds himself thrust into the intrigues of a bourgeois world that he both relishes and abhors. Julien's natural intellectual talents are considerable, but…

  • Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

    Madame Bovary is a novel about a woman who read to many novels in bourgeois world filled with minor characters intent on wealth and reputation. Flaubert depicts an early modern world in which the power of the church is in…

  • Jean-Jacques: the Early Life and Work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1712-1754 by Maurice Cranston

    Cranston's biography of Rousseau is the very best starting point for those interested in the interesting life of Rousseau from the time of his childhood through the publication of the Second Discourse. Although Cranston takes many of his anecdotes directly…

  • Basic Political Writings by Jean Rousseau

    This is an more affordable version than most and the translation is very adequate. This edition may be of particular interest to those teachers wishing to cover Rousseau's less read work on Political Economy.

articles Articles
  • On the Intention of Rousseau by Leo Strauss

    Seminal article addressing the subject of Rousseau's apparently contradictory praise and blame of the Arts and Sciences. This essay situates Rousseau in the history of political thought and demonstrates the degree to which Rousseau's criticism of early modern social contract…

  • Rousseau and the Case for (and against) Censorship by Christopher Kelly

    An analysis of one of Rousseau's famous paradoxes by a leading modern Rousseau scholar. It is by recognizing both the case "for" and "against" censorship that we see the complexity of Rousseau's thought and get a sense of Rousseau as…

online_libraries Online Libraries / Collections
  • Paintings of Romanticism

    These 7 paintings are a small, but illustrative, example of the influence of Rousseau in early modern intellectual life. All are unified by the theme of the power and mysterious character of nature over and against man's attempts at rationality.

  • Romanticism in Art ( )

    Web site gives a comprehensive view of the development of Romanticism in Art.

videos Videos
  • Dangerous Liaisons by Unknown

    From A sumptuously mounted and photographed celebration of artful wickedness, betrayal, and sexual intrigue among depraved 18th-century French aristocrats, Dangerous Liaisons (based on Christopher Hampton's Les Liaisons Dangereuses) is seductively decadent fun. The villainous heroes are the Marquise De…

  • Fight Club by Unknown

  • Nanook of the North ( Criterion )

    From Robert J. Flaherty, who wrote, directed, produced, shot, and edited this landmark picture, will forever be remembered as the godfather of documentary film making. While this landmark 1922 production, shot on the northeastern shore of Hudson Bay, isn't…

websites Websites
  • Rousseau Biography ( Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy )

    Brief biographical sketch of J.J. Rousseau.

syllabi Syllabi
  • The Political and Social Thought of Rousseau by Jim Harrigan

    Course Objectives: This course will examine the political and social thought of Rousseau through a consideration of both original source material and a few outstanding secondary treatments. By the end of the term a clear picture of Rousseau specifically, and…