Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

The Educational Theories of Herbart and Froebel: II. The Rousseau and the Problem of Civilization in the Eighteenth Century

by John Angus MacVannel - 1905

II ROUSSEAU AND THE PROBLEM OF CIVILIZATION IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY 1. The dominant tendencies of the intellectual life of the eighteenth century may be indicated as follows: (a) A movement towards the emancipation of human thought and activity, and the liberation of man from the influence of past dogmas and traditions. The psychology of the 'Enlightenment' contained two fundamental propositions, borrowed from Leibnitz (while omitting the deeper implications of his doctrine): (i) ideas are the constituents of the mental life, and (2) the fundamental difference in mental life is the difference between dark and clear ideas. The 'Enlightenment' of the understanding became the watchword, and to the test of the ' understanding' every belief, institution, creed, must submit or be rejected.



1. The dominant tendencies of the intellectual life of the eighteenth century may be indicated as follows:

(a) A movement towards the emancipation of human thought and activity, and the liberation of man from the influence of past dogmas and traditions. The psychology of the 'Enlightenment' contained two fundamental propositions, borrowed from Leibnitz (while omitting the deeper implications of his doctrine): (i) ideas are the constituents of the mental life, and (2) the fundamental difference in mental life is the difference between dark and clear ideas. The 'Enlightenment' of the understanding became the watchword, and to the test of the ' understanding' every belief, institution, creed, must submit or be rejected.

(b) The ideal of Individualism which manifested itself in the prevailing theories of knowledge, of morality, and of human society. In addition to the notion borrowed from Leibnitz that ideas are the constituent elements of the mental life, a theory of the origin of these ideas had been derived from English Empiricism. A psychology grounded on experience and regarded as the fundamental science became the basis of attack in political, aesthetic, moral, and religious problems, (1) Locke declared, "All knowledge is from experience." Interpreting experience in terms of sensation, and materialistically, the Encyclopaedists claimed that we have no knowledge of anything incapable of being experienced by the senses. (2) Pleasure or happiness was regarded as the legitimate end of the individual's action and enlightened selfishness the only rule of conduct.

(c) The prevailing Deism, or the tendency to so-called 'natural religion' of the period. In harmony with the dominant intellectualistic psychology noted above, it was at first argued that Christianity was not mysterious but reasonable, and that the value of religion could not lie in any unintelligible element. Difficulties still remaining, revealed religion came to be questioned and attacked as either superfluous or untrue or both. The outcome among many of the leaders of thought and opinion was either mere toleration of or thoroughgoing opposition to religious beliefs, both natural and revealed.

(d) The belief in a state of nature as man's primitive condition, by some writers regarded as a state of human equality, goodness, and happiness. Coupled with this is the ideal of the so-called return to nature. (Concerning the notion of a ' state of nature,' see Davidson's Rousseau, pp. 3-23.)

(e) The conception of the state or society as the outcome of a social contract consciously and voluntarily entered into by individuals for their own good.

From the preceding analysis it will be seen that the dominant characteristic of the eighteenth century was its individualism and its opposition to the accepted dogmas as well as the actual conditions in church and state: and the work of its representative thinkers and writers was directed chiefly towards the establishment of a new type of philosophy (theoretical and practical), based on the principles of individualism and naturalism. This tendency, indeed, had been gradually but steadily growing and formulating itself through the preceding three centuries. It came to clear consciousness in Rousseau as the problem of civilization. Since the Renaissance a new type of civilization and culture had been developing, and at length a voice was raised, asserting the falsity of the whole thing. Rousseau in the modern, as the Sophist in ancient times, was the first clearly to raise the question of the worth of civilization to the life of the individual. In all his writings this fundamental question reappears in one form or another and again and again: What is the value and significance of human history and human civilization for the morality and happiness of the individual? Is it true, indeed, that the growth of human knowledge and the increasing complexity of human relationships, inseparably connected with so-called civilization, has been for the good of man as man, and made for his true happiness? Does not civilization hinder rather than enhance the happiness as well as the morality of man? In whatever form this question had hitherto expressed itself, back of it all we find the individual coming to a consciousness of himself, of his rights and powers, as independent of what he conceived to be the arbitrary environment which surrounded him. This reaction against authority, now manifest in the Renaissance, now in the Reformation, now in the development of Rationalism, and ultimately in the Revolution, brought the individual into sharp relief. It shows the individual continually becoming more conscious and more determined. The very meaning and significance of society came to be questioned. Is not society a merely artificial product? Does it not merely impede the individual, hinder his development, and thwart his freedom? Is not the individual man, after all, the measure of all things, the criterion of what things are true, and what things are good?

