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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Édouard Rod (1857–1910)
THROUGHOUT his life, Rousseau was tossed about as by an inner storm, in exciting the violence of which malicious circumstances seemed to delight. He was born at Geneva, June 28th, 1712, in a troubled atmosphere, among the riots and agitations which were beginning to threaten the old Genevan oligarchy. He lost his mother at birth. His father, who was a watchmaker, scarcely concerned himself with his early education except to read Plutarch and Richardson with him. When forced to leave Geneva, he intrusted the boy to the care of a maternal uncle. Jean Jacques was a dreamy, romantic child, sentimental, and not without a touch of perversity. Early embarked on a wandering and adventurous life, he was successively engraver’s apprentice, vagabond, lackey, secretary. He improvised himself into a musician; he even made himself a traveling tradesman. The counsels of a benefactress whose influence over him was very great—Madame de Warens—converted him to Catholicism, a faith which he afterward renounced. He traveled. He saw Italy. He read French, English, and German philosophers pell-mell, while studying music, history, and mathematics without method. Engaged as a preceptor at the elder Mably’s,—brother of the Abbé Mably,—he was introduced to the literary society of the epoch. After some fruitless gropings he was to conquer first place in a competition before the Academy of Dijon, by a memorial (which was crowned) upon this question: ‘Has the progress of sciences and arts contributed to corrupt or to purify morals?’ (1749). The success of this initial work, which contains the germs of most of the ideas developed in his later works, was both brilliant and belligerent.  1
  Suddenly famous, Rousseau became at the same time distrustful, solitary, misanthropic; and these characteristics were intensified by his alliance with her who was to be the companion of his life,—a person of inferior heart and mind, from whom he suffered much, and with whom he could not break. The ‘Discourse on the Arts and Sciences’ was soon followed by a new competitive essay assigned by the same Academy of Dijon,—‘A Discourse on the Inequality among Men,’—which is a fuller and more authoritative exposition of the earlier theme. The fundamental idea of this work is the keystone of all Rousseau’s philosophy. It is summed up in this simple remark: “Men are bad; my own sad experience furnishes the proof: yet man is naturally good, as I think I have shown. What then can so have degraded him, except the changes in his condition, the progress he has made, and the knowledge he has acquired?” The Academy of Dijon did not crown this second discourse, which was thought too radical; and Rousseau continued a career filled with triumphs whose bitterness alone he felt. His theories were violently opposed by the literary and philosophic classes; but the public was with him.  2
  In 1752, his opera ‘Le Devin du Village’ (The Village Soothsayer), played at court under his direction, brought him a pension from the King. He became the fashion; great lords and lovely ladies invited him, petted him, patronized him. In less than five years he was to launch on the world the works which made him the most formidable protagonist of the new era: ‘La Nouvelle Héloïse,’ which inaugurated “romantic” literature long before the word was found to characterize it; the ‘Contrat Social,’ which preludes the doctrines of the Revolution; and ‘Émile,’ which attempts to reform the principles of education. These three works brought Rousseau an unexampled popularity. But the violent controversies they aroused, the real hatreds they excited, the condemnations they drew upon him,—at Paris where the Parliament decreed his arrest, and at Geneva where ‘Émile’ was burned by the executioner,—hurried him into a melancholy more and more bitter and afflicting. He took refuge with different friends, whom his suspicions presently transformed into persecutors, in different places, where he always believed himself persecuted.  3
  Returning to Paris in 1770, he passed there several years of anxious poverty: copying music for a livelihood; composing, in answer to demands which honored him, such works as the ‘Considerations on the Government of Poland’; or to defend himself before posterity, books like ‘The Confessions,’ and the ‘Rêveries d’un Promeneur Solitaire’ (Musings of a Solitary Stroller), which did not appear until after his death. In 1778 he accepted a refuge offered by one of his faithful friends, René de Girardin, on his estate of Ermenonville. There his mind seemed to be growing calmer in the serene contemplation of the green and smiling country, when he died suddenly, on the 2d of July, 1778, in his sixty-seventh year. At first, suicide was suspected; but an autopsy disclosed the cause of death to be serous apoplexy. His body, buried at two o’clock at night under the poplars of Ermenonville,—“by the most beautiful moonlight and in the calmest weather,” says a witness,—was transported to the Pantheon in 1794 by order of the Convention. But in 1814 it was exhumed, as was Voltaire’s, without official order; and the bones of the two philosophers, placed in the same sack, were thrust under ground in the waste land toward Bercy.  4
