On the tricentenary of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s birth, Terry Eagleton writes: Much of what one might call the modern sensibility was this thinker’s creation. It is in Rousseau’s writing above all that history begins to turn from upper-class honour to middle-class humanitarianism. Pity, sympathy and compassion lie at the centre of his moral vision. Values associated with the feminine begin to infiltrate social existence as a whole, rather than being confined to the domestic sphere. Gentlemen begin to weep in public, while children are viewed as human beings in their own right rather than defective adults.
Above all, Rousseau is the explorer of that dark continent, the modern self. It is no surprise that he wrote one of the most magnificent autobiographies of all time, his Confessions. Personal experience starts to take on a significance it never had for Plato or Descartes. What matters now is less objective truth than truth-to-self – a passionate conviction that one’s identity is uniquely precious, and that expressing it as freely and richly as possible is a sacred duty. In this belief, Rousseau is a forerunner not only of the Romantics, but of the liberals, existentialists and spiritual individualists of modern times.
It is true that he seems to have held the view that no identity was more uniquely precious than his own. For all his cult of tenderness and affection, Rousseau was not the kind of man with whom one would share one’s picnic. He was the worst kind of hypochondriac – one who really is always ill – and that most dangerous of paranoiacs – one who really is persecuted. Even so, at the heart of an 18th-century Enlightenment devoted to reason and civilisation, this maverick intellectual spoke up for sentiment and nature. He was not, to be sure, as besotted by the notion of the noble savage as some have considered. But he was certainly a scourge of the idea of civilisation, which struck him for the most part as exploitative and corrupt.
In this, he was a notable precursor of Karl Marx. Private property, he wrote, brings war, poverty and class conflict in its wake. It converts “clever usurpation into inalienable right”. Most social order is a fraud perpetrated by the rich on the poor to protect their privileges. The law, he considered, generally backs the strong over the weak; justice is largely a weapon of violence and domination, while culture, science, the arts and religion are harnessed to the task of preserving the status quo. The institution of the state has “bound new fetters on the poor and given new powers to the rich”. For the benefit of a few ambitious men, he comments, “the human race has been subjected to labour, servitude and misery”. [Continue reading…]