An essay for the class I am taking.
In Book Eight of The Confessions, Jean-Jacques Rousseau begins, “I had to pause at the end of the last book. With this one starts the long chain of my misfortunes, in its very beginnings” (328). The story he is about to tell is how he came to write his First Discourse, The Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, and how intellectual celebrity followed. In 1750, at the age of thirty-eight, he became a writer, one who wins prizes, an intellectual celebrity in Paris. In quick succession, over the next fifteen years, he published the Second Discourse, On the Origin of Inequality (1755), Julie, or the New Heloise (1761), The Social Contract (1762), Emile, or Education (1762), and various public letters concerning music, theater, religion, and politics. The misfortunes that Rousseau refers to in the opening of Book Eight include his rise and fall in fame, in public reputation, in fortune, in acceptance at the homes of nobility, in tolerance by the censors, and in his legal standing in France and in Geneva. He concludes The Confessions with his leaving Europe for England in 1765. However, his troubles did not cease there. In England, his friendship with David Hume ended in acrimony, just as his relationships with Voltaire and Diderot and so many others had. He returned to France, where the authorities tolerated his existence so long as he lived a private and obscure life. There, an impoverished and emotionally compromised Rousseau continued to write for the next twelve years, until his death in 1778, producing three books, two of which (The Confessions and Dialogues) were published by 1789.
Of the many questions that arise from such a chronology, for me two dominate 1) Why does Rousseau locate this moment in his life, at age 37 or so, to believe that his “misfortunes” begin there? and 2) If things were so bad, why didn’t he just remove himself, willingly, into obscurity and return to the life that he claimed to love so dearly? I don’t see that Rousseau answers these questions directly, but perhaps ideas contained in Rousseau’s works suggest a path to an answer.
To the first question, Rousseau offers some explanation in Book Eight. While walking to visit Diderot, who was in prison, Rousseau learned of a contest for an essay on the topic of “Has the progress of the sciences and arts done more to corrupt morals or improve them?” The question so animated Rousseau that he paused to make notes. Later that day, he read his notes to Diderot, who encouraged him to pursue those ideas. Rousseau writes,
My feelings rose with the most inconceivable rapidity to the level of my ideas. All my little passions were stifled by an enthusiasm for truth, liberty, and virtue; and the most astonishing thing is that this fermentation worked in my heart for more than four or five years as intensely perhaps as it has ever worked in the heart of any man on earth. (328)
He concludes: “All the rest of my life and of my misfortunes followed inevitably as a result of that moment’s madness” (328)
On a purely biographical level, it appears that Rousseau is claiming that his misfortunes began because he had entered into the rough and tumble world of literary celebrity. “The moment my essay appeared the champions of literature fell upon me as if of one accord” (341). But Rousseau survived these attacks in 1750 and even triumphed and prospered. Still he did not find celebrity to be easy employment. Eventually, he felt that the negative reactions to his essays were becoming personal.
In the storm that has engulfed me, my books have served as a pretext; the attack was against myself. They cared little about the author, but they wished to destroy Jean-Jacques; and the greatest crime they discovered in my writings was the honour they might bring me. (379)
In particular, he notes, if the ideas in Emile and The Social Contract were so controversial as to provoke arrest warrants, censorship, and religious condemnation, why didn’t these same ideas when expressed in The Second Discourse and Julie incur the same reaction? (379). The unsolved question here, of course, is to what is extent is Rousseau accurately reading the barometer of his personal and public relationships, and to what extent is he mistaken, delusional, or paranoid.
And this leads to a consideration of the second question: “If things were so bad, why didn’t he just remove himself, willingly, into obscurity and return to the life that he claimed to love so dearly?” To a certain extent, one could argue he actually attempted to find his idyllic lifestyle on several occasions. Yet it would seem that in most, if not all, cases, as with Mme d’Epinay and his stay at The Hermitage, Rousseau found ways to destroy his peace and good fortune. It would not be until the final years of his life that he would find a private, if urban life, in Paris. He worked as a copyist of music, made long nature walks, visited with friends, and allowed his wife sternly to turn the curious away (Damrosch 465). It was a humble, yet far from comfortable life, one he was allowed, not one he chose.
But to a greater extent, I would argue that Rousseau was incapable of living the peaceful, rural, private lifestyle he wished for, and the reason is disclosed in his works. This reason is related to our first question concerning the ingredients in Rousseau’s First Discourse that made his life such a misfortune.
What Rousseau realized about “Truth, Liberty, and Virtue” is that they were inextricably tangled with talent and thus with inequality. “This is the most obvious effect of all our studies, and the most dangerous of their consequences,” he writes.
People no longer ask about a man whether he has probity, but whether he has talents; nor about a Book whether it is useful, but whether it is well written. . . . There are a thousand prizes for fine discourses, none for fine deeds. (First Discourse 23)
Here is Rousseau, at thirty-seven, a relatively old age for a beginner. He has struggled and failed in a number of enterprises. He is decidedly working class. Primarily, he has been self taught and lived in the provinces. And he has already suffered at the hands of the established and entrenched “talents.” For instance, at one point, he thought he had found his path to fame and fortune by inventing a new system for noting music. Like an innocent, he traveled to Paris with his new idea, placed it before the Academy of Sciences, and awaited word of his genius and guaranteed success. The word he received was not promising. “I was always astounded by the ease with which they refuted my arguments with the help of a few high-sounding phrases . . . .” (267).
