Rousseau on Social Conventions

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Excerpt from Discourse On the Science and the Arts

“Has the revival of the sciences and the arts contributed to the improvement or the corruption of morals?”

It was by this species of cultivation which is all the more captivating as it seems less affected, that Athens and Rome were so distinguished in the ages of their splendor and magnificence: and it is doubtless by the same means that our own age and nation will distinguish itself above all those of antiquity. A philosophical precision without pedantry; a culture free from affectation, equally distant from the rusticitiy of the Germans and the buffoonery of the Italians; these are the effects in France today of a taste acquired by liberal studies, and improved by conversation with the world. How happy would it be to live among us, if our external appearance were always a picture of the inward disposition of our hears; if decorum were virtue; if the principles we professed were the rules of our conduct; and if real philosophy were inseparable from the title of philosopher! But so many good qualities seldom go together; virtue delights not in so much pomp. A superb dress may denote opulence; elegance a man of taste; but the truly healthy and robust are known by different indications. It is under the rustic habit of a laborer, and not beneath the lace or embroidery of a courtier, that we should look for bodily strength and activity. Exterior ornaments are not less foreign to virtue, which is the strength and activity of the soul. The man of probity is an athlete who loves to combat his adversary naked; he despises those paltry trappings which prevent the exertion of his strength, and were for the most part invented only to conceal some deformity.

It is a noble and beautiful prospect to see man, rising by his own efforts out of nothing, and dissipating by the light of reason that darkness with which nature enveloped him; to see him raise himself in imagination beyond his native sphere; penetrating the celestial regions, and, like the sun, encompassing, with giant strides the vast extent of the universe: To behold him again descending to himself—a task still more noble and difficult—there to investigate his own nature and faculties, and so discover the design of his creation and his duty to his fellow creatures. The operation of all these marvels has been renewed within a few generations.

Europe has relapsed into the barbarism of primitive times. The inhabitants of that part of the world which is at present so greatly enlightened, long lived in a state even worse than that of ignorance. A scientific jargon, more despicable than ignorance, has usurped the name of learning, and formed an almost invincible obstacle to its restoration.

Things had arrived at such a pass, that it required a total revolution in men’s ideas, to bring them back again to commonsense. That was at length brought about by those from which it was least expected. It was the ignorant Moslem, perpetual scourge of letters, who was the immediate cause of their revival among us. The fall of the throne of Constantine carried into Italy the ruins of ancient Greece, with which precious spoils France in her turn was enriched.

Man is subject to intellectual as well as to corporeal needs. The latter constitute the fabric of society, and the former the ornaments of it. So long as government and the laws provide for the security and happiness of a people, the arts and sciences, less despotic though perhaps more powerful, conceal the iron chains of slavery under a garland of flowers. They stifle in the breasts of men that sense of liberty for the enjoyment of which they seem to have been born; and, by making them love their slavery, form what is called a cultured people.

Before art had polished our manners, and taught our passions to speak the language of affectation, our manners were rude but natural; a difference in behavior proclaimed at first sight a difference of character. Human nature was not in itself better; but men found their security in the ease of knowing each other’s character: and this advantage, of which we know not the value, saved them from many vices.

At present, more subtle researches and a more refined taste, have reduced the art of pleasing to a common system. Hence it is that a servile and fallacious conformity prevails in modern manners; so that one would think our minds were all cast in the same mold. Politeness requires this thing, decorum that; ceremony has its forms, and fashion its laws, by which we are constantly prevented from following the dictates of our own spirit or understanding. We no longer dare to appear what we really are, but live under a perpetual constraint; in this throng of mankind, which we call the world, all act under the same circumstances exactly alike, unless some very particular and powerful motives prevent them. For this reason, we are ever at a loss to know a man’s true character; and, even to know one’s friend, one must wait for some crisis to prove his friendship; that is, until it is too late; as it is just on those occasions that such knowledge is of any use to us.

