Introduction to Rousseau’s Emile
[The following is the text of a lecture given by Ian Johnston in LBST 401 at Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo (now Vancouver Island University). This text is in the public domain and may be used by anyone, in whole or in part, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged--released October 1999]
For comments or questions, please contact Ian Johnston
Any overall introduction to eighteenth century Europe might well begin by acknowledging that the period was immensely complex (a statement true enough about any century). And yet there has for a long time existed a tendency to subsume the century under a convenient label which suggests some prevailing or ruling idea or preoccupation. In fact, no period of our history has attracted so many simple-sounding labels. The Eighteenth Century or parts of it, for example, have been called such things as The Augustan Age, The Age of Elegance, The Age of Exuberance, The Augustinian Age, The Age of Reason, The Age of Revolution, and no doubt several others. These labels, in one way or another highlight important features of the time, but to the extent that any one of them suggests a single determining characteristic it is misleading.
What we can safely say, I think, is that the 18th century is that time when Western Civilization underwent the irrevocable transition into the modern age and, perhaps without fully realizing it, became firmly committed to the modern industrialized liberal capitalistic enterprise, which fundamentally transformed the lives of most of the citizens who call themselves Western Europeans or North Americans.
As the 18th century opened there was a much more confident air throughout Europe than there had been a century before. The religious wars had largely concluded, and although there was considerable religious tension and oppression, nevertheless the wholesale slaughter over religious questions had for the most part stopped. In France, Louis XIV was at the height of his glory and power, expanding French influence throughout Europe and overseas. In England, the business class had twice asserted its authority by getting rid of the monarch—once by a civil war and an execution and a second time (in 1688) by forcing him to leave the country without bloodshed. England was beginning to establish profitable overseas colonies, its trade and industrialization were well ahead of most of the rest of Europe, its explorers were opening up hitherto unheard of parts of the world, and the nation had come a long way from the relatively uninfluential country it had been one hundred years before. Holland, too, was a thriving mercantile state. In much of Europe there was a general feeling of expansion of growing power and wealth—the spirit best expressed in the Baroque music characteristic of the turn of the century.
Contributing enormously to this sense of confidence was the continuing influence of Newton, whose Principia (published in the second half of the 17th century) seemed to many to provide conclusive proof of the order in the universe and, by extension, of the divine benevolence of God. Newton’s achievement not only apparently resolved a problem thousands of years old (the architecture of the solar system) but also established a method which, it seemed, would yield ever more promising and useful results.
By the end of the eighteenth century the mood had changed dramatically. With the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, all Europe seemed gripped by revolutionary fervor and its countervailing anti-revolutionary panic and repression. The major cities had become familiar with crime to an extent unheard of before (except during civil war). And for all the wealth generated from what was now an overseas empire and from the rapidly accelerating industrialization of life and the growth of manufacturing, poverty on the farm and in the proliferating cities was acute. The Napoleonic Wars with which the century concluded ushered in what was arguably the first modern warfare, with huge national citizen armies fighting immense battles through long and very bloody campaigns.
Whatever created all this change, by the end of the century Europe faced some astonishingly modern problems and was committed to a way of life very different from what had been common only a few decades before. Increasing numbers of people now lived in the huge cities, rather than in small agricultural communities, and society was beginning to think of itself along class lines (rather than in terms of organic communities). Central governments had increased enormously in power, and people now increasingly looked to them rather than to any parochial authority to deal with the obvious and serious social problems.
What I want to call attention to today is a particular way of looking at a central problem faced by the 18th century, a problem to which it turned its attention again and again, which it was unable to resolve finally, and which it passed onto the nineteenth century and to us. For we are still dealing with it. The problem, simply put, can be stated this way: Once the traditional small agricultural community is destroyed and people live in different circumstances, how can we hold them together in peace and security, conferring a significance on people’s lives, individually and collectively? Where will we find a suitable basis for social and political life?
I would like to address the problem by redescribing it in the following terms: The problem the 18th century faced was the loss of ritual meaning to life, and one of their most urgent concerns was to find some means of replacing what had been lost. Let me explain what I mean by this rather odd-sounding phrase.
The Ritual Basis of Communal Life
What does this mean? Well, speaking quite generally, I would claim that the small traditional agricultural community was held together, more than anything else, by shared rituals. These were the common public ceremonial actions which everyone who belonged to a particular community recognized as important and participated in as the chief means of declaring who they were in that community.
The origin of ritual is much debated, but it seems to have something to do with an attempt by the human community to deal with what its members do not understand or most fear. The ritual act, rather like magic, is a group ceremony designed to mediate between the human community and the forces which most threaten it, especially the forces of nature. Thus, rituals are commonly associated with agricultural events (ploughing and seeding, harvesting) and with those times of life when nature most clearly interferes with our attempts to deal with our fears about it (especially concerning sex, higher realities, madness, and death).
Rituals are traditional, handed down from one generation to another. They do not have to be understood in any rational sense. They express a community’s shared response to a common anxiety or sense of joy. And in carrying out the ritual, the total community expresses itself, for everyone has a part (not all equally important, perhaps, but everyone is equally a participant).
The rituals may be frequent and routine (like a weekly church service) or they may be major celebrations (e.g., an annual public holiday to honour the patron saint of the community or a wedding or a harvest festival). They may be a public manifestation of a personal loss (e.g., the death rituals before burial) or some form of lengthy initiation (as in a courtship process). In all their manifestations they share the same characteristics: ceremonial, public, hierarchical, repetitive, traditional, and communal.
Rituals of this sort serve to hold the community together, to reinforce everyone’s sense of belonging together, to remind everyone of their mutual interdependency and the uniqueness of their shared community. A small group of people held together in such a way will all know each other, will share a common sense of belonging and understanding, and will thus have ways to deal with inherent tensions which arise, without recourse always to courts and police and impartial judges. For instance, communities held together in this way often require few codified laws, little formal education about what the world means, and no arguments about rights, since the basic rule, as old as Roman Law, is simply if it’s not the custom it’s not the law (non mos, non ius). The traditional ways preserved in rituals contain the means to resolve such difficulties as may arise.
Rituals also enshrined a person’s and a community’s sense of past, present, and future, assuring permanence and a continuing significance to the way people lived their lives. The rituals carried that assurance, and the memorials basic to many of those rituals (the memorials in the church, in the graveyard, in the stories of the community, and in the unvarying details of the various ceremonies) conferred significance on mundane lives by placing them in a context which transcended time.
Finally, and this may seem a bit odd, but these rituals, time bound and restricting as they may be, were a great source of a sense of freedom—not freedom for the individual, but freedom for the community itself. The ritualistic basis of life put all the important things that went on in the hands of the community itself, and its ritual practices gave it a unique character. The poor artisan might not be free in our sense of the word, but he might sense a more important freedom, that of being a fully recognized, integral part of a free community, which by and large ran its own affairs.
These are cursory generalizations about a very complex topic, but I think I’ve said enough to make the point that the social cohesion of a group held together by rituals of the sort described generally above is something very strong and very effective. And no one who lived in such a community and shared the vital faith in its traditions ever needed to read about what the purpose of life was—that was clear enough in the ritualistic rhythms basic to all elements of every day life.
The Loss of Ritual
I want to argue that one way to approach a major issue in the 18th century is to recognize the problem arising from the loss of this traditional community whose is life organized around local rituals. And once the ritual basis of life for so many people ceased to have any vital connection with their daily lives, certain key problems inevitably arose. I don’t want to spend too much time speculating about what might have so weakened the organic, ritualistic community, but there are a few obvious factors.
The breaking apart of the Christian Church into Roman Catholic and many different Protestant factions was obviously a key element. This had occurred in the previous two centuries and might not have been decisive but for other things. It’s important to recognize, however, that the loss of religious unanimity in a community can be disastrous for any shared ritual sense of life, since there will now be competing ritual practices (often quite hostile to each other)—so while within each group there may be continuing attempts to invest all of life’s routine and extraordinary events with the traditional ritualistic ceremony, that will no longer be shared, perhaps with disastrous results (rather like, for example, the Orangemen parading through Catholic sections of Belfast to celebrate the Battle of the Boyne).
