A Letter from Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean Starobinski, translated from the French by Arthur Goldhammer

The remarkable text by Rousseau that appears below has been published before. But it is a forgotten text, here translated for the first time into English.

It first appeared in Georges Streckeisen-Moultou’s 1861 collection Oeuvres et correspondance inédites de J.-J. Rousseau, based on a copy made by Reverend Paul Moultou.1 To my knowledge, these pages were not reprinted anywhere until 1997, except for a Polish translation in 1964. They were not included in the admirable Correspondance complète of Rousseau edited by R.A. Leigh.2 Nor were they included in the Pléiade edition of the Oeuvres complètes edited by Bernard Gagnebin and Marcel Raymond.3 The Bibliothèque Publique et Universitaire of Geneva owns several fragments of the text in Rousseau’s own hand. Along with Charles Wirz, the director of Geneva’s Institut et Musée Voltaire, I established a critical edition, which was published in Volume 41 of the Annales de la Société Jean-Jacques Rousseau.4

Several clues suggest that these pages were composed in the spring of 1757. At that time Rousseau was pondering issues that he would later take up in Émile and Le Contrat social. He insists on the social bond, a second “existence” of mankind that has supplanted the original state of nature and independence that he had discussed previously in the Discours sur l’inégalité (which appeared in 1755). He here gives prominence to the duties that the individual discovers in this world when he consults his innermost feelings. The perfectly independent “primitive men” discussed in the second Discours, he writes, are “imaginary” beings.

One could scarcely hope for better confirmation of the hypothetical character of the state of nature that Rousseau described as marking the point of departure of human history. As soon as men began to live in common, they entered into a “tacit contract.” The aptitude for moral life is a gift that the individual receives from the society in which he grows up; hence he is in debt to that society. (The subject of giving and receiving in Rousseau deserves further exploration.5 ) These ideas would reappear in his major doctrinal texts but almost never in such a radical form, except where Rousseau treats the life of the citizen as a “conditional gift of the state.”

To be sure, it is always possible for a person to turn his back on society and choose voluntary exile. But Rousseau, as will be seen below, wants the state to take a severe attitude toward the dissatisfied citizen. With this swing of the balance was he not now granting too much to the state? The pages of his work that come closest to our text, but in a more moderate tone, can be found in the political conclusion to Book V of Émile. There, the fictional pupil does not know “where the fatherland [patrie] is,” because he lives in an imperfect society. But every man, Rousseau writes, “has at least a country [pays].” “O, Émile! Where is the good man who owes nothing to his country?”…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.