LET NOT JULY SLIP by without a tip of the hat to Jean Jacques Rousseau, who died 200 years ago this very month. Customarily one celebrates the birth dates of famous men, but in the case of Rousseau the date of his death was the more significant. Only after his death did Rousseau gain political and intellectual sainthood. Before that he was merely history's first fuzzy-headed liberal; but he was also history's first truly distinguished fuzzy-headed liberal, and for that alone deserves praise.
It began, you could say, one summer day on a walk from Paris to Vincennes, when he stopped to read the Mercure de France, which carried an ad for a prize for the best essay on the subject of art and society. "Ah," said Rousseau in a letter to a friend, "if I could ever have written a quarter of what I saw and felt, under that tree, . . . with what simplicity should I have demonstrated that man is naturally good and that it is through institutions alone that men have become wicked!"
It was, in fact, with great simplicity that Rousseau pursued that central idea through all his work. He did not trouble to wonder how, if men were naturally good, they had managed to invest wicked institutions. Instead, he produced several key books - "Emile," "The Social Contract," "Confessions" - quite different from each other in form, yet all extending the idea of man's natural goodness into such areas as private property (a menace); science (as ruining civilization), family life (ditto - a point he emphasized by placing all of his five children in founding homes), progress (better to live as a primitive), luxury (undermined morality), wealth (an instrument of slavery), education (should teach men how to live), the self (the only place of accountability) and government (belongs to the people).
What Rousseau gave the world, in short, are the only two ideas with which we've been occupied these past 200 years: revolution and individuality. The two have worked together rather well. Revolutions are carried out in the name of the naturally good individual; and the naturally good individual carries the seed of revolution inside him. Thanks to Byron and others, Rousseau's idea spread from politics to art and religion. Emerson was able to proclaim, "Wherever Man comes, there comes revolution," because Rousseau had already proclaimed, "Man is born free, and he is everywhere in chains."
Of course, this business of individual freedom gets a bit tricky whenever one good individual uses his good individuality to beat the brains out of somebody else's. "Had there been no Revolution; had there been no Revolution, I should have been impossible."
Still, had there been no Rousseau we would have been impossible, which would have been a shame, to say the least. Anyone whose ideas account for us can't be all bad. Or all good, either - naturally.