By the time Rousseau completed his Second Discourse, he had deepened his understanding of the complex relationship between talent and social hierarchy. Essentially, he says that, of course, humans have different levels of natural talent, but, since Rousseau imagines early human life as solitary and non-competitive, these differences are unimportant. It is only with the assertion of property ownership and the development of society that individual talents become intertwined with social inequality. (And then social inequality perpetuates itself through social institutions.) From that social schism emerges a psychological schism. I assert that in diagnosing and exploring this schism that Rousseau provides the answer to my two questions.
The psychological schism that I am identifying is that between a healthy self-regard and unhealthy vanity, between Amour de soi-meme and Amour propre. Amour de soi-meme is a natural sentiment humans and all animals have that allows them to care for themselves and, through pity, for others. One eats, procreates, works, and develops skills for one’s own personal health and development. One observes oneself from the inside, and is not aware what others think about one. Amour propre sets humans against other humans for personal gain, in comparison with others. One wishes to be seen eating better food than others do, procreating with more or more attractive mates, developing skills higher levels for personal profit. One observes oneself from the outside, mirrored through others’ envy (Second Discourse 218).
In a recent essay, Niko Kolodny, points out that Rousseau views amour propre in two lights. The first is a “desire to be evaluated by others as having a certain value in comparison with others” [emphasis Kolodny’s] (169). The second is a desire to be valued highly in comparison with others. Granted this might be a distinction without a clearly definable difference, but the second form appears to be a more internally generated comparison without regard for the evaluation of others. It seems to project an outward, objective definition of value, rather than one generated by multiple subjectivities.
Philosopher Alain de Botton, who often refers to Rousseau, identifies Amour propre as “status anxiety.” At the beginning of his book, de Botton offers a definition that sounds amazingly like the recurrent themes developed in The Confessions:
A worry, so pernicious as to be capable of ruining extending stretches of our lives, that we are in danger of failing to conform to the ideals of success laid down by our society and that we many as a result be stripped of dignity and respect; a worry that we are currently occupying too modest a rung or are about to fall to a lower one. (4)
I think that, in one regard, Rousseau is correct in identifying his moment of insight and inspiration on the path to visit Diderot as the moment that changed his life and, if one chooses to look at it his way, invited the list of miseries he suffered. It is, after all, the moment when he conceived the book that would thrust him into the public eye as a person to be reckoned with. Similarly, it is the moment when Rousseau became possessed by an idea that would separate him from his contemporaries, the idea that society—one’s friends and fellow citizens—are always attempting to diminish one’s individuality. The arts create a social construct that we cannot escape; human are born free, but are in chains; traditional education reduces our individual development—so many ideas that Rousseau developed and explored emerge from this one walk in the countryside.
In another regard, however, I think we can argue that at that moment on his way to visit Diderot, Rousseau had simply discovered the philosophical and political implications of his own psychological make-up. I believe we can argue that Rousseau struggled his entire life with the tensions created by “status anxiety,” or as it was called in his day “amour propre.” At this moment in this essay, I cannot list the many instances throughout The Confessions in which Rousseau shows himself desiring the acceptance and regard of successful members of society and conversely defending his individuality from the criticisms of others. His venture to Paris to deliver his new system for noting music can serve as emblematic.
In conclusion, I will return to Rousseau’s break with Mme d’Epinay. Such a traumatic moment usually has many causes, but one important factor was Rousseau’s refusal to accompany his friend and patron on a trip to Geneva. Many people became involved in this disturbance, including Diderot, who wrote a letter to Rousseau to persuade him to change his mind. In Rousseau’s reply, he says, “Other people might perhaps speak better of me if I were more like them. God forbid that I should ever go out for their approval” (The Confessions 443). Here is a clear instance of Rousseau’s constant tension between Amour de soi-meme and Amour proper. He seems unable to arrive at a simple, direct healthy self-regard, but must come to viewing and understanding himself through and with the eyes of others. Even while he demanded his independence of thought, he paid homage to his bad reputation. However, the discord did not end with Diderot. Eventually Frederick Grimm, another important philosopher of the time, wrote Rousseau and thus received a heated reply, which ended their already fragile friendship.
Finally, Rousseau wrote to Mme de Epinay, that “When you no longer want me for a slave you will always have me as a friend” (as qtd. in Damrosh 280). She replied, essentially, that their friendship was finished, and he was free to leave The Hermitage. Rousseau claimed that he was shocked by her response (The Confessions 452). Others may wonder why she indulged him so long. I find that Rousseau’s language is telling: “When you no longer want me for a slave . . . .” In another letter, he states he would be seen as “her valet” (as qtd in Damrosh 280). Rousseau appears incapable of avoiding politicizing his personal relationships as he attempts to protect his reputation (while, ironically, destroying it). He is obsessed with how he will appear. Of course, he was not being asked to be Mme. De Epinay’s valet or slave, but as one possessed by Amour proper, Rousseau was afraid of how he would appear in others’ eyes. His anxiety over his status prevented him from living the life he knew best suited him.
De Botton, Alain. Status Anxiety. London: Penguin. 2004.
Damrosch, Leo. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 2005.
Kolodny, Niko. “The Explanation of Amour-Propre.” Philosophical Review. 119:2 (2010).
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Confessions. Tr. J.M. Cohen. London: Penguin. 1953.
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