Today (the 28th, which it now is in Geneva) is the 300th birthday of Jean-Jacques Rousseau! It is fair to say that Jean-Jacques has divided people pretty sharply ever since he first came to public notice in 1749. 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.
Rousseau’s genius is to have perceived that the gains of modernity were accompanied by significant loss. He was obsessed with the idea that as civilization has developed, we have acquired new needs, needs which exceed our capacity to satisfy them alone. From that dependence on others arises a threat to our freedom; from our living together with others springs a new self-consciousness and a sense of how we appear in the eyes of others. Dependence on others provides each of us with powerful incentives to get others to do what we want; our consciousness of how we appear to them leads us to yearn for their recognition, for their love and respect. But knowing that they too have an incentive to represent themselves to us in ways that get us to fulfil their material and recognitional needs, we are forever gripped by anxiety, jealousy and resentment. We, and others, are dancers in a terrible masked ball of inauthenticity, from which we cannot escape.
Or maybe we can. Maybe we can be educated so that our sense of self-esteem is less dependent on the opinion of others. Maybe we can bring into being a social form in which each of us is secure in the recognition of our fellow citizens and in which we cease to be dependent on the whims of our fellows, but are subject instead to impartial laws that we ourselves have chosen.
That was Rousseau’s project, and it has not been without consequence: without Rousseau, no Kant, no Hegel, perhaps no Marx or Nietzsche; without Rousseau perhaps also no Robespierre (though he would have rejected as laughable the Jacobin claim to incarnate the general will). But we also should not forget, on his birthday, his contributions to music and literature, the beauty and pain of his autobiographical writings, and his sensibility to nature and contribution to the science of botany.
Happy birthday Jean-Jacques.