A Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences

Author: Jean-Jacques Rousseau  | Date: 1750


*001 Sovereigns always see with pleasure a taste for the arts of amusement and superfluity, which do not result in the exportation of bullion, increase among their subjects. They very well know that, besides nourishing that littleness of mind which is proper to slavery, the increase of artificial wants only binds so many more chains upon the people. Alexander, wishing to keep the Ichthyophagi in a state of dependence, compelled them to give up fishing, and subsist on the customary food of civilized nations. The American savages, who go naked, and live entirely on the products of the chase, have been always impossible to subdue. What yoke, indeed, can be imposed on men who stand in need of nothing?

*002 "I love," said Montaigne, "to converse and hold an argument; but only with very few people, and that for my own gratification. For to do so, by way of affording amusement for the great, or of making a parade of one’s talents, is, in my opinion, a trade very ill becoming a man of honour." It is the trade of all our intellectuals, save one.

*003 I dare not speak of those happy nations who did not even know the name of many vices which we find it difficult to suppress; the savages of America, whose simple and natural mode of government Montaigne preferred, without hesitation, not only to the laws of Plato, but to the most perfect visions of government philosophy can ever suggest. He cites many examples, striking for those who are capable of appreciating them. But, what of all that, says he, they can’t run to a pair of breeches

*004 What are we to think was the real opinion of the Athenians themselves about eloquence, when they were so very careful to banish declamation from that upright tribunal, against whose decision even their gods made no appeal? What did the Romans think of physicians, when they expelled medicine from the Republic? And when the relics of humanity left among the Spaniards induced them to forbid their lawyers to set foot in America what must they have thought of jurisprudence? May it not be said that they thought, by this single expedient, to make reparation for all the outrages, they had committed against the unhappy Indians?

*005 It is easy to see the allegory in the fable of Prometheus: and it does not appear that the Greeks, who chained him to the Caucasus, had a better opinion of him than the Egyptians had of their god Theutus. The Satyr, says an ancient fable, the first time he saw a fire was going to kiss and embrace it; but Prometheus cried out to him to forbear, or his beard would rue it. It burns, says he, everything that touches it.

*006 The less we know, the more we think we know. The Peripatetics doubted of nothing. Did not Descartes construct the universe with cubes and vortices? And is there in all Europe one single physicist who does not boldly explain the inexplicable mysteries of electricity, which will, perhaps, be for ever the despair of real philosophers?

*007 I am far from thinking that the ascendancy which women have obtained over men is an evil in itself. It is a present which nature has made them for the good of mankind. If better directed, it might be productive of as much good, as it is now of evil. We are not sufficiently sensible of what advantage it would be to society to give a better education to that half of our species which governs the other. Men will always be what women choose to make them. If you wish then that they should be noble and virtuous, let women be taught what greatness of soul and virtue are. The reflections which this subject arouses, and which Plato formerly made, deserve to be more fully developed by a pen worthy of following so great a master, and defending so great a cause.

*008 Pensees philosophiques (Diderot).

*009 Such was the education of the Spartans with regard to one of the greatest of their kings. It is well worthy of notice, says Montaigne, that the excellent institutions of Lycurgus, which were in truth miraculously perfect, paid as much attention to the bringing up of youth as if this were their principal object, and yet, at the very seat of the Muses, they make so little mention of learning that it seems as if their generous-spirited youth disdained every other restraint, and required, instead of masters of the sciences, instructors in valour, prudence, and justice alone.

Let us hear next what the same writer says of the ancient Persians. Plato, says he, relates that the heir to the throne was thus brought up. At his birth he was committed, not to the care of women, but to eunuchs in the highest authority and near the person of the king, on account of their virtue. These undertook to render his body beautiful and healthy. At seven years of age they taught him to ride and go hunting. At fourteen he was placed in the hands of four, the wisest, the most just, the most temperate, and the bravest persons in the kingdom. The first instructed him in religion, the second taught him to adhere inviolably to truth, the third to conquer his passions, and the fourth to be afraid of nothing. All, I may add, taught him to be a good man; but not one taught him to be learned.

Astyages, in Xenophon, desires Cyrus to give him an account of his last lesson. It was this, answered Cyrus, one of the big boys of the school having a small coat, gave it to a little boy and took away from him his coat, which was larger. Our master having appointed me arbiter in the dispute, I ordered that matters should stand as they were, as each boy seemed to be better suited than before. The master, however, remonstrated with me, saying that I considered only convenience, whereas justice ought to have been the first concern, and justice teaches that no one should suffer forcible interference with what belongs to him. He added that he was punished for wrong decision, just as boys are punished in our country schools when they forget the first aorist of tupto. My tutor must make me a fine harangue, in genere demonstrativo, before he will persuade me that his school is as good as this.

*010 If we consider the frightful disorders which printing has already caused in Europe, and judge of the future by the progress of its evils from day to day, it is easy to foresee that sovereigns will hereafter take as much pains to banish this dreadful art from their dominions, as they ever took to encourage it. The Sultan Achmet, yielding to the importunities of certain pretenders to taste, consented to have a press erected at Constantinople; but it was hardly set to work before they were obliged to destroy it, and throw the plant into a well.


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Chicago: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, "Footnotes," A Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences, trans. G. D. H. Cole Original Sources, accessed June 5, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=GPLMCZ4ZHWDULTY.

MLA: Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. "Footnotes." A Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences, translted by G. D. H. Cole, Original Sources. 5 Jun. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=GPLMCZ4ZHWDULTY.

Harvard: Rousseau, J, 'Footnotes' in A Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences, trans. . Original Sources, retrieved 5 June 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=GPLMCZ4ZHWDULTY.