"Know Thyself"

Jamesvansteel By Jamesvansteel, 13th Apr 2015 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Essays

A discussion of Rousseau's understanding of self-knowledge and its importance for human life and education.

Know Thyself

In the preface to his Second Discourse Jean-Jacques Rousseau makes reference to the seat of wisdom and discernment in the ancient world, the temple of the Oracle at Delphi. Of the famous maxims engraved there one is translated “know thyself” a puzzling yet profoundly insightful prescription. In the millennia between its carving and the writing of his First Discourse, Rousseau argues that men have been led astray by placing their trust in the vain study of physical sciences and artistic works, rather than cultivating a deeper understanding of humanity and the virtues by which it can be peaceful and prosperous. He both recreates and redirects the purpose of human learning by defining the pursuits of contemporary “enlightenment” such as the sciences and arts as narrow and corrupting. For him the focus and scope of man’s faculties ought to be turned toward the study and knowledge of man himself, being a discipline that supersedes and provides context for all other forms of knowledge while engendering social virtue. This knowledge of man as revealed through Rousseau’s First and Second Discourses is explored as philosophical investigations into human anthropology and psychology, and provides an intellectual foundation for political and ethical considerations. Although he too readily discredits the accomplishments of science and art in their own right, his conception of the study and knowledge of man as the most challenging yet valuable endeavor casts a powerful new light on our purpose and destiny as a species.

Rousseau describes this knowledge of man as an evolutionary step in human understanding that had just recently been brought back into consideration after lying dormant. While the accomplishments of great minds have in the past allowed man to “rise above himself; soar intellectually into celestial regions; traverse with giant steps like the sun, the vastness of the universe,” it is by turning this cognition inward and investigating man’s nature, duties, and end that humanity accomplishes feats “even grander and more difficult” (35). This grand rhetoric alone, however, is not enough to convince his fellow man that such an ambiguous pursuit is worthwhile and Rousseau sets about defining knowledge of man in terms of the shortcomings of other kinds of knowledge. The practice of government seems at least a worthy enterprise as it causes man to consider his conditions and provide for his wellbeing, but true freedom is nowhere present and enlightenment hardly fosters it:

“The sciences, letters, and arts, less despotic and perhaps more powerful, spread garlands of flowers over the iron chains with which men are burdened, stifle in them the sense of that original liberty for which they seem to have been born, make them love their slavery, and turn them into what is called civilized peoples” (36)

Knowledge of man then, is a study which accomplishes what the sciences and arts alone do not – it reveals the chains of society, of civilization, and of the mind which everywhere remain hidden, engendering a thirst for natural liberty which from birth has been our universal calling.

The effects produced from man’s accepted slavery constitute a corruption and downgrading of his potential. As sciences are “born in idleness, they nourish it in turn; and irreparable loss of time is the first injury they necessarily cause society,” and Rousseau challenges scientists to account for their worth: “had you taught us none of these things, would we consequently be fewer in number, less well governed, less formidable, less flourishing or more perverse” (49-50)? In fact Rousseau goes on to double the injury in that not only has man’s time been wasted, it has even been misused. The sciences are arts have not only led us astray from righteous pursuits, they have, through luxury, made us weaker and contemptible beings as a whole (51). Rousseau places his value not in the trivial and disconnected achievements of these fields, but in the character of soul they encourage.

Here it seems Rousseau fails or neglects to recognize the many progressive and beneficial accomplishments of science especially those regarding agriculture, navigation, and physics. But instead, Rousseau explains that what is lost by focusing on such narrow disciplines is of much greater importance. Again he looks to the Greeks for example, bringing forth arguably the most respected name in philosophy as a witness against the values of enlightenment and for self-knowledge. Socrates condemns the artists, tradesmen, and orators who all boast great knowledge and yet will not admit their own ignorance, explaining “all that superior wisdom attributed to me by the oracle reduces itself solely to my firm conviction that I am ignorant of what I do not know,” as this small knowledge of man and the humility it breeds is of greater value and wisdom than all other human learning (44).

Rather than progress, human virtue seems to be the measure by which the value of learning should be gauged. Where science and art produces idleness, vice, and love of the bonds of society, study of the self and of mankind in general produces virtue, love for liberty, and purpose. It is in self-examination preceding all other inquiries that man comes to know what his nature and natural ends are. Knowledge of man is at once the broadest and most useful undertaking; the simplest to begin and the most difficult to master in that in its course man comes face to face with his own conscience and passions (64).

The utility of the study and knowledge of man can immediately be seen in Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men where he undertakes a grand albeit theoretical catalogue of the development of humanity in both psychological and social terms. In order to understand the current misery of man in society Rousseau must hypothesize for us a narrative of “how you have changed from what you were! It is, so to speak, the life of your species that I am going to describe to you according the qualities you received, which your education and habits have been able to corrupt but have not been able to destroy,” (104). By its very nature, Rousseau’s discourse regards knowledge of man, being a philosophical anthropology of the human species and psychoanalysis of his past and current mental states, defining what was and is natural in man as opposed to the creations of convention. Knowing who and what man is from such a perspective can guide science, inform the arts, provide a context for morality and a basis for politics.

The difficulty of self-knowledge as a species is less evident than difficulties might be in the sciences or arts. Whereas the complexity of measuring chemical reactions or skill required in reproducing a woman’s likeness is seen plainly by all, where does difficulty arise in simply gazing at ourselves? For Rousseau the defining characteristics of mankind are the source of his misery, and man’s very subjective awareness clouds an objective view of himself.

First man is endowed with free will that provides him the faculty of choice with no guide to bring about correct choices. Subject to the same natural impulses as animals, he is free to act on them or not and therefore is constantly at loggerheads with the pressures of desire and interest. Second he is endowed with the “faculty of self-perfection, a faculty which, with the aid of circumstances, successively develops all the others, and resides among us as much in the species as in the individual,” causing man to abandon contentment for unending pursuit of perfection, leading to his perpetual dissatisfaction (113-115). Man cannot easily come to know himself with such uncertain methods and unreachable goals.

Furthermore the tool by which this study of man is accomplished, namely human reason, is directly informed and thus interfered with by inherent human passions. Rousseau connects the two inseparably explaining that it is through the movements of the passions that “our reason is perfected; we seek to know only because we desire to have pleasure; and it is impossible to conceive why one who had neither desires nor fears would go to the trouble of reasoning” (116). With man as the both the instrument and the object of self-knowledge, his motivations become unclear, his discoveries questioned, and his ultimate purpose often left beyond perception.

When Rousseau describes the knowledge of man to be “most useful and least advanced,” he demonstrates a deep understanding of the function of human knowledge in our lives (91). He seeks to turn mankind away from the corruption and waste of pursuits that damage virtue and disguise purpose. For him, the study of man can teach us what we are, what we ought to be, and provide the groundwork for how to make the transition. In the adversity of our own ignorance and confusions lies ultimately the knowledge which can deliver us from them.

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