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Rousseau: Philosophy in an Hour

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год

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      Rousseau: Philosophy in an Hour
Paul Strathern

Philosophy for busy people. Read a succinct account of the philosophy of Rousseau in just one hour.In Rousseau we encounter a walking ego, a naked sensibility – his arguments are both deeply stirring and deeply inconsistent. Yet whilst his contemporaries Kant and Hume may have been superior academic philosophers, the sheer power of Rousseau’s ideas was unequalled in his time. It was he who encouraged the introduction of both liberty and irrationality into the public domain, lamenting how ‘man is born free but everywhere he is in chains’.Here is a concise, expert account of Rousseau’s life and philosophical ideas – entertainingly written and easy to understand. Also included are selections from Rousseau’s work, suggested further reading, and chronologies that place Rousseau in the context of the broader scheme of philosophy.



Paul Strathern


Cover (#u8923a969-4b80-5ac2-8fca-25ef31f3b206)

Title Page (#u4f3d769a-26fd-5261-ab95-ffc57549b710)

Introduction (#u8f66fc63-7be0-54b9-97ab-6086940ae110)

Rousseau’s Life and Works (#u367b4ea7-a78b-5527-9280-b8dd43b115a0)

Further Information (#litres_trial_promo)

From Rousseau’s Writings (#litres_trial_promo)

Chronology of Significant Philosophical Dates (#litres_trial_promo)

Chronology of Rousseau’s Life and Times (#litres_trial_promo)

Recommended Reading (#litres_trial_promo)

About the Author (#litres_trial_promo)

Copyright (#litres_trial_promo)

About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo)

Introduction (#u9f1d4f81-a2a4-578f-a6cd-911daf1b49c5)

Rousseau was a contemporary of such supreme philosophers as Kant and Hume, yet his popular influence far exceeded either. Kant and Hume may have been superior academic philosophers, but the sheer power of Rousseau’s ideas was un-equaled in his time. Indeed, Rousseau was certainly the most unintellectual of all the great philosophers. Again and again, feeling triumphs over intellectual argument in his works – which are both deeply stirring and deeply inconsistent. It is possible simultaneously to both love and hate Rousseau – for his work as well as for his effect. It was he who encouraged the introduction of both liberty and irrationality into the public domain.

The man and his ideas were one. Rousseau lived out his thought to the very utmost of his being. As a man he was both endearing and impossible. Here was a walking ego, a naked sensibility. For Rousseau, normal everyday life was often a torment – and he often made sure it was for those around him. But Europe was in need of such a figure. By the early years of the eighteenth century, when Rousseau was born, the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment were giving rise to great intellectual advances. Yet at the same time the European sensibility was suffering from a deep malaise. It had become bogged down in the intellectual and emotional restraints of classicism. In the midst of the new progress, many individuals were aware that they were beginning to lose touch with themselves, with who they really were. This was a novel feeling – which would remain part of our sensibility to this day. Rousseau was the first to confront this inarticulate self-awareness. It was he who insisted that we should seek out and experience our “true nature.”

Rousseau’s Life and Works (#u9f1d4f81-a2a4-578f-a6cd-911daf1b49c5)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born on June 28, 1712, at Geneva in Switzerland. He never knew his mother, who died of the effects of childbirth ten days after his arrival. In his own words: “My birth was the first of my misfortunes…. I was born almost dying, they had little hope of saving me. I carried the seed of a disorder that the years have reinforced.” This was how Rousseau viewed his entry into the world: a drama whose potential “disorder” would prove emotional, psychological, and even physical. From the start, his relationship with those around him was unhealthily intense. His father, a watchmaker who had married “above his social class,” was inconsolable at the loss of the woman he had loved since childhood. In Rousseau’s words, “He thought he saw her again in me, but could not forget that I had robbed him of her.” They would both cry when he spoke of her. “He never kissed me without my being aware of his sighs; in his convulsive hugs a bitter grief was mingled with his caresses.” One can all but hear, feel, and smell the closeness and undermining ambivalence.

There appears to have been a streak of impulsive wildness in the family. Rousseau had a brother who was seven years older than him. His father would occasionally beat the brother, and on one occasion Rousseau flung himself between them to save his brother. Rousseau at first describes his brother as a “rascal” but later reveals, “Finally my brother turned so bad that he ran away and disappeared completely.”

