Monday, January 21, 2019

The Noble Savage: Jean-Jacques Rousseau 1754-1762 I

This second volume in Maurice Cranston's series starts where the first leaves off, in 1754. After returning to Paris from Geneva, Rousseau resumed his salon participation while living frugally without a regular job and supporting Thérèse and her mother, Mme. Levasseur, who was getting old. He sought a publisher for his Discourse on Inequality. At the age of 42, Rousseau's eccentricities become more apparent. In those days, publishing a book was generally not very profitable for the author, and his friends, such as Diderot, earned a living in the same way that many intellectuals do today, by writing commissioned articles for journals. Rousseau refused to engage in this type of work and, besides his income as a copyist, he depended on handouts that he would accept only when they didn't compromise his ascetic lifestyle. It seems that many aspects of his life as a principled philosophe were a bit of a sham, because Mme. Levasseur was constantly going behind his back and soliciting funds from people to support the three of them.

Rousseau disliked living in Paris, because it was congested, unhealthy and corrupt, and he preferred the outdoors. It seems that his plan had been to take Geneva by storm and retire there. His Discourse on Inequality was dedicated to that city, but, when it was published, it turned out to be flop in Geneva, which was not an intellectual hub. Furthermore, although he seems to have wanted to idealize Geneva as a utopia which reflected his ideals, in fact it was a patrician city with distinct classes that hardly demonstrated his ideas regarding equality. One of the Parisian salon hostesses, Mme. d'Épinay, had a house to the north of Paris in Montmorency, and she remodeled a building on the property, which she named the Hermitage, so that Rousseau, Thérèse and her mother could live there. In 1756, the three moved in. Generally, this arrangement suited Rousseau, and he began to write his first novel, Julie. His house was a mile from the nearest neighbor, and, far ahead of his time, he enjoyed walking in the country. He usually walked alone, since Thérèse didn't like walking.

When Mme. d'Épinay was staying at her house there, Rousseau socialized with her, though the conversation was not at salon levels, and sometimes he found her boring. She was not sexually attractive to him, and they did not become involved in that way. By this time, Thérèse was also unattractive to him, and although they seem to have had a good relationship, she came to resemble a servant and nurse in her household role. Despite the fact that Montmorency is close to Paris, in those days getting there often involved walking through five miles of mud, so Rousseau didn't get many visitors. He communicated with friends via letters, and, much as what happens today with emails, misunderstandings sometimes arose. In particular, Diderot, who was busy supporting his own family and secretly subsidizing Mme. Levasseur to assist Rousseau, didn't like to take time off to trudge through the mud, and this produced some animosity. He was probably irritated by Rousseau's "hermit" act because of the inconveniences it caused for everyone else.

My reading of this biography falls broadly into my analysis of intellectuals, and I am particularly interested in thinking about how much importance should be placed on their ideas after you have seen how they originated. In Rousseau's case, I identify with his appreciation of the outdoors and rural living and his disdain for being an employee, but I think that some of his ideas were simply idealizations of Calvinism and Geneva. In the case of all intellectuals, they may have some insights or special knowledge, but, in the end, they suffer from much the same ignorance and prejudice as everyone else. From the vantage point of the present, Rousseau had little or no understanding of what the effects of the Industrial Revolution and population growth would be. Regardless of what he thought, people were about to move to cities and take industrial jobs rather than work or live rurally. He advocated small, democratically-governed republics without recognizing that economies of scale would soon render such political and economic structures obsolete. Moreover, he engaged in a lot of fuzzy thinking regarding who would actually vote in his ideal republic. Certainly, he would not place illiterate servants or farm laborers on the same level as educated people like himself. Thus, "equality" coming from Rousseau had a specialized meaning which did not provide all people with identical rights. Nor, so far as I'm aware, did Rousseau delineate in a useful way the conditions under which rights should be restricted. Rousseau was one of the most original thinkers of the Enlightenment, but I think it is important to view even the most influential of thinkers as having thoughts of limited applicability, simply because, at best, they are likely to be only somewhat less ignorant than their peers.

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