[This excerpt is from Chapter 4 of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault]
The first great frontal assault on the Enlightenment was launched by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Rousseau has a well-deserved reputation as the bad boy of eighteenth-century French philosophy. In the context of Enlightenment intellectual culture, Rousseau’s was a major dissenting voice. He was an admirer of all things Spartan—the Sparta of militaristic and feudal communalism—and a despiser of all things Athenian—the classical Athens of commerce, cosmopolitanism, and the high arts.
Civilization is thoroughly corrupting, Rousseau argued—not only the oppressive feudal system of eighteenth-century France with its decadent and parasitical aristocracy, but also its Enlightenment alternative with its exaltation of reason, property, the arts and sciences. Name a dominant feature of the Enlightenment, and Rousseau was against it.
In his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, Rousseau started his attack at the foundation of the Enlightenment project: Reason. The philosophes were exactly right that reason is the foundation of civilization. Civilization’s rational progress, however, is anything but progress, for civilization is achieved at the expense of morality. There is an inverse relationship between cultural and moral development: Culture does generate much learning, luxury, and sophistication—but learning, luxury, and sophistication all cause moral degradation.
The root of our moral degradation is reason, the original sin of humankind. Before their reason was awakened, humans were simple beings, mostly solitary, satisfying their wants easily by gathering from their immediate environment. That happy state was the ideal: “this author should have said that since the state of nature is the state in which the concern for our self-preservation is the least prejudicial to that of others, that state was consequently the most appropriate for peace and the best suited for the human race.”
But by some unexplainable, unfortunate occurrence, reason was awakened; and once awakened it disgorged a Pandora’s Box of problems upon the world, transforming human nature to the point that we can no longer return to our happy, original state. As the philosophes were heralding the triumph of reason in the world, Rousseau wanted to demonstrate that “all the subsequent progress has been in appearance so many steps toward the perfection of the individual, and in fact toward the decay of the species.” Once their reasoning power was awakened, humans realized their primitive condition, and this led them to feel dissatisfied. So they started to make improvements, those improvements culminating most strikingly in the agricultural and metallurgical revolutions. Undeniably, those revolutions improved mankind’s material lot—but that improvement has in fact destroyed the species: “it is iron and wheat that have civilized men and ruined the human race.”
The ruin took many forms. Economically, agriculture and technology led to surplus wealth. Surplus wealth in turn led to the need for property rights. Property, however, made humans competitive and led them to see each other as enemies.
Physically, as humans became wealthier they enjoyed more comforts and luxuries. But those comforts and luxuries caused physical degradation. They began to eat too much food and to eat decadent food, and thus became less healthy. They came increasingly to use tools and technologies, and thus became physically less strong. What was once a physically hardy species thus became dependent upon doctors and gadgets.
Socially, with luxuries came an awakening of aesthetic standards for beauty, and those standards transformed their sex lives. What was once a straightforward act of copulation became tied to love, and love is messy and exclusive and preferential. Love, accordingly, awakened jealousy, envy, and rivalry—more things that set human beings against each other.
Thus reason led to the development of all of civilization’s features—agriculture, technology, property, and aesthetics—and these made mankind soft, lazy, and in economic and social conflict with itself.
But the story gets worse, for the ongoing social conflicts generated a few winners at the top of the social heap and many oppressed losers beneath them. Inequality became a prominent and damning consequence of civilization. Such inequalities are damning because all inequalities “such as being richer, more honored, more powerful” are “privileges enjoyed by some at the expense of others.”
Civilization, accordingly, became a zero-sum game along many social dimensions, the winners gaining and enjoying more and more while the losers suffered and were left increasingly far behind.
But civilization’s pathologies became even worse, for the reason that made civilization’s inequalities possible also made the better-off uncaring about the suffering of the less fortunate. Reason, according to Rousseau, is opposed to compassion: Reason generates civilization, which is the ultimate cause of the sufferings of the victims of inequality, but reason also then creates rationales for ignoring that suffering. “Reason is what engenders egocentrism,” wrote Rousseau, “and reflection strengthens it. Reason is what turns man in upon himself. Reason is what separates him from all that troubles him and afflicts him. Philosophy is what isolates him and what moves him to say in secret, at the sight of a suffering man, ‘Perish if you will; I am safe and sound.’”
In contemporary civilization, this lack of compassion becomes more than a sin of omission. Rousseau argues that, having succeeded in the competitions of civilized life, the winners now have a vested interest in preserving the system. Civilization’s advocates—especially those who are living at the top of the heap and therefore insulated from the worst of the harms—go out of their way to praise civilization’s advances in technology, art, and science. But these advances themselves and the praise heaped upon them serve only to mask the harms civilization does. Foreshadowing Herbert Marcuse and Foucault, Rousseau wrote in the essay that made him famous, the Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts: “Princes always view with pleasure the spread, among their subjects, of the taste for arts of amusement and superfluities.” Such acquired tastes within a people “are so many chains binding it.” “The sciences, letters, and arts”—far from freeing and elevating mankind—“spread garlands of flowers over the iron chains with which men are burdened, stifle in them the sense of that original liberty for which they seem to have been born, make them love their slavery, and turn them into what is called civilized peoples.”
So corrupt, accordingly, is the whole edifice of civilization that no reform is possible. Against the timid moderates who want to achieve the good society in piecemeal fashion, Rousseau called for revolution. “People were continually patching it [the state] up, whereas they should have begun by clearing the air and putting aside all the old materials, as Lycurgus did in Sparta, in order to raise a good edifice later.”
 Rousseau 1755, 37.
 Rousseau 1755, 35.
 Rousseau 1755, 28.
 Rousseau 1755, 50.
 Rousseau 1755, 51.
 Rousseau 1755, 44, 52.
 Rousseau 1755, 20, 22, 48.
 Rousseau 1755, 49.
 Rousseau 1755, 54-55.
 Rousseau 1755, 16.
 Rousseau 1755, 37.
 Rousseau 1749, 36.
 Rousseau 1755, 58-9.
[Next relevant post: Rousseau's collectivism and statism.]
[This is an excerpt from Stephen Hicks's Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Scholargy Publishing, 2004, 2011). The full book is available in hardcover or e-book at Amazon.com. See also the Explaining Postmodernism page.]