Day 1--August 22
Babylonian Laws I
Babylonian Laws II
Euthyphro and Crito
Nicomachean Eth. I
Nico. Ethics II
Nico. Ethics III
Nico. Ethics IV
Early Rousseau II
Early Rous III
Rousseau's Walks I
Rousseau's Walks II
Rousseau's Walks III
Lisbon Earthquake I
JS Mill I
Mill and Emotions II
Mill and Emotions III
Legal Realism I
Legal Realism II
Brown v. Board
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)
Prof. Bill Long 11/20/06
Reveries of a Solitary Walker (1782)
No thinker from the 18th century casts a larger shadow over subsequent political theory than this French-speaker who was originally from Geneva. Rather than looking "straight" at his political philosophy, however, I propose we come to know him through consideration of his last work, published posthumously, which is not very-well known but opens up Rousseau's life for us in alluring relief. This and the next essay will deal only with the so-called "Fifth Promenade," or fifth of his supposed "walks" he recorded in this "ten-walk" Reveries of a Solitary Walker. Significant about this "Fifth Promenade" is that it took place a decade earlier (1768) than the real time of the book (1778), and it relived the experience of what appeared to him in 1778 as the most pleasant two months of his life. Before getting to Reveries and the Fifth Promenade, however, a few words about Rousseau's biography are appropriate.
Rousseau, never a gregarious man, became well-known after winning a 1750 writing contest on whether the progress in art had been an unqualified cultural boon (he argued that it was not). The acme of his literary production happened a decade later, however. Within four months in 1762 Rousseau released his blockbuster title on educational theory, Emile, and his widely- influential Social Contract. He was living in Paris at the time and expected broad renown and adulation after the publication of these books. Instead, his attitudes toward the religion of nature in each offended deeply his Catholic hosts in Paris and the Calvinist forces of his native Geneva, and he was forced into wandering exile for several years. Incensed and hurt by this rejection, Rousseau nurtured his wound for the next 15 years, speculating on an ever-growing conspiracy to "get him" that was led by former friends. This paranoia about conspiracy reached its fever pitch in a 80-page Feb. 22, 1770 letter described by Rousseau biographer Lester Crocker as "a remarkable psychological document which reveals how far his psychic disturbance had progressed beyond the comparable letter of accusation written to Hume on July 10, 1766" (Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Prophetic Voice, 1758-78, 317f.).
For the last decade of his life Rousseau went back and forth on the question of whether he should try to vindicate his ideas or whether he should just stay silent so that his accusers/enemies would have no reason to attack him again. While he was in the former mood, in the late 1760s, he penned his unforgettable Confessions, as much more probing of the inner recesses of his psyche than Augustine's Confessions was of its predecessors. Then, while the hurt was still fresh and bitterly felt, he wrote a several hundred-page mock dialogue between a Frenchman and "Rousseau" on the quality and signficance of his work. Thus, he could act as an "omnipotent" judge of his own work while giving the impression that its value was being impartially debated and weighed by the two protagonists in the dialogue.
The Reveries of the Solitary Walker
The ten essays, styled as ten walks or "Promenades," are the last essays written by Rousseau. In this work he talks about his recent ability to "get beyond" the bitterness and anger at those he felt had wronged him and focus exclusively on the simple pleasures of ordinary living, of observing nature and making notes on botanical and natural subjects. Whereas the Confessions, completed in 1769 (first half) and 1770/71 (the rest), helped inaugurate the modern genre of autobiographical writing, the Reveries launched a different kind of writing--what one might call a "nature narrative," or the experience a person has upon being struck by the beauty, calm, and inviting nature of the natural world.
I would like to devote the rest of this and the next essay to his "Fifth Promenade" ("Fifth"), in which the language of longing and personal introspection is so overwhelmingly powerful. Though he writes these essays in the last year or two of his life, the "Fifth" hearkens back to a time a decade previously, in 1768, when Rousseau fled to the island of St. Peter in the middle of the Lake of Bienne after his home had been stoned by people he assumed wanted to injure him. He left all his goods behind (his wife joined him a month into his two-month sojourn), and so had only his own wits as well as the congenial company of the owner of the only home on the island, a man named Engel, to give him his bearings. Yet, as he tells the story of this two-month sojourn in the Reveries, he recalls this time as the richest and most significant time of his life. Like Thoreau a century later, he went to the woods and learned how to live deliberately. Like Whitman in the 19th century, he learned on the island how to "loaf and invite his [my] soul."
Let me close this essay by repeating Rousseau's romantic way of describing this small island.
"The shores of the Lake of Bienne are wilder and more romantic than those of the Lake of Geneva, because the rocks and the woods surround the water more closely; but they are not less smiling. If there is less cultivation of fields and vines, fewer houses and woods, there are also more natural greenery, more meadows, more haunts shaded with coppices, more frequent contrasts and undulations of ground close together...it (the island) is interesting for those solitary contemplatives who love to intoxicate themselves at leisure with the charms of nature, and to meditate in a silence disturbed by no sound except the cry of the eagles, the occasional twittering of birds, and the rolling down of torrents which fall from the
mountain," Reveries of a Solitary Walker, 103-104.
Sound like a place you would like to spend your vacation? Well, let's read on.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long