Saturday, December 8, 2018

Jean-Jacques: The Early Life and Works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau 1712-1754 I

I've barely started this first in a series of three volumes by Maurice Cranston (1920-1993) and am already enjoying it, because Cranston has a deep understanding of his subject and writes well. Furthermore, Rousseau was such an influential historical figure that there is more information available on his life than one could hope to find on most others who lived in his era. By way of an introduction, I should explain why I think Rousseau is significant. In one respect, he addressed a visceral feeling that I experienced on my own without having read him: a love of the outdoors and the appeal of rural living. I grew up in suburbs and did not experience rural life at all until I was eighteen. Up to then I had no way of knowing why I hadn't felt comfortable in the environments which I had inhabited. On my own, I also recognized the distortions and filters placed by society on reality, and, although I didn't get around to reading Rousseau for many years, he was the first writer I came across who explained this in a satisfactory manner. His ideas were echoed by Henry David Thoreau, but I found Thoreau to be a weaker writer and thinker.

On the other hand, some of Rousseau's ideas, which have been widely adopted, are in need of reexamination in light of advances in science and world changes since the eighteenth century. This is because he was writing in a comparatively unpopulated world a century before Darwin. In particular, Rousseau's idea of the freedom of the individual is badly in need of reexamination. I recently watched a 1952 interview with Bertrand Russell, in which he elucidated what he thought were the three major problems facing the world then. First, he thought that a world government was needed to control weaponry and resolve local disputes. Second, he thought that greater economic equality between nations was necessary to reduce the potential for wars. And third, sounding rather Malthusian, he suggested that the rights of individuals need to be curtailed somewhat, particularly when it comes to population growth. As you can see, not much has changed on these fronts since 1952, and you can now add climate change to Russell's list. Where Rousseau needs to be revisited is in his idea of individual freedom, which has become enshrined in modern democracies and, in my view, despite improvements in living standards, has wreaked havoc on the world from the Industrial Revolution to the present. I find it odd that none of Rousseau's successors, including Karl Marx, have presented a system which addresses the inequality and environmental destruction caused by capitalism or the failures of totalitarian regimes. Though Marx was cognizant of economic inequality, he seems to have been oblivious to the abuse of power by autocratic leaders. He seems to have thought that the proletariat possesses a mysterious virtue that is somehow absent from the bourgeoisie. What about Hitler and Stalin? By the same token, American reverence for the Declaration of Independence, an obsolete document reflecting some of Rousseau's ideas, seems inappropriately sentimental and alarmingly shortsighted given the current state of world affairs.

Rousseau was born in 1712 to a wealthy, upper-class mother and a middle-class father, who worked as a watchmaker. His mother died of puerperal fever two days after his baptism, and he spent his first years in her house in the wealthy, elevated neighborhood of Geneva overlooking the poorer neighborhoods near the lake. Rousseau was doted on by one of his mother's sisters, but, when he was five, his father, whose financial fortunes had deteriorated, sold the house and moved to the artisan quarter of St. Gervais. It is said that both of Rousseau's parents were spirited and independent, but also that his father was somewhat unstable. He insisted on carrying a sword, which was above his rank, and occasionally he got into fights. When Rousseau was ten, his father engaged in a quarrel which led to a trial in which he was tried in absentia and found guilty. He moved permanently to the Bernese territory at Nyon and left his son in Geneva in the care of his wife's brother, Gabriel Bernard.

Rousseau was promptly sent with one of his cousins to the nearby town of Bossey, then in Savoy, to be taught by the local Calvinist pastor. It was there that he first experienced the pleasures of rural life. Occasionally he was disciplined by his tutor's sister, and apparently he enjoyed being spanked by women. Later, due to some misunderstanding, both he and his cousin were severely disciplined by their tutor, and thereafter they disliked Bossey. After two years they returned to Geneva and lived at Rousseau's uncle's house. However, his uncle's family considered him a poor in-law and soon rid themselves of him. Initially he was sent to be an apprentice for a notary, but he was soon expelled. He was then sent to an apprenticeship with an engraver, and although he liked engraving, he disliked the engraver and his family. At the age of twelve he considered himself socially superior to them and couldn't tolerate their vulgarity, lack of reading or the beatings that he had to endure for disciplinary reasons.

In those days, Geneva was still a walled city with a gate that closed in the evening. Occasionally Rousseau would be beyond the wall with friends when the gate closed, and he would receive a beating from his master the next day. As he approached the age of sixteen, he had completed only three years out of five of his apprenticeship. One day, when he was locked out, he decided to leave Geneva and abandon his apprenticeship. He took refuge in Catholic Savoy, where he learned that he could receive support from the Catholic Church by converting from Calvinism. To this end, he walked to Annecy, where he met Mme. de Warens, who was twenty-nine at the time and liked young men. She was separated from her husband, a wealthy landowner, and assisted the Catholic church in recruiting converts. Europe abounded with grifters who specialized in taking advantage of church money for their livelihood on the pretext of conversion, and Rousseau soon found himself walking to Turin with a couple of them for religious training. He arrived in Turin with his possessions stolen, and his companions disappeared.

Of course, Rousseau returns to Savoy for his interlude with Mme. de Warens, as famously described in Confessions, but I haven't reached that episode yet. Cranston is good at comparing historical facts with Rousseau's recollections in his autobiographical works. Of particular interest so far is Rousseau's positive depiction of his father, who, in a practical sense, seems to have abandoned him at the age of ten.

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