Kass reports that he was prepared by his experiences at Harvard (with privileged scientific intellectuals) and in Mississippi (with the nobility of the poor and oppressed) for reading “Rousseau’s Discourse on the Arts and Sciences .” This book was the first major effort of a philosopher to oppose the theory and the practical results of the Enlightenment for both philosophical and moral reasons. For the first time, a philosopher makes the case for cultural conservatism, for the view that “progress in the arts and sciences” has the effect of “necessarily” putting us on a path “leading not to human emancipation but to human servitude.”

On the key poiint of this case, Rousseau, Marx, and Dr. Pat Deneen agree. The enlightenment caused by progress in the division of labor empties human life of moral and political content. The result is both restless moral anxiety or disorientation and the reduction of practical life to nothing but a contest for power with necessarily inegalitarian, despotic results. The vain and clever come to rule over those with authentic moral integrity, and the “halo,” as Marx says, is ripped off every way of life that’s not productive. For Rousseau and Marx, the progress is ambiguous; people get smarter and more miserable. Marx can affirm the descent into unendurable misery and servitude as eventually causing a revolution that will somehow produce an unprecedented, unalienated world that’s been the unconscious point of all human striving. There is, thank History, no going back to the simpler times of “rural idiocy,” and Marx writes to explain why the impulse to do so is unreasonable or “reactionary.”

For Rousseau, too, there’s finally no going back, although he romantically or with selective nostalgia hopes to cause us to long to go back to agrarian or even hunter-and-gatherer times. One possible way to avoid the descent into hyper-enlightened hell is to work to preserve what remains of pre-modern love and pity these days. That’s surely part of—although far from all of—Tocqueville’s strategy for America. For Deneen, we’re capable of consciously rejecting parts of techno-enlightenment—parts of the contemporary division of labor—in the name of the moral integrity, freedom, and happiness that are only possible when we’re not radically displaced. Kass owes less to Rousseau than even Deneen, who somehow embraces the Rousseauean view of the division of labor without all the baggage of his view of History.

What’s true in the DISCOURSE, Kass sees, is just as obviously a criticism of our sophisticated “public intellectuals,” “professors,” and urbane sophisticates today as it was of similar types in eighteenth-century Paris. It’s the only thing Rousseau ever wrote that’s all that attractive to me. It’s easy and fun to teach. Students immediately see that it’s a powerful criticism of most of their professors and of even the vanity of their own claims to intellectual and so moral superiority. Religous and patriotic students—after enduring Machiavelli, Descartes, Locke, etc.—are thrilled to finally have a philosopher—a clearly atheistic philosopher—on their side.

Becuse Kass spends three paragraphs of a short speech on this DISCOURSE and mentions nothing else Rousseau wrote, I would guess he agrees with me. Rouseau articulated the human objections to Enlightenment, but that’s not to say there’s much to be said for the solutions to them he lays out in the DISCOURSE ON INEQUALITY and/or THE SOCIAL CONTRACT. The solution to the modern problem of miserable, restless, liberated individualism is not, as Rousseau says, to become more consistently individualistic or more consistently constructivist. By nature, Rousseau says, we have no human content, which means that any human solution has to be a conscious social or, better, political/Historical construction. For Kass, unlike Rousseau, human nature is not an oxymoron, and Kass has no faith in or even belief in History.

There’s a lot more to say. I haven’t even gotten to the three paragraphs yet.

Articles by Peter Lawler


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