2. When we think of the spirit of the eighteenth century it is the name of Voltaire which almost inevitably comes to mind. When we consider the century by itself it is Voltaire who perhaps best of all embodies and represents the entire period. On the other hand, when we think of the eighteenth as preceding and conditioning in large measure the spiritual history of the nineteenth, it is rather to Rousseau and his work that we must turn.

While it is safe to consider Rousseau (1712-1778) as an epoch-maker in the history of thought, nevertheless to regard his work and that of his contemporaries as an absolute break with the past is to take an inadequate view of the entire movement which it is supposed to constitute. In the evolution of ideas it is difficult to determine just when a particular idea or tendency begins to operate. Failure to recognize the danger of selecting arbitrary starting-points for intellectual and spiritual movements is to lose sight of the essential continuity of human thought and experience. As a social phenomenon Rousseauism may be said to have been conditioned in its origin and in its course by the character of the period which had preceded it. It arose, it is true, in what seems a distinctly conscious break with the past. It was intended, indeed, that the past should be suddenly superseded, that the individual should be freed in thought and action. This very intention, however, had its own historic conditions, its own period of preparation in the past. The movements, therefore, connected with the name of Rousseau, were not altogether suddenly initiated, nor are they yet by any means finished processes. The principles which made them possible were at work in the preceding period, and even now those same principles are being carried to their fuller development.

In estimating the character and influence of Rousseau it is necessary to keep in mind two things: (a) his own nature, (6) his relation to the thought of his times. He was at once original and impressionable — an exponent perhaps more than the originator of ideas. However inconsistent at times his writings may appear, it is not a difficult matter to realize how completely they reveal the nature of the man as well as the character of the times in which he lived.

3. Rousseau's Writings. — As has been noted above, the one question fundamental to the thought of Rousseau is civilization. Partly owing to his own character and experience, and partly to the influences at work in the life about him, Rousseau became the interpreter or exponent of the tendencies and aspirations, and of the general temper of unrest prevalent in his time, and his writings critiques of existing institutions, (1) Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, 1750. In 1749 the Academy of Dijon proposed as a theme for a prize-essay the topic, "Has the restoration of the sciences contributed to purify or corrupt manners?" Rousseau's essay won the prize. Henceforth his attitude towards civilization as making for morality and happiness was a negative one. (2) The Origin of Inequality, 1753. (3) The New Heloise, 1761. An attack on the feudal family: his chief work as an imaginative writer. "The novelty of the book lay," writes Brandes, "in the first instance, in the fact that it gave the death-blow to gallantry, and, consequently, to the theory of the French classical period on the subject of the emotions. This theory was that all noble, fine emotions, and chief among them love, were the products of civilization." Brandes goes on to note more fully the four characteristic features: (i) Love as a natural, not artificial or conventional mannerism, (ii) Inequality in station of the hero and heroine, (iii) The moral conviction of the sanctity of marriage, (iv) Nature in its literal significance. "For the first time, out of England, we have the genuine feeling for nature in fiction, superseding love-making in drawing-rooms and gardens." (Main Currents of Literature in the Nineteenth Century, Vol. I. For the influence of Rousseau on Goethe, see p. 20 ff. of the same volume.) (4) The Social Contract, 1762. Devoted to the political problem — the sovereignty of the people, the equality of men. "Man is born free but is everywhere in chains." The 'Social Contract' was but a part of a much larger scheme, as projected, of entire social equality. (5) Emile, 1763. Devoted to the educational and religious problem. "While others were content with the mere enunciation of maxims and precepts, he breathed into them the spirit of life, and enforced them with a vividness of faith that clothed education with the augustness and unction of religion" (Morley). (6) Confessions, 1782. Published four years after his death.

4. The Social and Ethical Theories of Rousseau. — (1) The theory of the State of Nature. Since, according to Rousseau, all that is natural, all that is good, all that is fundamentally human, has disappeared with advancing civilization and culture, the only relief for man from such universal degeneracy is to be hoped for from a return to nature on the part of the individual and society alike. And this return is to be achieved through a new type of education and the formation of a state conformed to nature. (2) The theory of the Social Contract. (3) The conception of the 'general will.' (4) Reaction against the Philosophy of the 'Enlightenment' — in psychology, in religion, in aesthetics. (5) Education as the fundamental form of social reconstruction. (See Chap. VI.) (5) In an appreciation and criticism of the doctrines of Rousseau the following points might be noted:

(a) Rousseau did well in forcing upon the reluctant mind of his generation the problem of civilization, its validity and its shortcomings. But the genius and temperament of Rousseau is destructive, rather than creative or reconstructive. While discerning what was transient in the civilization of his day, he was unable to indicate within it that which was of permanent significance for humanity.

