Rousseau: autonomy lost


Rousseau: autonomy lost

His work laid the ground both for a radical conception of autonomy, and its critique.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Books Long-reads

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was of the Enlightenment. He fraternised with the original self-styled lumieres, the philosophes – indeed, as a caustic, eloquent multi-talented thirtysomething in the Paris of the 1750s, earning a living copying music, penning essays and poetry, and forging a reputation as a composer, he was considered one of their number. He was a close friend of Diderot, the editorial force, alongside D’Alembert, behind that testament to an Enlightenment-style thirst for knowledge, the Encyclopédie – that was until he felt a cooling in their relationship, and the warming of a seeming conspiracy against him. He was close in spite of himself to Baron D’Holbach, whose rebarbative materialism was anathema to him. And he was a close enemy of the aristocratic Voltaire, with whom he exchanged chippy vituperations for much of his later life. Their deep mutual antagonism was only overcome in 1790, when Rousseau’s body was disinterred from its grave in Ermononville, in northern France, transported via a solemn procession to Paris and placed in the Pantheon next to that of his great adversary-in-arms, who, like Rousseau, had, in death, become a revolutionary hero of the living.

And yet what marks Rousseau out is that he also seems to swim against the Enlightenment mainstream. Not because he really was the primitivist of ‘noble savage’ apochrapha. But because he draws on the radical promise of Enlightenment to denounce the supposedly Enlightening world. He draws on the promise of the emancipated individual, free of external authority and strict social hierarchy, to denounce the individual’s present-day servility. That is, he draws on the promise of autonomy to denounce the nascent modernity that denies it. Much is made of Rousseau’s use of paradox on stylistic grounds. But it is on social grounds that it makes sense; Rousseau used paradox because his reality was paradoxical, or better still, contradictory. ‘Man is born free’, runs the promise, ‘and everywhere he is in chains’, comes the rejoinder.

Rousseau’s target here is just as much the world of his Enlightened peers – the world of Paris, of the salons in which intellect glitters, wit sparkles and reason trumpets its worth; the world of commerce and celebrity; the world of industrialising production methods and private property; the world of cities and crowds – as it is the bondage of a still semi-feudal France and the tyranny of monarchic absolutism under which it was staggering on. Because, as Rousseau discerned, the new Enlightened world, the world of ‘the bourgeois’, was in the revolutionary ascendant, despite regal appearances to the contrary. ‘We are approaching a state of crisis and the age of revolutions’, he wrote in 1762, addressing an imaginary member of court. ‘Who can answer for what will become of you then? All that men have made, men can destroy. The only ineffaceable characters are those printed by nature; and nature does not make princes, rich men, or lords.’ (1)

So, in 1755, when Rousseau sends his second discourse, the scabrous Discourse on Inequality, to Voltaire, the response is that of one who feels as if he is being attacked. ‘I have received, Monsieur, your new book against the human race, and I thank you’, writes Voltaire. ‘No one has employed so much intelligence to turn us men into beasts. One starts wanting to walk on all fours after reading your book. However, in more than 60 years I have lost the habit.’

Voltaire’s chagrin was justified. The second discourse deepened and developed the cultural jeremiad of the first, the Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts (1750), counterposing the amoral, self-sufficient freedom of savage man to the immoral, other-dependent bondage of civil man. It really did look like an indictment of Voltaire’s Enlightened now in the name of Rousseau’s savage past. Yet it was more than that. Taken alongside two of Rousseau’s other major works, Emile, or on Education and The Social Contract (both 1762), what emerges is, yes, a merciless critique of society, but alongside it a theory and assertion of moral autonomy, and a vision (or visions) of a social form in which individual autonomy and social, civic life are reconciled.


Rousseau’s social critique


Rousseau’s critique of society does begin with a conception of pre-social man. He is an ‘absolute’, as Rousseau puts it in Emile – he relates only to himself, having ‘no sort of intercourse among [other humans]’ (2). Driving him, motivating him, is self-love, ‘amour de soi or amour-propre taken in its extended sense’ (3) – which amounts to a concern for his own wellbeing. He does however have an innate capacity for pity, writes Rousseau, which is born of recognising in others like him, his own self-love. In others’ suffering, then, he recognises his own potential suffering.

