Friends – I’ve been putting off talking about one of the most problematic and fascinating figures of Enlightenment writing. I mean the author who my husband and I love to hate, and hate to love – the philosopher, social theorist, novelist, pedagogy expert, and memoirist, Jean Jacques Rousseau.
Where to begin with this guy?
Of the Francophone writers of the 18th Century, no one – with the possible exception of Voltaire – has had more influence on American thinkers and writers than Rousseau, perhaps because he shared the religious culture of many Americans.[i]
Why do I say “Francophone” and not just plain old “French?” It’s important to keep in mind that Rousseau was not French, but Swiss, coming from the French part of Switzerland known as la Suisse Romande. This sounds like a hair-splitting comment, but it isn’t. Rousseau wasn’t just born in Switzerland; he was born in the deeply protestant city Geneva, the birthplace of Calvinism, because it’s the city where Calvin preached. While he did not identify as a Christian exactly and converted back and forth between Protestantism and Catholicism a bunch of times, Rousseau exhibits a certain puritanical quality that American writers would recognize and appreciate. His emphasis on the individual also suggests his Protestant roots.
Rousseau is credited with being an important innovator in almost every realm of social sciences: anthropology, sociology, political science, as well child psychology and pedagogy. He was, in other words, a genius who was able to visualize the human situation in ways that were unprecedented and unique.
At the same time, he was considered by almost everyone who knew him to be impossible to work with. Smart people repeatedly befriended him and somehow he always managed to have a huge fight with them, and turn them into his enemies. This happened with Diderot who had Rousseau contribute important articles to the Encyclopedia project; it happened with Voltaire, who had befriended Rousseau early on but who also got fed up with him (I’ll be talking about the text that made Voltaire lose it in this blog post and I’ll share the blistering letter that he wrote JJ!); it happened with David Hume, whom Rousseau suspected of conspiring against him and many others. Rousseau died alone and isolated, suffering from a urinary infection that made his life miserable, alienated from everyone who had worked with him.
Did I mention that, according to Rousseau, he gave away all his kids for adoption? Nice coming from a guy who writes about educating kids.
And yet, there are other ways to read these accounts. Rousseau was the son of a Genevois watch maker, and therefore the child of an artisan, rather than a bourgeois. He was a self-educated lower class person who was never at ease in the sophisticated circles of Paris and London. He was stubbornly NOT an atheist, and took exception to the easy disbelief of the philosophes. He was also, by his own admission, incredibly sensitive. And, if we believe what he writes in Les Confessions, he was not a little attracted to the prospect of being spanked. So he may have been, at least at times, interested in D/S practices.
Rousseau is, in other words, a paradoxical figure. Someone who wrote brilliantly about human society and social interaction, but someone who – for whatever reason – was unable to interact in any kind of sustained way with other human beings, except for his mistress, who apparently slept with the writer Boswell and others from time to time. She couldn’t deal with him either on a consistent basis, apparently.
Rousseau is also a very difficult writer to summarize because his writings comprise a vast, sometimes contradictory system, as 18th Century scholar, Professor Carol Sherman pointed out when I was a graduate student at UNC Chapel Hill. So, it’s almost impossible to focus on just one idea, because that idea will connect up with and make better sense in the context of all the other ideas. So, arguably you have to read everything he wrote in order to understand him fully.
I haven’t read all of Rousseau, but I’ve read alot. I almost wrote about Rousseau for my doctoral dissertation, but one of my professors talked me out of it. I think he or she feared that if I started I’d never finish.
Still, I’d like to try to talk here about what is perhaps Rousseau’s most influential concept: his vision of human beings before civilization.
That view gets put forth most clearly and most forcefully in Rousseau’s essay Le Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes published in 1755 as an entry into a competition offered by the Academy of Dijon. Rousseau had won this contest previously with an essay on art.
We know this piece as either the Second Discourse or The Discourse on Inequality. If you don’t read anything else by Rousseau, you should read this essay. You can read it for free online in English or in French.
In the Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau makes the surprising claim that human beings are naturally and basically pretty good. So forget about Christian notions of Original Sin or for that matter, that scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey where one monkey man beats another monkey man to death with a bone. We are a nice-ish species, Rousseau tells us. Rather, it is humankind’s entrance into civil society that marks human beings’ descent into inequality and the violent conflicts that such inequality precipitates.