Equally important was the growing wealth, which placed enormous strains on the traditional interdependencies of the organic community. Many traditionally very important people were no longer the greatest sources of wealth in the community. An enterprising middle-class business entrepreneur (who as often as not might be a dissenting Protestant) could begin to amass wealth at unheard of rates and build himself and his family a life out of all traditional proportion to his station (especially a home life out of the public space). And a person who was developing an increasingly commodious private space was far less likely to see his life primarily in terms of public responsibilities and public ceremonies.
Truly disastrous to the small community, however, was the forcible removal of the poorest farmers from the common land, the enclosing of the small estates and shared grazing lands, so that more efficient, larger farms could be made out of the consolidation. Again, the enclosure movement had been going on for some time, but as the technological improvements in agriculture accelerated and the capitalistic drive grew stronger, more and more common lands were taken away from the agricultural poor, and their life became impossible to sustain. Forced away from the community, they went elsewhere, increasingly to the large cities (where they formed a labour pool available to the developing industrial revolution).
Accelerating this attack on traditional ritual was Protestantism, which was naturally opposed to many of them because they were associated with the traditional Roman Catholic faith and because Protestantism in many of its varieties emphasized an inwardness in religious practices, private prayer rather than public celebration. Even now, many of the best known remaining ritual public celebrations are much more common in Catholic communities than in Protestant ones (e.g., Mardi Gras, Fasching, saints’ days).
But the coup de grace to the small organic community was the population explosion in Europe, which started in the second half of the 18th century and has been going on ever since. For some reason, which historians are still debating, the population of Europe began in increase at a staggering rate (better food, better clothing, improvements in medicine—these and other factors have been suggested as major causes). This increase was confined to Europe, and its effect there was staggering. All of a sudden there were more people than a particular community could handle. They had no place to go but to move out, usually to the cities and many eventually overseas to the colonies. The resulting poverty and dislocation was almost overwhelming, socially disruptive, and politically very dangerous. All of a sudden there were thousands and thousands of people for whom society had no place, and Europe began to experience what we have become very familiar with since—the displaced person, the rootless drifter, the refugee, the person who calls no place home.
It might be worth remarking that up to this point the writers we have been dealing with have all, to a greater or lesser extent, been closely associated with a particular community. They have derived a sense of pride and identity from belonging to that community: Socrates, Hildegard, Shakespeare, Dante, and others. Many of the writers we are now dealing with, however, are deracinated, constantly on the move, filled with a sense that they do not belong: Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, Marx, Nietzsche, and scores of Romantic poets.
This population explosion took time to register its effect, especially since there were no regular or accurate statistical studies to inform people what was going on. But it, in combination with the other factors, put increasing pressure on the traditional responses for how one might organize a peaceful community. The ancient rituals were losing their grip, for the changes revealed only too clearly their greatest weakness—their inability to deal well with rapid change. Much psychological and social dislocation was the result. What were people to do? Where were they to derive a sense of where they belonged, of who they were, of how they should organize their life? In the ancient traditional community the answers to such questions had been almost self-evident.
This problem is well described by a comment from a modern novel in which a character observes:
Once you leave the schtetl [the small agricultural village] you’re out in the open; it rains and it snows. It snows history, which means what happens to someone starts in a web of events outside the personal. (Malamud, The Fixer, p. 314)
Once one loses the living context of the small organic community, one delivers oneself over to impersonal forces beyond one’s control and beyond one’s understanding. One’s life become governed by forces for change—the oppression of history takes over, and the reassuring certainties of life based on the interpersonal relationships of the small community disappear in a snowstorm of impersonal forces.
The Response to this Loss of Ritual
Last year we examined in some detail two responses to this problem. We looked, for example, at Montaigne’s advice to retire into private life, adhering to the customs of one’s country but placing at the centre of one’s life private concerns: food, books, wine, friends, estates. We did discuss the extent to which one might be entitled to interpret Montaigne’s irony as having a much more subversive intent. But on the surface, his response in the 16th century already appears to be to withdraw. The world is too complex, to quarrelsome to engage directly, and too complex to change.
And then we turned in Hobbes to a radically new idea, the view that society should be restructured on rational principles, taking into account the true nature of human beings (which is presocial, that is, non-communal), turning all rituals into a codified written agreement enforced by the laws backed up by an all-powerful sovereign. We could solve the problems of the break down of the small organic community by building an entire nation on a very different model: atomized citizens working for their own self-interest in a huge impersonal state. The personal communal rituals of the traditional community should be replaced by the rational bureaucracy where the powers of particular offices stipulated in law as the representatives of the sovereign controlled all public space. All traditional forms of ritual, of government, of rank, of religion must give way before this rational reconstruction of society if human beings are to live in security. What was not explicitly set down in law was no longer binding (a clear criticism of the effects of all those unwritten laws enshrined in custom and traditional ritual which are so effective in the small community at controlling the inhabitants)
Hobbes’s work is revolutionary in a number of ways. First he placed human beings in a presocial space from which they derive certain presocial rights (i.e., the individual has certain claims independent of society, an assumption unlike the Greek notion that outside a community a human being has nothing). Society is thus, in some way, answerable to the nature and rights of individuals and must be organized with that in mind.
Second, Hobbes stressed that society is organized through the rational consent of the governed. There is no natural hierarchy, since by nature all human beings are equal. The Commonwealth is neither ordained by God nor an inevitable product of hallowed tradition. It is, by contrast, an artificial construction designed to serve the self-interest of its members, all of whom are naturally equal.
Thirdly, the basis of the artificial construct, the Commonwealth, must be a trade off: the individual surrenders all his freedom and power to the state in order to gain back a protected space, which is his to use as he sees fit. This is the famous concept of negative liberty (private space), a key element in the liberal tradition—where whatever is not explicitly forbidden in law the individual is allowed to do.
What holds society together in Hobbes’s Commonwealth is not a shared ritualistic understanding or tradition but legal obligation in clearly stipulated legal language. Public life is ruled by contracts which serve the individual’s self-interest. Virtue, in Hobbes’s state, is irrelevant (in a traditional sense); what matters is obedience to the law and a concentration on increasing one’s commodious living (which Hobbes thinks people will pursue anyway, because of their acquisitive, competitive nature). Hence, Hobbes pays virtually no attention to educating people for citizenship, since the self-interest and fear basic to the contract are, he thinks, evident to anyone who thinks about these things.
The Influence of Hobbes
While Hobbes’ work was widely condemned and his conclusions and recommendations rejected (particularly because of his views on religion and on scriptural interpretation), his method was extraordinary influential. It seemed to promise a persuasive means of arriving at something that might provide a sufficient consensus to enable people to construct their personal and social lives on a new basis. I list below a few obvious points of importance in this regard.
The response to the breakdown of the community must be a rational reform or reconstruction of society—reason must replace tradition (because we can agree about what is reasonable; whereas, our traditions have fractured into competing systems of belief). The basis for such a reasoned approach to reform must be an agreement about the nature of human beings outside society, their rights, their psychology, their needs. On the basis of this vision of human nature, society must be structured in such as way that it wins the consent of the governed, because it answers to their needs as human beings.
By starting with the concept of the individual in a state of nature, as Hobbes had done, later political thinkers, especially John Locke, stressed the fundamental equality of human beings in the natural state, an equality which society must reflect (though what that entailed varied considerably) and their ownership of certain rights. The state has a responsibility to enshrine these rights and freedoms for the individual, and the individual has certain clear obligations to the state. All these points are derived from reason. Tradition plays no role, unless reason and law explicitly endorse it.
In following a program like this, in one way or another several thinkers owed a great debt to Hobbes. Many of them rejected his conclusions and some of his assumptions, but they adopted his overall method of analysis as the basis for the reasoned attack on the established old order and for the recommendations for required reforms.
Of particular importance in this continuation of the project launched, in part, by Hobbes, are the writers and thinkers called the Philosophes, a very influential group of rational reformers in the latter half of the century. The term refers to a loosely knit band of intellectuals scattered all over Europe, although mainly concentrated in France. Most of them were not, strictly speaking, philosophers. We would probably call them social critics. Inspired by the work of Newton, Hobbes, and Locke, the philosophes sought to put government, law, religion, and education on a more rational footing, and they attacked unremittingly and in many different ways (novels, plays, pamphlets, encyclopedias, letters, journals) what they perceived were the inherent abuses of the old order, especially in the Roman Catholic Church and the hereditary nobility. For most of them the development of science and technology was an important part of this project. Prominent among them were the familiar names of some of the most famous writers of the second half of the 18th century: Voltaire, d’Alembert, Gibbon, Holbach, Godwin, Hume, Jefferson, Smith, Kant, Wollstonecraft.