So in this state he wants no more than he needs, and needs no more than he, as an individual, has the capacity to provide. He needs no one else, and depends on no one else. For Rousseau, this constitutes natural man’s freedom, a freedom utterly identical to necessity. He follows the law of nature – his human nature – because he has no desire or will not to. He experiences no contradiction between his passions – from the need for food and sleep to the desire to copulate – and his ability to sate those passions. There was no war of all against all in the state of nature, because savage man was not in a relationship with others. Contra Hobbes, life was tranquil, innocent and no longer than necessary.

The key moment, the moment of man’s Fall, is the moment he enters into association with others. Or, as Rousseau puts it in Emile,’The more [men] come together, the more they are corrupted’ (4). This is for two related reasons. First, in coming into a relation with others, man develops new needs, and becomes dependent on others for the satisfaction of those needs, from the provision of cooked meals eaten with utensils (which were made by others) to the persistence of monogamous or polygamous relationships. This dependence goes as much for the master who cannot live freely without his slave as it does for the slave who cannot live freely because of his master: ‘rich, he needs their services; poor, he needs their help'(5).

And second, in coming together with others, savage man not only ceases to be independent, he also, more importantly, ceases to be absolute – he becomes relative. That is, he becomes relative to others. He compares and judges, and is compared with and judged by, others. Some are handsomer, some are stronger, some are faster. In response, others are envious, vain, contemptuous. And so on. In the instant of social intercourse, then, savage man’s absolute care for himself, his undeveloped self-love, his amour de soi, inexorably acquires its extended form of amour-propre – that is, a self-love that is no longer related only to the satisfaction of one’s immediate needs, but to the satisfaction of needs generated by one’s relation to others. This is the need to be esteemed by others, to be thought the fastest, strongest, indeed, the need to be thought physically attractive to others. The need, in short, to be recognised. These needs, these passions, develop as society develops, and so amour-propre is engorged and encouraged, too, as individuals seek the esteem and praise of others. ‘Amour-propre, which makes comparisons, is never content and never could be’, notes Rousseau, ‘because this sentiment, preferring ourselves to others, also demands others prefer us to themselves, which is impossible’ (6).

Rousseau traces the development of man’s social intercourse, and therefore the growth of his material and emotional dependence on others, through various phases. But the signal moment, as Rousseau sees it, comes with the institution of private property, and the relations of ‘mine and thine’ that flow from it. For on the basis of private-property relations, socially unequal relations of dependency are not only entrenched, but antagonised, pitting those with nothing to lose against those with everything already gained. Hobbes’ war of all against all did not pertain to the state of nature, therefore, but to the state of society, and the universal laws and justice instituted to protect property relations, protect the particular interests of the rich and powerful. Surveying the social relations of his time, Rousseau saw that the de facto inequality of nature, in which all are as equally free as nature allows, has been replaced by a de jure equality, in which all are as unequal and unfree as social relations dictate.

But Rousseau focuses his most trenchant critique of his Enlightened present on the extent to which man’s interior world is enslaved. The individual is not only in thrall to property relations of dependency, ‘work[ing] until he dies; run[ning] to his death in order to be in a position to live’, he is also emotionally and psychologically in thrall to others, needing their approval and praise, flattering those on whom one depends for advancement or employment, and disdainful of those on whose debasement one depends for one’s own elevation. Everyone performs ‘his step… in this beggars’ pantomime’, as Diderot had it in Rameau’s Nephew. As the dependency deepens, as the individual’s need of others’ approval expands, as his thirst for rank, for prestige, for celebrity – for recognition – increases, so even his ideas, his opinions, cease to be his own. They become, or better still, conform to, what others expect, what the fashion demands, what the ruling ideas suggest they ought to be. ‘The savage lives in himself’, explains Rousseau, while ‘the man accustomed to the ways of society is always outside himself, and knows how to live only in the opinions of others. And it is, as it were, from their judgement alone that he draws the sentiment of his own existence.’ (7) That is, it is from the opinions of others that he develops a feeling for who he is, what he believes, what he thinks. Rousseau’s portrait of Paris high society in Julie, or the New Heloise (1761), especially its intellectual pretension and pretended virtue, captures well this culture of Enlightened conformism:

