Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his discourse on the origin of inequality and discourse on the arts and sciences, mentioned the 'men of letters', men he associated with negative connotations. However, who are these 'men of letters'? Are they the magistrate? Politicians? Members of the nobility?


Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote in the 18th century — he died shortly before the French Revolution — and so his 'men of letters' would have referred to French aristocrats and haute bourgeois: successful businessman, craftsman, and commoner-intellectuals who might be present at royal court. Such people, if not always formally educated, had the leisure time and literacy skills to read comparatively widely, but were driven more by fashion and norms than by truly philosophical thought. They were roughly equivalent to the modern TV pundit: glibly opinionated, inclined towards debate more for the stimulation of arguing than the actual content or results, and largely divorced from any real-world considerations. Think of the apocryphal story of Marie Antionette (who was contemporary to Rousseau, though forty years younger) archly responding to the assertion that the people have no bread by suggesting they eat cake, assumedly to the chuckles of all present.

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