Rousseau - when philosophy ignores reality

Jean Jacques Rousseau, who was born on June 28th, 1712, holds the rare distinction of espousing a particularly unpleasant philosophy, while simultaneously contriving to be a particularly unpleasant person. Samuel Johnson described him as “one of the worst of men; a rascal, who ought to be hunted out of society, as he has been." Edmund Burke thought he was possessed of vanity “to a degree little short of madness.” He even managed to fall out with David Hume, as he did with everyone who befriended him. He was increasingly prone to bouts of paranoia.

He took the view that people in a state of nature were naturally good (“noble savages”), but were corrupted by civil society. Progress in the arts and sciences eroded virtue and morality, he said. Before society, he taught, men were naturally free and peaceable to others. But then agriculture and early manufactures enabled people to store value, bringing private property, inequality, and the vices that he thought accompanied them, vices such as idleness, luxury and vanity. 

Voltaire thought that this amounted to asking his readers “to walk on all fours” like a savage. Rousseau seemed to have no concept that primitive tribes routinely made war on each other, as did their simian predecessors, and that it was the evolution of society that brought the civilized values. Rousseau’s book, “The Social Contract” (1762), pointed to a tension between the freedom of individuals and the “general will” for the good of society. Those who did not obey the latter must be “forced to be free.” “Man is born free,” he wrote, “but lies everywhere in chains.”

Rousseau was very influential. Although he coincided with the Enlightenment, he was really anti-Enlightenment in opposing most of its values. He might even be classed as an early Romantic. The later French revolutionaries drew inspiration from his work as they set about the destruction of their society and its replacement by a theoretical one they had dreamed up to replace it. Karl Marx later acknowledged his influence.

Rousseau’s ideal society might be imagined by the fact that he praised Sparta for banning art and literature to concentrate on military prowess, while denouncing Athens for its artistry and intellect.

His book, “Emile” (1762), was influential in education, favouring “natural development” in which a boy would be allowed to live like a natural animal until the age of 12, when he developed reason, and should be taught a skill when aged 16. Rousseau abandoned his own children to an orphanage, however.

Obviously, Rousseau has been favoured by those who despise what society has engendered, and who wish to remake it according to their own vision of a better one. To others, though, his ideas seem fanciful, impractical, and scientifically illiterate, and many think the world would have been better had he never been in it.