Jean Jacques Rousseau
Jean Jacques Rousseau; drawing by David Levine

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 by concentrating on biography, or on the social and intellectual atmosphere, or on ideas alone. Rousseau, for whom documentation in all areas is abundant, invites the compromise of collaboration, but the studies under review in effect reject it. Their very choices—Master’s of the work, Blanchard’s of the life of Rousseau—are in themselves interpretations. Masters argues that preoccupation with Rousseau’s biography, far from adding a new dimension to understanding, only obstructs it; Blanchard, that Rousseau’s work makes sense only through his life.

Masters’s The Political Philosophy of Rousseau offers a sustained reading of all the texts in Rousseau’s oeuvre that have anything at all to do with politics—which means most of them, since Rousseau himself (and Masters once again quotes the familiar remark) believed that everything is connected with politics. Masters’s bland title for his book is doubtless deliberate: he wants to give a complete exegesis rather than a tendentious interpretation of the kind revealed in studies entitled “Rousseau’s Rationalism” or “Rousseau’s Pelagianism.” He does, in fact, do a great deal: he pursues—I am tempted to say, he worries—Rousseau’s political writings with great care and in the most satisfying detail. But his refusal to be tendentious amounts after all only to a rejection of the tendentiousness of others; Masters has his own firm view of the meaning of Rousseau’s thought, and his chosen method—detailed examination accompanied by extensive quotation of texts—skillfully supports that view. His conclusions, however, are hardly surprising.

Like many books that have emerged from the school of Leo Strauss, The Political Philosophy of Rousseau is meticulous, interesting, exasperating, and disappointing. The most “defensible work” in the corpus of Rousseau’s political writings—Masters comes to this in the end—is the First Discourse, that notorious assault on the arts and sciences which made Rousseau famous and which he himself came to dislike. What is defensible about it, Masters argues, is its critique of modern culture, a critique which remains painfully relevant to our own day.


The basic problem “caused by the victory of modern science” remains to be solved; our predicament requires, as for Rousseau, a confrontation of the scientific optimism of modern opinion with the political pessimism of ancient philosophy.

I am not disposed to deny that there is a point here somewhere; Rousseau’s cultural criticism often cuts uncomfortably close to the bone. But then cultural criticism usually does: there is, in all advanced cultures, much to criticize—the prevalence of sham, the loosening of precious intimate bonds, the reign of luxury, the licensing of exploitation and murder. Yet, for all its merits as a diatribe against eighteenth-century urban culture, Rousseau’s first discourse was a failure; as Diderot and later Rousseau himself came to recognize, its position precluded precisely the discriminations that would have made its criticisms not merely painful and pointed, but useful. Man’s departures from the simple life entailed losses, but it brought gains as well. As Rousseau would eloquently put it in his Contrat social (and I am using Maurice Cranston’s new translation here):

The passing from the state of nature to the civil society produces a remarkable change in man; it puts justice as a rule of conduct in the place of instinct, and gives his actions the moral quality they previously lacked. It is only then, when the voice of duty has taken the place of physical impulse, and right that of desire, that man, who has hitherto thought only of himself, finds himself compelled to act on other principles, and to consult his reason rather than study his inclinations. And although in civil society man surrenders some of the advantages that belong to the state of nature, he gains in return far greater ones; his faculties are so exercised and developed, his mind is so enlarged, his sentiments so ennobled, and his whole spirit so elevated that, if the abuse of his new condition did not in many cases lower him to something worse than what he had left, he should constantly bless the happy hour that lifted him for ever from the state of nature and from a narrow, stupid animal made a creature of intelligence and a man.

Rousseau did not think that all of complex society must be extirpated; only its rising to a higher, rather than its regression to a more primitive, condition could remedy the ills that Rousseau saw all around him. As he would insist in his late autobiographical work, Rousseau juge de Jean Jacques: “Human nature does not turn back. Once man has left it, he can never return to the time of innocence and equality.” As some of his most sensitive interpreters—scholars like E. H. Wright and Arthur O. Lovejoy—have long insisted, Rousseau was not a primitivist; the natural man he wanted to see was the truly civilized man.

