A PHILOSOPHE APART,
Rousseau (1712-1778) is the most original of the Philosophes, the most controversial, and the hardest to understand. He shared some of the ideas of the other Philosophes, but his fundamental approach to man and to society was different in emphasis. At the same time, Rousseau was the last of the great writers of the French Enlightenment and the first of a new and different dispensation. His writings are full of superficial contradictions and are sprinkled with paradoxes, and he uses the same word with different meanings. His work, however, does have a fundamental unity. Rousseau always insisted on the unity of his ideas. "I have written," he said, "on diverse subjects, but always on the same principles, always the same morals, the same belief, the same maxims, and the same opinions." And, near the end of his life, he declared his writings were constructed on "a great principle." "The thought of Rousseau," writes one critic, "is by no means one of those systems laid out in advance. It grew and gathered like a flowing river. We must be prepared for ebb and flow, for twists and turns, for cross-currents, and backwaters with a whirl pool here and there."