[Jean-Jacques Rousseau] Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts

  • Title: Discours sur les sciences et les arts
  • Author: Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  • Published: 1750
  • Book: The Basic Political Writings
  • Translated: Donald A. Cress, 1987
  • Publisher: Hackett Publishing company Inc.
  • ISBN: 978-0-87220-048-7

DISCOURS QUI A REMPORTÉ LE PRIX A L’ACADEMIE DE DIJON 

en l’année 1750 

Sur cette question proposée par la même Académie: 

Si le rétablissement des sciences et des arts a contribué à épurer les moeurs

Par un Citoyen de geneve

the original cover of the book

Jean-Jacques Rousseau is a philosopher of paradox, not because he spoke about contradictions, but because his theories seemed inconsistent, making it difficult for us to read Rousseau’s works. “Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts” is Rousseau’s first major writing, which made him known to the intellectual world.

In 1749, the Academy of Dijon set a prize for an essay to the question: “Has the restoration of the sciences and arts contributed to the purification of morals?” Rosseau responded to this question with an answer that is different from general thoughts.

Happy slaves, you owe them that delicate and refined taste on which you pride yourselves; that sweetness of character and that urbanity in mores which make relationships among you to cordial and easy; in a word, the appearance of all the virtues without having any.

from the book

According to Rosseau, morality is based on patriotic dedication to one’s duties. The realm of knowledge, especially from sciences, lacks moral judgment. Arts makes people look at appearances, and people are lost in the name of refined tastes. As you can easily guess, Rosseau’s argument is generally based on that of Plato.

The first discourse set the life-long theme for Rosseau. The advance of civilization corrupts human beings, which are good by nature. In the shadow of sciences and arts, people do not see the decline of social morality.

Hence in order to know one’s friend, it would be necessary to wait for critical occasions, that is, to wait until it is too late, since it is for these very occasions that it would have been essential to know him.

from the book

The discourse is short, but it gives you a lot of materials to think over:

  • The nature of human beings.
  • The concept of morality. 
  • The limitation of sciences and art. 

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