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  Volume 6 | Issue 27 | July 08, 2012 |


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Still Relevant After Three Centuries

Asrar Chowdhury

1753- By Maurice Quentin de la Tour. Photo: Internet

The Swiss born, French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau continues to amaze and influence three centuries after his birth on June 28, 1812. Few thinkers from the Enlightenment period of Europe have left their imprint on contemporary times, as has Rousseau. His legacy as a radical and a revolutionary is probably best preserved in the most famous of his quotes from his most enduring work 'The Social Contract': “man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”.

The statement in the Social Contract was based on the premise that original man in his natural state was free and virtuous. The creation of societies is what has made man greedy, jealous and corrupt by all other vices. Although Rousseau believed absolute monarchies of his times were a corrupting influence on societies, a radical return to primitive societies was not the answer. A complete re-evaluation of social order was what was needed. This very simple, open-ended and pragmatic conclusion in 'The Social Contract' has influenced and confused later day thinkers and activists alike. Rousseau's ideas, through 'The Social Contract', influenced leading political and social events that happened after his death. His ideas significantly influenced the French Revolution that occurred shortly after his death. Although the Founding Fathers of the United States almost never explicitly cited Rousseau, Thomas Jefferson's democracy with a well-regulated citizenry resembles Rousseau's own views of his birthplace Switzerland. “A complete re-evaluation of social order” also influenced another extreme in the political spectrum. Marx, Lenin and other socialists found salvage in Rousseau in their experiments of solving problems in their societies that maintained a status quo. Change was needed in France, Russia and America in their revolutions, but these changes came through a pragmatic 'complete re-evaluation' of their societies.

Rousseau's views on education in Emile were way beyond his time. It challenged the education system of his time where knowledge is passed on to the student through the teacher. This type of education may be good in streamlining and standardising thoughts in students, but it can potentially hinder the development of original thinking. If the purpose of education is for the child to explore his/her environment, then injecting the child with views of an 'establishment' may once again 'corrupt' the 'natural child' in finding out what could have been experienced rather than what needs to be experienced as is how the education system tends to prescribe. Rousseau was not against the existing education system of his time, which also survives today. Like in 'The Social Contract', Rousseau was in favour of 'a complete re-evaluation' of the status quo. The central theme of Rousseau's views on education through Emile is simple: “If children understood how to reason they would not need to be educated”. This is easier said than done. Rousseau's own prescriptions sound idealistic. Having said so, it is a challenge for all education institutes to find ways that encourage free thinking in its students. Failure to achieve such ends can make the milk sour. Small wonder, the boys from Cambridge found the British education system of their time outdated and a hinder towards free thinking. And thus they sang 'We don't need no education' that soon became an anthem for all students throughout the world.

Rousseau- 1753- Tomb in Paris. Photo: Internet  

Describing and doing proper justice to a mind like that of Rousseau within such short words would be like trying to contain an underground fountain beneath a volcano. His legacy remains alive and burning in sociology; politics; economics and social evolution. Probably one reason why Rousseau remains valid and alive to this day is the simplicity and clarity of his thoughts. Presenting a complex phenomenon with simplicity and clarity is a rare trait in any person. Rousseau discussed and thought about many complex issues of his time, but his conclusions were simple: making a 'complete re-evaluation'- looking into oneself. If Socrates- the misunderstood philosopher- wrote 'know thyself', it was Rousseau who practiced this himself in what is considered the first autobiography in history-- 'The Confessions'. Rousseau travels through his own life in 'The Confessions' and by doing so revisits the collectivity of human experience till the 18th century of his time.

Ever since humans have been living in societies they have been learning new ways to cooperate and move forward. Societies have been moving forward- knowingly and unknowingly- through self-correction by a process of constantly 'complete re-evaluation' of themselves. This constant re-evaluation is not always visible, but a cursory glimpse of human history certainly suggests that through self correction and constant re-evaluation, societies have moved many miles ahead in the last five thousand or more years of history. Constant re-evaluation does not necessarily mean revolutionary changes; neither does it also necessarily mean maintaining a status quo. Constant re-evaluation means being pragmatic-- choosing a course of action depending on the situation of the time. When one looks back on history-- Bangladesh or any other society- that is what defines social evolution. And in pragmatism the legacy of Rousseau remains valid even three centuries after his birth.

(The author teaches economic theory at Jahangirnagar University and North South University.)

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