In the light of Rousseau’s declarations, and these interpretations, one is tempted to dismiss Masters’s exegesis as perverse. But this would be unfortunate, for his book has many uses. If what the Straussians like to call “careful readings” has crippling vices, it is also, in the hands of sensible men, a valuable technique. In the face of fifty years of scholarly work on Rousseau, we are still plagued by amateur criticism which insists, in obedience to current intellectual fashion and in defiance of the texts, that Rousseau was a forefather of Stalin or, at the very least, a confused romantic. As Masters shows, with long quotations and discriminating readings, Rousseau was neither the one nor the other. This is welcome. Equally welcome are the scattered insights contained in Masters’s lengthy comments on the texts. Yet his technique obstructs his effort to understand Rousseau’s political thought as a whole: like other Straussians, Masters worries far too much about ambiguities, hidden intentions, personae, purported audiences. Reading between the lines often gets in the way of reading the lines themselves; Masters comes close to constructing a Rousseau who veils his messages and confines his true opinions to insiders (“Rousseau’s metaphysical dualism and natural religion,” he tells us, for instance, “have a deliberately ambiguous status in his thought…”). In consequence, he fails to address himself seriously to either the psychology or the social and political world out of which Rousseau’s thought emerged and which gave it the unity that Masters’s subtle explorations seek in vain.

Blanchard’s procedure is so remote from Masters’s that one seems to be reading about a different man. He has written a psychological biography generally sensible in tone and defensible in argument; much of it, though, had been anticipated by Jean Starobinski’s brilliant Jean-Jacques Rousseau: la transparence et l’obstacle (1958), a book to which Blanchard pays generous and deserved tribute.* Starobinski sees Rousseau’s psychological development—his promising growth, magnificent if flawed achievement, and depressing denouement—as a loss of, and perpetual search for, innocence, for candor, for “transparency,” a search frustrated by obstacles imposed both by the outside world and by inner resistances. Starobinski is bold and cautious: bold in the single-minded effort to understand all of Rousseau by means of a single key, cautious in his willingness to complicate his argument and, above all, to read the texts with care and without distorting them. Blanchard’s own theories about Rousseau, despite the lucidity and care of his general analysis, are a little doubtful, though. For Blanchard, Rousseau’s central passion was a search for truth, a search that failed. Now both the search and the failure are of critical importance, for they forced upon Rousseau a style an endemic mood of revolutionary rage.


Some of his ideas were directly contrary to those of the leaders of the French Revolution. In many respects he was a conservative—even for his time. Yet the revolutionists hailed him as a hero, and his works had considerable importance in shaping both the direction and emotional climate of the French Revolution. It is my contention that the revolutionists knew their man.

Rousseau the thinker, then, was primarily a man of feeling who made people feel, not think. And he was full of hatred. “It was characteristic of him that an air of sweetness masked his strong hostile impulses. He loved mankind, particularly the weak. But out of his sweetness there flowered a destructive force that would have laid waste the world if it could have been harnessed to one of our modern weapons.” And here, quite directly, Blanchard converts his psychological analysis into a lesson for our time:

I think it is important to penetrate Rousseau’s mask of sweetness because I see much of his spirit in the United States today. There is something very nice and very virtuous about us in America. Like Rousseau we want to save the world. We pity the unfortunate peoples of the earth. But there is something about this pity that frightens me. I am afraid of where it may take us if we do not look deep into its source and examine, with a critical eye, our need for righteousness.

This, until the short concluding chapter, is Blanchard’s only direct reference to the twentieth century; then, at the end, he restates his certainty that the “feeling-tone” of Rousseau’s political writings “is decidedly destructive and denunciatory. Nowhere more than in the writings of Rousseau is one aware that the rebel has within him many of the attributes of the tyrant.” And so Rousseau, the passionate thinker, is a warning to us—his ideas, or, rather, his feelings live on to plague us.

