Playing with Chance: Rousseau's Illumination

By Hamilton, Ross | The Romanic Review, May 2004 | Go to article overview

Playing with Chance: Rousseau's Illumination

Hamilton, Ross, The Romanic Review

Gambling obsessed all levels of French society during the Enlightenment. Louis XIV held appartements du roi given over to gambling three times a week at Versailles, the queen hosted a nightly game, and courtiers scheduled additional occasions for play. Hosts so frequently acted as bankers for games to entertain their guests that satirists, chroniclers, and moralists complained that compulsive gambling had destroyed other forms of social entertainment. In Paris ten authorized maisons de jeux operated games involving some degree of skill (jeux de commerce) but essentially they served as fronts for more lucrative chance-driven games (jeux de hasard). Gambling also took place at the two great Paris fairs during almost four months of the year, all year long at foreign embassies, and eventually at gambling houses at the Hotel de Gesvres and later at the Hotel de Soissons. In addition to these legal venues, the large number of clandestine Parisian gaming rooms, lighted by tripots, made one visitor comment that "flaming pots set Paris ablaze," and gambling was by no means restricted to Paris. (2) The "Age des Lumieres" was lighted by gambling.

Although official prohibitions referred to both religious and sociological dangers from gambling, within the context of the period, risking large sums at play became an analogy for risking one's life in battle. Having the courage to risk and winning or losing with equal equanimity demonstrated indifference to material gain and thus served as a means of displaying hereditary status. When the marquis de Dangeau (?--1720), a recently ennobled Huguenot, won several fortunes at court through his skillful play, he was not accused of cheating but of applying his vaunted study of probabilities in the service of venal gain. Dangeau's consistent success not only signaled the end of the aristocratic posture of superiority to money, it affirmed the primacy of mathematical probability and sanctified bourgeois economic expertise) Areas of life that previously appeared to escape deterministic laws had been tamed by mathematical analysis. Thus, those skilled in the science of probability could master events that previously seemed to lie beyond conscious direction.

This culture of gambling presided over a paradigmatic shift in consciousness that took place during the eighteenth century. Narratives of risk and reward appearing in periodicals and novels featured happy or unhappy outcomes of accidental events. All types of accidental experience began to accrue significance as elements that could form the course of a life. Their increasing importance seemed to require interpretation, and how an individual reacted to an experience appeared to determine the eventual outcome. Thus, awareness of the potentially determinant role of chance or accident was accompanied by a sense that the self could be defined by the way the individual responded to such events.

As the "most accident-prone figure in the Enlightenment," Jean-Jacques Rousseau serves as an exemplary representative of this new aspect of self-definition. (4) His autobiographical writings record his perception that what makes him unique is the sensibility he displays in his response to random events and the power of his imagination to transform them. What is at stake at this transitional moment is a complex interrelation between latent influences from classical tradition, in which the self was defined in terms of immutable rather than accidental qualities, and the fascination with contingency that characterized the shifting social parameters of Enlightenment France. We see these two factors intersect in the life-altering accident Rousseau experienced in the summer of 1749.

He was walking along the road from Paris to Vincennes when he read in his newspaper the notice of a competition for the best response to a question posed by the Academy of Dijon. At that moment of chance reading he experienced an epiphany that has come to be known as his "illumination on the road to Vincennes":

   Suddenly a fortunate chance happened to enlighten me about what
   I had to do for myself, and to think about my fellows about whom
   my heart was ceaselessly in contradiction with my mind, and whom
   I still felt myself brought to love along with so many reasons to
   hate them. … 

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