The Many Faces of Philosophy: Reflections from Plato to Arendt

By Amélie Oksenberg Rorty | Go to book overview

18
Meditations on My Troubled Heart

JEAN-JACQUES ROUSSEAU

Born in Geneva, raised by an aunt after the death of his mother, Jean-Jacques
Rousseau (1712–1778) was, he tells us, largely educated by his solitaryreading of
Cicero and Romantic French novels. When he left Geneva in 1728, he became
associated with Mme Warens, who influenced his (temporary) conversion from
Calvinism to Catholicism. In 1748, he went to Paris, intending to make his fame
as a musician. His opera, Le Devin du Village (1752), was not a great success, but
he became a visible intellectual figure, and Diderot invited him to contribute
to the Encyclopédie. Against the background of a theory of human nature, both
The Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (1750) and The Discourse on the Origins
of Inequality
(1755) present severely critical descriptions of social luxuryand
political corruption. The Lettre à d'Alembert (1758) charges opera and the the-
ater with debasing public morality. As he saw it, social corruption arises from
a ramified and entrenched division of labor that engenders dependency, passiv-
ity, and resentment. Rousseau's major works present therapeutic programs for
these ills. La Nouvelle Heloise (1761) is a psychological novel of domesticity and
romance; Émile (1762) presents an educational regimen that is intended to pre-
serve autonomy; The Social Contract or Principles of Right (1762) and Consid-
erations on the Government of Poland
(1770) present a political solution, sketch-
ing a contractarian theory of political legitimation and organization. The three
therapeutic modes are interdependent: all are intended to preserve the auton-
omy of man in the "state of nature"; all substitute rationallybased civic senti-
ments for the opposition of passion and calculative rationality; all introduce a
benign patriarchal guiding figure; all attempt to reconcile the requirements of
equality with those of autonomy.

In a different mode, Rousseau's autobiographical works are artful attempts
at artless self-expression. Commentators see the Confessions (1781), Rousseau
Judge of Jean Jacques
(1772–1776) and Reveries of a Solitary Walker (1782) as
psychologically acute, yet self-deceptively self-justifying. Impulsive and tem-
pestuous, he made and broke the supportive friendships of Diderot, Voltaire,
and Hume. Because commentators have tended to concentrate on one or an-
other of his works without seeing their tensed and balanced interconnections,
there is considerable disagreement about how best to interpret him. He has
variously been seen as an early Romantic, a totalitarian, a democratic theorist,
and a precursor of Montessori and Dewey.


Letter to M. Jacob Vernes, Feb. 18, 1758

I do not at all like to have anyone's conscience subjected to formulas in the matter of faith. I have a religious faith, my friend, and it is a good thing for me. I do not believe that any man in the world has as much need of it as I. I have passed my life among unbelievers without allowing myself to be shaken. I loved them, es-

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