Tuesday, January 8, 2019

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

During the late 1740's and early 1750's in Paris, the new breed of young intellectuals who had contributed to Diderot's Encyclopédie became respected participants in the salon set, and intelligence and wit became part of the package, perhaps for the first time. Rousseau did well at this, though he was shy and, since he never had much money, didn't like to dress up. His next big break came with the composition of the opera Le Devin du Village in 1752. At this stage, Rousseau was advocating the Italian style of opera over the French, and it caught on. The opera was first performed for the King at Fontainebleau and was a great success. This plunged Rousseau into the musical world, and before long he was getting into fights with Rameau, the elder statesman of French music who had criticized Les Muses galantes. Soon after, Rousseau staged a play that he had written much earlier at Chambéry, but it was more or less a flop.

In his late 30's and early 40's, Rousseau's final adult personality emerged, and it wasn't all pretty. In my opinion, he willfully remained poor long past the time that he had to be, and he refined his poverty as an odd sort of act. Because wealthy people were more than willing to help him once he became famous in Paris, he received a high-paying job as a cashier in an office of the Receiver-General of Finances. However, having a regular job made him ill, and he soon quit. The King so liked Le Devin du Village that he was prepared to offer Rousseau a pension. Somehow, Rousseau rationalized not accepting a pension on the grounds that it would compromise his integrity. This occurred while he was living in near-squalor, supporting Thérèse's parasitic and intrusive family and earning a pittance by copying music. This kind of obstinate impracticality eventually irritated his closest friend, Diderot, who seems to have been far more sensible.

What irks me at the moment is that while Rousseau could easily have increased his income substantially without much effort, he was sending what little money he had to Mme. de Warens, apologizing as he did that he wished that he had more to send. Apparently her financial situation had become dire when she lost her pension from Turin. Moreover, Rousseau abandoned all of his five children and never saw them again. It is hard to recognize this as some sort of principled behavior: he was simply a disingenuous friend and an irresponsible parent. He seems to have thought that by remaining poor he could never be accused of malfeasance. Unfortunately, for all his braying about equality, he didn't seem to think that he had to make any sacrifices for women, children or friends as long as he could stay poor or sick. In addition, he does not seem to have thought about or addressed the problems associated with Thérèse's family. As far as I am able to determine, Rousseau's ideas regarding personal austerity did not stem from the refinement of a belief system, but rather derived from the dogma that he had passively absorbed while growing up in Calvinist Geneva.

I am still reading this with great interest, but not because I want to emulate Rousseau. I merely think that he was a talented writer who lived an interesting, well-documented life during interesting times. Though he may have possessed excellent language skills and a reasonably good knowledge of music, a lot of his thinking seems half-baked, leading me to conclude that he was not as great a philosopher as some have made him out to be. This wouldn't be of much significance in itself were it not for the fact that he influenced later political thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson. Reading about Rousseau, it is no surprise that Jefferson, who lived in style, complete with French wines imported to Virginia at great expense, was in debt throughout his life and didn't treat slaves, women or non-landowning males as equal citizens. Furthermore, Jefferson had five illegitimate children with his slave, Sally Hemings: how enlightened was that? Some of the elements of Rousseau's legacy, it must be noted, are about as unequal as you can get.

I will make one more post on this book, take a short pause, and then start the next volume.

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