Trying to rescue virtue from the morally deluded Europe, Jean-Jacques Rousseau took a surprising stance on the question proposed by the Academy of Dijon. In his response, Rousseau stated that the arts and sciences bring about not only the dissolution of morals but also the corruption of tastes. In fact, it is because the arts and sciences “owe their birth to our vices” that he could be certain of their disadvantages (48). Their origin was traced by Rousseau to an even larger issue in European society. Just as in Plato’s Republic, the first harm to the city was luxury: “luxury rarely develops without the science and arts, and they never develop without it” (50). In Rousseau’s Discourse, luxury signified a misuse of time. In addition, Rousseau considered idleness to be one of the greatest evils to society. The issue for Rousseau transformed from the arts and sciences and became the misuse of time, which laid the foundations for art and science to appear: “born in idleness, they nourish it in turn; and irreparable loss of time is the first injury they necessarily cause society” (49). Idleness was the root of evil in a society, and “every useless citizen may be considered a pernicious man” (49). If wasting time and being useless were the causes of corruption, then what was the solution? Somehow, citizens needed to be productive again and to find a correct use for their time.
Naturally, not everyone was fit to be a scientist, artist, or philosopher. A man who would have made “a bad versifier or a subaltern geometer all his life would perhaps have become a great cloth maker” (63). However, being an artist or scientist was not evil as such, and Rousseau thought either or both could be allowed in society if they were done virtuously. Rousseau praised Bacon, Descartes, and Newton as some of the few men who could possibly be “allowed to devote themselves to the study of the sciences and arts… those who feel the strength to walk alone in their footsteps and go beyond them” (63). Bacon, Descartes, and Newton had no teachers themselves and yet accomplished so much. It was in this fact that Rousseau was implying not everyone was capable of imitating these great thinkers, let alone join their ranks. These kinds of thinkers were rare, and even fewer were so influential. If the arts and sciences were only for those select few, what then had Rousseau prescribed for the rest of the citizens? Rousseau believed “common men not endowed by heaven with such great talents and not destined for so much glory” should lead the lives naturally determined for them (64).
With the exclusion of those few gifted men, the arts and sciences contributed nothing to the productivity of the rest of society. Nature, in all its eternal wisdom, placed man in ignorance of these useless things in order to protect him. According to Rousseau, ignorance was nature’s way of protecting humanity “from being harmed by knowledge just as a mother wrests a dangerous weapon from her child’s hands” (47). Ignorance was far more blissful than anything luxury art or science had to offer. Rousseau’s advice was to leave men in their natural ignorance and “let them learn what they ought to do as men, and not what they ought to forget” (57). These two questions, what is natural and what is useful, were one in the same for Rousseau, and they both boiled down to the same thing. The phrase “what they ought to do as men” seemed to imply a sort of duty every man was naturally determined to do. “Consulting only the duties of man and the needs of nature” also seemed to be the salvation of a morally corrupt society (48).
If the citizens of a society were going to be useful and productive again, Rousseau had to define who would make the best citizen. Reflecting closely on society as a whole, Rousseau compared it to a herd of men. In the beginning, before luxury entered the city, a group of people came together for one common purpose: the herd’s safety and well-being. Therefore, “the needs of the body are the foundations of society” (38). It followed that whatever was good for the body would also be good for society. Therefore, the best citizens would not only be the healthiest men but consequently be the most virtuous men in a society.
However, Rousseau claimed societies “no longer had citizens; or if a few of them are left, dispersed in our abandoned countryside, they perish there indigent and despised” (59). Society has separated so far from what is natural and useful in Rousseau’s eyes that the last virtuous men were left in the countryside. Rousseau seemed to suggest that these few remaining citizens were actually the farmers. Before art and science entered society, “our customs were rustic but natural, and differences of conduct announced at first glance those of character” (37). Farmers were so close to nature because it was their job to harvest it; they lived, breathed, and toiled in nature. For this reason, they embodied everything Rousseau admired in a virtuous man: “it is in the rustic clothes of a farmer and not beneath the gilt of a courtier that strength and vigor of the body will be found” (37). In this sense, the farmers were the best citizens because they were healthy of body and were never idle or useless. Their knowledge did not come from vain sciences but from nature alone, and it is “from this happy ignorance in which eternal wisdom had placed us” (46).
Rousseau in his First Discourse was Platonic in many ways. First of all, both philosophers felt that luxury was a danger to the city and had to be kept at bay. They similarly admired the Spartan lifestyle for this reason. Secondly, knowledge was somehow dangerous, and that the absolute truth was not meant to be known by everyone. Plato thought that only a few men were capable of the act of “turning around” and that these philosopher kings could be the only ones entrusted with the city’s well-being. Rousseau felt that not everyone was capable of being on the same intellectual level as Newton and that the common practice of the arts and sciences led to the dissolution of morals in a society. Lastly, both Plato and Rousseau believed men were naturally predisposed towards different duties and responsibilities and should stick to what they know. While Plato sought justice in an imaginary city, Rousseau sought to restore virtue and productivity to 18th century Europe. Men ought to fear knowledge just as much as a society should fear idleness. Rousseau seemed to believe ignorance was bliss, and usefulness was virtuous. The simpler life was the better life, and the farmer made for a better citizen.