It is really important to notice that they were primarily social critics, seeking rational reforms of existing institutions. They did not have a shared political program (not until Marx). They did share certain rhetorical devices, a faith in reason and technology, and a great admiration for certain political figures who seemed to exemplify precisely the program they wanted for France and England (e.g., Jefferson, Washington, Franklin—and the American Revolution generally, made in the name of self-evident principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which overthrew tyranny without creating a society all that different from what it had been before). But they were not political activists in the sense of sharing a practical sense of how to deal with exiting political realities, of having a shared revolutionary purpose or program. They may have had a great sympathy for the hardships of the poor, but they were in no sense political spokesmen for them (in the sense that they were seeking political emancipation for the lower orders).
In religious matters they tended to be deists—those who believed that reason and faith must be reconciled by making the details of faith accountable to reason (not a traditional Christian attitude). In general, they were opposed to Christianity (except as a suitable belief for the poor and the stupid) and to atheism, although some of them promoted a position extremely close to atheism. (Note Voltaire’s response to a beautiful sunrise “I believe, I believe in you, God. As for Monsieur the Son and Madame the Mother, that’s another matter.)
Nor were they shallow optimists naively committed to progress. Many of them were cautiously optimistic, especially about the beneficial effects of science and technology, but they were not naive utopians. They wanted a society not entirely unlike the one they lived in, but with more rational organizations and equal justice. Their rhetoric was often strained (e.g., Voltaire’s “strangling the last king in the guts of the last priest”) and some of them pushed materialistic atheistic science quite far, but they were not violent revolutionaries. They would have been horrified by the French Revolution, which overwhelmed the growing zeal for reforms in a tidal wave of bloody upheavals (and which stalled the reform movements outside of France for a couple of generations, encouraging a counter-reaction which led to, among other things, a reintroduction of the Inquisition).
The work of the European Enlightenment as represented in the work of the philosophes, however, left an enormously important legacy: the faith that through the application of reason to social problems, human society could be made more just and human beings could live happier, more fulfilled lives—the problems created by the break down of the rituals of the small traditional communities could be alleviated with a rational commitment to liberty, equality, and representative government; the application of science and technology to social problems would promote the happiness of all. This is, briefly put, the grand hope known as the Enlightenment project—either in its later Marxist or Liberal manifestations. Our society today still rests on those noble hopes, even if we are a good deal less optimistic than some of the philosophes.
The most complex personality of all the philosophes was Jean Jacques Rousseau, probably the most psychologically compelling character we have met or are going to meet among the authors we study. Psychologically fascinating, his life is such a collection of contradictions, that it is often hard to get a firm fix on where he really stands, especially since so much of his life appears to contradict his writing:
Rousseau was a playwright who inveighed against the theatre, a moralist who abandoned his children, a religious philosopher who changed his confession twice for dubious reasons, a libertarian who could not get compulsion out of his mind, a deist who accused his fellow deists of irreligion, a professional celebrant of friendship who broke with everyone. (Gay, II, 530)
What complicates these contradictions is that Rousseau was dedicated to a public personality; he deliberately cultivated a notorious reputation as an impossible person to get along with, celebrating in public all his idiosyncrasies (for instance, the famous story of his giving away his children to almost certain death, which he, more than anyone else, publicized, may not be true).
What is hard to deny is his influence, for his writing and his life are seen as having, in one way and another, a decisive influence on everything from the French Revolution, progressive education, rational morality, Romanticism, to every major tyranny ever since. He is clearly an enormously complex thinker about whom it is dangerous to generalize.
Today, by way of an introduction to Emile, I want to focus on what is a central concern of a great deal of Rousseau’s thinking in his social and political writing, particularly in Emile. And to clarify that, I’d like to begin by approaching Rousseau as another writer seeking to solve the problem of the loss of the organic community. How can we organize life purposefully and meaningfully in the changed social world of the bourgeoisie (the increasingly affluent merchant middle class).
Rousseau clearly owed a lot to Hobbes. But three things about Hobbes’s analysis Rousseau could not accept: for Rousseau Hobbes placed too much oppression in the public space, held far too pessimistic a view of human nature, and paid far too little attention to the dangers of commodious living.
Rousseau holds a much more uncompromising view of liberty than does Hobbes. For Rousseau, as for Hobbes, to be human is to be naturally free. But he is not willing, as Hobbes is, to compromise this freedom to create a secure society. Rousseau wants a society in which the human being retains a freedom equivalent to that he enjoys in a state of nature. He wants a peaceful citizen who can live in society and yet feel no loss of liberty, no compromise with social rules. Hobbes, of course, demanded enforced obedience to the law (even in religious matters) in the public space. In one’s protected private space, one was free to pursue one’s own life (so long as it involved no communal association potentially dangerous to the state). Rousseau is thus unwilling to follow Hobbes’s solution to sacrifice a good deal of liberty to preserve a private space, to enshrine negative liberty in the middle of a public space controlled by an all-powerful sovereign: he wants to retain the full sense of freedom of a state of nature (it will be a different freedom but it will be total).
Rousseau is unwilling to see human beings as Hobbes sees them. For Rousseau human beings are more valuable moral beings than Hobbes permits them to be (for Hobbes security is clearly more important than moral virtue), and to live a full life they must realize their full potential as moral beings—they can do this only if they are fully in charge of their own lives, free to make decisions about everything that affects them. For Rousseau a human being is not fully human in Hobbes’ world because too much of his life is controlled from outside—he is oppressed by the Sovereign, who controls much his life, and he is committed to mere acquisition of money and goods. This, for Rousseau, is a contemptible life.
Finally, and most importantly, Rousseau is also particularly concerned about psychological freedom (something Hobbes doesn’t even worry about). What does it matter how much freedom I have if I don’t feel happy, if I have no self-esteem, if I am jealous of my neighbour, if I feel alienated, and so on. Hobbes doesn’t worry about this point: he assumes people will be happy increasing their commodious living, and if they are not, well, too bad; they still have to obey the law For Rousseau, by contrast, psychological happiness is the main issue. The major problem with society as it is is that it messes me up psychologically, by creating in me all sorts of dissatisfactions, by making me dependent on things out of my control, by taking away from me the power of making decisions for myself. That is the oppression Rousseau sets out to address.
What are some of these things society uses to corrupt me? Well, the most important source of corruption is people, who because they are richer, better looking, more intelligent, braver than I am, make me unhappy with myself. They make me have a poor self-esteem, they encourage in me a false pride, a competitiveness, what Marx is later to call a false consciousness.
Society’s standards of taste and beauty, its emphasis on consumer goods and the idols of the marketplace tempt me, create false unnecessary desires in me, make me dependent on others. And this commodity corruption includes art, science, theatre, music—most of those things which modern society most prides itself on as “proof” of its progress. I don’t really need these, but they make me dependent upon them. Unlike most of the philosophes, Rousseau is not convinced that knowledge would bring improvement—it can (and probably will) enslave me just as much as can the king or the pope.
In this final point, Rousseau is making a very profound challenge to society. Note the deliberately abrupt and challenging emphasis of the opening sentence of Emile:
God makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil.
Knowledge provided by society creates desires, which I may not be able to fulfill—and that can make me unhappy; technology makes tools and machines which I cannot understand—this makes me dependent; art and fiction create illusions which make me unhappy with my present situation. The market place works to make me feel inadequate, especially in comparison with others.
Modern bourgeois society, as Rousseau sees it, is a conspiracy to prevent me from attaining my full human potential and maturity, because it prevents me from getting full control over myself. Modern society thus for Rousseau is the source of our problems, and if we want to regain the goodness which nature gives us, we must reshape society.
And what are those goods which nature gives us and which modern society prevents us from developing? Nature makes us free; nature makes us independent (our desires match our ability to satisfy them); nature does not corrupt our natural sympathies for other creatures. Natural man is not troubled by illusions or a false sense of himself. In Rousseau’s language, natural man is free to develop his self-love, his amour de soi, without developing selfishness and vanity (amour-propre).
