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Rousseau and the Solitary Self

Or the Independence of the Individual

By Conrad Jalowski

The effervescence of the Enlightenment Period gave birth to notable individuals with highly creative abilities and great powers of the imagination. The seeds of the Enlightenment were planted during the Scientific Revolution and through the Empirical tradition, the scientific inquiry was pursued to push the limits of humanity and to abolish all limitations to human exertions. The methods of observation were applied to the natural sciences and soon grew to bear the fruit of human ingenuity and a greater comprehension of the natural world. It is within the context of the Rationalist/Empirical dichotomy that the Enlightenment emerged from the ashes and decay of previous epochs. In essence, all seemed possible and the means of man boundless as the Enlightenment took root within the European context. It is amidst the Period of Enlightenment that Jean-Jacques Rousseau composed his philosophical treatises and offered the intellectual classes a means of nourishment that would later trickle into all facets of society and give birth to a whole new order of things as well as being portentous of things to come.

The dichotomy present between Rationalism and Empiricism or of the main doctrines of Transcendence and Immanence within each respective intellectual conviction took hold in Europe through the Medieval Movement of Scholasticism. The learning tradition of Scholasticism maintained that only through external observations or through the senses in order to take in the natural order of things through external sensory stimuli was the path to discovering endless possibilities and of attaining eternal truth. Scholasticism took a dialectical approach to in order to answer questions or to solve any contradictions. (It is interesting to note that the Hegelian Dialectic of thesis, antithesis and synthesis would be based on the Scholastic learning tradition) The Scholastic Method utilized two factors in order to elimiate any form of contradiciton: through philological reasoning by stating that the meaning of certain words was ambiguous and through a certain logical analysis in which the definition of certain words was subjective and individualistic as pertaining differently to a whole host of individuals. Out of Scholasticism arose the philosophical tradition of Empiricism. In tension and in opposition to Empiricism was the philosophical tradition of Rationalism that was developed by Plato. In Rationalism, only through innate and inward contemplation, observation and introspection could the individual attain immortal and divine truth. It was in the Neo-Platonic tradition that everything in existence was a preconceived thought that predated the existence of man and civil society with the result that man had to rediscover the truth of the natural world through self-reliance and self-sufficiency. In addition, the concept of immanence is of the divine properties of everything in existence; all objects and individuals in existence are imbued with a divine spirit. The concept of transcendence maintained that only through a life of virtue (see Thucydidean arĂȘte and Machiavellian virtue) that an individual could reach beyond the mortal plane and ascend into divine grace. Such a dichotomy that arose out of Greco-Roman times created a tension between the two opposing poles of philosophical consolidation that reached high peaks of conflict during the Scientific Revolution and the Period of Enlightenment.

The major works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau that were at the very core of his philosophical and morale considerations were: the educational treatise titled Emile, the autobiographical account that provided the sum of his very existence as well as the individualistic components of his philosophy titled Confessions, the epistolary novel titled Julie or the New Heloise and the social/political treatise titled The Social Contract. This dense conglomeration of major works though offering differentiating parts of Rousseauian philosophy by providing numerous key components is complete when coalesced together and considered as a sum of its parts. The summaries as well as the social and political impacts of these major political treatises will be expounded upon and explained to cover the major points and to provide an overall outline.

The educational treatise titled Emile deals with the physical, social and emotional development of the human individual through infancy to adulthood. The emendation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Emile is that each individual is unique and requires differentiating amounts of supervision, devotion and parenting. Furthermore, Rousseau amidst that although there exists a universality of expression through the development of character, the individual development is key and central to the maintenance of a balanced and healthy individual. Rousseau described the child as a plant that has sprouted from its seed or its bare foundations of primary and savage characteristics. Through nourishment and a delicate yet firm care by acknowledging the self-autonomy of the child does it begin to grow and thrive until it sprout and blossoms in great glory and ultimately reaches its full potential as a human individual. In addition, Rousseau believed that the child should learn from social interaction instead of an early education through the studying of book and of acquiring educational knowledge. Instead, the child should be allowed to interact with its physical environment. Such a method of learning through social interaction as opposed to an educational system is titled the Montessori Method. Finally, Rousseau set up a dichotomy of roles for the two human genders: men were to be strong and be the provider of the familial unit whilst women were to be passive and offer very little resistance to the will of their male counterparts. Such is stated in Emile when Rousseau wrote:

