Sunday, January 27, 2008

Primitivism in Rousseau

Note: This was written for an intellectual history class in 2001. Clearly, it is very old. But I thought I'd fill in a little of the work I've done in other areas (stuff that is at least presentable--you should really see the crap I was writing when I first got to college), which oddly enough has mainly been in political and moral philosophy (given how much I usually spend writing on these kinds of topics otherwise). This is a fairly pedantic piece, very short and not terribly insightful, but perhaps it might serve some purpose.


In October 1749, while walking to a prison to visit his friend Diderot, Rousseau is said to have stumbled upon an advertisement from the Academy of Dijon for an essay contest. The subject was “Whether the restoration of the Sciences and the Arts has had a purifying effect on morals.” Rousseau had a sudden revelation upon seeing the advertisement and is said to have stopped right there to pen part of the First Discourse, thus launching both Rousseau’s career and his political thought. The part of Rousseau’s political and moral thought that is of current concern is that of his primitivism. Rousseau’s First Discourse provides a strong example of Lovejoy’s concept of cultural primitivism and how a primitivist can criticize civilization while residing within its influence.

Lovejoy’s short but sweet definition of cultural primitivism is “the discontent of the civilized with civilization, or with some conspicuous and characteristic feature of it.”[1] The understanding that goes with this definition is that “civilization” as a concept is relative to the culture in question. Americans may call the Middle East primitive, with a lack in consumer products, but by the same token the Middle East can come up with other examples that it would consider primitive (like Australian pygmies). This is also contrasted with chronological primitivism, which would change the caveat in civilization to “relative to the time in question.” Cultural primitivism, though sometimes fused with chronological primitivism, is concerned with particular cultures, which only sometimes have temporal differences.

The conspicuous feature that is almost invariably opposed by primitivists is any notion of “progress.” For the cultural primitivist, the simple life is the good and easy life. Lovejoy says, “It is easier precisely because it is … simpler; it is less burdened by apparatus and … with a multitude of restrictive rules and regulations and conventionalities.”[2] The primitive life is idealized as free from societal pressures and free from the labor that is required by civilization to sustain civilization.

The concern of primitivists is that a civilization’s aggregate desires (and consequently an individual’s desires) will increase faster that its ability to satisfy them. The cultural primitivists do not want to get rid of civilization. The primitivists want to guard against the overindulgence and decadence of civilization, not oversee the destruction of civilization. They themselves are civilized and benefit from the advantages of civilization. The advice of primitivists to the civilized is to not desire, hence Lovejoy’s elegant turn-of-phrase, “the wisdom of not wanting.”[3]

Rousseau’s First Discourse provides a clear and strong example of cultural primitivism. Rousseau opens the piece with the question from the advertisement: “Has the restoration of the Sciences and Arts contributed to the purification of Morals, or to their corruption?”[4] Lovejoy summarizes Rousseau’s answer: “The study of the arts and sciences does not contribute à épurer les moeurs [the purification of mores], and therefore it is of minimal value, and often actually harmful.”[5]

Rousseau first sets civilization up for a fall by applauding its emergence from the ignorance of the Middle Ages. He writes, “A few centuries ago the Peoples of this Part of the World, which is today so enlightened, lived in a state worse than ignorance.”[6] But then he begins to twist the advantages of civilization and the tools of the civilizing process: science, art, and commerce.
“Soon the sciences followed Letters; the Art of writing was joined by the Art of thinking … and the major advantage of commerce with the muses began to be felt, namely of rendering men more sociable by inspiring in them the desire to please one another with works worthy of their mutual approbation.”[7]
Rousseau’s disdain is almost palpable is this passage as he describes the exercise of intellectual passions and reason as simply an act of mutually reinforcing self-gratification, rather than a pursuit or progress towards perfect knowledge. This is particularly poignant given the backdrop of the vogue of French salons. Even more important is the link between commerce and the sciences and arts. Rousseau paints them as co-conspirators, as mutually reinforcing as Voltaire and other Parisians.[8]