‘[T]he men to whom you are speaking are not the ones with whom you converse; their sentiments do not emanate from the heart, their perceptions are not in their minds, their words do not represent their thoughts, all you see of them is their shape, and being in a gathering is like standing before a moving tableau, where the detached spectator is the only creature moving under his own power.’ (8)


‘If this people of followers were full of original characters it would be impossible to know about it; for no man dares be himself. One must do as others do, is the primary maxim of wisdom in this country. That is done, that is not done. This is the supreme pronouncement.’ (9)

This is Rousseau’s vision of social existence, a social existence in which material and psychological dependence has enfeebled the body, and enslaved the mind. And this is the vision Immanuel Kant drew on for What is Enlightenment? (1784), in which all depend on others for their thoughts and actions, be it the pastor to act as my conscience, or the physician to prescribe my diet.

Rousseau’s moral autonomy

Emile, or On Education and The Social Contract were both published, banned and burned in 1762 – thanks, in the main, to a 40-page section in book four of Emile known as ‘The Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar’. This scandalised the philosophes by revealing Rousseau’s deist faith, and outraged the authorities by exposing the church’s folly. If there is one true religion, as every sect and creed contends, quipped Rousseau, man must spend his entire life studying them all to see which one it is, which leaves very little time for good works (10). Few were publicly amused. The French Council of State issued a warrant for Rousseau’s arrest, and parlement demanded Emile’s burning on account of it being ‘composed solely with the aim of reducing everything to natural religion… [and] that he regards all religions as equally good’. Rousseau sought refuge in his native Geneva, but to no avail. Geneva’s ruling Council of Twenty-Five, condemning both Emile and The Social Contract as ‘impious, scandalous, bold, full of blasphemies and calumnies against religion’, issued, like the French state, a warrant for Rousseau’s arrest, and decreed the books should be burnt.

Yet, as integral to Emile as ‘the profession of faith’ is, it is only a part of its main thrust. For Emile, as the ‘education’ of its title suggests, concentrates on how to cultivate individual autonomy – and cultivate is the correct verb for what is, in part, a Bildungsroman. Rousseau’s central contention is that if we are to cultivate an independent, self-sufficient individual, able to reason and will for himself, we have to cultivate his inner nature. We have to let him grow and develop according to nature’s law, not man’s. Rousseau is attempting, then, to ground the individual’s freedom on his nature

What follows then in the first three books of Emile is an imaginative reconstruction of what it would be like to bring a child up as nature intended. So as a baby and infant he should be given no more than he needs, and allowed as much freedom as his physical strength permits. Rousseau advises, for instance, tying diapers loosely so as to allow a baby’s limbs to move freely. And slowly, with the hidden care and oversight of his governor, the young infant, allowed to try to act for himself, is learning to live. He is not being pushed, argues Rousseau; he is learning to do what he can do, and no more. His needs and desires develop only in accord with the extent to which he himself can satisfy them. He is learning to judge and to act, to act and to judge. As Rousseau puts it, ‘Acting always according to his own thought and not someone else’s, he continually unites two operations; the more he makes himself strong and robust, the more he becomes sensible and judicious’ (11).

And, the older he gets, he is learning, too. Not from books – Rousseau characterises books as a ‘plague’ inducing dependency on others’ thoughts – but through practical experience, through sensual reason. ‘Our first masters of philosophy are our feet, our hands, our eyes’, writes Rousseau. ‘To substitute books for all that is not to teach us reason. It is to teach us to use the reason of others. It is to teach us to believe much and never know anything.’ (12) Admittedly, there is one book that Rousseau does allow the imaginary child, Emile, to read: Robinson Crusoe. But that is because Crusoe, living alone, is an archetype of self-sufficiency, a castaway forced to act on and understand the world around him for himself, and in terms of its utility. As Rousseau puts it, Crusoe will be Emile’s entertainment and his heuristic, encouraging him ‘to judge everything from the perspective most likely to yield the truth about the relations of things – the position of the isolated man – and to judge everything only in terms of its usefulness’ (13).

Eventually, at the end of book three, we meet Emile at 15. He knows little, concludes Rousseau, but what knowledge he does have is resolutely his own. He has needs, and passions, even a touch of amour-propre, but his passions rarely depend on anyone else for their fulfillment, and his self-love, lacking extensive comparison to others, is as little developed as his vanity or envy.