I wonder. Rousseau’s injured self-righteousness, his moral arrogance, his Calvinist rigidity, were deeply offensive to his fellow philosophes. It is significant that he should have quarreled with nearly everyone, not merely with his excitable friend Diderot (which is comprehensible), but also with the placid and open-minded Hume. A man who insists that everyone is against him, and that he is always right, even if—in fact, especially if—he is often right, is hard to bear. But then, to paraphrase Franz Neumann, Rousseau the master is something quite different from Rousseau the critic, and it would be unfortunate if we should dismiss his criticisms because we do not want him as a master, or scant his ideas because we dislike his character. Worse, by concentrating on Rousseau’s character and by finding in it a forerunner of modern nihilism and totalitarianism, we escape the need for analyzing the real sources of our present miseries. I do not doubt that doctrinaire ideologists are among the most unpleasant, and perhaps most dangerous men of our time: dogmatists who simply know that they are right, and who treat those who disagree with them as villains to be silenced or exterminated, infect, and often dominate, the most diverse social movements, and in their rage to make the world a perfect place for all, they have made it a hell for many. Moral certainty, it seems, is often the deadly enemy of decency. At the same time, I doubt (and in this doubt dissent from Michael Polanyi and others) whether these ideologists are the main causes of our discontents. Yet, whatever their share in our miseries, they are in any event not the children of Rousseau.

Masters and Blanchard rightly insist on Rousseau’s relevance (dreadful word!) to our time. In the midst of student rebellions here and abroad, his name is being invoked again and again, by the rebels and by their enemies. Obviously Rousseau can be put to many uses, and I can only suggest here, omitting all the complexities, what I think is the proper use of Rousseau. He was not a liberal but a democrat; his ideal society was a closely knit society of free men, relatively equal (with no one rich enough to buy, no one poor enough to have to sell himself to others), passionately fond of their country, and masters in their own house. He preferred unanimity to debate. And, just as he had his authoritarian, he had his anti-intellectual side, calling for patriotism and mutual affection, and deploring (misguidedly, I think) the “cold rationalism” of the philosophes.

But he was a philosophe himself, a member of the very family he repudiated: he believed in man’s freedom, his autonomy and self-respect. He knew, and unmistakably said, that unanimity might be a sign of slavery quite as much as of freedom. Unanimity is valuable only when the qualities of the general will still inhere in those who have voted: the general will is always right only when it is right. His anti-intellectualism was firmly held in check, controlled by his serious commitment to criticism, and to reason in the right place, at the right time. The two new translations under review, Judith H. McDowell’s skillful abridgment of the Nouvelle Héloïse, and Maurice Cranston’s equally skillful version of the Contrat social, serve as reminders that what we now really need is a new, felicitous translation of Emile, a book that must be read in conjunction with its two companions if we want an accurate sense of Rousseau’s thought.

What emerges from a reading of all three is Rousseau, author of a profound Utopian program, profound not so much in what it advocates as in what it explicitly and implicitly condemns. And what emerges also is, for all his commitment to the passions that lead to community, a prudent rationalist, a philosopher who appreciates the strength and the value of the emotions without denigrating the strength and the value of reason. The central argument of Emile, that strange, flawed, and often disagreeable masterpiece, is that reason emerges last in the human animal, and can function only with a proper valuation of the passions that emerge before it. Emile is not anti-intellectual. He learns to read—but late, when reading will advance rather than spoil him; he even learns to love the classics—when he is ready for them. Emile is a new man, in his very virtues a devastating critic of the old man; he is sober, responsible, candid, reasonable, and free. More important, he is the only man who can make democratic society work, for he can penetrate sham and give his vote disinterestedly, as a citizen. Only a society of Emiles, in other words, is worthy of formulating that general will that is always right.

Rousseau’s message to the student rebels of our time—if they take the time to read him carefully—is, then, in part, to try for the impossible; he puts his reader under the insistent pressure of the prophet who wants not piecemeal reform but total regeneration. This is the dubious side of his legacy. But at the same time—and this, I think, is central—there is Rousseau’s demand for candor even, and indeed especially, within the rebel. He incites not to rebellion for its own sake. Kant’s abiding affection for Rousseau is instructive and was not misplaced. With all his self-pity, all his urge to manipulate others, all his sentimental outbursts, all his disquieting self-indulgent revelations, Rousseau properly read, not between but on the lines, is that rarest and, I think, worthiest of all prophets: the responsible radical.

This Issue

December 5, 1968