French Radical Set His Thinking on Settling Here; One of Europe's Greatest Philosophers Once Resided in Staffordshire. Chris Upton Explores This Controversial Character

Article excerpt

Byline: Chris Upton

The little village of Wootton lies in the far north of Staffordshire, midway between the cities of Stoke-on-Trent and Derby.

Many will have brushed excitedly past it on their way to and from Alton Towers, which is just four miles away.

Despite the charm of its setting and of its sturdy stone houses, there would not be a great deal to say about Wootton.

But everywhere has its five minutes of fame at some point.

For Wootton, the moment came in 1766, when the Staffordshire village played host to one of Europe's greatest thinkers.

I'd like to bet that only one of the heroes of France interred at the Pantheon - Victor Hugo, Zola, Marie Curie, Voltaire and the rest - has ever been anywhere near Alton Towers. And that is Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

If you're not up on your French philosophers, let me briefly help you along. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) was an essayist, political thinker, composer and novelist.

Born in Geneva, he spent much of his life in Paris, mixing (and falling out) with the Encyclopedistes such as Diderot and Voltaire.

To say that Rousseau was ahead of his time is to put it mildly; the Romantic movement of the early 19th century, as well as the French Revolution itself, look to him as their prophet.

At the heart of Rousseau's philosophy was the simple notion that mankind was by nature good, but corrupted by institutional life, and that included the Church as well as the monarchy and the state.

To live the perfect life, then, was to turn one's back on those negative forces.

From Rousseau's pen flowed a series of extraordinary works. Fellow Hume offered sanctuary His novel, La Bette Heloise, was so popular that Parisian bookshops rented it out by the hour.

Arguably the greatest of Rousseau's books was The Social Contract, published in 1762, which begins with the famous lines: "Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains."

Later in the same work, he threw in those three words which still define the French nation today: "Liberty, equality, fraternity".

Just as radical was his novel, Emile, published "in the same year, which argued that religion was best kept out of education.

But this was still the 1760s, not the 1790s. There was precious little fraternity in the response of the French to Jean-Jacques' ideas.

His books were publicly burned, an arrest warrant was issued, and J-J was forced to flee for his life. When his retreat in Switzerland was attacked by a drunken mob, Rousseau seemed to have nowhere on Continental Europe left to go. "I was an infidel, an atheist," wrote Rousseau, "a lunatic, a madman, a wild beast, a wolf..."

Salvation came in the shape of another distinguished philosopher, David Hume, who had met Rousseau whilst he was working for the British ambassador in Paris. …