Rousseau: "An Encyclopeadia of Modern Thought"

The title of Paul Johnson's book is, Intellectuals:  From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky, but he actually begins with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who embodied all the ideals of the French Revolution, the source of all our modern ills. It would be hard to overestimate Rousseau's influence on the modern world, even on people who have never read him.
Rousseau was the first to combine all the salient characteristics of the modern Promethean:  the assertion of his right to reject the existing order in its entirety; confidence in his capacity to refashion it from the bottom accordance with principles of his own devising; belief that this could be achieved by the political process; and, not least, recognition of the huge part instinct, intuition and impulse play in human conduct. He believed he had a unique love for humanity and had been endowed with unprecedented gifts and insights to increase its felicity. An astonishing number of people, in his own day and since, have taken him at his own valuation...
Rousseau altered some of the basic assumptions of civilized man and shifted around the furniture of the human mind. The span of his influence is dramatically wide but it can be grouped under five main headings. First...he popularized and to some extent invented the cult of nature... He introduced the critique of urban sophistication. He identified and branded the artificialities of civilization...
Second...Rousseau taught distrust, gradual improvements...and looked for a far more radical solution.  He insisted that reason itself had severe limitations as the means to cure society. That did not mean, however, that the human mind was inadequate to bring about the necessary changes, because it has hidden, untapped resources of poetic insight and intuition which must be used to overrule the sterilizing dictates of reason...
Third...[his writings were] the beginning of both the Romantic movement and of modern introspective literature.
The fourth concept Rousseau popularized was in some ways the most pervasive of all. When society evolves from its primitive state of nature to urban sophistication, he argued, man is corrupted: his natural transformed into a far more pernicious instinct...which combines vanity and self-esteem, each man rating himself by what others think of him and thus seeking to impress them by his money, strength, brains and moral superiority. His natural selfishness becomes competitive and acquisitive.
The evil of competition, as he saw it, which destroys man's inborn communal sense and encourages all his most evil traits, including his desire to exploit others, led Rousseau to distrust private property as the source of social crime. His fifth innovation, then, on the very eve of the Industrial Revolution, was to develop the elements of a critique of capitalism...
All culture brings problems since it is man's association with others which brings out his evil propensities... The culture in which man lived, itself an evolving, artificial construct, dictated man's behaviour, and you could  improve, indeed totally transform, his behaviour by changing the culture and competitive forces which produced it - that is by social engineering.
These ideas are so wide-ranging as to constitute, almost by themselves, an encyclopeadia of modern thought. (pp. 2-4)


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