Jean-Jacques Rousseau and a Return to Eden

I just finished reading Leo Damrosch’s magisterial 2005 biography of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius) and I’ve been thinking a lot about how Rousseau’s vision ties in, or doesn’t tie in, with the problems of modern urban society. (Full disclosure: My wife hates Rousseau because he forced his lifelong mistress, Therese Levasseur, to give up their five children to foundling homes and then had the temerity to instruct women on why they should breastfeed their children and raise them according to his precepts.)

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Rousseau, born in Switzerland in 1712, was basically a professional vagabond and loafer who ran away from his home in Geneva at the age of 16, was almost entirely self-taught, and who earned his living through menial jobs, copying musical manuscripts and writing books that both titillated and outraged most of Europe. Rousseau’s basic argument is that “civilization,” far from being an engine of progress and advancement, is actually a corrosive, even destructive force.

Rousseau was original in that he went against what everyone believed about social advancement, the value of science and art, technology and so on. Things aren’t getting better and better as the Enlightenment philosophes taught; they actually getting worse and worse. And nothing is getting worse quite like human beings themselves — who, Rousseau taught, are slowly degenerating from centuries of living in cramped, ugly cities, bad nutrition and the demands that social life imposes.

Rousseau was thus the world’s first hippie.

He championed a more “natural” lifestyle free from the artificial constraints and absurd duties that society demands. Much of what the modern world believes about human beings — from the importance of child-centered education to an emphasis on “authenticity” and natural foods — comes from this strange and highly original thinker.

Although denounced by both Protestant and Catholic religious authorities for his departures from Christian orthodoxy, Rousseau remained, to the chagrin of his agnostic friends, an obstinate believer throughout his life; and his vision of an original “wholeness” and perfection in nature is a kind of secular version of the creation story in Genesis.

Rousseau, like Christian theology, believed that mankind was created good… but that, through the actions of men and women, that natural perfection became disfigured. Here is how Rousseau explains it in his strange book on education, Emile:

Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the Author of things; everything degenerates in the hands of man. He forces one soil to nourish the products of another, one tree to bear the fruit of another. He mixes and confuses the climates, the elements, the seasons. He mutilates his dog, his horse, his slave. He turns everything upside down; he disfigures everything; he loves deformity, monsters. He wants nothing as nature made it, not even man; for him, man must be trained like a school horse; man must be fashioned in keeping with his fancy like a tree in his garden.

Powerful stuff! I’ve always thought that our (my!) modern obsession with health can be seen in a Rousseau-like light, as a kind of primal “therapy” to correct the imbalances, weaknesses and deformities that our indolent modern lifestyles have bequeathed to us.

Rousseau was well aware that his “natural man” may never have actually existed… and that in reality primitive life may have been the way Thomas Hobbes described it as being (brutish, nasty and short)… but he imagined what human beings might have been like free from the artificial conveniences of cities and bad food.

He imagined “natural man” as strong, free, healthy, honest and direct. As imagined in his strange romantic novel Julie, Rousseau wanted to help people to get back, in a sense, to Middle Earth, to a time before the furnaces of Mordor destroyed the natural beauty of Man and his environment. Who can’t sympathize, at least a little, with this primeval longing?

More later…

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