Rousseau characterizes learning and eloquence as vices which hide true feelings and meanings, but his essay is stylized and erudite. He introduces the essay with an artful and polite appeal to his judges in the Academy. He relies on historical examples to make his case which have only been preserved by dint of learning.
The essay itself has an air of deliberate exaggeration. Rousseau's approach, as he suggests in his introductory appeal to the judges, is that of an advocate whose judges are themselves the opposing party in the case. (34) In keeping with this proviso, Rousseau is not even-handed. The historical examples often seem bent to his purpose. He makes out the Macedonian conquerors of Persia, for instance, to be rustic farmers rather than subjects of an already significant empire. At times, his examples are also inconsistent. We often see Rousseau using success at war and military conquest as a standard by which to measure the health of societies (which itself is strange, since war is a bane to humankind), yet the primitive American Indian tribes he holds out as a supreme example of virtue have themselves been subdued by supposedly corrupted Europeans. There is a hint of Jonathan Swift about it all.
There are two abrupt turns in the tone of the essay. The first comes when, in the midst of an opening encomium to the advancement of learning, Rousseau.drops the hammer on the arts and sciences:
While government and laws provide for the safety and well-being of assembled men, the sciences, letters, and arts, less despotic and perhaps more powerful, spread garlands of flowers over the iron chains with which men are burdened, stifle in them that sense of original liberty for which they seemed to have been born, make them love their slavery, and turn them into what is called civilized peoples. (36)
The second comes when Rousseau jumps directly from bemoaning the miseries brought by the development of learning to his closing passage praising the creation of academies and suggesting truly learned men should have a place in government.
Besides the bookend passages, there is a delicate balance and symmetry between the two parts of the essay. In the first part, Rousseau's main target is the arts, with his ire aimed especially at philosophers, poets, and orators. This is balanced by a greater focus on criticizing the sciences and scientists in the second part. At the center of each part, Rousseau produces a series of historical examples to show how states are damaged by the development of arts and sciences.
After the turn towards a critical view of culture, Rousseau takes up three themes in succession in the remainder of the first part of the essay. First, he contends that cultivated manners conceal dishonesty and wrongdoing under a pleasant facade. Next, he cites historical examples of more highly civilized peoples whose states had collapsed or been conquered by more primitive ones (Egypt, Greece, Rome, Byzantium, China) or backward peoples who had been praised for their simple virtues. Finally, he claims the authority of Socrates and Cato for his case, taking them as critics of sophisticated culture on the grounds that it undermined traditional virtues.
Rousseau develops his indictment the sciences in the second part by starting from their most direct and immediate flaws and building to the more complex and remote issues. He begins with a sort of genealogy of the sciences: vices have provided the motive for founding and pursuing sciences, and the objects of their studies can also be vices. On top of this, he portrays science as a kind of useless idleness that we could do just s well without From arguing that science is bad in itself, Rousseau progresses to arraigning it for its bad effects. After briefly noting that science destroys faith and the belief in simple verities which form the basis for virtuous conduct, Rousseau turns to the main theme of the second part: an attack on luxury. The arts and sciences produce luxuries, but the pursuit of luxuries, he insists in one of his most expansive passages, destroys virtuous conduct -- it makes us lose sight of man as a citizen and a human being, and not just a factor of production and consumption.
I know that our philosophy, always rich in peculiar maxims, holds contrary to the experience of all centuries that luxury produces the splendor of States; but having forgot the necessity for sumptuary laws, will our philosophy still dare deny that good morals are essential to the stability of empires, and that luxury is diametrically opposed to good morals? Granted that luxury is a sure sign of wealth; that it even serves, if you like, to increase wealth. What conclusion must be drawn from the paradox so worthy of our time; and what will become of virtue when one must get rich at any price? Ancient politicians incessantly talked about morals and virtue, those of our time talk only about business and money. One will tell you that in a given country a man is worth the price he would fetch in Algiers; another, following this calculation, will discover some countries where a man is worth nothing and others where he is worth less than nothing. They evaluate men like herds of cattle. According to them a man is worth no more to the State than the value of his domestic consumption. (50-51)
Following up this philippic, Rousseau excavates history for examples of sophisticated civilizations overthrown or defeated by simple peoples. He takes a curious detour to argue that luxury, by elevating fashion, and thus the opinion of youth and women, corrupts taste and turns artists away from creating great works. Perhaps this misogyny isn't really a note in a different key than his focus on military, and thus presumably manly, virtues. For he turns right back to that topic, contending that luxury makes men soft and unfit for war, again with a slew of examples from history. He contends next that knowledge of the arts and sciences corrupts the education of youth, by making education about useless and frivolous intellectual adornment rather than training in virtues. Finally, just before his abrupt turn towards praising the academies, Rousseau argues that the inequalities introduced by distinction in arts and sciences undermine virtue.
The wise man does not chase after riches, but he is not insensitive to glory, and when he sees it so poorly distributed, his virtue, which a little emulation would have animated and made useful to society, languishes and dies out in misery and oblivion. In the long run, this is what must everywhere be the result of the preference given to pleasing talents rather than useful ones, and what experience since the revival of the sciences and arts has only too well confirmed. We have physicists, geometers, chemists, astronomers, poets, musicians, painters; we no longer have citizens; or if a few of them are left, dispersed in our abandoned countryside, they perish there indigent and despised. (58-59)