Saturday, February 16, 2019

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

The process of publishing Julie continued to be a fiasco for quite some time. The first edition from Amsterdam took so long to arrive in France that a second edition printed in Paris was released first. In addition, there were pirated editions in circulation in France simultaneously. None of the editions had the same text, and they all contained errors. Nevertheless, the novel became one of the most popular of the eighteenth century, and although it didn't make Rousseau rich, it made him more famous than ever.

In 1761, Rousseau engaged in final preparations for the publication of Émile and wrote The Social Contract. His health wavered throughout the year. At one point he thought that he was going to die. A doctor diagnosed an enlarged prostate gland. For a time he concerned himself with making provisions for Thérèse in the event of his death. He also sought to find the firstborn of his abandoned children, a girl, with assistance from Mme. de Luxembourg, who contacted an agent for that purpose, but to no avail. By the end of 1761 he had recovered his health.

A few readers of Julie began correspondences with Rousseau. Most of them were women, and some were aspiring writers. He also received a surge in visitors at Petit Montlouis, and on the whole he began to experience more social contact than he liked. He began to consider moving to a more remote location. As I mentioned earlier, Cranston is not particularly good at extracting how Rousseau's ideas could be based on little more than his personal preferences. The only instance that he has pointed out so far is Rousseau's inconsistent views on theatrical performances. On the one hand, it was fine for Rousseau to write and stage theatrical productions in Paris, but on the other hand it was wrong for Voltaire to write and stage theatrical productions in Geneva. Cranston seems to say that although Rousseau did attempt to rationalize this inconsistency, his underlying reasoning had more to do with dislike of Voltaire reigning over his home turf than with any substantive principle. Where I think Cranston has completely missed the boat is in not tracing Rousseau's concept of the noble savage to his preference for limited social contacts.

Looking at many of Rousseau's life choices, it is obvious that he had an introverted personality. He moved away from Geneva to a rural area as soon as he was able to. He disliked the intense social requirements of living in Paris. Even while living in Montmorency, he preferred very small social gatherings to large ones. I think that Rousseau's idealization of earlier times in human history was mostly an overgeneralization of his personal preferences. Not knowing that he had the personality of an introvert, and that most other people were inherently more sociable than he was, he arbitrarily blamed the ills of modern civilization on society itself. It does not seem to have occurred to him that people are social creatures and that most of them don't mind things that disturb him. Thus, from my point of view as a psychologically informed introvert, the conditions that developed in Paris during the eighteenth century had mainly to do with overpopulation and the availability of jobs in urban locations. The social adaptations that occurred were caused by increases in population density, not by the evil effects of society on individuals who would otherwise have behaved according to an idealized model of pre-civilized people about whom Rousseau knew little. It is for reasons such as this that I am tempted to dismiss most of Rousseau's ideas, and I am more comfortable seeing him simply as a talented writer rather than as some sort of prophet.

I don't have many more pages left in this book and will finish commenting on it in my next post. However, there is still one volume to go – but it's the shortest of the three.

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