Society, on the other hand, corrupts our healthy love of self into selfishness, filling us with pride, vanity, and feelings of aggression and competitiveness. Unlike Hobbes and Locke, Rousseau does not see this pride and competitiveness as something which can be harnessed for beneficial purposes; for Rousseau, amour propre prevents human beings from developing as they should if they are to be fully human.
Reforming Society: Rousseau’s Recommendations
So how is one to counter these pernicious effects of society? Rousseau’s answer in Emile and other writings is original, influential, and (in many people’s eyes) unworkable. It goes something like this:
Human beings are naturally good—with an inborn love of themselves (self-love) and a compassion for others. In nature their desires do not exceed their capacity to fulfill those desires, and so they are happy. Nature provides for them and does not fill them with tempting and corrupting illusions. In this arrangement human beings are free, equal, and happy. Such a vision of “natural man” obviously differs from Hobbes’s picture of life in a condition of natural freedom as “nasty, brutish, and short.” In Rousseau’s state of nature, human beings are also, most importantly, independent, since they do not rely upon anyone else to satisfy their physical and psychological wants.
Society corrupts this state of nature (the Noble Savage) in two main ways: first, it creates the laws of property, which are the basis of all inequality. Some human beings end up owning more and having more power than others (thus arise all distinctions of rank and hereditary privilege); hence, physical freedom is unnecessarily restricted. In addition, society creates all sorts of unnatural desires—for fame, wealth, position, power, thus perverting nature. Particularly pernicious is the development of desires which the human being cannot by himself fulfill (through books, imagination, and knowledge). This develops in human beings amour-propre (pride, love of flaunting oneself in relation to others) and its opposite, feelings of inadequacy in comparison with others.
Human beings must live in a society--there is no resolving this problem by a return to a state of nature. Hence, for Rousseau, the problem for the political thinker is to restore to social man a freedom, independence, equality, and happiness equivalent to that in a state of nature. We cannot solve the problem, Rousseau stresses, by simply training a child naturally, in nature. We must take society into account.
The key to such restoration is a completely new, thorough, and continuing commitment to education. We must educate human beings to bring out their natural goodness, independence, self-love, compassion, and equality. We must begin immediately, treating children as children (not little adults), acknowledging the stages through which they go, and adjusting their education to what the children are capable of at the various levels.
At all stages of education the children must never desire what they cannot themselves provide in their immediate environment. They must be protected against the seductive illusions of society—books, plays, social roles, imaginative speculation—anything that might lead them into realms of dependence. The way to do this is to keep them busy with practical projects and constant exercise and away from interaction with people, unless those people are carefully rehearsed players in a planned environment.
True happiness consists in decreasing the difference between our desires and our powers, in establishing a perfect equilibrium between the power and the will. (52)
Children must be raised in the consciousness of perfect freedom—they must think they are being allowed to do what they want. The task for the education is to create situations where they can do this properly (i.e., safely, with the appropriate desires, without disruptive intrusions). The real test of the educator is not in telling children what to do but seeing to it that their desires are suitably met by their own actions in a constantly controlled environment (without the child recognizing the human control constantly at work).
They must experience all controls over them as one of two things: either natural law or self-imposed restrictions. Restrictions which are laws of nature (i.e., universally binding on all as a condition of life, like the law of gravity) or self-imposed restrictions are all right because they do not register as limitations on my freedom (i.e., an arbitrary imposition on my liberty by some other person). Hence, the child must learn always through direct experience, never through lectures or commands or books. The world of the child must be arranged as an all-inclusive laboratory, where the tutor is constantly organizing (without the knowledge of the child) physical and social experiments in which the child will learn from necessity the limits of his desires. He will thus shape his desires to conform to necessity not to the dictates of another person (which is oppression), without any sense that other human beings are pushing him around.
This previous point is extremely important in Rousseau (and in Wollstonecraft and Kant), and it’s vital to grasp, because it becomes a favorite way of reconciling human freedom with the need for social rules. Basically it’s a secular version of the point made repeatedly in St. Paul: a freely undertaken conversion to Christ is no loss of liberty (since it’s freely chosen), even though it brings with it the obligations to serve. Thus, a freely chosen commitment to reason places one’s actions under control. This cannot be oppression if the choice is made by the individual and is not forced on the individual from outside (Wollstonecraft invokes scripture in her description of this issue; referring to reason she uses the phrase “Whose service is perfect freedom”).
Thus all education of the child must be through experience only. What the teacher thinks the child should learn must be delivered to the child through a carefully controlled experiment, which the child experiences as necessity, through acting on his desires and capabilities. Other people will be brought into the experiment as necessary, carefully coached to respond in the appropriate ways. Thus, the child will never have to deal with any human authority other than himself and will never have to consider the value of anything apart from its immediate utility.
Keep the child dependent on things only. (58)
. . . for it is in man’s nature to bear patiently with the nature of things, but not with the ill-will of another. A child never rebels against “There is none left,” unless he thinks the reply is false. (65)
The child will learn to exist independently of others as much as possible. He will make whatever he needs to live. He will pursue an independent trade. He will not waste his time in speculation or training his mind in any ways not conducive to a useful, practical independence of the sort Robinson Crusoe had on his island. Thus he will not need others. He will able to interact with others politely, but he will not be tempted to play their social games, and he will be largely indifferent to their demands
The child must not be seduced by too much learning, too much imaginative literature or art. The main rule is always to shape the education so that the child desires only what he himself can provide. The best way to achieve this is simply not to permit into the child’s world the sorts of things which might corrupt the experience. This is as true of people as of anything else. He should develop an indifference towards people, which he will do if he has no necessary relations with them.
Society, Rousseau repeats constantly, is always bombarding the child with commands, temptations, unnatural desires—hence, an important goal of the new education is negative, just keeping society at bay, delaying the time when the child will exist in the midst of society. He constantly stresses that the child should be protected from such early contact, permitted to grow through the stages which nature determined, so that a strong sense of independence can grow, before the child has to enter society. In fact, as he states repeatedly, the important point is negative—whatever particular exercises one arranges for the child, the really important thing is not to involve the child in potentially corrupting situations and relationships.
This makes the selection of a trade important. A marketable trade which does not undermine one’s independence is far more important than developing a talent which makes you dependent (hence a carpenter is much more to be valued than a jeweler or a lace maker). Knowledge which does not contribute to the development of a trade which will make one independent is wasted and dangerous (because it fosters illusions or is impractical). One needs exact practical knowledge that is directly relevant to living one’s life as independently of others as possible. Anything beyond that is unnecessary and risky.
This is, in many ways, a far cry from the Homeric and Platonic call to excellence, to develop as fully as possible one’s arete. For Rousseau this vision of life is corrupting because it creates desires in us which we cannot satisfy. It is much better to be mediocre and happy than to chance unhappiness by launching into areas where we compromise our independence (this emphasis has led one writer to call Rousseau the “Homer of the losers”). Rousseau knows there are no absolutes to be learned (no exit from the cave), so the best preparation for life is to be trained to take care of oneself in a morally responsible way, answerable to one’s rational conscience, not to the fashions of society.
The highest goal of this education will be the mature human being who has willingly committed himself to follow the rules of reason, not because he has been forced to do so, but because he has come through his own efforts to accept reason as the best guide. He will be fully developed morally because he will be conscious of himself as a fully independent being, responsible for his own actions, wholly independent of others, yet able to interact with them and committed to guiding his life by reason. As much as possible he will be invulnerable to the corruption of modern bourgeois society (note the importance of the reference to the river Styx analogy right at the start and the frontispiece).
This morally autonomous human being will not require the social rituals of traditional living because he has become fully conscious of himself as a rational, responsible creature who can make decisions without reference to the emotional mysteries of ritual, who will do his duty, but in doing it will experience no loss of freedom because he recognizes that his duty is something which he has chosen. With this equipment he will be able to move from community to community, from one social group to another, without losing a sense of himself or feeling alienated and rootless.
The greatest single danger to this program is passion, especially sexual passion, because it’s hard to reconcile the desire for perfect independence and autonomy with the complex interdependence which lasting sexual relationships require; and in Book V, which we will be studying next week, Rousseau addresses this issue in a complex, interesting, and for many people exceedingly offensive way (the subject of my next lecture).
