WAS CIVILISATION A MISTAKE? ROUSSEAU, CHASTELLUX
The optimistic theory of civilisation was not unchallenged by rationalists. In the same year (1750) in which Turgot traced an outline of historical Progress at the Sorbonne, Rousseau laid before the Academy of Dijon a theory of historical Regress. This Academy had offered a prize for the best essay on the question whether the revival of sciences and arts had contributed to the improvement of morals. The prize was awarded to Rousseau. Five years later the same learned body proposed another subject for investigation, the origin of Inequality among men. Rousseau again competed but failed to win the prize, though this second essay was a far more remarkable performance.
The view common to these two discourses, that social development has been a gigantic mistake, that the farther man has travelled from a primitive simple state the more unhappy has his lot become, that civilisation is radically vicious, was not original. Essentially the same issue had been raised in England, though in a different form, by Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees, the scandalous book which aimed at proving that it is not the virtues and amiable qualities of man that are the cement of civilised society, but the vices of its members which are the support of all trades and employments. [Footnote: The expanded edition was published in 1723.] In these vices, he said, “we must look for the true origin of all arts and sciences”; “the moment evil ceases the society must be spoiled, if not totally dissolved.”
The significance of Mandeville’s book lay in the challenge it flung to the optimistic doctrines of Lord Shaftesbury, that human nature is good and all is for the best in this harmonious world. “The ideas he had formed,” wrote Mandeville, “of the goodness and excellency of our nature were as romantic and chimerical as they are beautiful and amiable; he laboured hard to unite two contraries that can never be reconciled together, innocence of manners and worldly greatness.”