Tuesday, February 5, 2019

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

As it happened, one of Rousseau's neighbors in Montmorency was Charles-François-Frédéric de Montmorency-Luxembourg, Duc de Luxembourg and Maréchal de France. He was a friend of the King and a chief military advisor, and he spent much of his time in Versailles. He made several attempts to meet Rousseau by inviting him to his château, but was rebuffed because Rousseau thought that he would be treated like a peasant and take meals with the servants. Finally, the Maréchal himself actually showed up at Petit Montlouis and couldn't be avoided. Rousseau was already acquainted with the Maréchal's wife, Mme. de Luxembourg, whom he knew from his salon days in Paris. He liked her but was intimidated by her because she could be spiteful. Before long, Rousseau was visiting them at their château.

In the summer of 1759, Petit Montlouis was so badly in need of repairs that the floors were caving in and it was becoming uninhabitable. The Maréchal offered Rousseau the use of an apartment in his Petit Château, an elegant, landscaped building close to his main house, while Rousseau's landlord made repairs to Petit Montlouis. Rousseau befriended the Maréchal, remaining a little wary of his wife. Rousseau felt more at home with aristocratic people, who never thought about money or advancing themselves, than with his intellectual peers in Paris or the social climbers whom he encountered everywhere. Without changing his attire, he met and conversed informally with the Maréchal and his friends, preferring only small groups.

At this stage, Rousseau's health had improved, and he was shopping out Julie for publication and writing Émile. Cranston devotes a chapter to the content of Émile. I read it a few years ago and was not impressed. It is interesting to me only to the extent that it shows how Rousseau conceived of education, both for men and women. Most of the book reads like a manual for use by a full-time tutor who has been assigned to raise a boy named Émile who comes from a wealthy family. Towards the end, the book begins to read like a novel, when Émile meets Sophie, his ideal partner who has also been raised according to Rousseau's principles. Rousseau manages to throw his entire cosmology, which is quirky to say the least, into the book. As with everything written by Rousseau, he is good at explaining how he came to adopt certain ideas, and it is left to the reader to decide whether those ideas might have any relevance to them. Usually that is not the case.

By contemporary standards, Rousseau's scheme is bizarre. He thought that only wealthy men of high rank deserved proper educations and the right to participate in government. Women, peasants and artisans had other tasks to perform and should stick to those. This is hardly a formula for equality. Rousseau is fairly consistent in his assertion that civilization and society ruin people, and that some sort of reversion to an earlier state would be desirable. However, he doesn't appear to have known how people actually used to live. He seems to have thought that men and women just wandered around in the woods alone and mated randomly, and that when women gave birth they raised their babies on their own. Although it is true that modern marital arrangements are products of civilization, Rousseau overlooked the fact that humans have always been social animals and have lived in small groups for thousands of years. With regard to religion, he believed in God, but not in the religious institutions that dominate religious beliefs. He found religion in nature and was suspicious of Christian theology: he did not consider Christ a divine being or think that the Bible was the word of God.

One of the things that I like about Rousseau is that he can be used as a reference point for how ideas develop and change over time, which makes it easier to look at one's own life and see it in a context that remains almost invisible in the present. He was born 238 years before I was, and the belief systems of his time were quite different from those of today. Even when he was wrong about something, it is useful to see how he interpreted and challenged orthodoxy. How will your current belief system stack up in 250 years? In a broad sense, he was right that social pressures force people into modes of thought which don't necessarily suit them well. It is also true that people may generally accept ideas that have no real merit under close examination. I think that, although there were disadvantages, Rousseau was able to benefit from the fact that he did not have what then would have been considered a proper formal education, because it allowed him to think independently. Then as now, it is beyond the scope of your plodding contemporaries to transcend the popular prejudices of the day. Certainly, the relegation of thought to formal institutions such as universities and the pervasive presence of advertising tend to encourage the acceptance of dubious truths and unthinking conformity. One of my frequent complaints on this blog pertains to the apparent absence of big thinkers today, and I would be happy to have another one come along even if he or she were just as error-prone as Rousseau.

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