The Enlightenment Torn Apart
Based on Rousseau’s criticism of Enlightenment ideas, the French Revolution did and did not implement the ways of the Enlightenment. Rousseau sees a number of problems within the thinking of the Enlightenment, preferably when dealing with the arts and sciences. It is for this reason alone that the French Revolution in actuality did not implement the ideas of the Enlightenment. In fact, all of the actions that took place in the French Revolution totally came into agreement with the theories of Rousseau. However after the Revolution and still today, those Enlightenment theories are a main stay in everyday life. The Enlightenment itself was a period of pure reason and rational, where people were to emphasize the right to self expression and human fulfillment, as well as the right to think freely and express their views publicly without being scrutinized. They did this through science and other forms of art, two things, which according to Rousseau are no way of finding virtue.
Of course when applying the sciences there are certain outcomes and answers to certain problems. One thing many forget is the possibility of error. According to Rousseau, error is a huge problem when dealing with the sciences. In his First Discourse Rousseau states,
“What false paths when investigating the sciences! How many errors, a thousand times more dangerous than the truth is useful, must be surmounted in order to reach the truth? The disadvantage is evident, for falsity is susceptible of infinite combinations, where as truth has only one form. Besides, who seeks it sincerely? Even with the best intentions, by what signs is one certain to recognize it? In this multitude of opinions, what will be our criteria to judge it properly? And hardest of all, if by luck we finally find it, who among us will know how to make good use of the truth? ” (Rousseau, 49)
This is a really good point. With all of the so-called enlightened thinkers trying to find out the truth, there is obviously going to be an array of different answers. Some of them could be wrong, better yet, all of them could be wrong; but who’s to judge. Since we don’t know of the truth, there is absolutely no way to prove that someone has found it. Last but not least, according to the end of Rousseau’s quote, if it is found there is not one person who would know how to apply that truth to everyday life. This now brings us to bash number two on the Enlightenment thought.
People go through all sorts of schooling to learn what, math, history, and science. That’s all good, but in the search of truth that type of knowledge will not get a person anywhere,
“ Cultivating the sciences is very harmful to moral qualities. I see everywhere-immense institutions where young people are brought up at a great expense, learning everything except their duties. Your children will not know their own language, but will speak others that are nowhere in use; they will know how to write verses that they can barely understand; without knowing how to distinguish error from truth, they will possess the art of making them unrecognizable to others by specious arguments. But they will not know what the words magnanimity, equity, temperance, humanity, and courage are; that sweet name fatherland will never strike their ear; and if they here of God, it will be less to be awed by him than to be afraid of him. What then should they learn? Let them learn what they ought to do as men and not what they should forget.” (Rousseau, 56)
If the Enlightenment is all about finding the truth through reason and human understanding only, the sciences themselves are sending this whole movement into the wrong direction. According to some of the greatest thinkers such as Socrates, and Plato, the real way to finding the truth is through virtue, or the good life. This schooling, according to Rousseau is a manipulative way of creating false truths in the minds of children. Instead of learning morals, and learning how to be good, courageous and stand up people, the sciences are showing young ones how to formulate the truth, rather than teaching them how to live a good life and find the truth out for themselves.
Rousseau’s next criticism of the Enlightenment, is one that fits real well with the world today. Rousseau insists that any form of Enlightenment produces luxury, “Granted that luxury is a sure sign of wealth; that it even serves, if you like, to increase wealth. What conclusion must be drawn from this paradox so worthy of our time, and what will become of virtue when one must get rich at any price?” (Rousseau, 51) Even in that day and age, money equaled power and respect. It’s the truth and good life that are really at stake here. According to Rousseau, even virtue, which is the main purpose of the Enlightenment, will come second to money, so obviously this Enlightenment is not all its cracked up to be. With this luxury, Rousseau claims that all morals are lost. Everything revolves around the almighty dollar. This statement is not to be taken lightly. Especially in today’s day and age, this proves real. Even if an act is one hundred percent in the wrong; if the price is right, that act suddenly becomes the best of deeds. It’s kind of sad to see that material things can control our train of thought. Rousseau finalizes his theory by stating that this luxury, which is the prize of the Enlightenment, is very destructive not only to morals, but political power as well.
By using various David and Goliath type battles that occurred throughout history, Rousseau conveys his hypothesis. In those battles it is the luxurious dynasties such as Rome and England, that fall to people who have no clue what riches are. The only thing that those people had were lots of heart, and shear will power. This should be the way of Enlightenment. It is not the books, or paintings that won the revolution for the French, but shear will power and determination; something that no Enlightenment theory could ever give to a person.
The next glitch in the Enlightenment way of thought according to Rousseau, is the destruction of military virtues by the arts and sciences. As stated above there is one thing luxury cannot buy, and that is heart. The modern soldier is one who is fulfilled with the luxury the Enlightenment brings, but what happens when that luxury runs out. The enlightened warrior is not accustomed to roughing it. For he is “crushed by the smallest need, and rebuffed by the least difficulty.” (Rousseau, 55) The “raw” soldier on the other hand, one who is unaccustomed to this pampered lifestyle, would be more equipped with his will power and determination, and will fair better in a long and bitter struggle. To put this in simpler terms, take for example your average everyday man watching Monday Night Football. During the commercial he likes to change the channel, but what happens if the remote control is missing. A sudden panic emerges and all hell breaks loose. Yet a man who has never had a remote control would calmly get up and change the channel himself without the use of that fantastic luxury.
Last but not least is an aspect of the Enlightenment which like the above, is true even today. Rousseau believed that by following the Enlightenment, appearance was everything. By spreading the arts, men would judge a product by appearance alone and not effort, “One no longer asks if a man is upright, but rather if he is talented; nor of a book if it is useful, but if its well written. Rewards are showered on the witty, and virtue is left without honors. There are a thousand prizes for noble discourses, but none for noble actions.”
It is safe to say that after all of this jargon about Rousseau and his criticisms of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution did and did not implement Enlightenment ideas. The actual Revolution itself applied Rousseau’s criticism on luxury. The rebels were not as powerful in material, but in heart, they totally over shadowed the French hierarchy. On the other hand, everyday life seems to take on the aspects of the Enlightenment. All of the time we see people in school learning math, science, and history. On the streets we see people sporting around in Mercedes Benz, Lexus, and Armani suits. The material things are what makes life go round in this day and age. We see paintings and sculptures gracing the walls of various pieces of architecture. Some of those paintings, only the best, will be honored with prizes and riches and the little man who just enjoys painting will remain a nobody.
The rebels in no way, shape, or form applied the Enlightenment to the war. Yet, in the real world the Enlightenment ideas are and will always be the supreme form of knowledge.
Word Count: 1509