Let me anticipate some objections. Is this entire system not brainwashing? Isn’t Rousseau asking us to formulate the mind of the child and young adult with deceitful means—by hidden persuasion to mold it to fit a certain end product? Well, yes, of course. But for Rousseau society has so corrupted the natural quality of human beings that we have to do something to save it. In acting the way he does, the Tutor is reinforcing the natural Emile, letting him grow before society can corrupt him totally. The entire educational program is designed to permit and encourage nature to take its course, so that Emile can resist the corruptions of society once he has to deal with it.
The only protection against the invidious effects of society is a well-developed individual independence and sturdy sense of self before one enters bourgeois society (something of a reversal of our order, where we stress in elementary education the socialization of the child and then, in secondary and post-secondary education, shift attention to the development of individuality).
This program raises all sorts of doubts about what it means to be “natural.” For Rousseau it clearly means independence, self-control, equality, and autonomy—and if the price of developing those qualities is many of the things civilization most prides itself on (e.g., knowledge, books, works of imagination, fancy social functions, rank, competitive excellence, and so on) then so be it. Since human beings themselves are a considerable threat to anyone’s independence, then even human relationships have to be held at a distance. Better to keep that distance than to run the risk of premature dependence.
How are we to take all this? Is this a serious educational program? If so, how can one ever implement it, except for a very few people. If not, then what is it purpose?
First of all, interpreted as a book about education, Emile is full of enormously rich suggestions—especially about the psychology of children and the treatment appropriate to it. Even if one doesn’t buy into the entire program, there is a wealth of detail here for all sorts of practical (and very influential) styles in teaching. For Rousseau is clearly onto to something important—that our mature sense of ourselves and our ability to function as independent moral beings are decisively shaped by the way we are treated as children. If we want moral independence in the adult, then we had better attend carefully to the way every activity in the child’s life helps to shape the adult and to the ways in which the habits of adult society may corrupt that development.
But he pushes so hard in a particular direction in order to protect our sense of self, in order to protect the growing child from any domination by others or any desire to dominate over others, that Rousseau, in effect, proposes getting rid of the others. Where Hobbes and Locke desired to exploit human beings’ amour propre, that is, their ability to compete with and surpass others or be spurred by envy of others to greater efforts, Rousseau wants to prevent the emergence of amour propre “by protecting the child from the experience of other human wills more powerful than his own, at least until the child is old enough and mature enough that this experience need not divide him in two, splitting self-love into amour de soi and amour propre” (Alford). Nothing must interfere with the child’s ability to develop a firm sense of a fully independent self.
Some have argued that Rousseau’s concern for independence amounts almost to an obsession: he is prepared to sacrifice almost everything to achieve it: knowledge, art, imaginative works, personal relationships, commodious living. What will be the product of such a process? An independent mediocrity too busy building things and exercising to think? However, for Rousseau the only way one can fully remain independent and free is never to take the chance of becoming dependent.
Most of us, on some level, can respond to this desire (secretly many of us dream of setting up a small farm on the gulf islands, building our own house, growing our own food, and dealing with others at arm’s length, if at all—surrendering many of the “benefits” of commodious living in the big city for a simpler, hardier, more independent lifestyle). But what Rousseau seems to want in Emile for some people looks like madness—no human interconnectedness, a mediocre mind basking in its ability to control a life which is simple only because of a deliberate attempt to keep everything elementary.
Still, however one reads what Rousseau has to say about education, it’s clear that he is, in a sense, the founding father of what we nowadays call “progressive” education—that attempt to protect children from the oppressive dictates of society, to allow them to develop at their own rate and through their own experiences at their own speed (often in an experimentally controlled environment), so that they develop a sturdy sense of self-identity, even if that means we give a much lower priority to knowledge, to the acquisition of those values and skills which adults think are the most important for them (note the present argument in Nanaimo over a “no fail” policy in the schools and over uniforms in California).
But Rousseau himself indicates in his letters that one shouldn’t read Emile principally, or perhaps even at all, as a manual on educational reform. It is that, of course—but it is also a very important document exploring the nature of human beings and the value of certain human activities, especially in contrast to the state of things in Rousseau’s society. The education of Emile thus becomes, among other things, an important rhetorical means for attacking all sorts of things in 18th century society, particularly the assumptions nearest and dearest to those who felt comfortable about the growing power, wealth, and social prominence of the middle class (i.e., the emerging and increasingly complacent bourgeois).
Like Plato’s Republic (which Rousseau admires with a passion) this book may well be intended not so much as a practical program (even in part) so much as a thought experiment designed to open people’s eyes up to some of their favorite preconceptions about themselves. And it is hard, after reading Emile, not to bring into one’s own society a sharpened sense of various ways in which the things we most strive for or are most proud of owning or doing are precisely those things which most limit us as moral beings. In an age where much of our lives is taken up with machines we do not understand and cannot fix, with property and possessions far in excess of what we really need, with a marketplace that tempts us into consuming all sorts of things we probably don’t even want and which damage our health, with children whose dearest wishes are for vastly overpriced and over-advertised crap consumer goods and mindless TV and video entertainment on demand, all this in cities and provinces run by people we don’t even know or often understand (let alone believe in), amid a mountain of evidence that many people are desperately unhappy and medically ill (through drugs, sexual diseases, bad diets, cigarettes, alcohol, over-medication, and so on), a condition we celebrate as liberty, there is some point to attending to a book which insists that if we do not have full moral control over our lives, we are, in a very real sense, unfulfilled, that the civilization we have created may indeed be the major source of our psychological difficulties, and that there might be some value in reconsidering our priorities—or at least thinking about just what we mean by the pride we take in being a free and civilized people.
Lecture on Emile, Book V
[Note that this is the text of a lecture given in the Malaspina University-College Liberal Studies Program in September 1996. References to Emile are to the Everyman Edition, Translated by Barbara Foxley. This document below is in the public domain, released October 1999]
Today I want to seek to do something rather challenging—to offer a defense of Rousseau’s treatment of women, as revealed in his treatment of Sophy’s education in Book V of Emile. Although anyone can find a number of interesting and uncontroversial recommendations about the education of women in that Book (for example, the importance of allowing them to exercise), I take it that Rousseau’s general position is to many people here profoundly unacceptable, resting as it does on a pronounced sense that men and women must play very different roles in society and in marriage and that woman’s role requires her to take on an apparently subservient position. And this, Rousseau asserts, is a law of nature. Few stances could be better calculated to arouse instant and strong opposition nowadays in some quarters than something like the following.
A woman’s education must therefore be planned in relation to man. To be pleasing in his sight, to win his respect and love, to train him in childhood, to tend him in manhood, to counsel and console, to make his life pleasant and happy, these are the duties of woman for all time, and this is what she should be taught while she is young. The further we depart from this principle, the further we shall be from our goal, and all our precepts will fail to secure her happiness or our own. (393)
If I were to recommend this position myself in class or a curriculum committee, I would probably get into trouble these days. So I’m not necessarily seeking to defend Rousseau’s position uncritically, but I would like to explore it. After all, he is an extremely intelligent and often very subtle thinker, passionately committed to freedom, equality, and independence. Before dismissing him as an incurable sexist, we might want to see what his reasons are. Why would such a writer arrive at this position, so instantly unacceptable to so many people, especially to women? We can try, if we like, to explain the matter away by appeals to Rousseau’s apparently complex psychology or his hypospastic penis. But before doing that, we should at least see what grounds Rousseau has for offering what to most of us appears such an unacceptable view of the relationship between the sexes and the education of women.
The Problems of Sexuality and Independence
Before turning directly to Rousseau’s text, I’d like to consider some general questions about sexuality and social roles. We are going to be reading a number of different approaches to this issue in the next two semesters. So let me put some obvious questions on the table.
Anyone who considers the relationships between men and women, either as they exist in society or as they ought to exist, begins with two very obvious points. First, in spite of many clear similarities, women are biologically different from men, particularly in matters of sexuality, and second, men and women have traditionally held different roles in our society and been subject to significantly different treatment. To this we can add a very common third observation, namely, that women’s roles in society have in our culture long placed them at a serious disadvantage when compared with men’s roles (less opportunity, lower pay, more physical abuse, much less favorable legal rights, and so on). I take it those points are sufficiently obvious not to require further discussion.
