I have entered on an enterprise which is without precedent, and will have no imitator. I propose to show my fellows a man as nature made him, and this man shall be myself. I know my heart, and have studied mankind; I am not made like any one I have been acquainted with, perhaps like no one in existence; if not better, I at least claim originality, and whether Nature did wisely in breaking the mould with which she formed me, can only be determined after having read this work. Whenever the last trumpet shall sound, I will present myself before the sovereign judge with this book in my hand, and loudly proclaim, thus have I acted; these were my thoughts; such was I. With equal freedom and veracity have I related what was laudable or wicked, I have concealed no crimes, added no virtues; and if I have sometimes introduced superfluous ornament, it was merely to occupy a void occasioned by defect of memory: I may have supposed that certain, which I only knew to be probable, but have never asserted as truth, a conscious falsehood. Such as I was, I have declared myself; sometimes vile and despicable, at others, virtuous, generous and sublime; even as thou hast read my inmost soul: Power eternal! assemble round thy throne an innumerable throng of my fellow-mortals, let them listen to my confessions, let them blush at my depravity, let them tremble at my sufferings; let each in his turn expose with equal sincerity the failings, the wanderings of his heart, and, if he dare, aver, I was better than that man.
Today is the 300th anniversary of the birth of Rousseau. BBC Radio 3 aired a 75 minute discussion of his life and thought last night.
Chris Bertram celebrates:
There are those who love him, despite his madness, his misogyny and his occasional penchant for alarming political formulations, and there are those who loathe him as the progenitor of totalitarianism. For what it’s worth, I’m in the first camp… [W]ithout Rousseau, no Kant, no Hegel, perhaps no Marx or Nietzsche.
Definitely no Marx. And I think we can add Rawls to that list now as well.
If it wasn’t clear already, I’m with Bertram and the idolisers. Perhaps only with the exception of Plato, no other philosopher has such an intense ability to inspire with their insights, whilst writing oh-so well. As Melissa Lane puts it, Rousseau marked a turning point in political theory where society was finally viewed from the perspective of the oppressed. That alone is a sufficient legacy. When you add that to his powerful thoughts on politics as a transforming, freedom-enhancing enterprise; his brutally honest, unparalleled Confessions that set the standard for the modern autobiography; his insistence on man’s natural goodness and society’s corrosive impact; his work on education in Émile and his hugely popular novel, Julie, the attribution of the term ‘genius’ is left as no exaggeration at all. We haven’t even got on to his influence on the French Revolution. As Napoleon is rumoured to have put it:
It would have been better for the peace of France if this man had never lived.
Do yourself a favour and pick up his books.