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"OF MAN'S FIRST DISOBEDIENCE": ROUSSEAU AND MODERN PESSIMISM H. STEINHAUER T HE year 1949 belonged to Goethe as the bi-centenary of his birth. It brought back to our minds the humanist way of life and gave the orators and eulogists an opportunity to indulge in wistful dreams of a golden age that lies far behind us. The year 1950, a bi-centenary of another sort, belongs to JeanJacques Rousseau. Two hundred years ago Rousseau published his first, epoch.making essay on the corrupting influence of the arts and sciences. We should therefore be celebrating, this year, the bi·centenary of what the Germans call K ulturpessimismus. And it must be admitted that rarely have men been so ready to enter into the spirit of such a celebration as in this "sour year" 1950. The peculiar brand of irra· tional pessimism which is raging like a swollen river, fed by political and social anxieties and existentialist philosophy, can be traced back through the nineteenth century to the tiny mountain spring which is Rousseau's essay. The First Discourse (Discours sur les sciences et les arts) , a pamphlet of some thirty pages, is without doubt one of the documents that have changed our world. I Rousseau himself has told the story of his beginnings as a literary man. During the summer of 1749 he was in the habit of paying a daily visit to his friend Diderot, who was imprisoned at the chateau of Vincennes, five miles from Paris. As he could not afford to hire a carriage , he walked the distance and back every day. He would start in the early afternoon and read a book as he tramped the road. On one such walk he was looking through a copy of the Mercure de France when his eye was caught by the announcement that the Academy of Dijon was offering a prize for the best essay on the theme: "Whether the Progress of the Sciences and Arts Has Contributed to Corrupt or to Purify Manners." Rousseau was electrified. "The moment I read this," he writes in the Confessions, "I saw another universe, and I became another man." He sat down by the wayside and scribbled out a brief essay which lamented the fact that Rome, in her days of luxury and splendour, had 'Iorgotten her ancient virtue and austerity. When he arrived at U NIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, vol. XX. no. I, Oct., 1950 2 THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY Vincennes, in a state of feverish excitement, he read the short paper to Diderot who encouraged him to develop the idea and to submit the essay for the prize. Rousseau did so; he won the prize and became famous. Traditional opinion, following Rousseau's own lead, has seen in this maiden effort but a faint adumbration of what was to come from his pen. It seems to me, on the contrary, that even this early work already shows the mature Rousseau, the master dialectician and cunning Machiavellian, that uncanny mixture of noble idealism and practical, even grossly utilitarian, spirit which we find in all his later writings. Consider the task which Rousseau set for himself. He is to convince a body of academicians-scholars, scientists, artists-that the sciences and arts which they cultivate are born and bred in corruption. He knows that he is a nobody; yet this nobody expects the learned men to listen quietly as he pronounces them to be cOITupters of morals and promoters of decadence. What is more, he expects them to award him a prize for this performance. And he does his job so well, that he does get the prize! Rousseau's technique in handling this situation is masterly. It reveals a mixture of humility and arrogance, the two basic qualities of his personal psychology. Thus, in the very first paragraph he presents his credentials, so to speak, by describing himself as an upright man who knows nothing, hut who thinks no less of himself for that. Having both humbled and exalted himself, he now proceeds to do the same for the jury of academicians. While admitting the paradoxical nature of his mission, he slyly relies on the honesty of his...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 1-10
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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