A initial key question any intelligent analysis of the relations between the sexes has to face concerns these obvious observations. Is the biological difference between men and women sufficiently strong to justify different roles and treatment (if not the ones which currently exist then others better attuned to the difference)? Or is the biological difference, although real enough, far less important than the obvious similarities between men and women? If the difference is the most significant factor, then it would seem more justifiable that men and women should be assigned different roles and perhaps even different treatment; if the similarity is the most significant factor, then clearly the social roles, responsibilities, and rights should be similar (and the traditionally inferior status of women would be an obvious case of social oppression). We are dealing here, in other words, with a classification problem, of the sort we will be discussing in our Science seminars next week.
Now, I want to stress this key initial issue of similarity or difference, because much of one’s own position on women’s rights, duties, education, roles, and so forth is going to flow naturally from one’s initial stance on this question. Today, as we shall see, the question is by no means unequivocally dealt with. It is a source of much divisiveness within feminism itself.
The traditional response to this question in European Christian culture for centuries was that women were obviously distinct from men and had an inferior status in many respects (especially in law, in education, in the Church). And European literature is full of justifications, scientific, scriptural, and otherwise, for this arrangement.
Nevertheless, one should observe women’s place was often greatly valued. As Simone de Beauvoir mentions, in medieval times a woman had a position in the economic state of things that was recognized as essential. The farm wife, for example, might not enjoy the same family and community standing as her husband and sons, she might have to serve them at table and have fewer legal rights, but no one questioned the essential role she played in the basic economic unit—the farm family or the cottage industry. In addition, of course, there were many particular areas that had been regarded as the monopoly of women, especially in certain forms of medicine and in midwifery and in the Catholic Church.
To say this is not to deny that throughout medieval Christianity there existed a frequently vicious misogyny which manifested itself in a horror that is still being uncovered, the regular persecution of witches, or that the traditional treatment of women as different and inferior was wholly endorsed by women. It is merely to claim that, by and large, the relationship between the sexes in accordance with traditional roles, rights, and opportunities seems to have been settled on the basis that women were distinctly different from men, and this difference justified their inferior status (except in certain literary conventions idealizing certain women).
Rousseau in Emile is responding to something new—or, put more appropriately, something old but long silenced—the demand that women be accorded equal treatment with men, that traditional inequalities are against natural law, something imposed by society which requires immediate reform.
This rising cry for women’s equal treatment in the eighteenth century we can link to the arrival in growing numbers of a new social phenomenon, the middle-class daughter, raised in a family that is reasonably affluent, often given an education that makes the woman literate and sufficient leisure time to acquaint herself with philosophy, fiction, and politics, and thus to educate herself in a new way. We notice in this century an apparently growing number of articulate and very intelligent young middle-class women who, in some ways, have no real work to do in society except to wait around until their families can transfer them to some man, in many cases a man less intelligent than themselves. They have no valued place, no necessary role to fill.
What I’m suggesting here is that we can with some confidence ascribe the growing attention to women’s issues—especially those relating to the education of middle-class women and their unequal status—to the growing affluence of the middle-class, which was producing a group of people with no recognized role in society, other than to serve the interests of their families and their husbands in ways that assisted the bourgeois financial arrangements linked to marriage.
For such women, often, as I say, well educated, intelligent, and articulate, there was no acceptable alternative to marriage, for formal education and entrance to the professions were denied. The traditional economic roles of the wife did not exist in the same way as in the past, at least in the middle class, where the wife’s sole function was often to produce legal children in large quantities (“an heir and a spare”) and preside over the home. Many free-lance occupations open to men, like the life of an artist or trader or soldier, were closed to almost all middle-class women. The Protestant churches had removed the various institutional roles offered to women through holy orders. Thus, there was emerging an increasingly large group protesting that the possibilities which their society offered to them were inherently limiting, unequal, and, in a word, immoral.
One might think that Rousseau, the great champion of independence and equality would be in full agreement with this position. After all, no one cried out with more passionate energy than he did against the existence of traditional injustices dressing themselves up as laws of nature in order to sanction customary hierarchies of authority or saw with greater clarity the way in which the bourgeois family’s commitment to consumer culture was handing the individual over to oppressive forces. Again and again in Emile Rousseau reminds us that Nature does not create Kings and Bishops, because in nature all men are good, and all are equal. And he insists that we must keep the marketplace away from the growing boy, at least until he has a strong enough sense of self to cope with its attempts to take over his identity. So why does this line of argument not apply also to Sophy? Why, if Emile is strenuously educated to exist as independently as possible, is Sophy’s education apparently aimed at making her fully dependent?
I want to suggest three reasons. The first two of these are relatively non-controversial, and I suspect many people here will agree readily with Rousseau or, even if they do not agree, will not find his position offensive. The source of our difficulties with Rousseau’s treatment of women stems from the third reason, and even here, I suspect, some people might be objecting more to particular details of Rousseau’s program than to the substantial principle upon which it is based.
Point One: Sexuality
The first reason Rousseau takes the position he does is that Rousseau takes very seriously the importance of human sexuality. For Rousseau, a fulfilling sexual relationship is the necessary completion of a full and happy life. If Emile’s sexual education is not properly carried out, then the rest of his education will be largely in vain. Rousseau, in other words, takes the power of human sexuality very seriously indeed and insists that we have to take it into account. Without it, Emile will not be a complete human being.
But this then confronts him with a problem, one that we all are still wrestling with: How can we make sexuality and the sexual relations between men and women compatible with independence? If sexual love involves a serious commitment in answer to a very genuine need which one cannot fulfill by oneself, then is it not by its very nature a limit on my freedom and my independence? As Bob Dylan puts it, “I’m watching the parade of liberty./ But as long as I love you I’m not free.”
For a traditional understanding of sexuality, this question was not a problem, because traditional society did not particularly value independence: the fulfilled life was one lived in society in a network of relationships with people in one’s community, so that the most desirable life for men and women was a complex interdependency, in which marriage was often a cornerstone. So whether one married for love or for money or to satisfy the arrangements entered into by one’s parents, the issue was never one of sacrificing one’s independence. As we have witnessed in reading Aristotle’s Ethics and Shakespeare’s Tempest, interdependence is the source of our identity and the highest values of a human life. One achieved one’s full adult identity through the marriage—and with that marriage one also acquired an economic role and social value. Freedom from relationships with others is incomprehensible, at least as a source of human values, except in extraordinary cases of spiritual hermits. Hence, traditionally there was no conflict between the fulfilled sexual life in marriage and one’s independence. When we discussed the Tempest, we considered the possibility that Prospero’s whole experiment may be designed principally to permit Miranda to fall in love and get married, so that she can return to civilization and live a fully interdependent life in society. The notion that she might be happier on the island because she might remain more independent just doesn’t arise.
Rousseau is, of course, breaking decisively with that tradition. He wants Emile to be as independent as possible. He will live in society but without compromising his independence: he will be an observer, making his own life with his own hands, and untroubled about social ambition and public opinion. But he will have powerful sexual urges and a need for love which must be satisfied. How can these be satisfied, without compromising Emile’s most cherished independence?
Well, one way Rousseau might deal with this problem is to trivialize sexuality, that is, to make it simply a social fact, like any other, which Emile can deal with as he deals with any other social demand—coolly, dispassionately, casually—without any sense of a personal passionate attachment to a particular partner. Sexuality, in other words, might very well be something which involves no sacrifice of independence because it will have no personal lasting commitment. The lover will still stay firmly in charge of his life. And sexuality is no particular threat to that because it is, in the last analysis, not that important. This is the tack we are going to see Wollstonecraft take in her lengthy response to Emile. And in our society we have to a considerable extent through things like the Playboy ethic and the increasing technology of sexual satisfactions (like Woody Allen’s Orgasmatron) tried to increase human independence by developing sexual techniques and practices which encourage erotic gratification without any compromise with our independence. Many of our most famous cultural heroes (like the cowboy or the detective, for example, are characteristically without any significant sexual commitment which might compromise their freedom to do what they want—their occasional sexual partners tend to be professionals in the trade or frequently exchanged).
Rousseau, however, is unwilling to do that, because he senses that much of what is most valuable in life requires love on a very personal level. Hence, Emile will be incomplete unless he is educated for the proper sexual life and unless his sexual partner, Sophy, is also educated in a way that will foster significant and lasting sexual commitment.