And it is at this point, in books four and five of Emile, that Rousseau turns the image of his work as an encomium to the savage, to the state of nature, inside out. Because it is here that Emile, now an adolescent, is allowed to develop deeper and more expansive relationships with others. Rousseau was therefore never interested in returning man to the state of nature. Rather, he wanted to return freedom to man’s existence in society. Or as he puts it, ‘although I want to form the man of nature, the object is not, for all that, to make him a savage and to relegate him to the depths of the woods. It suffices that, enclosed in a social whirlpool, he not let himself get carried away by either the passions or opinions of men, that he see with his eyes, that he feel with his heart, that no authority governs him beyond that of his own reasons.’ (14)

But how is he to resist being ‘carried away by either the passions or opinions of men’? First, because of the way in which he has been brought up to think and act for himself. And second, and most importantly, because in his deepening engagement with others, his widening circle of relations, from his earliest relationship with his family (and his governor) to his friendships and his lovers, and from there, ultimately, to his country, his patrie, his autonomy develops its moral dimension. It develops its interior – the individual’s conscience.

What is notable about this process of becoming ethical is that Rousseau roots it in nature, our human nature. This draws on his initial contention that we naturally pity those around us as beings like us, with their own self-love, their own concern for their wellbeing, and, therefore, a capacity for suffering. So as our relationships with others develop, as our intercourse with family, friends, lovers, and those in wider society, deepen, so this innate sentiment of pity, of self-love extended to others, develops, too. And as we mature, we develop sentiments of good and bad, of obligation and duty, of treating these others – our kith, kin and, ultimately, our kind – as we would want to be treated ourselves. We do not understand justice or goodness as, first, abstract words. Rather, we experience them first as concrete relations between ourselves and others.

Initially, suggests Rousseau, this natural moral education will take the form of sentiments of love and hate – felt responses to the behaviour of others – that we then extend to others, because they, like us, will hate, say, having the flowers they planted and nurtured destroyed, or love someone standing up for truth. And, as we grow to understand our sentiments of love and hate, establishing reasons for why this or that action or behaviour is loveable or hateful, so we develop ideas of goodness, of justice, and so on. And with this our most important inner sentiment – our conscience – is developing an ever more sonorous, reasoned voice. It is the inner voice that will tell Emile what he knows, through his reason, he ought to do. And it is in this ability to do what one ought to do, rather than what merely desires to do, that man’s freedom lies.

And here is the twist: man’s social existence is not therefore antithetical to Rousseau’s conception of freedom as moral autonomy. Man’s social existence is in fact the very condition not just of morality’s possibility, but of individual freedom’s possibility. Savagery was never noble in Rousseau, but society is ennobling. For it is only in society, in the ‘civil state’, that man can realise a higher form of individual freedom than he might have enjoyed in the ‘natural state’. There he willed as he pleased – here, as a potentially autonomous citizen, he can will the good; there he was absolute – here he is relative; there, relating to no one but himself, he did what he wanted – here, thinking of others, he has to think of what he ought to do. And as such, he is able to judge his prospective actions ‘in the depths of [his] heart’ (15), according to whether all, because they are like him, ought to will likewise. ‘The good man orders himself in relation to the whole’, explains the Savoyard vicar, ‘and the wicked orders the whole in relation to himself’ (16).

Rousseau did, as we have seen, criticise his society. Dominated and divided by property relations of dependence, justice and order, serving particular interests, betray their universality. And, keen to advance oneself in the opinion of others, individuals in this society turn virtue and goodness into tributes to hypocrisy. Yet as imperfect as society is, as betrayed in practice as the public good has been, it still provides a whole and a principle, even if only honoured in the breach, to which Emile can relate himself. ‘The public good, which serves only as a pretext’, writes Rousseau, ‘is a real motive for [Emile]. He learns to struggle with himself, to conquer himself, to sacrifice his interest to the common interest… Human laws have taught him to reign over himself’ (17).

