Is civilization overrated?

From The New Criterion:

ImagesIn 1750, Jean-Jacques Rousseau won the prize at the Academy of Dijon for his essay answering the set question, “Has the restoration of the arts and sciences had a purifying effect upon morals?” Rousseau’s answer, in what came to be known to posterity as the First Discourse, was a resounding, if also a prolix, No. “Our minds,” said the sage of Geneva, “have been corrupted in proportion as the arts and sciences have improved.” How’s that for challenging expectations? Rousseau excelled at that. Common, unenlightened people might think that the arts and sciences are beneficent because they elevate the spirit and lighten the burdens of everyday life. Rousseau, a beneficiary of centuries of human ingenuity, came to tell them that the arts and sciences are dangerous distractions from virtue, which he urged his readers to pursue with single-minded devotion. “Virtue! Sublime science of simple minds . . . . Are not your principles graven on every heart? Need we do more, to learn your laws, than examine ourselves and listen to the voice of conscience?” In this artfully turned piece of rhetoric, Rousseau disparaged men who “know how to speak” in favor of those who “know how to act aright.” “Let men learn,” he intoned, “that nature would have preserved them from science, as a mother snatches a dangerous weapon from the hands of her child. Let them know that all the secrets she hides are so many evils from which she protects them.”

Take, for example, the art and science of printing, which Rousseau argued was a baneful invention. “The frightful disorders which printing has already caused in Europe,” he wrote in his widely disseminated essay, will convince responsible sovereigns “to banish this dreadful art form from their dominions.” But presumably not until after everyone had had the benefit of reading this bulletin by J.-J. Rousseau.

More here.