The Magazine

Born Free

The 'interesting madman' who upset the Enlightenment.

Oct 30, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 07 • By LAWRENCE KLEPP
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Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Restless Genius

by Leo Damrosch

Houghton Mifflin, 576 pp., $30

"It would have been better for the peace of France if this man had never existed," remarked an early 19th-century visitor to Rousseau's grave. "It is he who prepared the way for the French Revolution." The visitor, who knew a thing or two about disturbing the peace, was Napoleon Bonaparte.

Jean-Jacques Rous seau actually would have loathed the Revolution that his writings helped inspire. In 1757, when he was living in the countryside outside Paris, there was an attempted assassination of the king, accompanied by riots, and "I thanked Heaven," he wrote in The Confessions, "for having removed me from those spectacles of horror and crime, which only would have nourished . . . the bilious humor that the sight of public disorders aroused in me."

He hated crowds, let alone angry ones. He preferred the peace and quiet of the rustic cottages usually provided for him by aristocratic admirers, where he could dream of the primitive simplicity and goodness of humanity that civilization had corrupted with its artificial desires, its luxuries and inequalities.

Rousseau, of course, didn't invent the idea of humanity's lost innocence. Aside from the archetypal eviction recounted in Genesis, the Greeks and the Romans looked back on their Golden Age, and the Chinese Taoists missed the mystical harmony between man and nature and the unforced simplicity of life that civilization, its morals and knowledge as much as its vices, had skewed.

Rousseau, who loved solitude and reverie and contemplating mountain streams as much as any Chinese sage, was a kind of Swiss Taoist. He became famous overnight at 37 by winning an essay contest with an argument that spectacularly broke with the Enlightenment's faith in science and progress. (The idea came to him, like most of his ideas, while on a long walk in the country.) He didn't actually believe that humanity could return to its lost Arcadia, but the first sentence of The Social Contract--"Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains"--became a potent nine-word revolutionary manifesto, written by a man temperamentally unsuited to revolutions.

Rousseau was an inconsistent, eloquently illogical sort of philosopher, and he tended to stray far from his own premises, in his books and his life. His name will forever be associated with the idea of the basic goodness of human nature, and some of its modern side effects, like utopian politics, primitivism, and misconceived educational and judicial reform. But the most genuinely revolutionary thing he ever thought up was probably Jean-Jacques himself, the searching, self-displaying, self-justifying protagonist of The Confessions, the book that shocked and mesmerized all of Europe when it was published after his death, the book that begins: "I am made unlike anyone I have ever met; I will even venture to say that I am like no one in the whole world. I may be no better, but at least I am different."

His life, as he recounted it, replaced the Enlightenment's purely rational individualism with a psychological drama of self-realization, the sense of a true self compromised by the demands of the surrounding society and needing some self-determining, self-expressive release. And the ideal of self-realization, however problematic in terms of social cohesion, tradition, and public decorum, has become one of the most attractive and contagious things about Western democratic-capitalist culture, and one of its most powerful weapons against its enemies, whether they deny it in the name of the state, racial or religious purity, the laws of history, Allah, arranged marriages, or something else.

As Leo Damrosch points out, Rousseau was "very much a modern individual, cut off from family and origins, self-defined, moving from place to place and from one set of relationships to another." The born outsider was born in 1712, the son of a Geneva watchmaker. He had no formal education. His mother had died just after his birth, his older brother disappeared, and his father eventually left, too, so he was forced into unhappy apprenticeships where he got into trouble for reading (he practically memorized Plu tarch) instead of working. He ran away at 16 and began a life of dreamy, aimless wandering, with stints as a servant and tutor and composer of music, plus the picaresque episodes recounted in The Confessions (baring his backside to shock some girls, recoiling from the sexual advances of other vagabonds, being seduced by a lady in a coach) and his cherished interval of domestic (and sporadic sexual) intimacy with Madame de Warens, the woman he always called "Mama," who was 13 years older than the naive teenager when she took him in.