What constitutes an Enlightenment figure? Kant defines Enlightenment as being man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another.
If we peruse Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s First Discourse (Discourse on the Arts and Sciences) we will read more than once that man was better in a more natural state and that the evil which comes from the arts and letters, luxury, will be the downfall of Man. Rousseau believes that the Enlightenment further increases the gap between men and represents the mask put on by people who think they’re free, when, in fact, they’re more oppressed than ever:
[the sciences, letters, and the arts] spread garlands of flowers over the iron chains which weigh men down, snuffing out in them the feeling of that original liberty for which they appear to have been born, and make them love their slavery by turning them into what are called civilized people.
Rousseau thinks that Enlightenment poses no threat whatsoever to the ruling class. Kant cites Frederick, the prince who knew better than to worry because the simpletons immersed themselves in the arts and sciences – Argue as much as you want and about what you want, but obey! They all knew that as long as people obey their leaders, no amount of Enlightenment will change their status in relation to the aristocrats.
But whilst Kant thought it was necessary and Frederick really didn’t care much about the Enlightenment of the commoners, Rousseau was vehemently against it.
One could easily argue that Rousseau isn’t an Enlightenment figure because of the nature of his Discourses – the arts and sciences create the need for a luxury that doesn’t free the people from the yoke of their leaders, but merely disguises the said yoke (First Discourse); progress, the uprooting of the natural man, civilization are what made man sensitive to illness and evil (Second Discourse).
But, with Kant’s definition as a premise, there can be no doubt that Jean-Jacques Rousseau is a grand Enlightenment figure. He understood the nature of man, he had great insight and saw that true freedom could exist only without the yoke of government and progress, only when man is as close to his inner animal (his original, instinctual state) as possible. He was not afraid to explore this premise and present it in front of learned people, basically telling them that they represent everything that’s wrong with mankind.
Ancient politicians talked incessantly about morality and virtue; our politicians talk only about business and money, he says, emphasizing humanity’s downfall. Further on, he moves to the artist’s dilemma – poverty or principle? If by chance among men of extraordinary talents one finds one who has a firm soul and refuses to lend himself to the spirit of his age and demean himself with puerile works, too bad for him! He will die in poverty and oblivion.
Above all, he deplores the lack of virtue and utility:
We no longer ask if a man has integrity, but if he has talent, nor whether a book is useful but if it is well written. The rewards for a witty man are enormous, while virtue remains without honour. There are a thousand prizes for fine discourses, none for fine actions.
So far we have not seen one single argument in favour of the Enlightenment in Rousseau’s Discourses. Yet we saw that he had the courage to use his understanding of the world, not only without being guided by other individuals, but by defying the Academy with his ideas. These ideas, however, did not confine Rousseau. He knew there was no way of going back. So he proposed something else instead: that virtue be valued above everything else and that if it is necessary to allow progress through arts and sciences, then only the greatest of men should be in charge of it.
Rousseau may not have been an adept of the Enlightenment, but he was, nonetheless, an Enlightenment figure, according to Kant’s definition at least. He not only dared to know, he also had the courage to let others in on his vast knowledge.