A Discussion of Rousseau and Mill on the Contributions of the Arts and Sciences to Society
“It has become appallingly clear,” Albert Einstein famously argued, “that our technology has surpassed our humanity.” Somewhat ironically, Einstein himself was among the greatest contributors to the preeminence of science and technology in contemporary society, some two hundred years after Jean-Jacques Rousseau had presented a similar argument against the arts and sciences at the Academy of Dijon.
In 1750, while visiting an imprisoned Diderot in Vincennes, Rousseau read an advertisement for an essay contest sponsored by the Academy of Dijon. The theme of the contest was “Whether the Restorations of the Sciences and Arts has contributed to the purification of morals.” Writing in the negative, Rousseau won the contest and a year later, his first discourse “On the Sciences and Arts” was published. The arguments within were strongly against the emphasis that the European Enlightenment had placed on reason and the universality of human nature. As such, Rousseau was lauded by critics and vilified by supporters of the Enlightenment.
A century later, in 1863, English citizen John Stuart Mill wrote what would later become one of the most important philosophical works, Utilitarianism. In Utilitarianism, Mill argued for the Greatest Happiness Principle, which “holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness (Utilitarianism 2).” He also elucidated, in response to an objection of this principle, that there are differences in the qualities of pleasures, arguing that “there is no known Epicurian theory of life which does not assign to the pleasures of the intellect, of the feelings and imagination, and of the moral sentiments, a much higher value as pleasures than to those of mere sensation (Utilitarianism 2).” In his essay “Civilization,” Mill discusses the role that the developments in art and science play in moving towards a more civilized society, and defends the progress that society has made in these areas against the “noble savagery” of a less civilized society, such as the one defended by Rousseau.
John Stuart Mill’s teleological philosophy of right action, that holds an action is right when it produces the best consequences contrasts sharply with the competing deontological view of the time, which holds that an action is right or moral independent of its consequences. In a teleological line of reasoning, it would seem as though things like artistic and scientific developments, that enrich and prolong life, would be justified if not necessitated by society, and unsurprisingly, J.S. Mill supports these. In Utilitarianism, Mill talks about what he believes to be the “great positive evils” of the world, or those things with would be universally decried and avoided by societies if at all possible. Mill was optimistic about the ability of human progress in the arts and sciences to eventually get rid of human ills altogether. He argued:
“Poverty, in any sense implying suffering, may be completely extinguished by the wisdom of society, combined with the good sense and providence of individuals. Even the most intractable of enemies, disease, may be indefinitely reduced in dimensions by good physical and moral education, and proper control of noxious influences; while the progress of science holds out a promise for the future of still more direct consequences over this detestable foe (Utilitarianism 7).”
This, in part, also explains why Mill was such an ardent advocate of free speech and individual liberties. He believed, that in a free marketplace of ideas, the best ideas sponsored by those with a natural propensity towards them, would rise to the top and push the arts and sciences forward. He warned, however, that society did often times fail to recognize the ideas that would benefit society, and that ensuring individual liberties was the only safeguard against societal suppression of these ideas against its better judgment. In the third chapter of On Liberty, Mill argues:
“If it were felt that the free development of individuality is one of the leading essentials of well-being; that it is not only a co-ordinate element with all that is designated by the terms civilization, instruction, education, and culture but itself is a necessary part and condition of those things, there would be no danger that liberty would be undervalued, and the adjustment of the boundaries between it and social control would present no extraordinary difficulty. But the evil is that individual spontaneity is hardly recognized by the common modes of thinking, having any intrinsic worth, or deserving any regard on its own account (On Liberty 1).”
In his essay on “Civilization,” Mill describes two different types of civilization: the first being the idea that a civilized country is more “eminent in its best characteristics,” Ð’- that its citizens are farther advanced on the road to perfection. They are happier, wiser, and nobler than they would be otherwise. The second type of civilization that Mill describes is civilization as a distinguishing factor from savagery, or that which differentiates Europeans and ancient barbarians. Mill accepts as an uncontested truth that the first type of civilization would be embraced by all people, but wonders as to whether civilization, in the second sense, tends to “impede” certain goods (Civilization 148).
Jean-Jacques Rousseau would be less generous towards the uncontestable benefits of the civilizing forces in both definitions. With regard to the first definition, the logical strain that: individual progress leads to scientific and artistic breakthroughs, and these lead to societal development in the arts and sciences, which in turn lead to things like new medicines that cure diseases and increase aggregate happiness, seems undeniable. Rousseau, however, would have retorted that Mill was overlooking a step: that the progress that leads to the development of, for example, the positive technologies of medicine and transportation also engender the things like pollution, overcrowding, urbanization, and disease that they’re designed to remedy.
