Rousseau, Discourse on the Arts and Sciences

Here are some questions to consider in regard to Rousseau’s Discourses. As usual, these are meant to be pretty open-ended and to spur further discussion among you.

Do you think Rousseau is right to link advancement in the sciences and arts to a decline in moral and civic virtue? Is he right to say that we become more slavish as the luxuries in our lives increase? Are we better or worse people than we were in earlier ages?

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Do you see examples of the sort of thing Rousseau is critiquing in the Discourse on the Arts and Sciences today, in contemporary American society? Do you see them among your peer group?
Do you think Rousseau is right that politics should be about virtue and excellence rather than wealth and economics? Why or why not? Do you think a government that does not actively promote virtue will be able to produce excellent citizens?
How strong is his critique of natural law theories? Does it rightly apply to Hobbes? To Locke? To St. Thomas?


Jean-Jacques Rousseau was right in his assessment that advancement in sciences and arts to the decline of moral and civic virtue. Initially, the ideals that held humanity together were based on divine duty, but as science advances, the more we discover that we are not so different from any other life on the planet. Worse still, we may not be the most intelligent lifeform in the universe. With such discoveries eliminating God’s divine intent for our lives, it becomes easy to abandon what is right and our civic duty. Rousseau’s further revelation that we become more slavish as the luxuries in our lives increase is also true. Reason and logic are that if there are people who can do something and I can pay for it with money, then I do not really have to know how to do it. And, like that, we are slaves to each other, highly dependent on what others can offer us instead of developing the will and skill to apply it ourselves. In this case, we are worse than the previous generations because for them, to be good huntsmen, they developed muscle and went into the fields to gather their plunder. In contrast, today, there is no need for all of that; if a machine can do it, then the task is considered accomplished.

Rousseau’s observations are evident everywhere in the modern world. Privatization of production rights gains a selected number of people incredible wealth while others live in abject poverty. However, I disagree with him on the point that politics should be about virtue and excellence rather than wealth and economics. A government cannot be tasked to enforce moral virtue, which only individuals can by themselves. The role of any government is to offer its people freedom of choice even when it is not an entirely moral one, and that is how exceptional citizens can be produced. In his philosophy, Rousseau offers vital input into modern discussions that offer important insight into how we respond to ideas and concepts. In particular, topics ranging from the role of a government and solving the inequality crisis in different parts of the world.


Rousseau, J. J. (2009). Discourse on the Arts and Sciences. The University of Adelaide Library.

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