Point Two: The Importance of the Family
The second important formative principle in Rousseau’s analysis of the sexes is his strong insistence that the very basis of a moral society is a nuclear family—a husband and wife charged with the responsibility of creating a home and raising children. This vision of the family brings with it the institutionalization of sexuality, the creation of a lasting monogamous relationship fueled by love. Without this, Rousseau claims, people will be unable to love anything else. For this reason, Rousseau cannot recommend (as other Enlightenment figures did) that we treat the problems of sexuality by free love or by temporary liaisons or by attacking the family unit (one of the cornerstones of Marx’s analysis of the problems of bourgeois society).
This emphasis on the importance of sexual love in the form of a lasting marriage prompts Rousseau to disagree strongly with his great classical mentor, Plato:
[in speaking of Plato’s arrangements for wives in common] . . . but he has not succeeded in meeting the real difficulty. . . . I refer to that subversion of all the tenderest of our natural feelings, which he sacrificed to an artificial sentiment which can only exist by their aid. Will the bonds of convention hold firm without some foundation in nature? Can devotion to the state exist apart from the love of those near and dear to us? Can patriotism thrive except in the soil of that miniature fatherland, the home? Is it not the good son, the good husband, the good father, who makes the good citizen? (390)
Now, I take it that many people in this room might well agree with these two principles or, even if they are not fully in agreement with them, will recognize that they are defensible positions. To argue that sexuality is an essential part of the good life and that a happily fulfilled sexual life in a lasting marriage is the most valuable form of erotic satisfaction and that the happy family is a cornerstone of a healthy society is a position strongly held by many people today, men and women.
Point Three: The Differences between the Sexes
The third reason Rousseau analyzes the sexes the way he does is the source of many of our arguments with his position. For he is strongly persuaded that there is a fundamental difference between the sexes. His argument rests, not on appeals to traditional scripture or law (although he does make at least one very nasty reference to the Fall), but on his own observations and his own understanding of modern science (and Rousseau had done some work in science), by an appeal to nature. He is aware of the similarities, but he is more impressed with the differences:
Yet where sex is concerned man and woman are unlike; each is the complement of the other; the difficulty in comparing them lies in our inability to decide, in either case, what is a matter of sex, and what is not. General differences present themselves to the comparative anatomist and even to the superficial observer; they seem not to be a matter of sex; yet they are really sex differences, though the connection eludes our observation. How far such differences may extend we cannot tell; all we know for certain is that where man and woman are alike we have to do with the characteristics of the species; where they are unlike, we have to do with the characteristic of sex. Considered from these two standpoints, we find so many instances of likeness and unlikeness that it is perhaps one of the greatest of marvels how nature has contrived to make two beings so like and yet do different. These resemblances and differences must have an influence on the moral nature; this inference is obvious, and it is confirmed by experience; it shows the vanity of the disputes as to the superiority or the equality of the sexes; as if each sex, pursing the path marked out for it by nature, were not more perfect in that very divergence than if it more closely resembled the other. (384-5)
His treatment of Sophy and her education follows naturally enough from this observation. If we accept that there are significant differences and that these differences include man’s and woman’s moral nature, then it seems logical enough that they should be treated differently. Here again, this stance is not without many defenders today, even among feminists. Those who, for example, argue that women’s educational requirements are different from men’s (e.g., Women’s Ways of Knowing) or that women deal with moral issues in a manner different from men (e.g., In a Different Voice) or that women conceptualize scientific issues in ways often significantly different from men, and so on, are adopting a position in many ways similar to Rousseau’s initial assumptions.
I want to stress this point, because one has to be careful in dealing with Rousseau’s analysis of Sophy’s education to distinguish between the principles underlying Rousseau’s argument and the particular details he describes. If one subscribes to the three principles I have outlined—the crucial importance of sexuality, the primacy of the nuclear family, and the fundamental differences between men and women—then it seems to me one’s argument with Rousseau is over sometimes relatively minor details. One has already conceded that his position is basically on the right track.
Sophy’s Education: The Case for Rousseau
Let’s assume for a moment that we are in agreement with these three principles and examine some of the details of Sophy’s education. In spite of his reputation as an incurable sexist, in some passages Rousseau displays a great sympathy for the social problems women face. Like men, they have urgent desires, but unlike men, they have far less freedom to meet those desires, and the price of making a mistake is far greater for women than for men.
Has not a woman the same needs as a man, but without the same right to make them known? Her fate would be too cruel if she had no language in which to express her legitimate desires except the words which she dare not utter. (417)
We recognize this same problem, and we insist on reforming society to provide women more freedom, so that they can move towards a condition of enjoying the same freedom as men. Just how much we have succeeded is something we might like to debate. Rousseau’s recommendation for Sophy is consistent with the basic principle of his education for Emile: Sophy must be educated to deal with this situation, so that she does not experience the psychological conflict of thwarted desires. So if her situation demands a secret social code, a special form of coquetry, a complex ritual of courtship, and so on, then Sophy must learn to deal with that appropriately. This is an important point which illustrates the limits of Rousseau’s (and other eighteenth century reformers’) impulses to recast society. His sense of the tribulations society imposes on Sophy does not lead him to propose revolutionary changes in that society. The changes must come in one’s attitude to those tribulations.
We might concede that this is useful advice on this point. But Rousseau’s extension of this principle of educating Sophy so that potential oppression does not bother her becomes much harder to accept when Rousseau turns his attention to the best relationship between women and men, when he insists that women must be educated to put up with the inadequacies of men and to make men’s life more pleasant:
A woman’s education must therefore be planned in relation to man. To be pleasing in his sight, to win his respect and love, to train him in childhood, to tend him in manhood, to counsel and console, to make his life pleasant and happy, these are the duties of woman for all time, and this is what she should be taught while she is young. The further we depart from this principle, the further we shall be from our goal, and all our precepts will fail to secure her happiness or our own. (393)
This is surely hard to accept. Still, one might make the case that Rousseau is here acknowledging that women are in some areas better than men. They should be educated to use these talents well, so that their abilities in the marriage complement the man’s, and together they fulfill each other’s needs. This, Rousseau states many times, gives her, in effect, the real control in the relationship. Apparently subservient, she must be educated so that she can control Emile in subtle ways, without his realizing it. In this way, he and the marriage will become better through her guidance but without compromising his independence because he will not be aware of any form of control exercised over him.
It’s important to notice that for Rousseau preserving the marriage is vital to the emotional health of the couple and to the well being of society. But how can a marriage last without creating in Emile a sense of limitation on his freedom, his independence? Surely marriage by definition is a serious limit on independence? So what is there to keep Emile from simply wandering off, preserving his independence at the expense of his wife and children? To this key question, Rousseau has a clear answer: Sophy must be educated to persuade Emile to remain in the family (without his being aware that she is doing that).
I take it many of us will find this objectionable. But let’s look at this a bit more closely before dismissing it out of hand. For Rousseau here is doing something very interesting. He is, I think, acknowledging a common psychological truth, that the happiness of a couple requires the woman to educate the man in ways that do not threaten the male sense of independence. Many of us will, I think, attest to the fact that that is in reality what does happen, even if we are not prepared to concede Rousseau’s point that it ought to happen, that it is a Law of Nature, an unalterable condition of the world.
Take, for example, the matter of sex. It strikes me from my own experience that in their formal education in school and in their socialization through the peer group, the media, and elsewhere, men are often given an understanding of sexual activity that is hopelessly wrong, both about the sexual life most appropriate for them and, even more hopelessly wrong, about the sexuality of women. What men learn about truly loving sexuality they learn from women, often from their wives.
But this is no easy task. For men often have very fragile egos, especially where sex is concerned, and furthermore their egos are intimately associated with their sexual abilities and their urge to violence. So educating them is both essential for a loving marriage but also fraught with risk, both for the woman personally and for the relationship. Hence, the achievement of a properly fulfilling and lasting sexual life within marriage often requires an intelligent, sensitive, and complex control of the male without his being aware that he is in any way no longer totally in charge. Of course, here I’m generalizing from my own experience, but from what little I’ve read about the issue, my experience is not uncommon.
