By Leo Damrosch
Houghton Mifflin. 566 pp. $30
The thinkers who matter are those whom the world can't agree about, and usually the more a writer, philosopher or artist polarizes opinion, the better for all of us. In modern times probably no genius of the Western world still ignites such passionate controversy as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Only Marx, Nietzsche and Freud -- in many ways, his successors -- come even close.
Why is this? Because Rousseau blew up the edifice of 2,500 years of classical and Christian thought about the fundamental nature of the soul and society. Until Rousseau, nearly everyone agreed that humanity was by nature sinful and vicious, and that the state, religion and other social structures imposed a needed order on our conduct. Without higher authority to moderate passions, men and women would spend their short, nasty and brutish lives like jungle beasts. From religion and education, we learn self-control and the ways of righteousness; from the laws and customs of society, we are shaped into good and useful citizens.
Not so, said this political visionary: "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains." Our natural impulses are healthy and good; it is society that makes us wicked. Where once we lived in harmony with ourselves and with the world around us, now we dwell in a snake pit of appearance and inauthenticity, of competitiveness and conspicuous consumption, of inequality, prejudice and pervasive baseness. Our institutions and governments disfigure and corrupt everything they touch. We long for happiness, without recognizing that it is the system we live under that taints our souls and leaves us alienated, despairing and hungry for something we cannot even name.
How did we go so wrong? In the myth or thought experiment that Rousseau offers in his discourse On the Origin of Inequality (1755), he concludes that the serpent in the garden was nothing less than Reason. When people lived unmediated existences in accord with Nature and themselves, when they dwelt like Peter Pan in a perpetual present, they found life simple, fulfilling and harmonious. But on some evil day, one man began to compare himself with another. This led to reflection, self-awareness and eventually competitiveness, then to specialization and a division of labor to maximize individual strengths and weaknesses, and before long the floodgates were opened to envy, accumulation and excess. The clever soon exploited their fellows, stockpiled provisions and gained superfluous wealth -- and these inevitably needed to be protected by guards, by armies, by laws and statutes. And so paradise was lost.
And lost forever. Rousseau says there's no real going back. Recorded history is essentially the story of our degradation. But we can and should still strive to ameliorate inequities; we just might establish kindlier small city-states (he thought of Geneva and Corsica) where governmental regulation could be minimized and civic life made human-scaled, but, most of all, we can liberate ourselves.
Rousseau's contemporary, the arch-conservative Edmund Burke, labeled him "the Socrates of the National Assembly" (that is, of the hated French Revolution). Come the 20th century, this radical thinker had grown into the great beast of all who revere traditional institutions, worship in established churches and either fear or exploit the common man. Yet no one, of whatever political or philosophical persuasion, would deny how deeply Rousseau's sensibility pervades the past 250 years, from the poetry of the Romantics ("One impulse from a vernal wood/May teach you more of man . . . ") to the slogans, pop songs and lifestyles of the 1960s: Drop out, "Let it be," back to Nature, hippies, communes, self-realization. Yet Rousseauian ideals also lie behind our unabated, unassuaged longings to live more humanely in a bureaucratic, technological and often unjust world. Even the staunchest meritocrat or most self-satisfied scion of inherited wealth must find it hard to discount the truth of the discourse on inequality's final ringing lines: "It is manifestly against the Law of Nature . . . that a handful of men wallow in luxury, while the famished multitudes lack the necessities of life."
Such thrilling emotional language has always contributed to Rousseau's powerful appeal. Contrary to a widespread misconception, many philosophers have also been superb prose stylists -- just think of Plato, Hume or William James -- but this largely self-educated former valet may be the finest of all. Rousseau actually had to beg his readers to disregard his "beau style" and just pay attention to his ideas. But this is impossible. His sentences are musical and absolutely limpid, at once classically balanced yet intimate, oracular and confessional. One is simply swept along, no matter what the subject.
So when Rousseau decided to write about two highly moral lovers, the result was Julie, or The New Heloise (1761), the most popular novel of the 18th century. When he published Emile, or On Education (1762), a Utopian pedagogical treatise, mothers turned it into a bible of child-rearing. (For instance, largely because of Rousseau, upper-class women began to breast-feed, rather than wet-nurse, their children.) And when Jean-Jacques finally decided to relate the story of his own checkered past, his Confessions (1782) established the modern autobiography and, to this day, remains the genre's unsurpassed and supreme achievement.