"In what they have in common, they are equal. Where they differ, they are not comparable. A perfect woman and a perfect man ought not to resemble each other in mind any more than in looks, and perfection is not susceptible of more or less. In the union of the sexes each contributes equally to the common aim, but not in the same way. From this diversity arises the first assignable difference in the moral relations of the two sexes. One ought to be active and strong, the other passive and weak. One must necessarily will and be able; it suffices that the other put up little resistance. Once this principle is established, it follows that woman is made specially to please man." [1]

Jean-Jacques Rousseau's autobiographical account Confessions differed from previous autobiographies in certain manners. Prior autobiographies such as St. Augustine's Confessions concentrated on religious and holy experiences. Rousseau concentrated on emotional and personal struggles and achievements through internal thoughts and external experiences that would either strengthen or act detrimental to internal thoughts and convictions. Rousseau began his Confessions by stating that his autobiography would reverberate throughout history as a wholly unique contribution to literary history with the opening lines:

"I have resolved on an enterprise which has no precedent, and which, once complete, will have no imitator. My purpose is to display to my kind a portrait in every way true to nature, and the man I shall portray will be myself." [2]

In the Confessions Jean-Jacques Rousseau declared that the individual comes first and is central to civil society. Such an abstraction would later develop and help formulate into existence the philosophies of Henry David Thoreau and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Rousseau maintained that the self-determination, self-autonomy, self-integrity and self-sufficiency of the individual were central to the survival of an individual within civil society. Rousseau maintained that the arts and sciences led to moral dilapidation and cultural decadence as well as a degeneration of custom and tradition. Rousseau maintained that advances in learning led to effeminacy and that to prevent such a decline it was central to maintain one's own autonomy from such luxuries and decadent activities and pursuits. In essence, Rousseau maintained that to be free and not repressed by civil society was the path that ensured true happiness and boundless ecstasy.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Julie or the New Heloise is the central structure of Rousseau's philosophical framework of the authenticity and autonomy of the human individual. The desire to follow one's own conscious and to remain true and faithful to one's own inner moral convictions is greater than rational principles. Such a tenet in Rousseauian philosophy maintained that though a single action had the possibility of being observed as irrational by other participants within civil society, the individual's key to happiness was through the stubborn defiance of external forces and the maintenance of individual autonomy. The reception of Julie or the New Heloise was great as the epistolary novel was a very successful Enlightenment novel. An example of the popular reception of such a novel of Rousseauian philosophy consists of such an observation:

"I dare not tell you the effect it made on me. No, I was past weeping. A sharp pain convulsed me. My heart was crushed. Julie dying was no longer an unknown person. I believed I was her sister, her friend, her Claire. My seizure became so strong that if I had not put the book away I would have been as ill as all those who attended that virtuous woman in her last moments."

Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Social Contract acts contrary to the concept of the 'Divine Right of Kings' as expounded by Bossuet and Jean Bodin. Instead, Rousseau maintained that the majority will was the will and representation of the particular political state. The cluster of individuals that would represent the whole was titled the 'General Will' and was a precursor to the concept of 'popular sovereignty'. No longer could a single individual or an oligarchic institution exert despotic rule, establish a form of government combining the secular and ecclesiastical powers titled 'caesaropapism' or rule with the consent of the majority of the populace. Though denying the rights of the minority, Rousseau's concepts were revolutionary and a progression from despotism and Absolutist modes of government. As Rousseau stated:

"The Sovereign, having no force other than the legislative power, acts only by means of the laws; and the laws being solely the authentic acts of the general will, the Sovereign cannot act save when the people is assembled." [3]

Jean-Jacques Rousseau though an Enlightenment thinker presented great melancholy, sentimentality, emotionality and an intimate and more individualistic form of philosophy that was a precursor to the Period of European Romanticism and American Transcendentalism. Jean-Jacques Rousseau maintained that the individual was a key component and needed to be recognized as a separate entity in order to thrive although in the Social Contract he declared that the individual had to renounce some of his rights for the public good and for the will of the majority. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a highly able individual who greatly expanded Western Philosophy through his own elaborate and creative visions and offered a wholly fresh and unique viewpoint on the individual and civil society as a whole.

End Notes

[1] Rousseau, Emile 358.

[2] Rousseau, Confessions Preface.

[3] The Social Contract Book III, Chapter 12: How the Sovereign Authority Maintains Itself.


Bloch, Jean, Rousseauism and Education in Eighteenth-century France Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1995.

Jimack, Peter, Rousseau: Emile London: Grant and Cutler, Ltd., 1983.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emilius and Sophia; or, The Solitaries London: Printed by H. Baldwin, 1783.

Turner, William. "Scholasticism." The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 13. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 27 Apr. 2009 http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13548a.htm.

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