(b) While he recalled his generation from a blind worship of the past, yet Rousseau's appreciation of the meaning and significance of history was wholly inadequate. As was to be shown by later writers, the importance of the past lies in its lesson for the present and future. The survival of beliefs, institutions, customs, is an evidence of their significance to the human spirit, and this is to be estimated, not abruptly denied. Rousseau, however, had little, if any, appreciation of the continuity of history.

(c) Rousseau's notion of a 'state of nature' in which are realized both liberty and equality (as he uses the conceptions) seems impossible for man as at present constituted. If you have the one you cannot have the other. In Rousseau's conception of liberty the errors of individualism are set in clear relief. In failing to recognize that human life is essentially social and moral, he confounds mere natural spontaneity with that rational or spiritual freedom which is gained, as Kant maintains, through the limitation and control of mere natural spontaneity or desire in the presence of law. (See also Chaps. Ill and VI.)

(d) Though not a psychologist in the strict sense of the term, nevertheless Rousseau maintained a psychological attitude towards life, with the result that his works contain the germs of several divergent lines of thought and experience in the succeeding generation. While he was influenced by both Rationalism and Empiricism, yet for him the element of feeling is the central, the fundamental, element in the human mind. In Rousseau, Romanticism in large measure took its rise. "The man who has lived most is not he who has numbered the most years, but he who has the keenest sense of life." It was this element of feeling or passion which made Rousseau's influence a power. He infused into the ideas he accepted from his time this element of passion, and at once they became vital, influential in the minds and hearts of his readers. By vindicating with impassioned eloquence the right of the whole personality of the individual to participate in the solution of its deepest problems, in opposition to the one-sided 'understanding' of the 'Enlightenment,' Rousseau became a pre-Kantian defender of the faith of practical reason. His words found their response in Herder, Goethe, Schiller, Kant, Fichte, and Pestalozzi. His emotions were, moreover, extremely complex, now self-centered and selfish, now, to all appearances, altogether altruistic. He felt keenly the burden of human life in the France of his day, yet he too often regarded it as merely his own. In this passionate exercise of feeling there was something which constantly tended to carry him beyond a purely individualistic view of man, and to a more adequate conception of his relation to nature, to other men and to God than had hitherto prevailed. Although, for example, his notion of religion is still, in the main, deistic, yet connected with it is an emotional element which is an anticipation of a newer conception which was soon to follow. "I believe in God . . . because a thousand motives of preference attract me to the side that is most consoling, and join the weight of hope to the equilibrium of reason." Further his sympathy towards man has within it the promise of better things to come. "It is the common people," he writes, "who compose the human race: what is not the people is so trivial that it is not worth taking into account. Before one who reflects, all civil distinctions disappear; he sees the same passions, the same feelings in the clown as in the man of note and reputation; he only distinguishes their language, and a varnish more or less elaborately laid on." Thus Rousseau's somewhat emotional 'return to nature' had important bearings upon (1) the reaction against mere rationalism in matters of belief, (2) the movement towards democracy with its deeper and wider Humanism and its appreciation of the worth and dignity of man as man, (3) the appreciation of the significance of nature for the human spirit, and of its power to respond and minister to human needs. Rousseau's work, though for the most part destructive, contained within it elements which, later on, inevitably made for social reconstruction.


Bonar, Philosophy and Political Economy; Bosanquet, Philosophical Theory of the State; BrunetieTe, History of French Literature; Davidson, Rousseau and Education according to Nature; Dietericli, Kant und Rousseau; Fester, Rousseau und Geschichtsphi-losophie; Hudson, Rousseau; Levy-Bruhl, History of Modern Philosophy in France; Macdonald, Studies in the France of Voltaire and Rousseau; Morley, Rousseau; Ritchie, Natural Rights; Win-delband, History of Philosophy; Wundt, Ethical Systems. Further problems for study:


Sources of the doctrine of Rousseau.


Rousseau's psychology.


The concept of 'equality' in the writings of Rousseau.


Rousseau's theory of society.


The conception of civilization in Rousseau.


The conception of the 'general will" in Rousseau.


Rousseau's doctrine of nature and culture.


Rousseau's relation to Romanticism.


Influence of Rousseau on Kant, Goethe, and Pestalozzi.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 6 Number 4, 1905, p. 6-12
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 9837, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 8:11:11 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue