Rousseau and the Spirit of Revolt
La nouvelle Héloïse: Julie or the New Heloise
The Social Contract
Rousseau is the most exasperating of thinkers: the man keeps breaking in. Obviously the question of how much and what kind of biographical information is relevant to interpreting a system of ideas is a general one: it must be asked about austere metaphysicians as much as about passionate prophets, about Spinoza as well as Nietzsche, Even Hegel was human. Philosophers live in a society, at a certain period; they embody, enlarge, or repudiate an intellectual tradition; they are private men with private aspirations and private tragedies—and all these somehow contribute to what is normally taught in the textbooks as their “system.” All good history of ideas must in the end be social history.
At the same time, it is equally obvious that all attempts to read philosophies as mere results, as rationalizations of social status, private anguish, or historic location, are a form of higher gossip. Yet, what would be a vulgar reductionism with most philosophers appears to be almost inescapable with Rousseau. This is his fault, or, at least, his responsibility: he offers his life to his reader as a philosophical problem of supreme interest; he calls himself unique but insists that he is representative; his personal dilemmas somehow emerge as the dilemmas of modern man in general.
In saying this, I am thinking less of the sexual traumas and broken friendships which he analyzed with such acute perception and morbid pleasure in his autobiographies—though these are significant—than of his engagement with Genevan politics, French civilization, classical literature, and European thought. The political system he develops in his Contrat social, which is doubtless the most geometric, most Cartesian among his writings, is so steeped in life that an abstract analysis of its ideas seems to be missing the essentials. Surely it is of great interest—perhaps it is of decisive importance—that when the Attorney General of Geneva condemned Rousseau’s Contrat social, he justified the suppression of the book by quoting from it statements that reminded him, and his listeners, of political ideas held by a rebellious bourgeois party in the little state for half a century. A few patrician families had long engrossed political power, and kept the majority of Genevans out of politics by a combination of chicanery, intermarriage, and the occasional use of violence. Early in the eighteenth century, and intermittently since then, prosperous and angry bourgeois had attempted to broaden the base of power, and to make themselves into part of the active political public. The Contrat social spoke for them, often implicitly, sometimes—at least to those who knew the situation—explicitly. The Contrat social has become a book for all time, but it began as a book for Geneva. The interpreter of Rousseau forgets this at his peril.
When we seek to sort out the dimensions of Rousseau’s life and thought, or any philosopher’s life and thought, a convenient compromise suggests itself. Scholarship, after all, is a collaborative enterprise; one can write useful and even important books …