IN THE INTRODUCTION to his superb new translation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Emile , or On Education , Allan Bloom calls it "a Phenomenology of the Mind posing as Dr. Spock . . . one of those rare total or synoptic books." Part novel, part autobiography, part speculative discourse on the moral order, this volume represents, Rousseau claims, "the romance of human nature" and "the history of my species" as it ought to be.
The prolific anti-philosophe who wrote "I hate books" coyly disguises himself in the persona of Jean-Jacques, Emile's self-congratulatory yet winning guardian. Emile is his carefully cultivated natural man who learns, against all odds, to bear the inevitability of unhappiness and mediocrity without resentment. Although this paragon of nature remains a cardboard figure, there emerges an overbearing, cantankerous, and thoroughly wonderful portrait of Jean-Jacques himself, the 18th century's crankiest sentimental genius.
Emile has earned its author more execration from feminists than nearly any other work before or since.Thirty years after its 1762 publication, Mary Wollstonecraft took issue with what she called Rousseau's "male aristocracy" and referred to him as a "partial moralist [who] recommends cunning systematically and plausibly." Rousseau's sexist pronouncements ("woman is made to please and to be subjugated") are decidedly offensive. But we have to remember that these ideas emerge out of a complicated view of human development that is at once both revolutionary and reactionary. A work that takes up everything from breastfeeding and masturbation to the nature of God and the state is likely to contain inner contradictions.
It has become too simple to quote the champion of reason and enlightened order, albeit all-male, out of context. Even the "Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar," widely anthologized and reprinted separately, can only be fully understood as a dramatic monologue embedded in this massive hybrid crossroads of Rousseau's thought.It is in the "Profession of Faith," the enlightenment manifesto for natural religion, good faith and free will, that Rousseau fully reveals the tenets of his educational philosophy. The Savoyard vicar exhorts Emile: "Seek the truth yourself" in the only book "open to all eyes . . . the book of nature."
Emile's importance as a work of education is matched by its moving self-portrait of a philosophical mind at work: "As for me -- I who have no system to maintain, I, a simple and true man who is carried away by the fury of no party and does not aspire to the honor of being chief of a sect, I who am content with the place in which God has put me, I see nothing, except for Him, that is better than my species. And if I had to choose my place in the order of beings what more could I choose than to be man?"
Professor Bloom's new edition,for which he provides a suggestive, learned introduction and useful but unobtrusive notes, is the first new translation since Barbara Foxley's in 1911. Its prose is readable and accurate, and Bloom's knowledge of Rousseau's two most influential predecessors, Plato and Locke, anchors the student in the tradition of philosophies of education. With the volume of commentary promised to follow, we will at last have a definitive, scholarly English edition of Emile.