I recently read, for the first time, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences,” regularly referred to as the “First Discourse” to distinguish it from the more famous, second “Discourse on the Origins and the Foundations of Inequality Among Mankind.” The First Discourse is a short thing, not more than 20 pages or so, but extraordinary in its biting observations on the positive wickedness and pretension of hubristic aspiration to scientific and humanistic knowledge and improvement. “That opaque veil with which Wisdom cloaked her actions should have warned us that we were not destined for a vain quest for knowledge. Is there a single one of her lessons from which we have profited or which we have neglected with impunity? Let all nations once and for all realize that nature wanted to protect us from knowledge, just as a mother snatches a dangerous weapon from the hands of her child. Let them know that all the secrets she hides from us are so many ills from which she protects us and that the very difficulty they encounter in searching for knowledge is not the least of her kindnesses. Men are perverse; but they would be far worse if they had had the misfortune to be born learned.”
The First Discourse ought to be read by everyone who is part of the knowledge class, as a bit of cold water on the pretensions of the ostensibly learned. But quite apart from its incisive criticisms (and there are quite a few), the First Discourse contains several themes that run through Rousseau’s broader body of work–especially the natural, unadulterated, internal goodness of humanity, the depravity and corrupting influence of social conditions and culture, and the importance of resisting this cultural pressure in being true to what or who one “really” is, uncorrupted by social expectations, knowledge, learning, and so on. As it happens, these are themes that are also crucial for understanding the present moment in American social and cultural life.
A new book, Rousseau’s God: Theology, Religion, and the Natural Goodness of Man (University of Chicago Press), by John T. Scott, develops many of these themes across Rousseau’s writing.
John T. Scott offers a comprehensive interpretation of Rousseau’s theological and religious thought, both in its own right and in relation to Rousseau’s broader oeuvre. In chapters focused on different key writings, Scott reveals recurrent themes in Rousseau’s views on the subject and traces their evolution over time. He shows that two concepts—truth and utility—are integral to Rousseau’s writings on religion. Doing so helps to explain some of Rousseau’s disagreements with his contemporaries: their different views on religion and theology stem from different understandings of human nature and the proper role of science in human life. Rousseau emphasizes not just what is true, but also what is useful—psychologically, morally, and politically—for human beings. Comprehensive and nuanced, Rousseau’s God is vital to understanding key categories of Rousseau’s thought.