Rousseau, Jean-Jacques

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ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES (17121778) was a Geneva-born author, social and educational theorist, and advocate of a nondogmatic religion of nature. Rousseau was a prolific writer; however, his mature religious thought is encapsulated in a comparatively short section, "The Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar," of Émile (1762), his treatise in support of experientially based educational methods. The straightforward, somewhat serene tone of this famous statement stands in marked contrast to the complex, turbulent pattern of its author's life history.

Amid the natural beauties of the Alps, Rousseau's vicar, a simple, unpretentious country priest, recounts his efforts to resolve his doubts, stemming from the diversity of competing beliefs. Dissatisfied with the philosophers, of whom he says he is not one, he has found a basis for certitude and optimism in his own experience. This has convinced him, ultimately, of the presence of order in the universe, which is only explicable by the existence of a powerful, intelligent, and beneficent God. He further asserts the immortality of the immaterial soul and the natural goodness of human beings. Evil stems from ignoring the "heavenly voice" of conscience, which teaches a sociable sympathy for others and rejects self-interest as the basis of right conduct. The vicar concludes that the adherent of natural religion may in good conscience follow the prescribed religious customs of the jurisdiction in which he or she happens to live, as he himself does in Roman Catholic Savoy.

The vicar's views are unquestionably Rousseau's own. Of equal importance with his positive beliefs is his rejection of, as unanswerable and, practically speaking, unimportant, many of the traditional central questions of metaphysics and theology, such as the meaning of "creation," the alleged eternal punishment of the wicked, and the status of "revelation." Although Rousseau, an admirer of the scriptural Jesus, considered himself a Christian, he refused, consistently with his natural religion, to endorse claims that Jesus' alleged miracles were proof of his divinity.

These religious views were central to Rousseau's entire outlook. In his autobiographical Confessions (completed in 1770 but published posthumously, in two parts, in 1782 and 1789) and elsewhere, he speaks rather positively of his early moral upbringing in Calvinist Geneva, although he had left there at the age of sixteen in search of wider horizons. Within a brief time, he had declared himself a convert to Catholicism in Turin. He next established some reputation as a music teacher and theorist, traveling to various Swiss and French cities before settling in Paris. There he made the acquaintance of Thérèse Levasseur, a working-class woman who became his lifelong companion, and of the social circle surrounding the philosophes, notably Diderot. He eventually contributed to their Encyclopedia.

An incident in the autumn of 1749, known as "the illumination of Vincennes," shaped Rousseau's subsequent career. Stopping along the road to rest, he glanced at a journal announcement of a prize essay contest on the question of whether the renaissance of the sciences and arts had contributed to the purification of morals. The insight that, on the contrary, civilization and progress had brought about degeneration from the more natural earlier state of humanity struck him forcefully. His Discourse on the Sciences and Arts (1750), which elaborates on the consequences of this degeneration, won the prize. In his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality (1755), he imaginatively reconstructs humanity's development from a happy but unenlightened early state of nature through successive stages leading to the establishment of private property, government, and ultimately despotism. But he also insists that an attempt to return to the primitive state would be unrealistic. His Social Contract, published in the same year (1762) as Émile, aims to show how a free community structured in accordance with the general will of its citizens could claim moral legitimacy. It concludes with the chapter "On Civil Religion," in which Rousseau proposes to combine the principles of natural religion with the state's need for religious reinforcement: a new doctrine affirming the "sacredness of the social contract and the laws" is the result.

Rousseau's work of 1762, particularly the "Profession of Faith," was attacked by Catholics, Protestants, and philosophes alike. He was forced to flee France to avoid arrest and was also condemned by the authorities of Geneva, whose citizenship and religion he had proudly readopted eight years earlier. Subsequent forced displacements and isolation led him to suspect the existence of a large conspiracy against him. But by the time of his death, Rousseau's ideasespecially, perhaps, as popularized in his romantic novel, The New Heloise (1761)had won many adherents. His name later came to be associated with the French Revolution; Robespierre was a great admirer of Rousseau's, as was Kant, who took Rousseau's ideal of societal self-governmentobedience to a law that one has prescribed for oneselfas his formula for moral autonomy.

Subsequent uses and interpretations of Rousseau's thought have been equally disparate. Was he a rationalist or a proponent of the purest sentimentality? A totalitarian or a democrat? A conservative or a protosocialist? A sympathetic portrayer of female heroines or a blatant sexist? A Pelagian, a Deist in spite of himself, or a consistent exponent of the fundamental ideas of the Reformation? Textual evidence exists for these and many other incompatible, ardently defended interpretations of Rousseau. What is correct in any case is that Rousseau had a keen sense for dialectical paradoxes in the human condition, and that he was a pioneer in exploring the complex tensions and ambivalences of the human psyche, beginning with his own.


One complete English translation of Émile in current circulation is Barbara Foxley's (1903; reprint, London, 1966), and there is another of the Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar, translated by Arthur H. Beattie as Creed of a Priest of Savoy (New York, 1956). Multiple translations of other major Rousseauean writings exist, the most numerous being those of The Social Contract. Particularly distinguished, in terms of scholarship, is Roger D. Masters and Judith R. Masters edition of The First and Second Discourses (New York, 1964). Ronald Grimsley has edited a collection entitled Religious Writings (Oxford, 1970). Among the numerous secondary works, Grimsley's Rousseau and the Religious Quest (Oxford, 1968) is perhaps the most useful introduction to this topic in English, although it cannot compare in comprehensiveness to Pierre Maurice Masson's La Religion de Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 3 vols. in 1 (1916; reprint, Geneva, 1970). Among more general English-language studies, Charles Hendel's two-volume Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Moralist (1934; reprint, New York, 1962), remains an especially lively and readable classic.

William Leon McBride (1987)