The Noble Savage

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The Noble Savage is the second volume of Maurice Cranston’s projected three-volume biography of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the French philosopher of the Enlightenment who exerted a profound influence on the Romantic movement and the social and political revolutions of the nineteenth century. Cranston, a political scientist at the London School of Economics, has been a lifelong student of the period, having published a biography of John Locke and having translated important works by Rousseau. The first volume of his Rousseau biography, Jean-Jacques: The Early Life and Work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1712-1754, appeared in 1983. Like The Noble Savage, it employs a deeply learned, scholarly approach, although it gives greater attention to Rousseau’s place in the history of thought and his relevance to the modern world.

In approaching his task, Cranston has deliberately chosen to avoid a central thesis and to rule out psychological and sociological theory. Unlike earlier biographers who described the subject as paranoid, Cranston is unwilling to attach labels. Although he calls attention to some of Rousseau’s inaccuracies and misapprehensions, nowhere does he attempt to psychoanalyze his subject. Instead, he arranges the narrative and its original materials so as to permit generalizations about Rousseau’s life and career to emerge from the original sources surveyed by the book. He has sought to include previously neglected materials, specifically those from the papers and letters of individuals known to Rousseau, such as Marc-Michel Rey, his Amsterdam publisher, whose correspondence with Rousseau extended throughout the nine-year period. Like many other correspondents, Rey experienced a strained and uneven relationship with the philosopher, yet he remained his primary publisher. Careful examination of original sources enables Cranston to make numerous corrections in Rousseau’s version of events included in his posthumously published autobiography. Typically, Cranston cites letters from Rousseau and answers from correspondents, or vice versa, with little commentary, yet the book provides an elucidation of Rousseau’s most important writings and his life.

The period 1754-1762, Rousseau’s most productive, saw the composition and publication of his most important works. It followed the mystical illumination that according to his autobiography came to him in 1747, bringing the two principles that undergird his philosophical system: that man is born good but corrupted by society and its institutions. These simple principles, which retained for him the authority of revelation, had far-reaching and subtle implications that Rousseau explored through the remainder of his life, tracing their applications in art, education, romantic love, politics, religion, and economics. Among the works that Cranston critiques, an open letter to Jean Le Rond d’Alembert (1754) that develops Rousseau’s views on drama; Julie: Ou, La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761; The New Heloise, 1761), an epistolary novel that portrays an idealistic and virtuous romantic love; Émile: Ou, De l’éducation (1762; Emilius and Sophia: Or, A New System of Education, 1762-1763), which outlines an inductive approach to education and explains Rousseau’s principles of ethics and religion; and the seminal work on government Du contrat social: Ou, Principes du droit politique (1762; A Treatise on the Social Contract: Or, The Principles of Political Law, 1764) are the most significant.

In general, Rousseau espoused the humanitarian spirit of the Enlightenment while rejecting its emphasis upon the primacy of reason. Instead of reason, he championed the place of intuition in human nature. He sought to retain the role of intuition as important to human affairs and believed in the sanctity of the human heart. In religion, he was a Deist who maintained an affiliation with Swiss Calvinism and a strong belief in a personal deity. Among his general religious beliefs, he clung to the idea of individual immortality. While retaining sympathy for various Christian churches, he rejected the dual roles of miracles and mystery in religion and recognized no religious authority beyond the individual conscience.

For the English reader, Rousseau’s ideas are most often initially encountered in the poetry of William Wordsworth. Rousseau believed in the basic goodness of man and nature, and advised man to trust intuition and the human heart. Nature, he thought, provided...

(The entire section is 1849 words.)