Voltaire vs. Rousseau – By Seraphina Mallon-Breiman

This semester, as a Sociology/Anthropology major, I am taking a class with professor Gordon Knight who is retiring here at GMC after this year. I’m wishing that I had had the opportunity to have taken more classes with Gordon before he’d left because his lectures are incredible.

I’ve spent time studying European history while actually studying and living within Europe and Gordon still makes European history more interesting than it was to study while I was there. We’ve been learning about French Philosophers and early Enlightenment thinkers who have helped build the all-encompassing major that we know now to be Sociology. So far, some of my favorite thinkers we’ve covered have been Voltaire and Rousseau, who could be considered alike, as they are both early French Enlightenment theorists and had life experiences that wildly changed their worldviews, yet they strike me as actually being outrageously dissimilar.


I thought I’d share a bit about each of their lives, considering I am sure that the readers of this blog have all heard of these theorists and still do not totally know enough to feel confident in depicting who they are. I find myself appreciating the romanticism behind Voltaire’s idea that the way to improve Europe was to make the leaders and monarchs of Europe believe the ideas of the enlightenment and therefore become better rulers. However, I do not think it was possible to make certain monarchs lead as purely as Voltaire thought, especially because many of the people within the absolute monarchy in France thought parliament was working just fine and did not need a change. This was a problematic period of time for Voltaire to suggest such outrageous things, even if his concept of thought was advanced, feeling that God didn’t make someone special but instead it was their contribution to society that would define them. What an idea! During this time, the Roman Catholic Church had so much power, and sadly- Voltaire was one of the few people at the time that felt the church was an obstacle of truth. I feel a kinship toward his desire to write lavishly about everything going on in the world, and I admire his work in ‘Candide’ because I appreciate stories about young people traveling and becoming disillusioned to what they find- but somehow I still feel more inclined to agree with Rousseau’s thinking and not Voltaire’s.


I appreciate Rousseau’s theoretical inclination to begin by assuming something and moving onward from that assumption. Our world depends so much on needing proof and examples and sometimes this concept enables us to forget we are capable of having powerful human instincts. I believe that this subtle pathway of thought is another reason Paris regarded Rousseau as intelligent but uncultured. I don’t believe that arts and sciences degrade mankind, but I do believe that the premonition that many have regarding knowledge of art and sciences contains false grandeur. It is thoroughly possible to live on a farm and work with land and animals while also having extensive comprehension of “intellectual” matters, -ahem Green Mountain College ahem- In fact, I would say those things should absolutely be tied together. I think Rousseau’s disgust in the high society that many associate with city life is understandable. I’ve lived within cities as well and it is true that many people in cities believe they are unbelievably intelligent about most matters but they are so detached from the land on which they are living or any understanding of where their food comes from that this intelligence is almost worthless. This artificiality of knowledge and living obviously became a social class divider within Rousseau’s period of time, and still is to this day in certain areas. The argument that one is free at birth but becomes enslaved to their debts is still modern. We are still living within a capitalist world that pressures people to grow up fast while working and studying within insane structural systems and the government still isn’t doing much to help the individuals most in need. This has accelerated by the vast amount of multi-million dollar corporations that are in charge of practically everything. Even though Rousseau relies on the wealth of the systems he criticizes, he doesn’t have many other options if he wants to utilize the resources he needs in order to encourage democracy in Europe at his time.

I hope a few of my overwhelmed thoughts from Gordon’s class encourages everyone who reads them to be more curious about their classes and strive to remember that we aren’t studying to obtain a letter grade! It’s so easy to forget to be excited about how much we are learning when it seems that our learning is set in place to maintain a high testing score or place in society. I wish it weren’t so. Have a great Monday everyone! 


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