Rousseau is such a gorgeous writer, that I want to share a piece of this description of l’homme naturel (Natural Man) in French, so if you read French at all, you can get a sense for what a fabulous writer he is. Try reading some of it out loud:
Hobbes prétend que l’homme est naturellement intrépide, et ne cherche qu’à attaquer, et combattre. Un philosophe illustre pense au contraire, et Cumberland et Pufendorff l’assurent aussi, que rien n’est si timide que l’homme dans l’état de nature, et qu’il est toujours tremblant, et prêt à fuir au moindre bruit qui le frappe, au moindre mouvement qu’il aperçoit. Cela peut être ainsi pour les objets qu’il ne connaît pas, et je ne doute point qu’il ne soit effrayé par tous les nouveaux spectacles qui s’offrent à lui, toutes les fois qu’il ne peut distinguer le bien et le mal physiques qu’il en doit attendre, ni comparer ses forces avec les dangers qu’il a à courir ; circonstances rares dans l’état de nature, où toutes choses marchent d’une manière si uniforme, et où la face de la terre n’est point sujette à ces changements brusques et continuels, qu’y causent les passions et l’inconstance des peuples réunis. Mais l’homme sauvage vivant dispersé parmi les animaux, et se trouvant de bonne heure dans le cas de se mesurer avec eux, il en fait bientôt la comparaison, et sentant qu’il les surpasse plus en adresse qu’ils ne le surpassent en force, il apprend à ne les plus craindre. Mettez un ours, ou un loup aux prises avec un sauvage robuste ; agile, courageux comme ils sont tous, armé de pierres, et d’un bon bâton, et vous verrez que le péril sera tout au moins réciproque, et qu’après plusieurs expériences pareilles, les bêtes féroces, qui n’aiment point à s’attaquer l’une à l’autre, s’attaqueront peu volontiers à l’homme, qu’elles auront trouvé tout aussi féroce qu’elles. A l’égard des animaux qui ont réellement plus de force qu’il n’a d’adresse, il est vis-à-vis d’eux dans le cas des autres espèces plus faibles, qui ne laissent pas de subsister ; avec cet avantage pour l’homme, que non moins dispos qu’eux à la course, et trouvant sur les arbres un refuge presque assuré, il a partout le prendre et le laisser dans la rencontre, et le choix de la fuite ou du combat. Ajoutons qu’il ne paraît pas qu’aucun animal fasse naturellement la guerre à l’homme, hors le cas de sa propre défense ou d’une extrême faim, ni témoigne contre lui de ces violentes antipathies qui semblent annoncer qu’une espèce est destinée par la nature à servir de pâture à l’autre.
D’autres ennemis plus redoutables, et dont l’homme n’a pas les mêmes moyens de se défendre, sont les infirmités naturelles, l’enfance, la vieillesse, et les maladies de toute espèce ; tristes signes de notre faiblesse, dont les deux premiers sont communs à tous les animaux, et dont le dernier appartient principalement à l’homme vivant en société. J’observe même, au sujet de l’enfance, que la mère, portant partout son enfant avec elle, a beaucoup plus de facilité à le nourrir que n’ont les femelles de plusieurs animaux, qui sont forcées d’aller et venir sans cesse avec beaucoup de fatigue, d’un côté pour chercher leur pâture, et de l’autre pour allaiter ou nourrir leurs petits. Il est vrai que si la femme vient à périr l’enfant risque fort de périr avec elle ; mais ce danger est commun à cent autres espèces, dont les petits ne sont de longtemps en état d’aller chercher eux-mêmes leur nourriture ; et si l’enfance est plus longue parmi nous, la vie étant plus longue aussi, tout est encore à peu près égal en ce point , quoiqu’il y ait sur la durée du premier âge, et sur le nombre des petits, d’autres règles, qui ne sont pas de mon sujet.
