The French Deists: J. J. Rousseau

Compiled by Lewis Loflin

J. J. Rousseau (1712 - 1778) gave quite a different tendency to Deism. Accepting in the main the sensualism of Locke and the metaphysics of Clarke and Newton, he maintains after the manner of Shaftesbury and Diderot a belief in inborn moral instincts which he distinguishes as "sentiments" from mere acquired ideas; he is true to the position of Deism in connecting this moral "sentiment" with a belief in God, and he protests against the separation between the two which the skepticism of Diderot had brought about. He was influenced by Richardson, as well as by Locke.

"Sentiment" becomes the basis of a metaphysical system built up out of the data of experience under the influence of the Deistic philosophy, but redeemed from formalism by constant reference to sentimentality and emotion as the principal sources of religion. The nature of religion is not dogmatic but moralistic, practical, and emotional. Rousseau, therefore, finds the essence of religion, not (like Voltaire) in the cultivated intellect, but in the naive and disinterested understanding of the uncultured. Conscious, rational progress in civilization, no less than supernaturalism in Church and State, is an outcome of the fall, when the will chose intellectual progress in preference to simple felicity.

With Rousseau natural religion takes on a new meaning; "nature" is no longer universality or rationality in the cosmic order, in contrast to special supernatural and positive phenomena, but primitive simplicity and sincerity, in contrast to artificiality and studied reflection.

In his scheme of the rise of religions he gets out from the common standpoint of the discrepancies and contradictions prevailing among historic creeds. Yet positive religion to him is not so much the product of ignorance and fear as the corruption of the original instinct through the selfishness of man, who has erected rigid creeds that he might arrogate to himself unwarranted privilege or escape the obligations of natural morality.

Something of the true religion is to be found in every faith, and of all creeds Christianity has retained the greatest measure of the original truth, and the purest morality. So sublime and yet so simple does Rousseau find the Gospel that he can scarcely believe it the work of men.

Its irrational elements he attributes to misconception on the part of the followers of Jesus and especially of Paul, who had no personal communication with him. It was natural that between the advocate of such views and the party of the materialists strife should rise, and in fact Rousseau's religious influence in France was slight. On the rising German idealism, however, he exercised a great influence. Ref. IEP

Note that freedom as Rousseau defines it has nothing to do with individual liberty. Rousseau's views on society are very influential on the political left/liberalism since the 1960s. To quote another source:

Man is by nature good; society is the cause of corruption and vice.

In a state of nature, the individual is characterized by healthy self-love; self-love is accompanied by a natural compassion.

In society, natural self-love becomes corrupted into a venal pride, which seeks only the good opinion of others and, in so doing, causes the individual to lose touch with his or her true nature; the loss of one's true nature ends in a loss of freedom.

While society corrupts human nature, it also represents the possibility of its perfection in morality.

Human interaction requires the transformation of natural freedom into moral freedom; this transformation is based on reason and provides the foundation for a theory of political right.

A just society replaces the individual's natural freedom of will with the general will; such a society is based on a social contract by which each individual alienates all of his or her natural rights to create a new corporate person, the sovereign, the repository of the general will.

The individual never loses freedom, but rediscovers it in the general will; the general will acts always for the good of society as a whole.

To quote www.lucidcafe.com

When Rousseau was 10 his father fled from Geneva to avoid imprisonment for a minor offense, leaving young Jean-Jacques to be raised by an aunt and uncle. Rousseau left Geneva at 16, wandering from place to place, finally moving to Paris in 1742...Rousseau's profound insight can be found in almost every trace of modern philosophy today...

In his early writing, Rousseau contended that man is essentially good, a "noble savage" when in the "state of nature" (the state of all the other animals, and the condition man was in before the creation of civilization and society), and that good people are made unhappy and corrupted by their experiences in society. He viewed society as "artificial" and "corrupt" and that the furthering of society results in the continuing unhappiness of man.

He in many ways is both the father of Romanticism and the pseudo-religious environmental movement of today.

His Discourse on the Arts and Sciences in 1750 argued that the arts and sciences and harmed mankind. These "made governments more powerful, and crushed individual liberty...that material progress had actually undermined the possibility of sincere friendship, replacing it with jealousy, fear and suspicion." To further quote,
(In) "The Social Contract" Rousseau "claimed that the state of nature is brutish condition without law or morality, and that there are good men only a result of society's presence. In the state of nature, man is prone to be in frequent competition with his fellow men. Because he can be more successful facing threats by joining with other men, he has the impetus to do so. He joins together with his fellow men to form the collective human presence known as "society." "The Social Contract" is the "compact" agreed to among men that sets the conditions for membership in society."

An important note: "Rousseau was one of the first modern writers to seriously attack the institution of private property, and therefore is considered a forebear of modern socialism and Communism (Karl Marx)."

And further note: "Rousseau also questioned the assumption that the will of the majority is always correct. He argued that the goal of government should be to secure freedom, equality, and justice for all within the state, regardless of the will of the majority."

Note the term, "in the state" and not the individual. And,

One of the primary principles of Rousseau's political philosophy is that politics and morality should not be separated. When a state fails to act in a moral fashion, it ceases to function in the proper manner and ceases to exert genuine authority over the individual. The second important principle is freedom, which the state is created to preserve. Rousseau's ideas about education have profoundly influenced modern educational theory. He minimizes the importance of book learning, and recommends that a child's emotions should be educated before his reason. He placed a special emphasis on learning by experience.

Major Works of Jean Jacques Rousseau

Discourse on Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences (1750)
Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1755)
The Social Contract (1762)
Emile (1762)
Letters Written from the Mount (1764)
Confessions (1770)

See the following in three parts:



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