Rousseau calls these associations the “false pathways in the investigation of the sciences” (Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts 11). He anticipates those who defend the false associations of progress, when they discover the failure of their logic, to fall back on arguments like: “What purposes would jurisprudence serve without the injustices of men? What would history become if there were no tyrants, no wars, no conspirators? What would we do with the arts without the luxury that feeds them?” (Discourse 11). It is reasonable to believe that Rousseau does not wish or expect a drastic abandonment of artistic and scientific development (in fact he argues that in some capacity they may be necessary for society), but he does advocate a scaling back of abundance and luxury as they exert a corruptive influence on the arts and sciences.
Such a proposal reintroduces Mill’s second definition of civilization: the attributes of modern society that distinguish it from primitivism. It is important to note, first, that Rousseau does not simply propose a “naÐ”Ð‡ve plea for primitivism,” and he advocates “far more than an exhortation to his contemporaries to abandon culture and returned to some happy pre-civilized condition (Gay 1).” To understand this, it would be helpful to first look at how Rousseau understands individuals in the state of nature. In a natural state, Rousseau believes that individuals enjoy a healthy self regard and sympathy for other individuals.
At some point, though, this self-regard turns unhealthy, as a person in the state of nature lusts after acceptance and distinction and begins to act according to how he wants to be seen in the eyes of others. As a result, Rousseau’s social contract aims to create a community where individuals care about each other. The way he argues to achieve this is through a general will, where individuals in society are educated to have similar interests, and a compassion towards the competing ideas of each other. Mill argues in Civilization that an inability to cooperate on collective, societal projects is what “makes all savage communities poor and feeble” (Civilization 152), but it seems like Rousseau’s “general will” is clearly a more civilized approach to development than Mill’s individual will, which sets individuals against each other in a dangerous way.
So why are the arts and sciences in a civilized society specifically more dangerous than in Rousseau’s? Mill admits to two pernicious effects the arts and sciences can have on the moral development of civilized society: the direct influence of civilization itself upon individual character, and the moral effects produced by the insignificance into which the individual falls in comparison with the masses (Civilization 160). One of the effects of a high state of civilization, with rapid developments in the arts and sciences is the relaxation of individual energy, or what Rousseau refers to as “idleness” Ð’- the concentration of one’s efforts on their own money-getting pursuits. Mill describes exactly how this happens in Civilization:
“As civilization advances, every person becomes dependent, for more and more of what most nearly concerns him, not upon his own exertions, but upon the general arrangements of society. In a rude state, each man’s personal security, the protection of his family, his property, his liberty itself, depends greatly upon his bodily strength and his mental energy or cunning: in a civilized state, all this is secured to him by causes extrinsic to himself (Civilization 161).”
This problem of idleness is a serious problem for a society, argues Rousseau. He argues first that indulgences in the arts like theatre, which is born from the vices of laziness and luxury, manifest those vices in society, and on that level, they cause more people to be lazy, luxurious, and waste time in their indulgences. “The misuse of time is a great evil,” Rousseau argues, and further goes on to say “In politics, as in moral philosophy, it is a great evil not to do good, and every useless citizen may be viewed as a pernicious man” (Discourse 12). In addition to being born out of and spawning idleness, Rousseau attributes the arts and sciences to the deterioration of other important societal values. While he is willing to admit that the conveniences of life increase alongside technology, he argues that true courage is eroded, and military virtues disappear when “the work of the arts and sciences we practice in the darkness of the study” (Discourse 15). Rousseau, in this argument, seems to be elucidating a downside to what Mill describes as a benefit to civilization in his essay on the subject. Mill argues that the minimization of pain for individuals in a society caused by technological and artistic advancements is undeniably a good thing for society. He says:
“One of the effects of civilization (not to say one of the ingredients in it) is, that the spectacle, and even the very idea, of pain, is kept more and more out of the sight of those classes who enjoy in their fullness the benefits of civilization” (Civilization 162).
Rousseau, in his discourse, argues that on face, this is not the case. While, unlike Mill, he believed that the state of nature was not one of “perpetual conflict,” he did argue that the great societies were those which prioritized things like military virtue and heroism above idle pursuits like the arts and sciences. Rousseau would have looked at modern man, and the state of modern warfare, and admitted that if modern man were to gather all of his tools around him and face a savage opponent, he would win easily.
