The ‘Romantic’ is said to favour the concrete over the abstract, variety over uniformity, the infinite over the finite,; nature over culture, convention and artifice; the organic over the mechanical; freedom over constraint, rules and limitations. In human terms it prefers the unique individual to the average person, the free creative genius to the prudent person of good sense, the particular community or nation to humanity at large. Mentally, the Romantics prefer feeling to thought, more specifically emotion to calculation; imagination to literal common sense, intuition to intellect. (Quinton 1996: 778)
The first part is largely an historical survey. Using specific examples, Rousseau shows how societies in which the arts and sciences flourished more often than not saw the decline of morality and virtue. He notes that it was after philosophy and the arts flourished that ancient Egypt fell. Similarly, ancient Greece was once founded on notions of heroic virtue, but after the arts and sciences progressed, it became a society based on luxury and leisure. The one exception to this, according to Rousseau, was Sparta, which he praises for pushing the artists and scientists from its walls. Sparta is in stark contrast to Athens, which was the heart of good taste, elegance, and philosophy. Interestingly, Rousseau here discusses Socrates, as one of the few wise Athenians who recognized the corruption that the arts and sciences were bringing about. Rousseau paraphrases Socrates’ famous speech in the Apology . In his address to the court, Socrates says that the artists and philosophers of his day claim to have knowledge of piety, goodness, and virtue, yet they do not really understand anything. Rousseau’s historical inductions are not limited to ancient civilizations, however, as he also mentions China as a learned civilization that suffers terribly from its vices.
Rousseau’s thought had a wide historical impact. As a writer on politics, his rhetoric laid much of the intellectual groundwork for the French and American Revolutions brought to completion in the years following his death. As a memoirist, his Confessions in many ways inaugurated the modern genre of autobiography and has greatly influenced literary theory and narrative technique for over two centuries. As a theorist, Rousseau rigorously attempted to describe the rational foundations underlying modern civil society, in all its imperfections, and his echo has been felt in the work of the most influential social philosophers since his time, from Hegel to Marx to Foucault. Rousseau is a massive figure in the intellectual history of the West.