First Discourse on Arts and Science
Author: Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Place of Publication: Paris
Date Published: 1750
Number of Editions: 46
"Discourse on the Arts and Sciences," also known as "First Discourse," is a significant philosophical work that writer and composer Jean-Jacques Rousseau submitted to the Academy of Dijon in 1750. In this discourse, Rousseau explores the effects of civilization and the arts on human morality, virtue, and happiness in unconventional ways.
Going against conventional Enlightenment theory, Rousseau argues that the development of arts and sciences leads to a decline in human morality and freedom. He contends that civilization, with its focus on material progress and the accumulation of knowledge, corrupts human nature. He suggests that these pursuits create artificial needs, inequality, and social divisions, ultimately leading to moral decay and the loss of human authenticity. Throughout the work, he calls back to a number of societies to prove this point.
Rousseau contrasts the simplicity and virtue of primitive societies such as the Spartans, with the corrupting influence of civilization like that of the Romans. He argues that in a natural state, humans are inherently good and guided by their natural instincts. However, the pursuit of knowledge and the arts separates individuals from their natural state, fostering competition, envy, and moral decay. Rousseau posits that true happiness lies in returning to a simpler way of life, closer to nature and free from the trappings of materialistic civilization.
The "Discourse on the Arts and Sciences" was Rousseau's first major work and gained him significant attention and recognition. It established him as a prominent writer to be engaged with and set set the stage for his later influential works, such as "The Social Contract" and Emile.