Friday, January 4, 2019

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

Initially, life in Paris was good when Rousseau returned from Venice. A new friend whom he had met in Venice, the Spanish nobleman Ignatio Altuna, allowed him to stay with him in his Paris apartment and paid his expenses. However, Altuna returned to Spain in the spring of 1745, and Rousseau was then left to his own devices. He moved into a low-budget hotel, where he met Thérèse Levasseur, the illiterate laundress who was to become his lifelong mistress. There he composed his operatic ballet, Les Muses galantes. Though he managed to arrange for a rehearsal, the ballet never went into production. In 1746, he attended the salon of Mme. Dupin, and after they became acquainted he took a position as secretary within her household. The Dupins were wealthy dilettantes who were trying to make names for themselves in their writings, but, despite Rousseau's talent, they did not produce any memorable works. He received another small inheritance in 1747 when his father died, but his financial state remained weak, because he received little pay from the Dupins. By 1749, Rousseau was making contributions to Diderot's Encyclopédie, along with Diderot and d'Alembert. Rousseau provided entries on music while d'Alembert focused on math and science. This work, however, produced no immediate income.

In 1749 there was a crackdown on heretical writings in France by Catholic authorities, and Diderot was arrested and jailed in Vincennes. He was allowed visitors, and Rousseau visited him by walking about six miles each way from Paris. To occupy himself while walking, Rousseau read, and one day he noticed an article announcing a prize sponsored by the Academy of Dijon. The prize would be awarded for the best essay on the subject "Has the progress of the arts and sciences done more to corrupt or to purify morals?" Rousseau was immediately inspired and wrote the winning essay, which was to be a major turning point in his life. He took the more controversial anti-arts-and-sciences position, in which he seemed reactionary, but his essay won, and soon he was famous. While there were inconsistencies and flawed logic in his essay, it was widely debated in France, and Rousseau became a celebrity for the first time. He wrote that the arts and sciences "cast garlands of flowers over the chains that men bear, crushing in them that sense of original liberty for which they were born, making them like their slavery, and turning them into what is called a civilized people." The main thesis of most of Rousseau's subsequent work was that man is good but is corrupted by culture.

After living with the Dupins, Rousseau moved in with Thérèse Levasseur's family and provided most of their financial support. During the course of his relationship with Thérèse, she produced a total of five babies, all of which were sent to the orphanage. Rousseau is thought to have been their father, though there have been skeptics. Rousseau apparently had a birth defect which made it difficult for him to urinate, and he was subject to various infections and illnesses. While he later expressed regret about abandoning the children, the practice was normal then, when modern birth control didn't exist, under those conditions in which parents couldn't afford to raise them.

As I proceed through these books, I hope to comment more on Rousseau's ideas. At this stage in his life, he felt oppressed and abused by the wealthy, who, for the purposes of his essay, were the primary advocates of the arts and sciences. Clearly, in Paris at the time, there was a lot of unpleasant, competitive behavior among them, and their servants, Rousseau, for instance, often bore the brunt of it by being overworked and underpaid. I don't think that Rousseau's idea that life was better before civilization came along holds up well if you use conventional measures of the quality of life, but if you view his main point rather as an indictment of social inequality and its ill effects, his thoughts are still relevant today. Thus, I think that his ideas regarding inequality have held up, while his harkening back to an idealized past is mistaken. Although I frequently criticize the current state of the arts, I would never suggest, as he did, that they should not exist. Similarly, I think it would be idiotic to renounce all of science. However, in the history of ideas, Rousseau is worth considering, with the proviso that he wrote at a time when social science was in its infancy, and that he could not have known how our distant ancestors actually lived.

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