‘Human laws have taught him to reign over himself’ is a line that could well have come from The Social Contract. In Rousseau, the possibility of individual freedom, in the form of moral autonomy, goes hand in hand with his ideal of the republic. If Emile is a vision of the morally autonomous individual, The Social Contract is a vision of a state and civil society composed of Emiles. It is, in short, a vision of civic freedom. The key to understanding this is the idea of the general will, which underpins, authorises and legitimates the republic as a self-determining body. The general will is best understood not as a proto-democratic popular will, but as an ethical will, a will that would form if each and every citizen, if and when legislating, adopted the point of view of the whole. This is why Rousseau distinguishes the general will from the will of all: ‘The latter considers only the general interest, whereas the former considers private interest and is merely the sum of private wills.’ It is because the general will legislates for itself much in the same way as Kant’s morally autonomous agent does, in the form of a universal ought, that Rousseau can come up with what seems like a paradoxical and frightening authoritarianism: ‘To avoid the social contract being “an empty formula”, whoever refuses to obey the general will will be forced to do so by the entire body. This means merely that he will be “forced to be free”.’ (18) But this is really an extension of Rousseau’s idea of moral autonomy. To really be free, to be autonomous, is not to act according to one’s own private or particular interest. It is to act according one’s idea of what one ought to do, which is to act on that maxim or law that reason demonstrates should become a universal law. The general will is the universal law-making agent. To disobey it is to disavow one’s own moral freedom to act according to it. As Rousseau puts it in Emile: ‘In the republic all of the advantages of the natural state would be unified with those of the civil state, and freedom which keeps man exempt from vices would be joined to morality which raises him to virtue.’ (19)

Rousseau’s contemporaries recognised the revolutionary implications of his arguments. The Jacobins, and Robespierre in particular, saw in this ethical freedom the society to be built. And, in Germany, Kant, whose otherwise spartan study contained a bust of Rousseau, set about honing an ethics that drew deep on Emile and The Social Contract. Hegel captured his significance for those who came after him: ‘The principle of freedom dawned on the world in Rousseau.’

Another form of freedom

Julie, or the New Heloise, published in 1761, proved a literary sensation. Countless editions were published to sate the public’s appetite, but to no avail. Demand was too great. Readers queued desperately at book shops, and finding the shelves bare, began renting it out at an hourly rate. And Rousseau himself became a man almost as in demand as his books, claiming that there was not a female reader who wouldn’t have given themselves to him had he asked. Jules Michelet, the 19th-century French historian, concluded that ‘in all literary history, there had never been so great a success’.

At first glance, Julie appears at one with Rousseau’s philosophical and political vision. It tells the tale of two lovers, Julie and St Preux, her tutor, whose passionate relationship, consumated just once, and even then briefly and guiltily, is at odds with the extant social order, represented by Julie’s father, Baron d’Etange. D’Etange wants Julie to marry someone of her station, and does not want her ruined by St Preux. But St Preux is determined, telling Julie he is no ‘vile seducer’, but ‘a simple and sensible man who readily displays what he feels and feels nothing for which he must be ashamed’ (20). He issues many long entreaties to Julie, justifying their passion for one another on the grounds of nature and ‘the heart’, and imploring her to be with him in spite of her family, in defiance of social mores and in the face of the opinions of others.

Julie, however, is torn between her passions and inclinations, and her duty to her father. ‘Obedience and faith dictate opposite duties to me’, she writes to her cousin Claire. ‘Shall I follow my heart’s penchant? Who is to be preferred of a lover or father?’ (21)

But Julie does make a choice. She resolves to do her duty: she marries her father’s friend, Monsieur Wolmar, a rationalist and materialist, and does so because, in light of her growing faith, that is what she believes she ought to do. She therefore governs her own life according to a moral law. In overcoming her passion, she becomes autonomous. In willing the good, she becomes virtuous. She is a beautiful soul.

St Preux, however, is recalcitrant. He strikes the pose of the Romantic hero, committed to a thwarted love, and railing against the world that denies him. But Rousseau is not a Romantic before his time. He is an Enlightenment thinker ahead of his time. St Preux’s grand passion, his Sturm und Drang, is portrayed as a weakness. He is trapped by his passion for Julie, not liberated by it. And as the years pass, as Julie becomes Madame Wolmar, St Preux’s emotional commitment to Julie, is a commitment to someone who has long since ceased to exist. His nostalgia is crippling. In Emile, Rousseau warns his charge not to fall prey precisely to those self-induced ills afflicting St Preux, ‘those [ills] that render us victims of our passions’, encouraging us to ‘glorify ourselves for the tears at which we should have blushed’ (22).

