Rousseau's Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences
Each artist much deal with Rousseau’s Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences in his own way.
Any cogent analysis of the document must first begin with an examination of how Rousseau defines and distinguishes between moral and immoral behavior.
According to Rousseau, in an ideal society, each man would be, “attentive only to the obligations of humanity and the necessities of nature,” spending his whole life, “serving his country, obliging his friends, and relieving the unhappy.” Men should be “resolute and vigorous,” should seek, “magnanimity, equity, temperance, humanity, and courage,” as well as “military discipline,” while working “unanimously for the happiness of mankind,” and studying “valour, prudence, and justice.”
“Idleness” is to be feared. The “effeminate and cowardly” are to avoided. “Every useless citizen should be regarded as a pernicious person.”
The only questionable virtue he describes is military discipline, which could be coupled with the obligation of man to serve his country – elements which receive much emphasis in the tract. Rousseau argues that the arts and sciences breed an idleness and fear of military involvement that frequently leads to the downfall of nations. Though this notion may be correct, his argument directly contradicts his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, written five years later, where he states, “Hence arose the national wars, battles, murders, and reprisals which make nature tremble and shock reason, and all those horrible prejudices which rank the honor of shedding blood among the virtues.” The matter becomes confused when you take into account the argument that military conflicts, and the systems that perpetuate their continuance, are in a sense, morally wrong. And unnatural, as Rousseau argues when he writes, “more murders were committed on a single day of fighting and more horrors in the capture of a single city than were committed in the state of nature during whole centuries over the entire face of the earth.”
However, in general, what Rousseau describes as “moral” seems to be in congruence with tenets preached by most religions and philosophies of the world – that people should devote themselves to the reduction of suffering. And here we find the troubling issue with which every artist must grapple. As Rousseau says, “We do not ask whether a book is useful, but whether it is well-written. Rewards are lavished on wit and ingenuity, while virtue is left unhonoured.” The arts, according to Rousseau, are motivated by vanity, pride, the desire to please one another, and encourage a society obsessed with luxury.
The desire to please one another is a curious one, opening the worm-can of complexities that is the audience/artist relationship. Rousseau speculates on what an artist would do if living in an age when “the greatest masterpieces of dramatic poetry are condemned, and the noblest musical productions neglected.” Answering a question that circulated through the blogosphere in the past year, he predicts that the artist “will lower his genius to the level of the age, and will rather submit to compose mediocre works, that will be admired during his lifetime, than labour at sublime achievements which will not be admired till long after he is dead.”
As for the vain pursuit of fame and luxury that frequently accompanies whatever seemingly noble justifications an artist may have for his work, Rousseau relays this advice: “Let us not covet a reputation we should never attain, and which, in the present state of things, would never make up to us for the trouble it would have cost us, even if we were fully qualified to obtain it. Why should we build our happiness on the opinions of others, when we can find it in our own hearts?”
And he concludes with a declaration especially relevant in our country’s current fame-obsessed atmosphere: “We must learn to be content without envying the fame of those celebrated men, whose names are immortal in the republic of letters. Let us, instead of envying them, endeavor to make, between them and us, that honourable distinction which was formerly seen to exist between two great peoples, that the one knew how to speak, and the other how to act…”
Rousseau’s arguments are difficult for the modern artist. One could certainly respond with talk about the lack of absolute morality, a notion which he brazenly dismisses. One could claim he merely replaces one method of finding satisfaction in life – the pursuit of fame, luxury, and acceptance – with an equally arbitrary goal – the reduction of mankind’s suffering – similarly allowing men to artificially create meaning by setting a goal and measuring the significance of their existence by the extent to which they can achieve it. However, these rebuttals leave me feeling like Ivan Karamazov. When Ivan learned that Smerdyakov used his cold, rationalist worldview as a justification to murder his father, Ivan spiraled into the depths of insanity, hallucinating conversations with the devil. Similarly, when I look deep into the eyes of the suffering created in a world with no absolute morality, I am even more certain of the existence of pure evil. Consequently, upon reading Rousseau’s Discourse, I conduct a long examination of my motivations and intentions as an artist, as all others should.