At this time Geneva was a small Protestant republic surrounded by Catholic states and dependencies. It was geographically isolated from its neighbours by the ice-capped peaks of the Alps and the picturesque waters of Lake Geneva. The city owed its republicanism and independence to the sixteenth-century religious reformer John Calvin, who had made it a bastion of Protestantism. Its citizens were upright and democratic. Rousseau’s father was intensely proud of his native city, describing it to his son in terms of Sparta and ancient Rome. Rousseau’s mother had left them a small library of books, and his father would read them with his son after supper. Soon they both became so absorbed in this activity that they would continue into the night, taking turns to read. “We could never stop before the end of the book. Sometimes when my father heard the larks at daybreak, he would be ashamed and exclaim, ‘Let’s go to bed. I’m more of a child than you.’”

Young Rousseau found himself the center of attention in an almost exclusively female household, with a nurse, an aunt, and occasional admiring relatives. Sitting at his aunt’s knee as she embroidered, he would listen to her singing her seemingly endless repertoire of traditional songs. Rousseau was fascinated, acquiring a deep interest and understanding of music at an early age. But the element of undermining ambivalence remained. Years later he would describe himself at this stage as having a “heart at once so proud and so tender [with an] effeminate yet indomitable character … vacillating between weakness and courage, self-indulgence and virtue.” He saw himself as a “contradiction with myself.”

Then, suddenly, everything changed. One day Rousseau’s father became involved in a public argument with a local landowner, whom he challenged to a duel. But the landowner contemptuously refused to duel with him because of his lower social origins. Incensed, Rousseau’s father drew his sword and struck the landowner on the cheek, drawing blood. Rousseau’s father disappeared into exile – in Rousseau’s words, “rather than cede a point on which honour and liberty appeared to him compromised” – in fact to avoid a jail sentence. Rousseau’s circumstances changed overnight, and he was farmed out to poor relations: a pastor and his sister who lived in a nearby village. While living there he would be subjected to humiliations and beatings by the pastor’s sister, which provoked in him a “feeling of violence and injustice.” This would have a lasting effect, so that for the rest of his life he could claim that “my blood boils at the spectacle or recital of an unjust act.” But these beatings by the parson’s sister also induced in him a precocious sexual pleasure which would have an equally lasting effect. “Who could have believed that this punishment received at the age of eight from the hand of a woman of thirty, determined my tastes, my desires, my passions, my very self for the rest of my life.” The experience brought to the surface a latent masochism which would characterise his sexuality throughout his life.

At the age of thirteen, Rousseau was apprenticed to an engraver in Geneva. The city may have been a model of righteous democracy, but its Calvinist atmosphere was also puritan and oppressive. This was no place for the likes of Rousseau, who later wrote of himself in these years (indicatively in the third-person present) that “his character derives almost completely from his temperament alone.” He was undoubtedly possessed of an intellect, but his reactions were inspired almost entirely by his emotions. “He is what nature has made him – nature has modified him only little.” In this self-contradiction lies the essence of Rousseau’s thought: even here he is utterly himself. The seeds of the man, his temperament, his entire philosophy lie in this character – which would retain so many of the fervent and unstable qualities of adolescence throughout his life.

Just short of his sixteenth birthday, Rousseau disappeared from Geneva and fled to neighbouring Savoy (now part of France, but then under Sardinian control). Here he was soon taken into the household of Madame de Warens, a local landowner who was separated from her aristocratic husband and had converted to Catholicism. The sixteen-year-old Rousseau and the thirty-year-old Mme. de Warens found an immediate rapport. She would convert him to Catholicism, and he would become her pupil. Significantly, he soon began calling her maman (mummy). The gauche, stammering apprentice, all but devoid of formal education, who arrived on Mme. de Warens’s doorstep was gradually transformed into a presentable young man. Yet this particular ugly duckling would never quite become a swan – beneath the thin social veneer, Rousseau’s volatile temperament would continue to be his guiding force.

And he remained very much an innocent. Not until 1733 did Mme. de Warens finally feel it was her duty to “make a man” of him, seducing her twenty-one-year-old protégé in the little summer house on her estate. For a while Rousseau was installed as a somewhat inept steward to maman’s dwindling estate, but later he took on a number of teaching posts at various places in Savoy. The sexual side of his relationship with maman would peter out – but she would be a lasting influence on him, and they would remain confidants, corresponding for years to come.

In 1742, at the age of thirty, Rousseau set off to seek fame and fortune in Paris. Despite letters of introduction to a number of minor intellectual figures, Rousseau failed to make an impression, let alone a name for himself. Eventually he was fortunate to be appointed temporary secretary to the French ambassador in Venice, and set off to take up his post. The entire episode was to prove a fiasco. The ambassador, the Comte de Montaigu, was an idle, arrogant aristocrat who looked upon Rousseau as an “impudent upstart” possessed of “all the qualities of a very bad servant.” Rousseau, who considered that his diplomatic status entitled him to be treated almost as an equal, responded with typical temperamental vigour. Surprisingly, this situation lasted almost twelve months – until the exasperated ambassador finally threatened to throw his secretary through the window into the canal.

