Rousseau and the Enlightenment
Instructor: Pamela K. Jensen, Professor Emerita of Political Science, Kenyon College
Does moral progress result from progress in the arts and sciences, including technology? That is what Swiss-born French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wondered at the height of France’s 19th-century culture wars—the Enlightenment—and his writings still contribute to our understanding of the culture wars today. His prize-winning essay Discourse on the Sciences and Arts seems to show him to be a strong proponent of “the virtue of simple souls” and against the pernicious influence of the “philosophes,” but historical evidence may say otherwise. Dissecting Rousseau’s opposition to Voltaire, his controversial support of censorship, and plans to bring enlightenment and moral-political reformation together will reveal the literally revolutionary thought world of the Enlightenment, and how Rousseau’s thinking still influences our political climate today.