Jean-Jacques Rousseau Critical Essays

Jean-Jacques Rousseau Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Man, according to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, is innately good. If he has become corrupt, it is society that has corrupted him. In the lace, frills, wigs, and pervasive artifice of the eighteenth century, Rousseau saw only a distortion of reality and an attempt to cover up the true nature of man. To peel away the accumulated layers of contact between man and society, Rousseau postulated for conceptual purposes a man of nature. Presumably, nature in this sense represented all that was furthest removed from the civilized world. In it, primitive men lived in relative isolation and enjoyed freedom in their simple, everyday activities.

When notions of property became widespread, however, the pure state of nature ceased to exist. Men moved into close contact with, and became dependent on, one another. Social classes established themselves, and inequities arose among them. A previous amour de soi (self-love)—based on self-preservation and giving rise to love and, concomitantly, pity of one’s fellow human beings—yielded to amour propre (selfish love), a concern primarily with aggrandizement of oneself or one’s possessions. Men’s actions no longer came about spontaneously and from heartfelt emotions; they resulted, rather, from carefully contrived plots.

Notwithstanding his harsh attack on society, Rousseau did find in it some sources of hope. As long as man in society could feel pity, which Rousseau considered as perhaps the last vestige of primitive man, there remained the possibility of his self-betterment. Rousseau believed that man is a “perfectible” creature and predicated his educational and political theories on this belief. Sifting the various aspects of society, Rousseau came upon reason and government as key areas by which to reestablish morality. Reason, although not as reliable a guide as man’s feeling or conscience, can ultimately lead him to enlightenment. As a young boy, Emilius, in the semifictional work named after him, receives an education in reason, but only after assimilating the full worth of his sensations and feelings. Moreover, the reason to which his tutor introduces him takes on a “sensitive” character. Its content has essential meaning only insofar as it has the deeper cognitive backing of feeling. Government, in its turn, should also give full force to the individual’s feeling and will. In his view of the state as seen in The Social Contract, Rousseau balanced the individual will with the general will by closely associating the one with the other. According to his scheme of things, each individual “uniting with all obeys, however, only himself and remains as free as before.”

Rousseau’s dogged pursuit of a virtuous individual freedom paralleled his search for truth and authenticity in his own life and in his works. He took as his motto a saying from Juvenal’s Saturae (100-127 c.e.; Satires,1693): vitam impendere vero (to devote one’s life to truth). When Rousseau criticized d’Alembert’s article on Genevan theater, it was less out of any personal distaste for dramatic performances than out of his belief that the integrity of the spectators was being compromised. In the theater, they watched only feigned emotions and staged appearances without coming to any enhanced awareness of themselves or their fellow human beings. Rousseau countered this alienating experience with the public festival, or fête, in which participating members demonstrated what critic Jean Starobinski has called “transparency” in their behavior.

The privileged place that Rousseau granted...

(The entire section is 1492 words.)