  What especially strikes the writer who attempts to analyze the moral and intellectual personality of Rousseau, is the predominance of his imagination. He was a poet and a romancer,—a romancer who made theories instead of making romances; but ‘Émile’ is certainly a pedagogical story, as the ‘Contrat Social’ is a story, as the ‘Discours sur l’Inégalité’ is a historical, or if you like, an anthropological story. This fertile imagination was constantly excited by a very lively sensibility, which exalted itself in ardent friendships, in ardent passions, which embraced all humanity, reaching out to animals and even to inanimate things, and finding only in communion with nature some little joy and compensation. The disordered action of the romantic imagination upon this morbid sensibility would naturally produce and did produce errors of judgment, such as the doctrines of the Contrat, of Émile, etc.; and also errors in life, of which the gravest was that systematic and deliberate abandonment of his children, with which Rousseau has been so strongly reproached. But these errors came from the mind, not from the heart. Many facts prove that despite his paradoxes of thought and conduct, this man possessed a sincere kindness, a generosity which could pardon the worst offenses, a simple and touching tenderness of soul, a disinterestedness so great as to deprive him of all profit from his talents. These qualities are sometimes spoiled or perverted by a pride to which perhaps must be attributed some of his acts of generosity or devotion, as well as some of his errors; and which later became exaggerated to mania in the mental malady of which it is impossible to say whether it was cause or effect. This pride, from which he suffered more than any one else, was his only vice; in spite of his having allowed himself to be drawn into certain culpable acts, such as once to have stolen and often to have lied,—offenses which would never have been known but for his own confession.  5
  In spite of such errors, committed in hours of temptation, and expiated by long and sincere regrets, it would be unjust to deny Rousseau’s true nobility of soul. If that soul seems to us sullied, the blame rests upon the hazards of his neglected childhood and adventurous youth; upon the storms of his genius, his sufferings during the long period when he was forced to seek his true self among the worst obstacles, upon the tempests he aroused; and finally, later, upon the maddening mirages with which his sick imagination surrounded him.  6
  The elements of Rousseau’s character were also those of his genius. Although he delighted to reason according to the method which Descartes had inaugurated, and from which he could not free himself,—that old vessel in which bubbled up the new wine of his thought,—yet it is unreasonable to expect much reason from him. His logic usually ends in paradox. Upon going back to the origin of his ideas and attempting to analyze them, one finds that taken separately they are neither very original nor very profound: all return to that fundamental conception of the superiority of “the state of nature” over “the social state,”—a too inadequate conception, of which it is impossible to prove the truth. It is that which inspired his earliest ‘Discourses.’ At first the ‘Contrat Social’ seemed to contradict them: for how could a philosopher who hated society justify the basis of its organization; and especially how could he conclude, as he does, that to this fatal and illegitimate society the citizen owes the sacrifice of himself? But after this passing infidelity to his dominant faith, he returned to it again in ‘Émile,’ where he maintains that normal education should isolate a child from society in order that his natural qualities may develop; and he held this view to the end, as appears in those ‘Confessions,’ which, in the portrait they give of himself, explain without justifying the fundamental idea of all his doctrine. The defects of his early education Rousseau never supplied; his reading, insufficient and fantastic, left him defenseless to all external influences. His religion was a vague spiritualism; his morality, an unconvincing optimism; his politics, a Utopia, pastoral in the ‘Discours sur l’Inégalité,’ epic in the ‘Contrat Social.’ Finally, he seems never to have known any other man than himself; and the psychology of his ‘Nouvelle Héloïse’ remains essentially personal. Whence comes it then, that in spite of so much weakness he was the greatest French writer of his century.—or at least the most influential, the most universal, and the most persistent?  7
  To understand this curious fact, we must consider Rousseau in his century and environment. At that period, literature found itself in flagrant conflict with the morality whose aspirations it was supposed to express. The writers, most of them newcomers from another class, usually ended by adding themselves to the old society and adopting its conventions; or, penetrated with new sentiments, failed to adopt new tools, and clung to the rhetoric inherited from the preceding age. Dry, arid, “oldish” in Goethe’s apt phrase, they tried in vain to cultivate sensibility; and when they endeavored to depart from routine, achieved only the artificial, as Diderot’s plays show. The strength and greatness of Rousseau was, above all, his sincerity: if he was the first to discard conventional rhetoric, and to express his own sensibility, it is because he possessed true sensibility; moreover, plebeian by birth, he remained plebeian from resolute pride. Different from his contemporaries in these two essentials, which consecrated his superiority, he became the supreme interpreter of those ideas, feelings, passions, which were fermenting in the decomposition of the Old World. He was sentimental and revolutionary, romantic and rebellious. Animated by the fierce breath of the spirit of negation, he set himself against all authority, against all tradition; and his attack was the more resistless, that the charm of his romantic spirit dissembled its violence.  8
