Saturday, November 24, 2012

Jean Jacques Rousseau

Paris, France - Visited June 2009

Jean Jacques Rousseau was born June 1712 in Geneva, Switzerland.  His mother died shortly after his birth, and his father left home to avoid legal problems when he was 10. He was raised by his maternal uncle. After doing some biographical research I've decided to do this post along the theme of 'Calvinist/Not a Calvinist'.  Feel free to play along at home.

This picture has little to do with Rousseau, but its a great
shot of my beautiful wife at the Jet D'eau in Geneva
Calvinist.  Rousseau was born in Geneva, and to be in Geneva in the 18th Century meant you were a defacto Calvinist.  He spent two years boarding with a Calvinist and for a time considered whether he was called to the ministry. But he apparently had problems with doctrine of total depravity and found himself proselytized toward Catholicism. A relationship with an older woman who became his mistress complicated his late teens and early twenties, but it also introduced him to a world of ideas beyond his religious upbringing.   Hence, Not a Calvinist.

Rousseau worked a series of administrative posts through his twenties and early thirties which culminated with his arrival in Paris in 1744. During these years Rousseau fathered five children by a mistress, but had them all given up to a foundling hospital. There is no record of any of the children surviving to adulthood.  Therefore apparently Not a Calvinist (or a Catholic for that matter).

Early printing of Rousseau's
'Social Contract"
Rousseau began to engage in philosophical thinking and writing, initially focusing on music theory. He also worked on his own musical compositions, which were received well by the Paris musical establishment. But his ideas and his personality created controversy in Paris and in 1754 Rousseau returned to Geneva, requiring a reconversion (of sorts) to Calvinism to be allowed entrance to the city.  Once again A Calvinist.  However, his subsequent writing and lifestyle make it clear that his Calvinism was of his own peculiar orientation. Not being a reader of Rousseau, as near as I can tell his religious philosophy seemed to create opposition from Catholics, Protestants and Humanists. It was oppositional to Catholicism because it was anti-institutional. It was rejected by the Humanists because it avowed a view of God who was much more active and knowable than the prevailing deism of the time. Yet his rejection of original sin and other Gospel doctrines separated him from orthodox protestant Christianity.  Therefore, Not a Calvinist

Finding himself out of favor (and religiously condemned) Rousseau eventually found a patron in British philosopher David Hume, and from 1765-67 he lived in England. His mental health began to deteriorate; according to Hume, “He is plainly mad, after having long been maddish”. By 1770 Rousseau had returned to Paris, though for the remaining years of his life he was largely a recluse. His health deteriorating, Rousseau died while on a walk in July 1778. He was 66 years old. His autobiographical Confessions were published eight years after his death.  Based on them, clearly Not a Calvinist.

Jean Jacques in his furry cap stage
Final score:  Calvinist - 2; Not a Calvinist - 4. 

Historically speaking, Rousseau’s philosophy heavily influenced the leaders of the French Revolution and later, the moral/political philosophy of Immanuel Kant. I wish I could give a nice, tidy description of Rousseau’s philosophy, but I couldn’t wrap my brain around it without doing far more study than is worth it to write this blog.  An odd but short and low budget animated explanation of Rousseau's philosophy can be viewed here.  For a bit more on Rousseau's impact on philosophy, government and ethics check out this five minute overview.

Historian Kingsley Martin summarized Rousseau's influence in this way,

"In truth," Rousseau was a genius whose real influence cannot be traced with precision because it pervaded all the thought that followed him....Men will always be sharply divided about Rousseau: for he released imagination as well as sentimentalism;; he increased men’s desire for justice as well as confusing their minds , and he gave the poor hope even though the rich could make use of his arguments. In one direction at least Rousseau’s influence was a steady one: he discredited force as a basis for the State, convinced men that authority was legitimate only when founded in rational consent and that no arguments from passing expediency could justify a government in disregarding individual freedom or in failing to promote social equality

Statue of Rousseau in his birthplace of Geneva

The following brief quote seems to be a decent summary of the understanding of human nature that Rousseau built his life and philosophy upon.

“Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.”

Rousseau's tomb in the crypt below the Pantheon in Paris

Your blogger at the Pantheon
Jean Jacques Rousseau was eventually buried with hero honors in the Pantheon in Paris. His tomb is in the underground crypt along with Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Voltaire and other French notables. I visited the Pantheon during my 25th wedding anniversary.  Jill was very kind to let me check it out and enjoyed the beautiful sunny day while watching a protest march from the steps of the Pantheon. It’s an incredible building – the French equivalent to Westminster Abbey. Well worth a stop if you’re in the City of Lights.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Andy...I still enjoy reading your blog :) Just wanted to say Hi and that I especially enjoyed your writing...A Calvinist, Not a Calvinist...complete with a score near the end...loved it! And your captions...furry cap stage...miss you and everyone at CFC~