But thanks to the intervention of Wolmar – who plays the same mediating role as the legislator in The Social Contract, and the governor in Emile – who invites St Preux to live at Julie’s home of Clarens, an estate at the foot of the Alps, St Preux learns to subdue his passions and live once more in the present. ‘Do not turn your entire life over to a long slumber of reason’, Wolmar tells St Preux at the start of his stay at Clarens. Wolmar makes St Preux live with Julie the wife of Wolmar, Julie the mother, Julie the devout – Julie, that is, who is no longer Julie. He is also to fulfil his duty as a tutor to the Wolmars’ children. And with that, with St Preux’s subduing of his passion, he becomes free to will what he ought to will, free to act as conscience dictates, free to become virtuous. Not that it is straightforward. ‘Virtue is a state of war’, admits St Preux, ‘living in it means one always has some battle to wage against oneself’ (23). Yet it is always a possibility inherent in our nature because ‘[God/nature] has given us reason to discern what is good, conscience to love it, and freedom to choose it’ (24).

But Julie is more than a simple tale of two beautiful souls becoming virtuous. It is also a novel in which the tension between passions, feeling and sentiment, and the social order, indeed the general interest, the universal law, that demands their repression, threatens to tear Rousseau’s ethical edifice apart.

The form is important here. Julie is an epistolary novel, after the fashion of Samuel Richardson’s enormously popular Clarissa. This was a form ideally suited to Rousseau’s philosophical temper since it allowed his characters, in the course of their intimate exchanges, to unveil themselves, to give vent to their turbulent interiors. But the persistent self-revelation, the concentration on these interior lives troubled and warped by the often unjust demands of the exterior social order, simultaneously works against Rousseau’s philosophical commitments. That is, it constantly points to the impossibility of reconciling the individual with the demands of the social world, one’s duty to others, even morality itself. The sentimentalism of Julie, in the strong sense, was too much. It was excessive. And this corrodes Rousseau’s own emphasis on moral autonomy as the basis of freedom, civic or otherwise. Because in Julie, the struggle to become virtuous, to live according to the idea of the good, seems to come at the cost not of some obvious vice, but of love itself. Living according to the moral imperatives of reason seems to take away a reason for living. Towards the end of Julie, Julie gives voice to precisely this sentiment:

‘All about me I see nothing but causes for contentment, and I am not content… A secret languor worms its way into my heart; I can feel how empty and oppressed it is… My attachment for all those I hold dear does not suffice to occupy it, it still has some useless strength which it knows not what to do. This affliction is peculiar, I concede, but it is not less real. Can you conceive of any remedy for this disaffection with wellbeing? For my part I confess to you that a sentiment that depends so little on reason has much diminished the value I placed on life, and I cannot imagine what sort of charm one can find in it that I lack or with which I should be satisfied… My friend I am too happy; I am weary of happiness… I live in it with a heart ill at ease, which does not know what it lacks; it desires without knowing what.’ (25)

Even as the novel nears its conclusion, Julie is still not really at home in the world. She is fragmented rather than free. She has all the outward signs of a content life. She has lived her life autonomously, governed by reason, not inclination, following her conscience, not her passion. And yet it is not enough. She is virtuous, but eviscerated. She is good, but hollow. Her self-mastery appears here as self-repression. Her striving for self-government has resulted in her self-alienation.

And here we approach the stirring of the post-Enlightenment idea of freedom. As philosopher Alessandro Ferraro argues (26), Julie is autonomous, but she is not, crucially, authentic. Rousseau never uses the word ‘authentic’, but he captures its impulse. In becoming free, in Rousseau’s sense, Julie has lost her self. She is true to her conscience, to what she reasons is the good, but in being so, she is not true to her feelings – she is not true to who she really is. Her autonomy is simultaneously the source of inauthenticity, her good faith the source of her bad faith.

