Lost Paradises in the Enlightment.

Written on October 16, 2007 by Arantza de Areilza in Literature

Arantza de Areilza                                        (Click here for this post in Spanish)

Montesquieu_2 I recently reread the book by Carmen Iglesias Cano, member of the Royal Spanish Academy of History and Language, entitled "Reason and Feeling in the 18th Century," in which chapter five discusses the lost paradises in Montesquieu´s "The Persian Letters" and the Rousseauian discourses.   

The author analyzes the popular belief of the Enlightment in an original innocence, in a primitive perfectionism in which a man invaded by nostalgia yearns to return.  This signifies the perfect communion between the spiritual and the material, represented by Rousseau in the figure of the "bon sauvage" (the good savage).  However, this good savage will remain childlike throughout generations, something rather unlikely in the presence of man´s capacity for perfectionism.   

Rousseau considered the search for riches, the thirst for discovery and the desire for social and professional reconnaissance as an excess of one’s self, "an alienation in appearance" and the maintaining of "a torn duality."  In reference  to his education, he wrote:

"I no longer want anything to do with a delusory occupation in which it is thought that everything is done for wisdom, and everything is done for vanity."

This original nostalgia reveals a disappointed vision of the historic moment.   

Adversely to Rousseau’s moralistic severity, we find illustrated theses such as  Mandeville’s "The Fable of the Bees," in which happiness springs forth as the ultimate end for a man in detriment of virtue.  Luxury and trade appear like a phenomenon, intrinsic to the development and power of Nations.  According to Carmen Iglesias, it is in this moment in which vice becomes virtue.   

Contrary to Rousseau, the author analyzes how Montesquieu focuses on searching for the mechanisms that adapt institutions to the natural inclination of man to liberty.   He rejects the notion of free will, which Rousseau defends.    He argues for the necessity of suitable institutions for mankind as guarantees of their freedom and emphasizes his opposition to uniformity.

Rousseau moves through history as a totalitarian democratic thinker with his famous maximum "obligation to be free" in his nostalgia for lost Paradise. 

Do you think that paradises can be recovered?  In the affirmative case, do you think that the ends justify the means?   Can you oblige somebody to be free?


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