Monday, February 18, 2019

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

The remainder of the book covers the publication of Émile and The Social Contract, followed by Rousseau's sudden departure from France. Cranston also provides a summary of the ideas in The Social Contract, and they seem incoherent to me. Rousseau advocated some sort of republic in which the democratic process occurred only in the legislature, and it is unclear to me how the members would be appointed. Rousseau hated hereditary monarchies, so they wouldn't come from there. He also hated the suppression of the poor by the rich, so they would not come from the wealthy. In some bizarre way, it seems that he wanted a theocracy that would be based on the Christian God, but without any of the trappings of Catholicism or Calvinism. He also threw in ancient Sparta as a model. To me, this is an example of the confused thoughts that scholars analyze and discuss pointlessly for centuries. Rousseau's ideas here are unacceptable to me because they require belief in the existence of God, the soul and free will. The one good idea that I was able to glean from this was Rousseau's recognition of the risks associated with allowing poorly-educated people to vote. Modern democracies have yet to design systems in such a manner that people like Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini or Donald Trump cannot rise to power in general elections.

It may be just as well that Cranston isn't devoting much space to Rousseau's ideas. On the other hand, I think that he goes overboard in chronicling the daily events in Rousseau's life; that may simply be because this middle period is extremely well documented. You find out, for example, that Rousseau's catheter got stuck in late 1761, and a couple of his fans found out about it and suggested doctors for him to consult. In the spring of 1762 he began to wear a caftan made by a local Armenian tailor, which allowed him to go out without wearing breeches and facilitated urinating with a catheter. The detailed description of every person and event pertaining to the publication of each book, however, is tedious, to say the least.

Émile appeared first in France and received a ho-hum public reception. But, in the climate of the time, certain passages were considered blasphemous, and Rousseau was initially cavalier about this, even though it might have cost him his life. He made no preparations of any kind, and then one night in May of 1762 he was suddenly warned by Mme. de Luxembourg that gendarmes were on their way from Paris to arrest him. He quickly decided to flee to the Bernese region of Switzerland on Lake Neuchâtel, since The Social Contract would have caused his arrest in Geneva. M. de Luxembourg offered him a carriage, and he departed in a nick of time, passing the gendarmes, who were coming in the opposite direction on the road. He took his papers with him and left Thérèse behind to care for the house.

Aside from the complaints that I've been making, I still find Rousseau's life interesting. It is useful to me to know how a complex person lived his life in a different age. Notwithstanding Cranston's scholarly proclivities, which sometimes seem psychologically and intellectually lacking, the series is worthwhile. I will shortly begin the last volume, which was published after Cranston died suddenly from a heart attack in 1993 at the age of 73.  That volume is much shorter than the others and includes an epilogue describing Rousseau's place in intellectual history.

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