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Extra resources for The Political Philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Impossibilty of Reason
The circumstances of the present crisis might be unique. Yet, the underlying pattern is the same as that which Rousseau rejected in the 1750s. Like the Soothsayer of the Village, in his opera of that name, the Genevan foresaw that modernity, rather than liberating man, has locked him up in a system from which there is no escape, no prospect of a blissful afterlife, and no salvation. A world of hedonism and run-amok materialism. Rousseau’s lamentations about the decline of spirituality (see the previous chapter), and his horror at the deification of selfishness, were what caused him to develop an alternative to the models which have prevailed since his own time.
Furthermore, relief from the prospects of a miserable afterlife (as described in Dante’s Inferno) must have seemed refreshing for even the staunchest believer. It was against the backdrop of these developments that Rousseau took up his pen in 1749, to write his Discourse sur les sciences et les arts. The work was not, he would later admit, ‘one of my best’, yet, perhaps, was still his most forceful contribution to the history of the ideas, providing, as it did, the first assault on a creed that had already become the dominant one in the collective psyche of Western society.
Rousseau – like Kierkegaard – was easy to offend. 20 Rousseau broke down when Diderot, in the play Fils Naturel, noted that ‘I appeal to your heart, consult it, and it will tell you that the good man is part of society, only he is evil who lives alone’ (Diderot 1994–97 IV: 1113). It did not help that Diderot, in a subsequent letter to his erstwhile friend, wrote, ‘it is a rather odd citizen who is a hermit’ (Diderot V: 63). Diderot had hit a raw nerve – but also one that prompted Rousseau to make his most lasting contributions.
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