Sunday, November 06, 2005

Rousseau: A Fire Inside

Today's NYT's Review of Books has an excellent review of a new biography of Jean Jacques Rousseau by Leo Damrosch. If you've been on this site before, you may have noticed our little "Books That Matter" section on the right hand side when you scroll down. There you'll find Rousseau's Discourse on Inequality -- a great work on inequality and how it is perpetuated throughout the ages by illegitimate authorities. It's a revolutionary text in all the best and worst senses. The best because it opens our eyes to the realization that authority is usually illegitimate and that it holds power through avarice and violence. The worst because it's prescriptions for a new order when followed, usually amount to a deluge of blood that replaces one tyranny for another kind. The French Revolution is instructive here.

But what's interesting is that a man who caused so many problems in death was so easy to ignore for most of his own life. As reviewer Stacy Schiff writes:
[H]e was in no realm a stellar student. He was a lousy linguist, and could neither dance nor fence. He struggled with music. (The last did not stop him from composing, badly.) He proved somewhat more adept at petty theft; his various scams include one on which "The Music Man" appears to have been based. At 15 he defected to Turin where - evidently Rousseau was one tough customer - two baptisms were required to make him a Roman Catholic. His first adventure with the church came complete with his first encounter with a male seducer. On the subjects of both sex and religion he remained squeamish. (He would reconvert in l754.)

By the time he turned up in Paris in the early 1740's Rousseau had proved himself unfit as a diplomatic secretary, a monk's interpreter, a tutor, a bureaucrat. But along the way a funny thing happened. "To know nothing at almost 25, and to want to learn everything," he noted, "is to commit oneself to making the best use of one's time." On his own and between scams and scenes, he had begun to imbibe books.
It took nearly 15 more years before Rousseau penned something that brought him publicity. The amazing thing in his eventual success was that Rousseau kept the fire inside flickering just enough to start a conflagration as he entered middle-age. After 40 he would write the works that made him a legend: Emile, The Social Contract, Discourse on Inequality, and his autobiographical Confessions. All this from a man that had nothing to show for himself at 25, but by the end of his life had written originally about future trends that are today dominate. As Schiff argues:
Social inequality, the will of the people, inalienable rights were meaningless concepts when Rousseau began ranting about them. Imagination was out of fashion; he was tiptoeing around the as-yet-undiscovered unconscious. He advocated idleness in the age of Adam Smith. If he suffered for being so much out of step with his own century, he can too easily be overlooked in ours. Without founding a school - it would have been inappropriate - Rousseau stands squarely if unsystematically at the root of democracy, autobiography, Romanticism, child-centered education, even psychoanalysis.
Before there was even a United States, Rousseau in effect lived the American Dream due to a light that couldn't be stamped out. And this is apt, considering his philosophy had a great impact on the Founding Fathers, particularly Jefferson.

Rousseau may be French, but his character is more new world than old. This is a life you shouldn't let go unexamined.