Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Welcome to Romanticism!

The second weirdest thing to come out of Geneva after John Calvin was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. We might think of him as the anti-Calvin.

Rousseau's life, spanning the years 1712-1778, was marked with controversy, both because of his philosophy and because he was apparently a really annoying person. In addition to fathering a tribe of illegitimate children for whom he took no responsibility, he quarreled with everybody, even people who agreed with him, sort of like Thomas Paine with better brains.

The Short Course in Rousseau looks like this:
  • Modern civilization is bad for people. It makes them soft, lazy, and unnatural.
  • People in their natural, uncivilized state, are inherently noble, for a given value of noble.
  • All natural appetites and impulses are good and healthy. Attempts to stifle these by "civilizing" are unhealthy and anti-human.
  • The only legitimate government is one that has the universal approval of the governed, acting according to their aggregate wishes. (And what planet was Rousseau on where this is even slightly likely?)
  • The truly noble, honest human is the savage, whose life has not been blighted by European culture.
  • Studying the arts and sciences just produces more culture, which creates weak people.
You can readily see that this is an antithetical reaction to the Enlightenment, with its glorification of science and reason, and its split of body and soul. Not only did Rousseau advocate a "whole" person, but that person was inherently good -- it was society that was bad. (The idea that good humans created this bad society is one that Rousseau comes back to again and again, but never really solves.) This good person flies in the face of Calvinist and Catholic teaching about original sin, and so, Rousseau spends much of his life in conflict with major religious forces.

Rousseau's philosophy increases in popularity after his death, and will inform much of American literature in the first half of the 19th Century. The concept of the noble savage is his, and it creates a renewed interest in the Native Americans, who are in short supply on the east coast of America and therefore safe to idealize. (Nobody suggests that those savages bashing brains on the frontier are noble. They must have been "civilized.") Literary romanticism, with its idealization of the natural world, the natural man, and raw, unfiltered emotions, comes straight from Rousseau. It will lead everywhere from Poe to Whitman, so buckle up.

Rousseau's major works include his Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts, (1750), wherein he explained how the study of arts and sciences perpetuates the corrupting influence of modern society. Anything that could remotely be labeled "cultural" was helping to perpetuate oppression of the individual. The notable exception to this was music, which Rousseau loved, performed, and wrote.

The Social Contract (1762) described the problem of government: we need to be organized somehow, but most of the ways to do it (monarchy for example) are wrong. Government needs to reflect the will of the people, banding together for the common good. Any person who wants can opt out of this system and be free of the government. I over-simplify, of course, but this is the gist. Note the emphasis on the individual, for whom the state exists. This opposes the more common European scheme, where the state exists for the individual to serve.

Emile, or On Education (1762) proposed the ideal education for a young man, one that was directed by his own natural inclinations rather than by a state intent on "civilizing" him and bringing his desires and expectations into line with conventional thought. In this polemical novel, Rousseau also asserts that women exist only to serve and please men, and bear children. Goodbye Enlightenment ideas about equality.


  1. Corbin Mack

    "The truly noble, honest human is the savage, whose life has not been blighted by European culture."

    Unfortunately, I disagree with the previous statement. Though I do believe that majority of things in life are a conbination of nuture and nature, our European culture in which we orginated from depicts the exact traits we pride most. Our vast advancements in the human race our based upon the values and stand points we have learned from those very places.

  2. How could he know? The second he gets around an Indian doesn't that Indian immediately become "blighted."

    And let's all be honest... "savages" are most certainly not any different from the rest of the human race. If anything, they've got survival traits driven into them all over and, despite whatever rosy colored glasses the romantics like to look out of, nature is not kind. It does not favor the traits what we like to think make us "human." I refer to the softer emotions of love, honesty, compassion, etc. It's survival of the fittest and group think and preservation does not fit in. The weak get left behind or weeded out, the strong take advantage. That's how nature works.

  3. Corbin, you're exactly right about the debt we owe to European civilization; we do not eat raw meat and sleep in trees. But Rousseau saw even in beds and cooking the "decadence" of civilization. And Suz, he would not have said that nature is "kind" -- that's Emerson. He would have said that nature is pure, in the sense that it's true to itself. I still think it's bushwa, but it's a little more understandable that way.

  4. Genny said...

    I can’t help but to get frustrated with Rousseau. I mean come on, “the only legitimate government is one that has the universal approval of the governed, acting according to their aggregate wishes.” I mean he is nuts! Was he locked in a closet his whole life? I mean come on, must have hated that women were beginning to get some rights, and especially that people were thinking they deserved them. But, just think if he was alive now, he would think we all went off our rocker. I mean “us” having a government that everyone approved of…ha-ha wouldn’t that just make life so much easier. Even looking back to the beginning of America, I don’t think we have had a single government that everyone was happy with except when maybe Washington was president.

  5. You know, I think Rousseau was a kind of utopian thinker before that got popular. He really believed that people could be like-minded enough to form a consistent government. And he was living in FRANCE, for Pete's sake. Apparently he wasn't paying much attention.

  6. You know, I thought of that during the class lecture. The American Revolution was based in a lot of the Enlightenment's philosophy, then check out this Romantic philosophy in France. Now notice how the two revolutions turned out. I'm sorry Mr. Rousseau, but you must be blind and deaf to think people are inherently good and function best in their "natural" state. It almost sounds like he wants us to de-evolve and be animals again. Maybe I'm just fired up and jumping to conclusions, but really now! However... Romantic literature is a lot more fun to read than the period before. So, I will keep my peace.

    -Kayla Harless

  7. I think we are all born with sin nature in us. How we react to that nature is greatly influenced by our culture and parents. Things that are considered bad in one culture may be ok in other cultures.
    -Katy Simpkins