Rousseau then springs his trap:
“While the Government and the Laws see to the safety and the well-being of men assembled, the Sciences, Letters, and Arts, less despotic and perhaps more powerful, spread garlands of flowers over the iron chains with which they are laden, throttle in them the sentiment of that original freedom for which they seemed born, make them love their slavery, and fashion them into what is called civilized peoples. Need raised up Thrones; the Sciences and Arts have made them strong.”[9]
This beautiful passage contains two very important points about cultural primitivism: 1) the sciences, arts, and commerce (which were linked intrinsically in the passage before) stifle the freedom and virtue of the primitive and 2) some restrictions are necessary.

Rousseau continues the assault on the sciences and the arts with more disparaging remarks about the hypocrisy of outward decency and inward vulgarities. Art has fashioned our manners, but left behind our natural rustic morals. We no longer present ourselves to others, rather only an appearance cut from a uniform mold: polite, customary, constrained. We are no longer sincere, but rather deceitful and malicious. Rousseau ends the tirade with, “…our souls have become corrupted in proportion as our Sciences and Arts have advanced toward perfection…. Virtue has been seen fleeing in proportion as their light rose on our horizon, and the same phenomenon has been observed at all times and in all places.”[10] All of this condemns the sciences, arts, and commerce because of progress. The scientists and artists think they are progressing and becoming more virtuous when really they are moving farther away from the ideal.

But Rousseau’s attack on the sciences and arts is not totally unrestrained. As we saw before, Rousseau does believe that some restrictions are necessary. Society itself is a necessary condition for any freedoms to arise. Rousseau continues the thought “Need raised up Thrones” in The Social Contract where he famously says, “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.”[11] Even more importantly to the First Discourse is the fact that Rousseau came under a lot of fire after its publication, with many refutations being brought out against him. Rousseau replied to five of them and in his replies Rousseau can be seen narrowing the object of his attack. No longer are the sciences and arts themselves at fault, only those who are not virtuous enough to handle them are. And no longer are all sciences and arts condemned, only those that are useless or sophistic.[12] These qualifications on the corruptive nature of the sciences, arts, and commerce can be seen as completely consistent with cultural primitivism, rather than potentially conflicting.

Rousseau’s primitivistic advice is littered in the piece, but in most places it can be read as the antithesis of the corruption he’s defaming. In two short passages, Rousseau says, “What gives rise to all of these abuses, if not the fatal inequality introduced among men by the distinction of talents and the disparagement of the virtues?”[13] and “The wise man does not run after fortune…”[14] The first passage lays the road for his Second Discourse (on inequality) and the second is clear positive advice in the primitivist tradition. In short, Rousseau’s First Discourse is a fertile breeding ground for his primitivism and many ideas that Rousseau later develops. Rousseau shows great contempt for the “progress” of the sciences and arts, but stays short of condemning all progress and civilization.

[1] Arthur O. Lovejoy and George Boas, Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1935), 7

[2] ibid., 9

[3] ibid., 10-11

[4] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Discourse on the Sciences and Arts,” in The Discourses and Other Early Political Writings, ed. Victor Gourevitch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 5

[5] Lovejoy, 274

[6] Rousseau, 6

[7] ibid.

[8] Other links between commerce and the arts occur on pages 9 (“luxury and the Arts”), 13 (“thatch roofs, rustic hearths where moderation and virtue dwell”), 14 (“luxury, dissoluteness and slavery”), 16 (“Arts … luxury”), 19 (“question of luxury”) and many more.

[9] ibid., 6

[10] ibid., 7-9

[11] Rousseau, The Social Contract and Discourses, trans. G. D. H. Cole (London: Everyman), 181

[12] John C. Hall, “The Development of Rousseau’s Political Philosophy,” in The Social Contract and Discourses, lvii-lviii

[13] Rousseau, "Discourse on the Arts and Sciences," 23

[14] ibid.

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