A Blupete Biography Page

Rousseau: "The Insensitive Sensitive"

Jean Jacques Rousseau, born at Geneva, was deserted by his family at age 10. As a young man he ran away from his caretakers and was to be referred, by a charitable agency, to the care of Madame de Warens a person with connections who saw to Rousseau's conversion to Catholicism. During his years, it would seem, Rousseau had no problem launching and maintaining love affairs, and had no qualms in bedding married women with absent or distracted husbands. In time, Rousseau was to return to Madame de Warens and was to become her general factotum and lover. After deserting her he took up with a maid at the hostelry in which he was staying; Therese Le Vasser and Rousseau were to continue to have a life time relationship which brought into the world five children; whom, Rousseau -- this man who wrote of man's natural goodness and the corrupting forces of institutions -- assigned to a foundling hospital. In time, Rousseau had the good fortunate to meet Voltaire and Diderot. The Parisian crowd were soon to place Rousseau among Le Siecle des Lumieres, and, like the rest, was lionized. Rousseau was the author of Discours (1755), and, of course, his masterpiece, Contrat social (1762).

"Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains - Man must 'be forced to be free.'" These were the notions of Rousseau and those who followed him. With the cry of "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity," the French mobs hit the bloody barricades. The French Revolution, in addition to the immediate blood and damage, left a train of tattered notions in its long comet like tail in which we still exist. First there was Napoleon and years of war. There then followed, down through the centuries, power hungry men who forced people, often with violent acts, to do their bidding, pronouncing that it was to the advantage of the people.

Rousseau's concept of a social contract (that there existed unstated reciprocal obligations between the people and government) is not near as upsetting as his view that the existing social conventions should be immediately upset like a barrow of apples at the Saturday morning market, every apple all at once to be bruised and kicked. What Rousseau failed to observe or appreciate is that the state evolved over a very long time and runs (and can only run) on culture, on custom and on tradition. It would take more than long years of repeated war to change the fundamental beliefs of a people. Time and generations will have had to pass, with wise men in power applying gentle non-hurting pressure, simple and steady pressure — like so many orthodontists at work. However, let me say that my principal conclusion as to Rousseau, is that he judged all men in reference to himself. And while there is little doubt that Rousseau had "a pure and overwhelming desire for knowledge," the question is - Can that be said of mankind in general? Here are some classic criticisms of Rousseauian theory, first Edmund Burke:

"We have had the great professor and founder of the philosophy of Vanity in England. As I had good opportunities of knowing his proceedings almost from day to day, he left no doubt in my mind that he entertained no principle either to influence his heart or to guide his understanding but vanity; with this vice he was possessed to a degree little short of madness. Benevolence to the whole species, and want of feeling for every individual with whom the professors come in contact, form the character of the new philosophy. Setting up for an unsocial independence, this their hero of vanity refuses the just price of common labor, as well as the tribute which opulence owes to genius, and which, when paid, honors the giver and the receiver, and then pleads his beggary as an excuse for his crimes. He melts with tenderness for those only who touch him by the remotest relation, and then, without one natural pang, casts away, gustful amours, and sends his children to the hospital of foundlings. The bear loves, licks, and forms her young; but bears are not philosophers." (As quoted by James Russell Lowell in his work, Among My Books, p. 349.)
Sir Edmund Gosse:
"In so many of his writings, and particularly, of course, in the Discours of 1750, Rousseau undertook the defence of social nudity. He called upon his world, which prided itself so much upon its elegance, to divest the body politic of all its robes. He declared that while Nature has made man happy and virtuous, society it is that renders him miserable and depraved, therefore let him get rid of social conventions and roll naked in the grass under the elm-trees. The invitation, as I have said, is one which never lacks acceptance, and Rousseau was followed into the forest by a multitude. ... [That it was human nature that] the more we are muffled up in social conventions the more we occasionally long for a whimsical return to nudity. If a writer is strong enough, from one cause or another, to strip the clothing off from civilisation, that writer is sure of a welcome from thousands of over-civilised readers." [Found in Gosse's, Essay on Walt Whitman.]
Friedrich A. Hayek:
"... conflict between an individual's emotions and what is expected of him in an extended order is virtually inevitable: innate responses tend to break through the network of learnt rules that maintain civilization. [It was Rousseau in his nostalgia for the simple and the primitive that the conviction spread] that one ought to satisfy his or her desires, rather than to obey shackles allegedly invented and imposed by selfish interests." (The Fatal Conceit, Appendix D, page 152.)

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2012 (2021)

Peter Landry