I am not exactly shy at expressing my distaste for the Enlightenment. I give it due credit for certain things; the right to speak and think and believe as one will was hard fought and rightly deserved, and I’ll give the philosophes full credit for being at the forefront of championing such ideas. In other ways though, the ideals perpetrated by the thinkers of that time can also be held responsible for a great deal of harm though I will concede much of it was unintentional on their behalf. Of all the philosophers of that age, however, none can be held up for more blame than Rousseau. Through his twisted words and reasoning true evil can be attributed, to a degree even greater than the writing of Marx & Engels given that their words can at least in part be attributed to the worldview that Rousseau helped to create.
To summarize Rousseau, he theorized that originally man lived in a state of nature, but unlike the one posited by Thomas Hobbes his was not a perilous dark forest of despair and terror but instead an idyllic grove of peace and happiness. In this state man lived in peaceful isolation, content and happy with his lot in life. He knew neither violence or hate or envy. Then in an egregious error, to Rousseau at least, the concept of civilization and settlement came to man, as the first fences were erected around the first acres of private property denying all access to the fruits of the earth as had previously been the case. From this man was corrupted to his deformed modern self. However, in this same downfall were the keys to man’s rebirth, for Rousseau reasoned that if the change in man’s environment that came from civilization corrupted him so too could that corruption be purified if only man’s environment were changed again to conditions that would do so. Utopia had been lost, but by altering societal conditions into just the right formula another one could be regained.
On the face of it this appears like harmless thinking enough. In essence it is a retelling of the story of Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden without God and a different version of salvation, one brought about by human hands as opposed to Lordly grace. Like a poisonous mushroom, however, the most simple and inoffensive of exteriors can hide the most destructive and corrosive effects. When one delves beyond the surface of Rousseau’s words the true toxin is revealed.
To begin with he’s just plain wrong. The history of man is not even remotely as Rousseau describes it; indeed he admits as much by urging his readers to abandon the facts for they do not matter. Yet the great problem is that he uses a fictional set of circumstances to prescribe actual solutions to the real problems of mankind and bases them on reasoning that he admits comes from nowhere other than his own imagination. Taking the pretend idea that man was naturally good and peaceful but corrupted by civilization, he argues that by changing the conditions of society in the real world we can therefore alter man’s nature. One criticism I often hear from my readers is that for all my critiques of modernity I am awfully vague about what I would propose in its place, and I wholly admit to that. The reason, quite simply, is that I reject the idea you can take abstract theoretical principles and use them to mould society. Instead, I take the Burkean view that society evolves organically, with institutions and practices arising and continuing because they happen to work, i.e. the traditional family or the natural hierarchies of society. Through an empirical examination of such matters, we can arrive at likely solutions to issues as they arise. To be fair, for all this fault of thought process Rousseau was neither the first or the last to indulge in them. It is far from the worst sin of his sins.
Far more dangerous is his idea of the perfectibility of man. By beginning with the concept that in his original form mankind was peaceful and naturally good, Rousseau damns his ideas utterly by robbing them of any basis in reality. In truth man in his most natural form, when robbed of all constraints and controls placed on him by custom, law and morals, is the most contemptable of all creatures. He possesses all the viciousness and killer instinct of any other animal with a far higher degree of intelligence and a particularly disturbing taste for sadistic cruelty (which is not found even in the most deadly of other carnivores). Society, far from corrupting us, is what purifies us from these baser, natural impulses; through the holy trinity of throne, altar and hangman’s noose they are constrained and made subservient through sheer necessity of survival and natural human inclination to follow the customs of the herd. To tamper with these pillars of stability is to threaten to break the invisible chain of civility that holds man back from his most wicked nature and in doing so let Fenris loose amongst the world.
And tamper with it Rousseau does, for after all to him civilization is not what makes man into someone capable of living with his fellows but instead corrupts him from his idyllic natural self; by changing the environment that creates that corruption, however, one can change that corrupted nature back towards something less detestable – at least in the eyes of our foolish Frenchman. And this attitude is one we see repeated again and again throughout history by countless revolutionaries and progressives of all stripes. Simply tweak the conditions of man enough, they reason, and man will become naturally better. We see this logic everywhere, from the terrorist apologist who arguing that 9/11 and Islamic State are simply the chickens of colonialism and economic disenfranchisement coming home to roost to the feminist proponents of rape culture who argue that fraternity chants and patriarchy somehow condition otherwise normal men into misogynistic Casanovas. It is never the fault of the individual, but rather the individual is somehow always the product of the environment he is surrounded by, because otherwise our dear progressive fool would be forced to admit an unfashionable truth….that some people are simply evil. Once that is admitted, their entire worldview falls apart, for is some people are evil then by logical conclusion others are good. If some people are evil and some people are good then it follows we are not in fact all equal (as humans and not merely before the law), as we have been conditioned from birth to believe, and hierarchy becomes not some curse to be exorcised by rather a natural condition of mankind.
But most damning of all is the license that Rousseau’s writings give to his disciples. “We must force our brothers to be free” he wrote. Ponder the implications of this for a moment. If man was once naturally good but corrupted by society, and by altering society we can so alter man, then in doing so we would do nothing less than bring about utopia (and not in the next world as promised by Christianity but in this living and breathing one we now inhabit). So those who oppose the changes that are needed to bring about the necessary evolution in human nature are not just wrong in their opinion but obstacles to the creation of a very literal heaven on earth. Truthfully, what is not allowable in such circumstances to remove such obstacles? What is the life of one man, or even a million, when compared to the untold multitudes alive today and yet to be born that will benefit when man’s corrupted nature is set right again? What temporary injustice is not justified? After all, one cannot make an omelette without first breaking a few eggs.
It is this attitude of the ends justifying the means, for the end is nothing less than perfection, which has justified the most horrendous atrocities known to the history of man. It is for this reason that more mass murders have been committed upon people for the sole unforgivable crime of being deemed not sufficiently progressive enough for their fellows than any other sin ever known. This road, which Rousseau admittedly only took the first few tenuous steps upon, is the one that leads to Auschwitz, to the communist gulags of Siberia, and the guillotine of revolutionary France. It is the license that justified the murder of Romanov children in a basement in Yekaterinburg. It is the mentality that led to the silence of Western intellectuals on the famine in the Ukraine. It is this logic that rationalized the lunacy of men such as Pol Pot and Mao and Kim dynasty of North Korea. It is for this reason than Rousseau’s name should no longer be spoken of as one of the intellectual giants of civilization.
It is for this reason that his name should instead be spoken as a curse.