If this is the case, then Rousseau’s point that women ought to be educated to carry out such duties carries some weight. If, in fact, men react differently to experience than women, for example in sexual experience, and if they need to learn a more intelligent, sensitive, and cooperative approach without any sacrifice of their masculine independence, something essential to their self-worth, then who is to teach them, if not their wives? And if that is to be a task of the wife, should she not be prepared for it, educated to know how to deal with men, who, no matter how well prepared for life, are going to be constitutionally unable to abandon certain male mental characteristics unless they get help?
I think it is important to stress the point that Rousseau does not expect Sophy simply to be the passive recipient of her husband’s directions and judgments (although one can isolate a number of remarks which suggest that that is his entire position). If he thought that, then educating Sophy would be comparatively easy. No. She must play an active and guiding part in the relationship, but she must do this duplicitously in order to protect Emile’s sense of himself. Her sense of herself will come through the feeling of accomplishment in the success of the marriage.
We may not agree with this, but I think we ought at least to consider Rousseau’s analysis as having considerable psychological insight into the nature of sexual relations. Of course, he is writing very close to his own experience, and there may indeed be a certain amount of wish fulfillment in his recommendations. But that does not mean that what he says is not worth serious consideration. And to disagree with Rousseau cogently is going to require one to reflect long and hard on some very fundamental questions.
This sense that women are much more capable in certain ways of dealing with situations which the married couple will face leads Rousseau again and again to warn the reader against any tendency to make men and women the same. For if men and women become essentially the same, then the mutual benefits they derive from each other’s company, especially sexuality, will not be realized and the entire social fabric will be threatened.
The more women are like men, the less influence they will have over men, and then men will be masters indeed. (391)
If women could discover principles and if men had a good heads for detail, they would be mutually independent, they would live in perpetual strife, and there would be an end to all society. (407)
These opinions are profoundly at odds with modern liberal notions of gender equality. But they should give us an occasion to reflect on the extent to which gender equality, of the sort that Rousseau opposes, has led to personal and social happiness in an age that worries about supermoms, staggering divorce rates, single parent families, increasing rates of male impotence, violence against women, and therapy everywhere. Rousseau’s analysis would suggest that these things are what we should expect if we try to make men and women the same.
Sophy’s Education: A Major Problem with Rousseau
In his analysis of Sophy’s education, Rousseau also confronts some important factors which enormously complicate their lives, namely, how they are to deal with society. Emile has been educated with a very strong sense of his independence from society and with the equipment to withstand many of the dangers society poses to his psychological freedom. Sophy, on the other hand, is much more vulnerable.
For one thing, the social constraints on women are much more severe than they are for men, and women must be educated to deal with them. There are two main dangers here. To rebel against society simply makes the woman more miserable and lessens the chance that she and her husband will be happy. Sophy, who must be much more skilled than Emile in the daily practical realities of life in society, must make an accommodation with it.
On the other hand, to accept uncritically the dictates of society will corrupt everything. Rousseau is aware that society can tempt Sophy astray, particularly in matters of taste and social style. Today we talk a great deal about The Beauty Myth and the corruption of young girls’ and women’s minds by the commercial sellers of beauty products and clothes (e.g., the statistics on adolescent anorexia and bulimia). Rousseau is one of the first great modern thinkers to see this problem and to warn us of it. The consumer culture can take over one’s identity (we see a good example of this in Middlemarch, in the character of Rosamond Vincey). Thus, Sophy must have elegance and style, but she must not be a slave to the current fads, to what Rousseau calls “conventional prejudice.”
In order to deal with “conventional prejudice” Sophy must be able to judge public opinion. The logic of Rousseau’s treatment leads him inexorably to this conclusion. But this raises a problem which at once threatens a great deal of what he is already said. This problem Wollstonecraft is going to exploit at great length, because it is a major weakness in what Rousseau is saying.
Sophy can only judge public opinion, that is, combat conventional prejudice, with reason. As Rousseau observes: “It is, therefore, important to cultivate a faculty which serves as judge between the two guides, which does not permit conscience to go astray and corrects the errors of prejudice. That faculty is reason” (413). But this creates a dilemma, as Rousseau himself recognizes. If women are incapable of reasoning properly (as he suggests in places), then Sophy is condemned to be the slave of public opinion and will be unable to be a suitable wife for Emile. If, on the other hand, she is capable of reason, then she has justification for being considered man’s equal, and the fundamental differences between the sexes, upon which Rousseau’s analysis rests, begins to fall apart.
The one possible way out of this problem, namely, that there are two forms of reason, one for men and another for women, Rousseau flirts with (suggesting that women have a more practical reasoning power and men a better capacity for systemic generalizations), but as a dedicated Enlightenment thinker, he cannot commit himself to that position. Reason exists in the singular only; thus, the paradox remains. How is Sophy to function as a woman if she is not educated to think properly, just as Emile has been educated?
Rousseau does not evade this problem, but in dealing with it, he raises issues which lead one to question what he has written elsewhere. Discussing how Sophy will in all her behaviour bring honour to herself and her husband, Rousseau observes:
But how can she set about this task if she is ignorant of our institutions, our customs, our notions of propriety, if she knows nothing of the source of man’s judgment, nor the passions by which it is swayed? Since she depends both on her own conscience and on public opinion, she must learn to know and reconcile these two laws, and to put her own conscience first only when the two are opposed to each other. She becomes the judge of her own judges, she decides when she should obey and when she should refuse her obedience. She weighs their prejudices before she accepts or rejects them; she learns to trace them to their source, to foresee what they will be, and to turn them in her own favour; she is careful never to give cause for blame if duty allows here to avoid it. This cannot be properly done without cultivating her mind and reason. (414)
This position is eminently sensible: if Sophy has to discriminate constantly between conflicting imperatives in order to carry out her duty as a virtuous wife, she obviously should be educated to the task. And that means she must develop her reason. Without that, she is going to be a mindless servant of the latest fads. I find it hard to reconcile this observation with something like the following:
The search for abstract and speculative truths, for principles and axioms in science, for all that tends to wide generalization, is beyond a woman’s grasp; their studies should be thoroughly practical. It is their business to apply the principles discovered by men, it is their place to make the observations which lead men to discover those principles. (418-419)
It is not clear to me how women are to achieve what Rousseau expects them to without the ability to reason independently, to make their own judgments based on an ability to generalize. Hence, his often penetrating psychological understanding of women seems distinctly at odds with the demands he makes of them. Out of this paradox, Wollstonecraft is going to make a wedge to drive into the heart of Rousseau’s argument.
And Wollstonecraft is right to do that. For it obviously makes no sense to demand of women certain capabilities which one then denies them in their very make up or in their education. Still, for all the obvious difficulties here, I think it is worth attending to Rousseau’s argument. For in the very process of his careful and often very acute analysis, Rousseau exposes the problems we are still wrestling with (listed here in no particular order):
First, is an emphasis on gender similarity and equal treatment psychologically satisfying (especially in sexual relations). Do we, in fact, foster love at all levels of society by insisting on gender equality? If gender equality is a Law of Nature, then why do so many women refuse to agree?
Second, what are the laws of nature in relation to the two sexes? In educating the young through a system committed to equality and similarity of treatment, are we perhaps overlooking some important differences in the way men and women learn? What might be some of the consequences of attending to these differences?
Third, just how important is a fulfilled sexual life within the context of the nuclear family? For Rousseau, this is the heart of the matter, and his education of Sophy is one attempt to deal with the issue. Of course, there are alternative strategies. One is to dismiss his concern and insist (as Wollstonecraft does) that sexual passion should not be a major priority in family relationships. Another is to insist that the family should not be treated as the core unit of society, and we should make it a great deal easier, as we have done, for women and men and children simply to opt out of family life, in the name of freedom and independence and equality. We are only too aware of some of the social problems we create by adopting either of these courses as a major way of dealing with what we have come to recognize as one of our most important problems, the dysfunctional family (the source of so much immediate and future social and personal misery).
And so on. We don’t have to endorse all or even any of Rousseau’s argument in Book V of Emile to derive important intellectual stimulation from it. It is one of those texts that arouses a strong reaction and at the same time stretches one to examine the basis for the counter-arguments one wants so urgently to make. Since Wollstonecraft, in effect, launches the modern feminist movement by a direct response to Emile, we can locate in Book V, as conveniently as anywhere else, the start of an Enlightenment reform cause which we are still far from sorting out to everyone’s satisfaction.