The Volokh Conspiracy

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Rousseau on nature, marriage and human happiness


This is the fourth post about my recently published book, "Rousseau's Rejuvenation of Political Philosophy: A New Introduction" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

Rousseau's greatest book, "Emile or On Education," is the philosophic complement to the "Discourse on Inequality." The earlier work asked the Socratic question "What is man?" and began to answer by depicting nascent humanity in all its primitive and innocent nakedness. It then traced the genesis of moral and social passions in our species.

The "Emile" reopens the question raised in the "Discourse" by asking how one might educate a man according to nature in the midst of civilization. Whereas the cultural evolution of humanity has not been guided by reason, the "Emile" shows how an individual soul might develop in an artificial environment devised by wisdom for the sake of making that soul happy.

Part fiction and part treatise, the "Emile" describes the education given by an imaginary tutor, who is invested with all the knowledge and insight of Rousseau himself, to a boy who has no more than ordinary natural gifts. Rousseau takes as foils John Locke's treatise on the education of children and Plato's "Republic," which he describes as a book about education rather than politics.

Rousseau agrees with Locke that nature should be left as free as possible to guide the development of children's bodies: Avoid tight clothing, sumptuous foods and strong drink, too much time indoors, insufficient sleep, unnecessary medical treatments. But Rousseau believes that Locke deviates from nature when he recommends that moral habits be instilled by nurturing shame and a desire for esteem and a good reputation.

Rousseau's imaginary tutor goes to extraordinarily elaborate efforts to preserve the child's naturally egocentric orientation and to prevent him from being subjugated by the opinions or wills of other people. Emile will eventually assume an outward resemblance to the sober bourgeois gentleman Locke hopes to produce, but Rousseau's pupil will have a fundamentally different inner disposition. As an adult, Emile will find it easier than most people to get along with others and to fulfill his social and political duties, but this is precisely because he thinks for himself and does not much care what others think of him.

The "Republic" is a foil in a different way. Rousseau sees Plato's dialogue as a book about public education, which shows what it would mean to train people for citizenship without deforming their nature. That turns out to be possible only in a city constructed in speech. In the polities of our world, making genuine citizens requires an education that thoroughly denatures them, as Lycurgus did in Sparta.

Rousseau's book complements Plato's by offering a comparably illuminating picture of private or domestic education. As we readers think through the challenges that Emile's tutor tries to overcome, we can begin to participate in the same kind of private education that Socrates invited Glaucon and Adeimantus to embark on.

Emile's upbringing has two principal phases. During childhood, the tutor's goal is predominantly negative: Prevent the child, to the extent possible, from acquiring moral or social passions. This requires a great deal of artifice and ingenuity, the purpose of which is to preserve Emile's natural innocent goodness until nature itself impels him to seek a close human relationship.

With the onset of puberty, the tutor changes his approach quite dramatically. With exquisite delicacy, and a considerable portion of benevolent deception and manipulation, he helps Emile to formulate an image of a woman who would be worthy of his love. While looking in vain for such a woman in Paris, the boy learns to see through the vanity and affectation of the highly civilized life that he encounters there. Then, out in the countryside, he seemingly chances upon the woman of his dreams, a girl named Sophie who had been secretly picked out for him by the tutor.

Like Emile, the girl chosen by the tutor has an ordinary nature. (Rousseau analyzed the deeper aspects of female human nature in "Julie, or the New Heloise," discussed here. Her education, however, has made her fundamentally different from Emile. The boy has been raised to be as natural as possible, in the sense that he is psychologically as independent as possible from the fashions and social dictates of the society in which he lives. The girl is much more like Locke's bourgeois gentleman.

Raised by sensible and caring parents, Sophie is submissive to convention, with a strong regard for her reputation, a desire to please and, perhaps above all, a readiness to submit her will to that of another. The tutor's principal intervention in her education is a maneuver designed to make her think of someone like Emile as the only kind of mate she will settle for.

Emile courts Sophie under the supervision of his tutor and her parents. Once the young people decide they should marry, the tutor forces a very reluctant Emile to accompany him on a two-year tour of Europe. During this time, Emile gets his political education. Briefly stated, the boy learns first to despise the attractions of a politically active life, and then to recognize that he must accept his political duties.

Emile's happiness—the tutor's goal from the start—will not be pursued in a life of genuine independence like that of savage man or of a philosopher like Socrates. Nor will Emile look for happiness in a life of striving for nobility, like the Greeks and Romans whose stories are told in Plutarch. Instead, Emile will focus his care on what Rousseau calls "the small fatherland that is the family," while fulfilling the limited obligations of what we call citizens in the modern world.

After Emile and Sophie marry, and she becomes pregnant, the book ends with the tutor pronouncing his work complete and assigning Sophie to take over his role. The prospects for Emile's future happiness seem bright.

But why would the tutor believe that Sophie could successfully replace him? In an unfinished sequel to the "Emile," we learn about a very significant shortcoming in the boy's education. When Sophie faces an unexpected series of traumas, her well-meaning husband botches his attempt to help her cope, and their marriage ends up destroyed. Deprived of the tutor's continuing guidance, Emile is eventually able to elevate or reduce himself to a quasi-Stoic freedom that consists of accepting necessity and purging himself of the moral passions that had enslaved him to Sophie.

Rousseau chose not to complete the sequel, leaving us to wonder whether the marriage of Emile and Sophie, or the happiness of either of them, could be reconstituted through their unaided efforts. The "Emile" may suggest that an education truly according to nature, like the city of the "Republic," is possible only in speech, at least for those who are not capable of taking complete charge of their own education.

[Nelson Lund has been guest-blogging this week; parts of these posts are borrowed from his book.]