But, Rousseau would add, that stripped of the instruments of modern warfare, he is no match for the heroic individual who has developed by embracing physical pain, and can use his body to the fullest. Rousseau describes how, when the ancient society of the Goths ravaged Greece, they spared the libraries from destruction “only because of the opinion spread by them, that the enemy should be left to the furnishings so well suited to distracting them from military exercise and to amusing them with idle and sedentary occupations” (Discourse 15). Charles VIII, he described, “found himself master of Tuscany and the Kingdom of Naples practically without having drawn his sword, and his entire court at attributed this unexpected ease to the fact that the princes and the nobility of Italy had a good time becoming ingenious and learned more than they exerted themselves trying to become vigorous and warlike” (Discourse 15).
It seems like, though, that Mill in response would ask whether the prevalence of bloodless revolutions and the trend against conflict is a bad thing, or whether it ever should have existed in the first place, according to Rousseau’s theory that the uncivilized man in nature is motivated out of pity and not self-interest. He does admit however, that heroic individuals, or those who are willing “to do and sufferÐ’…whatever is painful or disagreeable”, are a benefit to society, and without them society is worse off than it would be otherwise. Why? Mill believes that civilization has crafted individuals in such a way that:
“they can not undergo hard labor, they can not brook ridicule, they cannot brave evil tounges: they have not the hardihood to say an unpleasant thing to anyone whom they are in the habit of seeing, or to face, even with a nation at their back, the coldness of some little coterie which surrounds them” (Civilization 164).
While recognizing this, Mill would be reluctant to admit defeat from this argument, because while heroism is a valued quality of individuals in society, the enjoyment military might and bravado are what he would consider “inferior pleasures” to those of philosophy and the arts and sciences. One who has experienced both the luxuries of academia and the thrill of conquest would, in Mill’s opinion, favor the former as a lifestyle, while admitting they may be inclined at time to succumb to the latter.
The second moral dilemma presented by the arts and sciences that J.S. Mill confesses to in Civilization is the moral effects produced by the insignificance into which the individual falls in comparison with the masses. He recognizes in a civilized society, with more interaction between individuals via new, more effective modes of transportation and information dissemination, a single individual has a tendency to get “lost in the crowd,” or the flow of information and ideas (Civilization 165). Using the example of a tradesman in a large and small town, he illustrates the idea that in a highly civilized, highly developed society, people tend to be more reliant on public opinion, and less reliant on themselves. In the example of a tradesman in a small society, where for the most part everyone knows everyone else, an opinion of this particular tradesman has been formed by his customers after repeated trials.
Individuals in this society judge for themselves whether his products are worth buying, and the tradesman will acquire the character, individually and professionally, which his conduct entitles him to (Civilization 165). The case is far different than that of an individual seeking goods in a large city, who must rely almost exclusively on public opinion when deciding which patrons he will patronize. Among technological advancements lately, the one that seems to make the world the smallest is the internet, and society’s reliance on public opinion, or the user ratings of an unknown seller on eBay, seems to illustrate Mill’s point quite well. Mill also expresses concern for literature in a society with many books. When there were few books and few read at all, he argues, “books were written with the well-grounded expectation that they would be read carefully, and if they deserved it, be read often” (Civilization 166). But, he goes on to say:
“This is a reading age; and precisely because it is so reading an age, any book which is the result of profound meditation is, perhaps, less likely to be duly and profitably read than at a former period. The world reads too much and too quickly to read well” (Civilization 167).
How does Mill ultimately propose to solve these problems in conjunction with the continued human progress in the arts and sciences? The moral evils of civilization that have been enumerated so far are first “that the individual is lost and becomes impotent in the crowd, and second, that individual character itself becomes more relaxed and enervated. “For the first evil,” Mill proposes, “the remedy is greater and more perfect combination among individuals;” and for the second, “national institutions of education, and forms of policy, calculated to invigorate the individual character” (Civilization 169). Rousseau is also largely a proponent of society educating its citizens to appreciate certain things over others, but he questions how Mill plans to build “combination among individuals” in a highly-individualized society. In terms of a spirit of cooperation, Mill points to the growing trend in Europe towards the dissolution of competitive businesses due to the fall of profits and consequent increases in population and capital. He argues that this trend will lead not to the complete extinction of competition, but to business administered by, and for the benefit of, a general association of the whole community. In terms of the impact that this collectivization of business has on the arts and sciences, Mill says that it will push them forward, because otherwise “the amount of human labor, and labor of the most precious kind, now wasted, and wasted too in the cruelest manner, for want of combination, is incalculable” (Civilization 170).