Here’s the translation:
Hobbes contends that man is naturally intrepid, and is intent only upon attacking and fighting. Another illustrious philosopher holds the opposite, and Cumberland and Puffendorf also affirm that nothing is more timid and fearful than man in the state of nature; that he is always in a tremble, and ready to fly at the least noise or the slightest movement. This may be true of things he does not know; and I do not doubt his being terrified by every novelty that presents itself, when he neither knows the physical good or evil he may expect from it, nor can make a comparison between his own strength and the dangers he is about to encounter. Such circumstances, however, rarely occur in a state of nature, in which all things proceed in a uniform manner, and the face of the earth is not subject to those sudden and continual changes which arise from the passions and caprices of bodies of men living together. But savage man, living dispersed among other animals, and finding himself betimes in a situation to measure his strength with theirs, soon comes to compare himself with them; and, perceiving that he surpasses them more in adroitness than they surpass him in strength, learns to be no longer afraid of them. Set a bear, or a wolf, against a robust, agile, and resolute savage, as they all are, armed with stones and a good cudgel, and you will see that the danger will be at least on both sides, and that, after a few trials of this kind, wild beasts, which are not fond of attacking each other, will not be at all ready to attack man, whom they will have found to be as wild and ferocious as themselves.
With regard to such animals as have really more strength than man has adroitness, he is in the same situation as all weaker animals, which notwithstanding are still able to subsist; except indeed that he has the advantage that, being equally swift of foot, and finding an almost certain place of refuge in every tree, he is at liberty to take or leave it at every encounter, and thus to fight or fly, as he chooses. Add to this that it does not appear that any animal naturally makes war on man, except in case of self−defence or excessive hunger, or betrays any of those violent antipathies, which seem to indicate that one species is intended by nature for the food of another. This is doubtless why African natives and savages are so little afraid of the wild beasts they may meet in the woods. The Caraibs of Venezuela among others live in this respect in absolute security and without the smallest inconvenience. Though they are almost naked, Francis Corréal tells us, they expose themselves freely in the woods, armed only with bows and arrows; but no one has ever heard of one of them being devoured by wild beasts. But man has other enemies more formidable, against which is is not provided with such means of defence: these are the natural infirmities of infancy, old age, and illness of every kind, melancholy proofs of our weakness, of which the two first are common to all animals, and the last belongs chiefly to man in a state of society. With regard to infancy, it is observable that the mother, carrying her child always with her, can nurse it with much greater ease than the females of many other animals, which are forced to be perpetually going and coming, with great fatigue, one way to find subsistence, and another to suckle or feed their young. It is true that if the woman happens to perish, the infant is in great danger of perishing with her; but this risk is common to many other species of animals, whose young take a long time before they are able to provide for themselves. And if our infancy is longer than theirs, our lives are longer in proportion; so that all things are in this respect fairly equal; though there are other rules to be considered regarding the duration of the first period of life, and the number of young, which do not affect the present subject. In old age, when men are less active and perspire little, the need for food diminishes with the ability to provide it. As the savage state also protects them from gout and rheumatism, and old age is, of all ills, that which human aid can least alleviate, they cease to be, without others perceiving that they are no more, and almost without perceiving it themselves.
I picked this passage because we can see that Rousseau is, in particular, taking on and contradicting the point of view expressed clearly and convincingly by the British philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes wrote in the previous century and put forth an extremely negative view of human existence in its natural state. You may know the famous Hobbesian dictum: that human existence in nature was “nasty, brutish and short.” That’s Hobbes in a nutshell.
Rousseau’s Natural Man provides an interesting contrast, both to Hobbes and to the biblical Eden story. His Natural Man isn’t aggressive or warlike, but he isn’t wimpy and scared either. He also doesn’t also have a mate, per se. There’s no Eve, in other words. In fact, Natural Man isn’t a pack animal at all. He’s the quintessential rugged individualist. He’s solitary, independent, and unsocial. He’s also not terribly hard-working. He likes to sleep a lot, Rousseau tells us, somewhat roguishly.
I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how fresh and new this viewpoint seemed to people in the 1750’s when Rousseau published this essay. He is arguing against the supreme importance and positive value of culture and civilization – and that means ANY kind of culture. In the passage I cited, Rousseau is also arguing – not so indirectly – for the superiority of indigenous and so-called “primitive” people over European ones, in so far as they are closer to the state of nature. This doesn’t mean they are more “innocent;” it means they are more themselves. More authentic.