  In the discharge of this little understood and almost fatal office, he was aided by his wonderful literary gifts. With his most illustrious rivals, French prose had become a conversational language,—rapid, facile, and brilliant; but without the life which captivates or the power which impresses itself. Rousseau instinctively abandoned this use to return to the great oratorical style, to rediscover the lost secrets of eloquence. For the short sentence, dry, laconic, and incisive, which is that of the best writers of his time, he adopted the long-balanced period, sometimes even too rhythmic, which seizes the attention and holds it to the end. For the abstract terms in which those about him delighted, he substituted words of color, living and ardent; words which paint, words which feel, words which vibrate and weep. The same instinct which thus revealed to him a new skill in the sentence, revealed to him also a new and corresponding skill in composition. His sentences—long, vivid, and musical—link themselves together to form a kind of organic charm; so that the complete work may exercise the same fascination as each of its component parts. It was the language of passion succeeding that of reason, or rather of reasoning. The effect could not be doubtful. This effect was extremely violent, not only upon ideas but upon morals. Is it necessary to recall that after the ‘Nouvelle Héloïse,’ everybody wanted to love like Saint-Preux and Julie? that ‘Émile’ transformed the current opinions upon education? that people wished to be emotional, to dream in the fields, to reascend the current of civilization, to make their spirits ingenuous, primitive, or at least “natural”? Who then first uttered the cry of the period, “O Nature! Nature!” the cry which soon became a new affectation?  9
  Thus Rousseau appears to us as the most enticing guide of his century. “Beside him,” says M. Faguet, “Voltaire appears at times merely a witty student, and Buffon only a very remarkable teacher of rhetoric. Montesquieu alone, inferior as a man of imagination, equals him in strength of view, and excels him in clearness of vision.” But exactly because he lacked imagination, Montesquieu was not a harbinger. Rousseau was essentially a forerunner. One may say that he has shaped the whole century which followed him. His principal works not only called forth successions of imitations, but the world is imbued with his ideas, whose consequences continue to renew or overturn the human soul and society. The ‘Contrat Social’ accounts in part for the excesses of the Revolution; and as to the chief revolutionists, the most dangerous indeed were “Spartans,” as Rousseau had recommended. The vague yet ardent spiritualism proclaimed in the ‘Profession de Foi du Vicaire Savoyard’ (The Savoyard Vicar’s Creed), led to the Festival of the Supreme Being, and provoked the religious reaction of the beginning of the century. The notions concerning a return to the primitive life which he developed in his first work, and which remained the basis of his doctrine, may be found again with the socialists of 1848, underlying the Utopias of the Saint-Simons, the Fouriers, the Enfantiers, and perhaps even in the origin of the “collectivism” which has replaced those innocent dreams. His optimism, his faith in the constant progress of humanity, inspired during the same period not only the “reformer” who transported the golden age of the past to the future, but also the most moderate, most clear-sighted, and most politic minds. The ‘Nouvelle Héloïse’ created romanticism, that perilous and seductive disposition of spirit to which we owe so many affecting works: Saint-Preux is an elder brother of Werther, and what a posterity follows them! Before Rousseau, a few English poets alone had perceived Nature. After him, no one dared longer ignore her. Every one prided himself upon loving her. She found sincere adorers who perhaps would never have perceived her if they had not listened to her worshiper’s enchanting voice.  10
  In such details we get the impression of the whole man. Others have left works more perfect, and above all more beneficent; but I do not believe that in the whole history of literature there exists the man whose influence has been so decisive, so far-reaching, and upon whom it is so difficult to form a fair judgment. Measured from the point of view of to-day, this influence seems disproportioned to the genius which exercised it, and to the value of the works of that genius. But the most perfect works do not necessarily count the most; and the keenest criticism cannot always explain the mysterious affinities of genius, of thought, and of morals. It has been questioned whether this influence, the extent and duration of which are incontestable, has been a salutary one. We are not now to consider this. An alluring, an irresistible guide, Rousseau has not been an infallible one. Many have gone astray in following him. If he had a kind and feeling heart, he had not less a faulty intellect; and his paradoxes often paralyzed his good intention. The ability with which he followed them to their extreme conclusion, like the eloquence he employed in their service, only served to render them more dangerous. Therefore in penetrating so deeply the consciousness of the generations that followed him, Rousseau’s thought has drawn upon them many ills. It has involved them in many gropings and errors, in many delusive visions and sufferings. It has spread abroad in the Old World a general agitation, which the violent convulsions following it did not succeed in dispelling. It has scattered abroad sadness which still encompasses us. Passion is sad; nature breathes melancholy: all that Rousseau loved and made us love puts the heart in mourning; it may be that it is the memory of his teaching which spreads such darkness over the end of the century. For by an amazing contradiction, the optimist who believed so profoundly in the goodness of human nature is the true father of the pessimists of our time. But whatever the proportions of the good and ill he has done us, we are still responsive to his influence, while cherishing for him an affection not unmingled with reproach. Those even who condemn or oppose him do not always escape loving him. Although a whole century—one of the centuries most freighted with historical events and evolutions—has passed over his work, it is still too near to be fairly judged. But we may feel sure that it will be reckoned in a balance whose weights we do not know.  11

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