Sunday, February 22, 2015

Jean-Jeacques Reasseau

"Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains."

 Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 - 1778) was a French moral and political philosopher who eloquently defended the role of emotion and authenticity in human life. He was a lifelong rebel who ran away from home, quarreled with all his friends, abandoned five children at an orphanage, and turned up his nose at riches and honors whenever they were offered. For better or for worse, he insisted on being himself in all situations. For this sacred privilege he sacrificed everything, but he won the heart, as Voltaire had won the mind, of all educated France. When the Parisians stormed the Bastille, sat in judgment over a king, and proclaimed a new Republic, it was his ideals they invoked: Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.

 In a Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (1751), he argued that the progress of civilization and the decay of virtue are one and the same. The unlettered Spartans were morally and physically superior to the crafty Athenians, as were the Romans of the Republic to those of the Empire, the Iroquois to the greedy colonists, and every honest peasant to the corrupt feudal Lord who enslaves him. What unifies these noble savages, and gives them their virtue, is not learning, but ignorance -of the swindles, sophistries, and humbug of civilization. "Man is born good," he said, "but institutions make him bad."

 In The Social Contract (1762) he imagined a very different "state of nature" than Hobbes - one in which man was good, honest, simple, and free. But, recognizing the benefits of community, they traded the rights of Man for the rights of the Citizen, and they were better for it. Gradually, however, the general will was replaced by arbitrary authority, huge disparities of wealth and status had emerged, the simple veneration of nature had been perverted into the dogmas of the church, and a free people had been transformed into a wretched band of masters and slaves. Man did not fall from grace - he was swindled. In order to restore health to society, it must return to its original principles. Arbitrary authority must be abolished, education taken out of the hands of the church, and property taken from the rich and given to the poor. A monarchy can be legitimate of it respects the general will, but a republic is better - when the people make their own laws, they guard them more jealously, and are less likely to be conned out of their rights.

 Rousseau was also the author of a substantial work on education (1762), an autobiography that is a classic of the "behold the man" genre (1770), and numerous smaller essays. He had been a wanderer all his life, residing at various times in practically every kingdom in western Europe. As an old man he lived on the estate of a sympathetic benefactress with his wife, Therese. She was, he felt, the one person who had never betrayed him. He read the mystical essays of Thomas a Kempis repeatedly. When he saw children running and playing, he remembered his own abandoned orphans, and wept. He was happy for Voltaire, with whom he had often quartered, when he was received in Paris. When he heard of his old nemesis' death in 1778, he predicted he would not long outlive him. A few weeks later he died of a stroke.

 Rousseau has had an immense and controversial legacy. He was, for his time, on the very extreme of leftist politics, although conservatives were later to find a few useful notions about "the general will" in him as well. He inspired the anarchist, socialist, and republican traditions in European politics, as well as the Romantic tradition in art, literature, music, and philosophy. Goethe, Beethoven, Coleridge, Emerson, Jefferson, Robespierre, Proudhon, and Marx were all his disciples.

What do you think of Rousseau's philosophy? Is man naturally good? How can the citizens of a republic protect themselves from the will of the people, when that will itself becomes tyrannical?

Part of a series on the Enlightenment (VII of XVII)

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