But Rousseau’s time in Venice consisted of more than his involvement in exclusively French diplomatic incidents. This was the Venice painted by Canaletto, the “serene republic” whose sea-trading routes stretched as far as Constantinople and the Levant, a city with a thriving culture, especially in music. By now Rousseau had developed his keen ear for music into a full-fledged talent. He visited the opera frequently and responded with delight to the tuneful enthusiasm and spontaneity of Italian music – which contrasted sharply with the intricate formality of French music of the period. He was also enraptured by the more open temperament and blatant sensuality of the Venetian women he encountered. Most notable of these was a woman of relaxed virtue called Zulietta. Unfortunately Rousseau still had psychological difficulties where women were concerned. When at last he found himself alone with the Zulietta, he exclaimed to himself, “Never was such sweet pleasure offered to the heart and senses of a mortal man.” But when he found himself unable to rise to the occasion, his eye alighted on her “malformed nipple,” whereupon she became transformed in his eyes into “some kind of monster.” Zulietta took this in her stride and causally advised him, “Jacko, give up the ladies and study mathematics.”

Rousseau also managed to find time for some diplomatic duties. These would have a profound effect. His dealings with the byzantine Venetian authorities opened his eyes to the nature and power of politics. He concluded that “Everything depends entirely upon politics,” which meant that “a people is everywhere nothing but what its government makes of it.”

Rousseau returned to Paris and once again took up lodgings on the Left Bank “in an ugly room, in an ugly hotel, in an ugly street.” This was the Hôtel Saint-Quentin, where one of the staff was an illiterate twenty-two-year-old washerwoman called Thérèse Levasseur. Given the oddities of Rousseau’s sexuality, it remains unclear as to who actually seduced whom – but the result was that Rousseau became her lover. According to Rousseau, he never really loved Thérèse but felt a deep pity for the insults and humiliations she suffered. Yet Thérèse was no innocent victim; in the words of an eyewitness she was “jealous, stupid, gossipy, and a liar.” Either way, the two quickly formed a profound and lasting attachment. Thérèse would remain with Rousseau through thick and thin for the rest of his life.

This time Rousseau’s efforts to gain recognition were a little more successful. He became acquainted with the intellectual circle known as Les Philosophes, the thinkers who were engaged in writing L’Encyclopédie. This multi-volume work was intended to promulgate the rational, scientific, and cultural ideas of the Enlightenment. At the time, France was the largest and most powerful nation in Europe, but it remained for the most part rural and backward. The spread of knowledge was seen as the only way of bringing the country into the modern world. France remained under the autocratic ancien regime, with the indolent Louis XV and his twenty-thousand-strong court ruling from the gargantuan palace of Versailles, fifteen miles south of Paris. Such free-thinking developments as L’Encyclopédie were viewed with deep suspicion by Versailles and the church authorities. Rousseau became a close friend of the philosopher Diderot, the leading light of L’Encyclopédie project. Rousseau found the company of Les Philosophes intellectually stimulating, and they in turn were intrigued by the passionate temperament and originality of this ambitious provincial. Diderot was particularly impressed by Rousseau’s opinions on music, which were backed by considerable knowledge, and he commissioned Rousseau to write a series of articles on music for L’Encyclopédie.

In 1750 Diderot fell afoul of the authorities and was thrown into the dungeons at Vincennes for “irreligious writing.” Rousseau claimed that he immediately wrote to the king’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, begging her to have Diderot released or let himself be put in prison beside him. A typical histrionic gesture – or boast (no such letter has been found in the archives). What is certain is that Rousseau would walk the six miles out to Vincennes three or four days a week to visit his friend. It was the height of summer, and the excessive heat forced him to walk slowly through the woods. To pass the time he would read the newspaper, and one day he read that the Academy of Dijon was offering a prize. This was for the best essay on the question: “Has the progress of the arts and sciences done more to corrupt or to purify morals?” According to Rousseau, “The moment I read these words, I beheld another universe and became another man.” His ensuing reaction, or at least his description of this reaction, is typically over the top: “All at once I felt my mind dazzled by a thousand lights, a crowd of splendid ideas presented themselves to me with such force and in such confusion that I was thrown into a state of indescribable bewilderment. I felt my head seized by a dizziness that resembled intoxication. A violent palpitation constricted me and made my chest heave. Unable to breathe and walk at the same time, I sank down under one of the trees in the avenue and passed the next half hour in such a state of agitation that when I got up I found that the front of my jacket was wet with tears, although I had no memory of shedding any….” Et cetera, et cetera, for lines to come.

