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Rousseau has recently been situated within the Enlightenment debates over whether increasing commerce would make people more gentle, peaceable and tolerant. This article attempts the first systematic analysis of Rousseau's works in view of this debate, and finds that his response is more complex than has previously been established. His primary aim was not to deny that cultural modernization decreases human harshness, but to show that this results more in a flabby 'softness' than an enlightened 'gentleness'. Nonetheless, he conceded that certain forms of gentleness may result from diversion, weakness and indifference, and that this may be the best cultural strategy for irrevocably corrupt modern states. Distinguishing these two aspects of his response to modernization allows us to forge a middle position between scholars who see Rousseau as overwhelmingly opposed to doux commerce, and more recent contentions that he should be seen as a fundamentally moderate thinker who pragmatically accommodates the conditions of modernity.

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Emory University, 327 Tarbutton Hall, 1555 Dickey Drive, Atlanta, GA 30322, USA. matthew., Email:

Publication date: 2010-01-01

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