Before we move on, let’s talk a little bit about the other half of “humankind” mentioned in the above citation. If you’re a feminist, it’s a little harder to figure out what to think about the somewhat parenthetical comment about women and kids in the passage I just quoted. Apparently, what we do not have in nature is the nuclear family, and I guess that can be read as a positive, although the other way to see it is that every dad in the state of nature is a deadbeat dad. On the other hand, there is also the implication that women in nature are completely able to take care of themselves and don’t need a strong man to protect them from a saber tooth tiger. So the traditional gender binary isn’t at play here. That’s interesting. This picture of women is certainly a far cry from distressed damsels who are dependent and fearful.
Likewise sex doesn’t seem to be much of a big deal. We don’t have cavemen knocking cavewomen on the head and dragging them back to some primordial cave. So Rousseau is not envisioning some kind of primordial patriarchy. Far from it. Sex is consensual, and relaxed. Romance and monogamy (or any kind of -gamy) are also not features of the state of nature. So… there’s no free love but there is sex, free of emotional or social baggage.
In other words, life is pretty good for human beings in the state of nature, according to Rousseau. I’ll let him summarize the situation in his own words:
Let us conclude then that man in a state of nature, wandering up and down the forests, without industry, without speech, and without home, an equal stranger to war and to all ties, neither standing in need of his fellow−creatures nor having any desire to hurt them, and perhaps even not distinguishing them one from another; let us conclude that, being self−sufficient and subject to so few passions, he could have no feelings or knowledge but such as befitted his situation; that he felt only his actual necessities, and disregarded everything he did not think himself immediately concerned to notice, and that his understanding made no greater progress than his vanity. (Discourse, p.22)
This picture of human beings in Nature has exerted a powerful influence on Anglo-European and American culture. And as always with Rousseau, there are good things and bad things about this legacy.
Rousseau’s interest in nature versus culture is taken up by the Storm and Stress writers like Friedrich Schiller (whom I discussed in another post), and Romantics like William Blake and the Shelleys (both Percy and Mary) who all write about the topic of human nature. The Shelleys may well have been influenced by Mary’s father William Godwin, who was also a Rousseau fan.
But somewhere along the reception route, Rousseau’s Natural Man gets turned into something else: the Noble Savage, a term coined by the poet/dramatist John Dryden. This is by the way an expression that Rousseau himself NEVER USES!
Part of this reception happens as a result of Rousseau’s frequent references to indigenous, native people throughout the discourse. But it’s important to recognize that Rousseau is himself pretty careful not to idealize any human being living in the state of nature. That idealization is an add on.
And gosh and golly is the Noble Savage everywhere in Anglo-European and American writing and imagining. You will find this fetishizing of the innocent, “good” native in countless movies and books: Walk About, the Emerald Forest, Last of the Mohicans, Dances with Wolves, Tarzan, and yes the guy actually NAMED the Savage in Brave New World.
There are even traces of the Noble Savage in depictions of African Americans in books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and in the character of Jim in Huckleberry Finn. One can argue that Beecher Stowe’s novel played an important role in changing white people’s minds about black people and in eventually helping end slavery. But the novel is also part of an ongoing tradition of essentializing, fetishizing, and otherizing in American writing — of talking about people of color as being essentially and somehow qualitatively different from a white “us.”
Let’s not even talk about Longfellow’s poem, The Song of Hiawatha.
Rousseau’s vision of human beings in the state of nature is fascinating, but its reception also has been used to create a very particular sort of racism. I do not think that Rousseau would have in any way agreed with the use of his work to envision people of color and/or indigenous people in this simplistic way. His point about Natural Man is not that he is “noble,” but that he (or she) is not evil and actually possesses certain natural virtues (more on that in my next blog post). As someone who knew and suffered from class differences, he was not someone to glorify being “otherized.” He is saying something more complex and nuanced about the state of nature, and who human beings were originally, as I’ve tried to suggest.
That’s why looking at original texts from the 18th Century is so important.
But there’s another problem with the way Rousseau’s views in the Discourse have been received and passed down.
Another legacy of Rousseau’s has been the “back to nature” movement, be it the utopian Shakers of the 19th Century, or the commune-loving hippies of the 1960’s.