Rousseau, in a letter to D’Alembert, argues that the progression of the arts and sciences (specifically the arts) is damaging to the political economy of a country, and traces five distinct harms that it incurs. The first is a “slackening of work” as people will be encouraged to pursue amusement rather than to work (On Rousseau 84). This is consistent with the vice of “idleness” that Rousseau talks about the arts and sciences being born out of and reintroducing into society in Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts. The second disadvantage of the progression of the arts and sciences on political economy is an “increase in expenses,” whereby individuals are forced to spend more on things like civil dress for theater, and the latest developments in medicine and technology, like the availability of steroids for competitive athletes or plastic surgery for those dissatisfied with the way in which they appear to others.
The third argument that Rousseau puts forward is an argument from decrease in trade, because less is produced and prices are higher. Fourth, the “establishment of taxes” generated from needing to keep roads to the theater accessible (I have no idea), and finally the “introduction of luxury.” This last point is Rousseau’s most compelling, that, not unlike the amor propre that arises in a state of nature, women will attend the arts “not just to see the show, but to be seen as well” and those with different social statuses will want to demonstrate their status with their dress. Such displays will reify class distinction and destroy the healthy sense of community that government and society should seek to create between the individuals within it. “We have physicists, geometers, chemists, astronomers, poets, musicians, painters;” Rousseau pointed out, “we no longer have citizens” (Discourse 17).
Most importantly, Rousseau goes on to say, the geometers, chemists, astronomers, poets, musicians, and painters of society are simply unnecessary. In Part One of his Discourse, Rousseau elaborates on the foundations of society, and claims that:
“The mind has its needs, as does the body. The needs of the latter are the foundations of society; the needs of the former make it pleasant. While the government and the laws see to the safety and well-being of assembled men, the sciences, letters and the arts, less despotic and perhaps more powerful, spread garlands of flowers over the iron chains with which they are burdened, stifle in them the sense of that original liberty for which they seem to be born, make them love their slavery, and turn them into what is called civilized peoples” (Discourse 3).
The civilized values impressed upon us by the arts and sciences misrepresent what are our real ethical mores. The extent of this misrepresentation is so severe, that, “if an inhabitant of distant lands who sought to form an idea of European mores on the basis of the state of the sciences among us, the perfection of our artsÐ’…that foreigner, I say, would guess our mores to be exactly the opposite of what they were” (Discourse 4). Mill would also be distressed by Rousseau’s following argument: that the introduction of art has eliminated differences of character between individuals. He argues that “before art had fashioned our manners and taught our passions to speak an affected language, our mores were rustic but natural, and differences in behavior heraldedÐ’…differences in characterÐ’…Today, when more subtle inquiries and a more refined taste have reduced the art of pleasing to established rules, a vile and deceitful uniformity reigns in our mores” (Discourse 4). The overarching effect of the arts and sciences on society is not, like Mill argues, to promote the accomplishments of the individual, but to push those accomplishments in a particular direction in line with the refined tastes of civility, but not with the will of the individual.
It can be said of Jean-Jacques Rousseau that he wanted to restore individual humans to their natural goodness. An ideal society, in his opinion, would work through the general will of its citizens to preserve the natural goodness of the individual. Absent from this society, except in basic forms that were necessitated by society to “keep corrupt individuals from pursuing wickedness in other things (Rousseau’s own play Preface to Narcissus: Or the Lover of Himself), would be the arts and sciences, as they impress false cultural mores upon us, stifle our individuality and ideas about our separateness from government, hurt political economy, and supplant traditional virtues like heroism and activity. On the other hand, J.S. Mill would stand in proposition of the march of the modern arts and sciences. Arguing from a utilitarian point of view, improvements in the sciences minimize pain and increase the quantity of life, and improvements in the arts create a forum for discussion and the free flow of ideas.
These, according to the differences in pleasures, present a better lifestyle than the primitive, militaristic attributes of a less civilized society. Arguing from a libertarian point of view, from the free speech that is essential to a free and good society spring the arts and sciences, as the ideas of innovators are pushed to the top in the marketplace of ideas. It is fair to say that Rousseau never really believed in getting rid of civilization or the arts and sciences altogether, but it is true that, unlike Mill, he believed that the arts and sciences playing less of a prominent role in the way societies are shaped would be, on balance, a good thing.