At the last, about to die, she denies the legitimacy of her sentiment for St Preux in favour of her fidelity to God. But, on Rousseau’s part, it is a move that lacks conviction. Her love for St Preux, a union born of the heart, provides just as legitimate a ground for action, it seems, as her later love for God. And her heart, like St Preux’s, speaks with a voice as compelling as that of one’s conscience. It is as if Rousseau glimpsed the undermining of his ethical vision, in which man becomes free in the act of adopting the viewpoint of the whole, and tried to contain it. Not that it affected the response of his readers. They responded to the story of Julie and St Preux as a tragedy, and wept at the lovers’ fate.

Twenty years later, a far shorter epistolary novel by a young German writer surpassed Julie in impact, popularity and, most importantly, in its continuing resonance. Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther did what Rousseau’s Julie shrunk away from; it came down on the side of passion and sentiment against the morality of a society still yawning under the weight of tradition and caste. In Julie, St Preux is talked out of suicide; in The Sorrows, Werther talks himself into it. This act was no longer a mark of weakness, as it has been in Julie; it was heroic. Werther had been true to his feelings, his passion – he had been true to himself. He had acted authentically.

Rousseau had done so much to render the individual’s moral autonomy, to ground our self-determination in man’s inner nature. Yet in attempting to overcome the contradiction between the individual and society, by ‘forcing’ man to be free in society, he had recreated the contradiction between the individual and society within the individual, expressed in the contradiction between feelings/passion and conscience. Both exerted an authority on the individual. One pointed towards the ethics of Kant, and the dreams of civic freedom of the French Republic. And the other, through Romanticism, pointed towards something far more contemporary – the politics of identity, of being true and loyal to who one feels one really is. Rousseau’s legacy, caught between self-mastery and self-expression, is our present.

Tim Black is editor of the spiked review.

Picture published under a creative commons license.

(1) Emile, or On Education, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (tr) Allan Bloom, Basic Books, 1979, p194

(2) The Basic Political Writings, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (tr) Donald A Cress, Hackett Publishing, 1987, p55

(3) Emile, or On Education, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (tr) Allan Bloom, Basic Books, 1979, pp92-93

(4) Emile, or On Education, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (tr) Allan Bloom, Basic Books, 1979, p59

(5) The Basic Political Writings, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (tr) Donald A Cress, Hackett Publishing, 1987, p67

(6) Emile, or On Education, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (tr) Allan Bloom, Basic Books, 1979, pp213-214

(7) The Basic Political Writings, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (tr) Donald A Cress, Hackett Publishing, 1987, pp80-81

(8) Julie, or the New Heloise, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (tr) Jean Vache, Dartmouth College Press, 1997, p193

(9) Julie, or the New Heloise, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (tr) Jean Vache, Dartmouth College Press, 1997, p205

(10) Emile, or On Education, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (tr) Allan Bloom, Basic Books, 1979, p119

(11) Emile, or On Education, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (tr) Allan Bloom, Basic Books, 1979,p306

(12) Emile, or On Education, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (tr) Allan Bloom, Basic Books, 1979, p125

(13) Emile, or On Education, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (tr) Allan Bloom, Basic Books, 1979, pp184-5

(14) Emile, or On Education, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (tr) Allan Bloom, Basic Books, 1979, p255

(15) Emile, or On Education, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (tr) Allan Bloom, Basic Books, 1979, p287

(16) Emile, or On Education, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (tr) Allan Bloom, Basic Books, 1979, p290

(17) Emile, or On Education, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (tr) Allan Bloom, Basic Books, 1979, p473

(18) Emile, or On Education, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (tr) Allan Bloom, Basic Books, 1979, p151

(19) Emile, or On Education, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (tr) Allan Bloom, Basic Books, 1979, p85

(20) Julie, or the New Heloise, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (tr) Jean Vache, Dartmouth College Press, 1997, p34

(21) Julie, or the New Heloise, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (tr) Jean Vache, Dartmouth College Press, 1997, p164

(22) Emile, or On Education, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (tr) Allan Bloom, Basic Books, 1979, p445

(23) Julie, or the New Heloise, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (tr) Jean Vache, Dartmouth College Press, 1997, p560

(24) Julie, or the New Heloise, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (tr) Jean Vache, Dartmouth College Press, 1997, p561

(25) Julie, or the New Heloise, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (tr) Jean Vache, Dartmouth College Press, p570

(26) Modernity and Authenticity: A Study of the Social and Ethical Thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, by Alessendro Ferrara, SUNY Press, 1992, p103

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