Jean-Jacques Rousseau, On his 300th

Rousseau-214x300I was traveling yesterday, Rousseau's 300th, and did not get a chance to post this piece by Laurie Fendrich in The Chronicle of Higher Ed:

Today, June 28, is Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 300th birthday. Although it’s hard to imagine philosophers as squalling newborns, in Rousseau’s case, it makes sense. His whole philosophy hinges on the idea that we humans are born good but, along the way of making civilization, we manage to destroy what’s good in ourselves. From the moment the umbilical cord is cut, Rousseau essentially says, we systematically obliterate our real nature, which is one of benevolent beings happily living a simple existence.

But for someone living in any complex society since the Industrial Revolution, Rousseau’s philosophy is not only difficult to believe (aren’t education, exposure to the arts, technological progress inarguably good things?), but inconvenient to practice—even in small instances, such as bringing up his ideas for discussion in a 21st-century college class. None of this has prevented me from loving Rousseau’s complex, contradictory, and exhilaratingly exasperating philosophy ever since first encountering it as a sophomore, in a college course in political philosophy.

Why would a young college student who was just discovering the solitary joys of painting pictures become obsessed with the one and only Enlightenment thinker who ferociously attacked the very value of art (and science as well)? And why would that young college student never manage to break with the almost ubiquitously maligned Rousseau, never manage to put him to the side and forget him? Or, if she was going to stay with him, why couldn’t she have found a way to concentrate on his sweeter side—the side expressed in, for example, his Reveries, where he walks in a “lonely meditation on nature”?