Many see this rapture on the road to Vincennes as marking the birth of romanticism. Indeed, it contains in embryo many of the excesses that were to become a central feature of romantic expression. Historically the time was ripe for such indulgent behaviour. The Renaissance had seen the initial freeing of the European mind from the stifling constraints and superstitions of medievalism. This liberation had been further advanced by the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on rationalism. But such progress had been achieved at a cost. The Enlightenment marked a largely intellectual advance, and its emphasis on reason tended to suppress the emotions. Civilised behaviour was seen as the exercise of restraint – a classic nobility which expressed itself only in “elevated sentiments.” This repression of an essential part of human nature would come to an end with the eruption of the romantic movement. Rousseau would in many ways be the man who instigated this movement. His would be the first major attempt to articulate its wants and feelings. His bravery would be to attempt a defense of humanity against the reason that was stifling it. How could he reasonably justify the irrationality that drives us all? How could he show that an essential element of our humanity in fact exists beneath the veneer of civilised reason? With the benefit of modern psychology, it is possible to recognise here an early awareness of the unconscious – and the initial attempt to integrate this destabilising force into the human personality.

Rousseau would later recall his vision on the road to Vincennes, claiming that what “blazed in my mind for a quarter of an hour under that tree” would shed its light through all his ensuing works. So what exactly did he understand in this moment of truth? Basically, he saw that the answer to the question set by the Academy of Dijon was negative. Progress in the arts and sciences had resulted only in the corruption of humanity.

Rousseau was now thirty-eight years old. The fame and glory he longed for had eluded him. He remained essentially a nobody. This was so different from how he felt within himself, from all that he felt burning in his heart. The essay competition set by the Academy of Dijon was perhaps his last chance, and he decided to enter. What he produced was A Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts, into which he poured all his frustrations and disappointments with the way society had treated him. His fundamental thesis was that the history of humanity had been nothing less than a history of calamitous decline. Humanity was essentially good by nature, but it had been corrupted by civilisation and culture. This was not due to any inherent seed of corruption, but simply because humanity had taken a wrong turn. He compared the vital simplicity of life in ancient Sparta with the decay of cultured Athens. Ancient Rome too had lost its vitality once it had taken on the habits of civilisation. Culture brought only decline: “the arts, letters, and sciences are spread like garlands of flowers around the iron chains by which men are weighed down.” Rousseau’s first Discourse raised a storm of protest in the intellectual circles of Paris – as confined and incestuous then as they are today. He was accused of believing in a golden age which had never existed – except in pastoral poetry and legend. Did he seriously believe that the universities and the theatres should be closed down, that all books should be burned, that culture should be abolished? Were civilised Frenchmen expected to become like peasants? Rousseau also succeeded in the difficult task of uniting both the reactionaries and the progressives – against him. Like Rousseau, a number of conservative Catholic commentators believed that the entire notion of progress was erroneous – the destruction of the medieval world by the Renaissance and the Enlightenment had been a colossal mistake. Yet at the same time they bitterly contested Rousseau’s claim that humanity was fundamentally good. On the contrary, Christian teaching showed that humanity was irreparably flawed by original sin. Likewise, Rousseau’s attacks on progress and civilisation directly contradicted the enlightened beliefs and ideas of his friends Les Philosophes.

Diderot had soon been released from prison. Despite Rousseau’s reactionary ideas in the Discourse, he continued to support his friend, commissioning more articles on music for L’Encyclopédie. Rousseau was by now being received in the Paris literary salons. Yet despite his desire for fame, he was no hypocrite. He felt distinctly ill at ease among the fashionable social throng. What he had written in the Discourse came from the depths of his being. He was genuinely against society and its corrupting ways – yet here he was being welcomed in its very midst. Overwhelmed, he did his best to conform. Then it was announced that his Discourse had won the prize offered by the Academy of Dijon. He was soon being befriended by a number of intellectual aristocratic ladies; and his ideas began to attract a wider attention among the public at large. His Discourse had struck a chord in the stagnant French society of the day, and many began to see in it a call to liberty. In high society this was seen more in personal terms, but others began to detect in it political implications. Rousseau too appeared to have found liberty. The gauche unknown scribbler on the brink of middle age was transformed into a celebrity – the “scourge of civilisation.”

Rousseau revelled in his newfound fame. He was now accepted on his own terms and no longer attempted to ape the public manners of the time. Indeed, he was even expected to be “temperamental.” From now on he would reject civilised behaviour and simply be himself. As Rousseau later confessed, this course was adopted for more than idealistic reasons. He was temperamentally incapable of being well mannered, and in fact didn’t properly understand what this involved. Mme. de Warens might have attempted to teach him the words, but he had no idea of the music.
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