If Rousseau were here he would wag a finger at all of the “Back to Nature” enthusiasts.
“Ce n’est pas possible,” he’d tell you with his Suisse-Romand accent (which is a little singsongy).
You see, once you leave the state of Nature, you can never get back in. Rousseau is quite clear on that. In this sense the Natural Man story does resemble the story of the Garden of Eden.
Once civil society happens, natural man is gone, and civil man takes his place.
This raises the question:
What the heck happened to us? How – if we started out as these independent, nonviolent creatures in a forest — did we end up in this complicated and unfair civil society where there is so much injustice, corruption, and war?
This is a question that feels just as true and urgent as it did in the 1750’s.
And…. you’re probably wondering something else.
“Hang on”, you say. “If the state of nature is really completely lost to us, then why the heck does JJ spend so much time talking about it? Why is it constantly being held up to us in this essay if it’s gone and there’s no way back to it?”
You’re right to wonder.
In my next blog post, I’m going to talk a bit about the second part of the Discourse on Inequality.
But before I go, I’ll share with you Voltaire’s reaction to Rousseau’s essay. It gives you an idea of how threatening most people — even really smart people — found what Rousseau was saying. It scared them. it insulted them. It upset them. And that’s interesting:
August 30, 1755, from Les DELICES. (Voltaire’s home outside Geneva)
I have received, sir, your new book against the human race, and I thank you for it. You will please people by your manner of telling them the truth about themselves, but you will not alter them. The horrors of that human society–from which in our feebleness and ignorance we expect so many consolations–have never been painted in more striking colors: no one has ever been so witty as you are in trying to turn us into brutes: to read your book makes one long to go about all fours. Since, however, it is now some sixty years since I gave up the practice, I feel that it is unfortunately impossible for me to resume it: I leave this natural habit to those more fit for it than are you and I. Nor can I set sail to discover the aborigines of Canada, in the first place because my ill-health ties me to the side of the greatest doctor  in Europe, and I should not find the same professional assistance among the Missouris: and secondly because war is going on in that country, and the example of the civilized nations has made the barbarians almost as wicked as we are ourselves. I must confine myself to being a peaceful savage in the retreat I have chosen–close to your country, where you yourself should be.
I agree with you that science and literature have sometimes done a great deal of harm. Tasso’s enemies made his life a long series of misfortunes: Galileo’s enemies kept him languishing in prison, at seventy years of age, for the crime of understanding the revolution of the earth: and, what is still more shameful, obliged him to forswear his discovery. Since your friends began the Encyclopedia,their rivals attack them as deists, atheists–even Jansenists.
If anyone has a right to complain of letters, I am that person, for in all times and in all places they have led to my being persecuted: still, we must needs love them in spite of the way they are abused–as we cling to society, though the wicked spoil its pleasantness: as we must love our country, though it treats us unjustly: and as we must love and serve the Supreme Being, despite the superstition and fanaticism which too often dishonor His service.
Chappus tells me your health  is very unsatisfactory: you must come and recover here in your native place, enjoy its freedom, drink (with me) the milk of its cows, and browse on its grass.
I am yours most philosophically and with sincere esteem.
[i] John Adams quotes Rousseau as early as 1765, in his description of a conversation with a group of friends about the function and history of “representatives” to a government – a discussion, which – as usual with Rousseau – sparked a lively debate. See February 21st, 1765: https://founders.archives.gov/?q=Rousseau&s=1111311111&sa=&r=1&sr=
Likewise, in 1772 Franklin is highly interested in a book that critiques Rousseau’s concept of the “noble savage”, citing a text that argues instead for “degeneracy among aboriginal peoples” – a conclusion that must have felt very comforting to these white descendants of European colonizers. See: https://founders.archives.gov/?q=Rousseau&s=1111311111&sa=&r=5&sr=
But perhaps the most interesting use of Rousseau during the pre-revolutionary period in the US is the House of Representatives’ reply to the governor of Massachusetts, which also cites Rousseau’s critique of feudalism, without however naming the author. This is a fascinating document, probably penned by John Adams, and it aptly dramatizes the sentiments circulating in 1773. See: https://founders.archives.gov/?q=Rousseau&s=1111311111&sa=&r=6&sr=#PJA01d157n2