I am made unlike anyone I have ever met; I will even venture to say that I am like no one in the whole world. I may be no better, but at least I am different.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva in 1712. His mother died in childbirth, and his father was forced to flee the country after assaulting a French officer, leaving Rousseau in the care of a rich uncle. Growing up in an alpine environment kindled Rousseau’s love of nature. It also taught him the virtues of rural life; respect for manual labour, spontaneous friendship, patriotic self-sacrifice, hatred of injustice, and arbitrary power. Yet his life was full of contradictions. He valued friendship but died alone. He wrote a book on education (Emile), in which he advocated duty and moral education. Yet in real life, he abandoned his five children to an orphanage, stating they would be better off not knowing him. Civic duty encapsulated his patriotism and love of country, but he was chased out of three countries.

Rousseau was born a Protestant, converted to Catholicism out of necessity, and then resumed his Protestant faith to return as a citizen of Geneva. The church was a major influence on social, moral, and political life, although many viewed it with suspicion, especially Catholicism. They saw it as clinging to outdated and superstitious principles that it imposed on the masses. Rousseau rejected the divine right of monarchs and the divine order of natural inequality. He argued that the only just rule was citizens over themselves, an idea taken up during the French Revolution. There are fundamental themes in Rousseau’s philosophy: the natural goodness of uncorrupted human beings, the notion of moral order, an intelligence that directs the universe, and the idea of virtue and fulfillment resting in self-love independent of arbitrary social expectations.

Unlike many enlightenment thinkers, he thought progress was the source of moral corruption. In his Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, he said they were neither intrinsically good nor bad. However, their advance does not correspond with moral progress, nor does it make humanity happier. Physics, he states, has discovered the proportions that govern the attraction of bodies in a vacuum. Philosophy is about how the mind and body interact, and biology looks at the breeding patterns of insects. None of these makes a man’s life any better. Scientists only have the time to pursue such experiments because their basic needs are satisfied. This also takes them away from their practical, moral, and civil duties. With Rousseau’s emphasis on agriculture, we can assume science takes individuals away from producing their own food and feeding their families.

The arts can render the participant meek and are limited to the cerebral. They spread a desire for luxury and true courage drained of vitality, as humanity does not experience the pain of hunger, thirst, fatigue, danger, or death. Where there is no need, there is no incentive to strive to do better. Individuals become petty and trivial, worry about unimportant things, and neglect the significant ones. We praise those who are well-dressed and cultured rather than those who are truly good. Where luxury and ostentation are elevated over virtue, society turns away from simplicity and public-spiritedness in favour of outward appearance.

We value everything in monetary terms, based on a cost-benefit analysis, rather than doing what is right. An artist will produce ordinary, frivolous items that the consumer wants rather than works of value, which will only be appreciated after their death. Every artist wants to be praised for his or her work but is trapped within the opinions of society. In his discourse on inequality, Rousseau argues that vanity and greed bring out the worst in people. They see the poverty and lowliness of others as a source of superiority, not compassion. Together with selfishness and cruelty, they become the product of an unjust social arrangement. People create systems of domination and oppression that are formed under the law and the state. Countries that were based on power could never make a moral claim to allegiance under civic duty.

Rousseau saw society replacing true virtue with custom and etiquette. Custom teaches individuals to conceal everything to comply with the rules of conduct. This will mean no more sincere friendship, no more real esteem, and no more confidence. Instead, we will have suspicion, offence, fear, coldness, reserve, hate, and betrayal hidden under the veil of politeness. Politically correct vocabulary can be viewed as using the right words to replace virtue, especially if the mistake led to someone being regarded as prejudiced. It would be even worse if someone held offensive views and was always careful to act politically correctly.

Society becomes populated with clever deceivers whose manners appear exquisitely refined, but they hide a selfish character. This leads to a debased culture and tyrannical, oppressive political institutions. Education teaches young people languages they do not need to speak and obscure historical facts, but not the ability to think for themselves. They may achieve these accomplishments to feel wise and virtuous, but it does nothing to help them love their country or their fellow man. Rousseau also worried about apathy, arguing that if national hatred died out, then so would the love of country. As he said, there would be no pride in national culture as part of a larger society. He felt military virtue made someone brave, rugged, and courageous.

If the arts and sciences do not progress society but lead to moral corruption, then less advanced societies must be more virtuous than technologically superior ones. Rousseau argued that the social arrangements of these complex societies suppressed virtue and created destructive vices. Unfortunately, he did not outline a standard of good moral habits, manners, and customs. Simpson suggests we can deduce from Rousseau’s work that a moral society would be built on simplicity, honesty, frugality, diligence, sincerity, courage, integrity, public spiritedness, self-governance, and military strength.

Rousseau was not advocating a moral society based solely on a collection of simple, rustic warriors living off the land and conquering their neighbours, but a life that also valued the mind and values that included spontaneous friendship, respect for manual labour, patriotic self-sacrifice, hatred of injustice, and arbitrary power. Equally, technology and intellectual culture alone cannot provide the things that make life satisfying, such as friendship, integrity, and public service. It is only through a combination of these things that a full and satisfying life is established.