What a train of vices must necessarily attend this uncertainty! Sincere friendship, real esteem, and perfect confidence are banished from among men: while umbrage, suspicion, fear, coldness, reserve, hatred, and betrayal lie constantly concealed under that uniform and deceitful veil of politeness, that false candor and urbanity, which we owe to the superior culture of this enlightened age. Oaths and imprecations have become vulgar, and the name of our Creator is no longer profaned in polite company, whose delicate ears are nevertheless not in the least offended by the worst blasphemy. We are grown too modest to boast our own merit, but scruple not to enhance it by derogating from that of others. We do not rudely attack even our enemies, but artfully culminate them. Our prejudices against other nations diminish, but so at the same time does our love for our own country. A despicable ignorance has given way to a dangerous skepticism. Some vices indeed are condemned, and others grown fashionable; but we still have many that are honored with the names of virtues, and it has become necessary that we should either have, or at least affect to have them.

Such if the purity which our morals have acquired; thus it is that we have become virtuous. Let the arts and sciences reclaim the share they have had in this salutary work. To this I shall add but one reflection more; which is this, that if an inhabitant of some distant country should endeavor to form an idea of European morals from the state of our sciences, the perfection or our arts, the decorum of our public entertainments, the politeness of our behavior, the affability of our speech, our constant professions of benevolence, and from those tumultuous assemblies of people of all ranks that appear from morning till night eager to oblige each other; such as stranger, I say, would believe our system of moral to be totally contrary to what it really is.

While there is no apparent effect, it is idle to look for a cause: but here the effect is certain: depravity is manifest and our minds have been corrupted in the same proportion as our arts and sciences have been improved. Will it be said, that this is a misfortune peculiar to the present age? No, the evils resulting from our vain curiosity have developed with our world. The daily ebbing and flowing of the tides are not more regularly influenced by the moon than are the morals of a people by the progress of the arts and sciences. Virtue has disappeared in proportion as their light has been displayed above the horizon, and the same phenomenon has been observed in all times and in all places.

Excerpt from Eloisa (discussing urban public life circa 1810)

And yet, notwithstanding their adopting this abject doctrine, one of the favourite topics of these societies is sentiment ; a word by which we are not to understand the sensation of a heart susceptible of love or friendship : this would be thought vulgar and disgusting. No sentiment consists in great and general maxims ; heightened by the most sublime subtilties of metaphysics. I can safely say that, in my life, I have never hoard so much talk of sentiment, nor ever comprehended-so little what was meant by it ; so inconceivable are these French refinements! Our simple hearts, Eloisa, never were governed by any of these fine maxims ; and I am afraid it is with sentiment in the polite world, as it is with Homer among the pedants, who discover in him a thousand imaginary beauties, for want of taste to point out his real ones. So much sentiment is here laid out in wit, and evaporated in conversation, that none is left to influence their actions. Happily, politeness supplies its place, and people act from custom nearly as they would from -sensibility: at least so long as it costs them only a few compliments, and such trifling restraints, as they willingly laid themselves under in order to be respected ; but, if any considerable sacrifice of their ease or interest is required, adieu to sentiment. Politeness does not proceed so far : so far as it goes, however, you can hardly believe how nicely every article of behaviour is weighed, measured, and estimated.

What is not regulated by sentiment is subjected to custom, by which indeed every thing here is governed. These people are all professed copyists; and, though they abound in originals, nobody knows any thing of them, or presumes to be so himself. To do like other people, is a maxim of the greatest weight in this country : and this is the mode,—that is not the mode, are decisions from which there is no appeal. This apparent regularity gives to the common, and even the most serious transactions of life, the most comical air in the world. They have settled even the very moment when it is proper to send cards to their acquaintance ; when to visit with a card, that is, to visit without visiting at all; when to do it in person ; when it is proper to be at home ; when to be denied ; what advances it is proper to make, or reject, on every occasion ; what degree of sorrow should be affected at the death of such or such a one * ; how long to mourn in the country ; when they may come to console themselves in town ; the very day, and even the minute, when the afflicted is permitted to give a ball, or go to the play. Every body in the same circumstances does the same thing : they keep time, and their motions are made altogether, like the evolutions of a regiment in battalia ; so that you would think them so many puppets, nailed to the same board, or moved by the same wire.

Now, as it is morally impossible that all these people, though they act in the same manner, should be at once equally affected, it is plain, their peculiar characters are not to be known by their actions; it is plain their discourse is only a formal jargon, which assists us less to form a judgment of the French manners in general, than the peculiar mode of conversing in Paris. In like manner, we learn only here their terms of conversation, but nothing by which we can judge of their estimation in the conduct of life. I say the same of most of their writings ; and even of their theatrical representations ; the stage, since the time of Moliere, being a place where they rather repeat agreeable dialogues...