Rousseau and Turgot

The general spirit of the Enlightenment is difficult to classify, and enlightened thinkers with a desire to reform the system often had different views on what reforms should be taken and how to enact reforms. Two thinkers whose visions of reform provide an interesting counterpoint are Rousseau and Turgot. Rousseau, taking his native Geneva as a model, favors a society of brotherhood and a republican form of government. In contrast, Turgot favors the further rationalization of the existing monarchy on the basis of enlightened principles of reason and utility. These viewpoints naturally conflict with each other on certain issues; however, Rousseau and Turgot do converge in certain respects. Both believe in increasing the unity between individuals, though they approach their solutions differently. Rousseau's and Turgot's visions of reform help to illustrate the various forms that enlightened critique of social and political realities could take.

Rousseau's Discourse on the Origin of Inequality helps to illustrate his goals and the means with which he wished to achieve them. Rousseau was interested in increasing the level of equality between individuals and in creating a government in which all citizens were equal, not in increasing the level of reason in a society or government. In fact, Rousseau was hostile towards to the effects of reason in society, seeing it as causing a lack of empathy among individuals. For him, the lack of pity or compassion in civilized society was a problem that should be addressed. Rousseau was distraught over a society in which people were so alienated from each other that "someone may with impunity slit the throat of a fellow human being, and the philosopher need only [ignore it] to prevent nature, which is rebelling inside him, from making him identify himself with the man being murdered" (Rousseau 47). He saw the perfect society as one in which its members developed a sense of camaraderie. This society would be "of a size limited by the range of human faculties, that is to say, by the possibility of being well-governed, . . . in which the agreeable habit of seeing and knowing one another would make the love of one's country take the form of love of its citizens rather than of its soil" (Rousseau 3).

Turgot's background as well as his vision for reform differs greatly from Rousseau's. As a minister to the king, Turgot is committed to a monarchical form of government, and his ideas for reform consist in changing the government in order for it to use the resources of the country more rationally. Believing that "there can be no grounds for perpetuating institutions created without reason" (Baker 98), Turgot appeals to the king to use his power to reform according to enlightened principles, thereby causing the nation to use its assets in the most rational way possible. Turgot's adoption of lassiez-faire principles, his desire to eliminate defunct institutions or foundations, and his suggestions on the administration of the kingdom all stress his wish to maximize France's wealth and efficiency. Like Rousseau, Turgot is interested in increasing the unity of citizens; however, he had different reasons for desiring this goal. Seeing France as "a society composed of different orders badly united, . . . [in which] each individual is occupied only with his own particular, exclusive interest" (Baker 99), Turgot sought to give citizens a clear common interest by uniting the country. In his desire for a more efficient, wealthy country, Turgot made the suggestion that the government try to "dissipate the spirit of disunity, which greatly increases the work of [the kingdom]" (Baker 100) making the government more uniform and rational. Whereas Rousseau sought to unify citizens through the implementation of a small, community-based government in the interest of creating camaraderie between individuals, Turgot wanted to increase unity through the creation of a more uniform government with the aim of increasing the affluence of the country.

Even though Rousseau's and Turgot's visions for reform relied on different ideals, they are both clearly a part of the age in which they were written. These two figures shared the desire to reform a society they felt was imperfect and could be improved by changing the environment around them. Despite the fact that Rousseau and Turgot occupied vastly different social milieus and had very different programs for reform, they are united in the belief that they can change society for the better. Whereas there was a stress on continuity in previous eras, there was, as evidenced by Rousseau and Turgot, a new urge to reform society according to abstract ideals.

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