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Rousseau’s Maddening Legacy, Part 2

Before I begin part two of my discussion of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, I’d like to clarify some confusion from Part I.

When discussing Rousseau’s view of the evils of competition and the influence of this view on schools, I wrote these words: “And the most radical schools reject grades all together.” I had something very specific in mind when I wrote that; unfortunately, many readers drew a far different conclusion than the one I intended. The fault is mine. When I wrote that sentence I was recalling faculty meetings at the university where I once taught. The English faculty would regularly gather to discuss whether or not to grade students’ writing. The question was not, what is the best way to evaluate student writing—an issue that thoughtful teachers wrestle with. I include myself in the camp of teachers who question the efficacy of assigning a letter grade to a student’s writing.

But this was not the issue at hand. Rather the debate centered on this question: does good writing exist? Mind-boggling, I know. Writing instructors actually said, out loud, in all seriousness, who are we to say what good writing is?

My counter-argument – that if we don’t have some idea what good writing is, then we are fraudulently taking students’ money and should probably stop offering writing classes – was not well received. These faculty meetings became so heated that I feared at times that professors would throw punches. Things became so intense because we were arguing whether or not objective standards exist. Two different worldviews were warring at each faculty meeting. And that, of course, brings us right back to the legacy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Rousseau is the father of relativism and subjectivism, and his influence is seen wherever objective reality is denied. And so, when I pointed to schools that do not assign grades as evidence of the influence of Rousseau, I was specifically thinking of schools that reject grades because they reject objective standards. In other words, No student’s work is better than any other student’s work. And this is the brave new relativistic world that we find ourselves in, a world ushered in by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Some have argued that Rousseau, in attacking the Christian roots of Western Civilization, was deliberately trying to shatter the whole thing, that He was so disgusted by what he saw around him that he wanted to destroy it. Two very interesting points about Rousseau seem to support the idea that he deliberately put an axe to the root of Western Civilization.

First, when Rousseau titled his work Confessions, he was obviously alluding to that other famous Confessions, the one by St. Augustine. This was no accident. Many historians point to Augustine as the father of Western Civilization, and so in his desire to destroy that very same civilization, Rousseau deliberately attacked the position that Augustine is most famous for, namely his insistence that man is fallen. In his Confessions, Augustine relates the events that led to his epiphany about the fallen nature of man and of his own need for salvation. Likewise, Rousseau describes his own revelation about the natural goodness of man in strikingly similar fashion. Both men lived similar lives. Each one was a brilliant intellectual and a pleasure-seeker. Each had a live-in lover and illegitimate children (child in Augustine’s case). And each man found himself sitting under a tree reflecting on the meaning of it all.

But, while Augustine sat under a tree concluding that his life of pleasure and intellectual pride was vanity and that he was a fallen man, like all men, in need of salvation, Rousseau concluded the opposite. Rousseau rejected Augustine’s position and determined instead that not only was he a good man, living a good life, but that all men are good naturally—and in so doing Rousseau rejected 2500 years of classical and Christian thought regarding the nature of man.

If Augustine’s Confessions was the foundation of Western Civilization, Rousseau hoped that his Confessions would be the foundation of a new civilization, and he was largely successful. Note also that Rousseau grew up in Geneva, the home of another theologian famous for his teaching about the fallen nature of man, John Calvin. In fact, I was so struck by this connection that I originally wanted to title this article “A Tale of Two Jeans.” In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin upheld Augustine’s view of the fallen state of man and further taught that the outworking of original sin is such that there is no faculty of man that remains untainted—a concept commonly called the total depravity of man. By virtue of having lived in Geneva, Rousseau would have been familiar with this teaching.

Additionally, since his mother was the daughter of a Calvinist preacher Rousseau would have grown up reciting daily – as part of the Calvinist liturgy – that “we are miserable sinners, born in corruption, inclined to evil, incapable by ourselves of doing good.” You can hear echoes of this refrain even as Rousseau contradicts it, writing in Emile, “there is no original perversity in the human heart.”

But Rousseau didn’t stop there. He also rejected the concept of private property. He argued that private property is the root of all economic, political, and social inequality and, indeed, most of the evils of the modern world. This is a direct assault on John Calvin who taught in his commentary on the Ten Commandments that private property is the basis of civilization. Rousseau’s attack on his own heritage as a Genevan Calvinist, and on the heritage of Western Civilization in general, seems deliberate. But intentional or not, his attack has severely shaken the whole thing, and some parts have crumbled away completely. Restoring this wounded foundation is the most fundamental place to start repairing the ruins. Particularly important is a restoration of a right understanding of the nature of man.

Everything depends on that.

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