Emile: Or, on Education

By Jean-Jacques Rousseau; Allan Bloom | Go to book overview
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IN the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality Rousseau summons men to hear for the first time the true history of their species.1 Man was born free, equal, self-sufficient, unprejudiced, and whole; now, at the end of history, he is in chains (ruled by other men or by laws he did not make), defined by relations of inequality (rich or poor, noble or commoner, master or slave), dependent, full of false opinions or superstitions, and divided between his inclinations and his duties. Nature made man a brute, but happy and good. History -- and man is the only animal with a history -- by the development of his faculties and the progress of his mind has made man civilized, but unhappy and immoral. History is not a theodicy but a tale of misery and corruption.

Emile, on the other hand, has a happy ending, and Rousseau says he cares little if men take it to be only a novel, for it ought, he says, to be the history of his species.2 And therewith he provides the key to Emile. It is, as Kant says,3 the work which attempts to reconcile nature with history, man's selfish nature with the demands of civil society, hence, inclination with duty. Man requires a healing education which returns him to himself. Rousseau's paradoxes -- his attack on the arts and the sciences while he practices them, his praise of the savage and natural freedom over against his advocacy of the ancient city, the general will, and virtue, his perplexing presentations of himself as citizen, lover, and solitary -- are not expressions of a troubled soul but accurate reflections of an incoherence in the structure of the world we all face, or rather, in general, do not face; and Emile is an experiment in restoring harmony to that world by reordering the emergence of man's acquisitions in such a way as to avoid the imbalances created by them while allowing the full actualization of man's potential. Rousseau believed that his was a privileged moment, a moment when all of man's faculties had revealed themselves and when man had, furthermore, attained for the first time knowledge of the principles of human nature. Emile is the canvas on which Rousseau tried to paint all of the soul's acquired passions and learning in such a way as to cohere with man's natural wholeness. It is a Phenomenology of the Mind posing as Dr. Spock.

Thus Emile is one of those rare total or synoptic books, a book with which one can live and which becomes deeper as one becomes deeper,

In Oeuvres complètes de Jean-Jacques Rousseau, ed. Bernard Gagnebin and Marcel Raymond, 4 vols. ( Paris: Gallimard, 1959- 1969, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade), vol. 3, p. 133; The First and Second Discourses, ed. R. Masters ( New York: St. Martin's, 1964), pp. 103-104.
P. 416 below.
"Conjectural Beginning of Human History," in On History, ed. Lewis Beck ( Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963), pp. 60-61.


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