Sunday, June 3, 2012

A Time to Celebrate

It is a weekend of celebrations.  Many people throughout the world, so I’m told, are celebrating the British Queen’s Jubilee. Here in Switzerland, one of the world’s oldest republics, if not the oldest, June is also a month of celebration. But it is not a monarch that is being celebrated, but the 300th anniversary of the birth of Jean Jacques Rousseau.  The great philosophe is remembered not for who he was, but for what he achieved.

Rousseau, a native of the Republic of Geneva, was a self-made polymath whose impact is still felt in literature, music theory, political science, philosophy, science, education.  His influence continues today in how we respond to nature.  Every time we try to “get away from it all”, by going on a hike in the woods, or sleeping in a tent, or contemplating the sea, we are embodying his ideas.  Until Rousseau, nature was something that simply existed – it provided food and produced weather that destroyed potential food and brought about famine.  After Rousseau nature was something to be admired and was, even, the source of deep truth.

Many consider Rousseau to be the father of romanticism.  He certainly favoured emotion over reason, nature over civilization. His devotees included Goethe, Beethoven, Bryon and Shelley,all of whom visited his birthplace. But this out and out republican also included Emperor Joseph II, Emperess Catherine the Great, Emperor Frederick the Great, Marie Antoinette and Napoleon Bonaparte among his protoges.  His romantic ideas can be read in works of art, garden landscaping, music and literature. He saw the “Nobel Savage” as being not just the equal of the European cosmopolitan citizen, but indeed his superior.  To be in touch with your natural self was a far greater value that to be a sophisticated urbanite. His autobiographical Confessions was the first of its kind, in which a writer reveals the internal workings of his own mind, including the painful blemishes.  Why should we be interested?  But we were and we still are. These days we expose ourselves continually on Facebook, revealing hundreds of photographs of ME and delighting in publicizing the likes of “I drank too much again”.  We are onsessed with the private lives of the famous. When we approach a work of art, or a poem, or piece of music, we expect it to be “authentic” – by exposing it’s autobiographical meaning.  Thanks to Rousseau we have produced a culture in which the subject has become the object.

Cultural movements that have attempted to kick against the culture of authenticity, like Russian Constructivism or Serialism, are reacting directly against the omnipresence of Rousseau in our mental landscape.  But, so far expressionism wins out against constructivism every time.

Rousseau popularized the idea that education should be appealing to the child; that beating was not a good instrument of learning, that the teaching needs to reach out to the sensitivity of the youngster, and that nature itself was the greatest of all teachers.  His educational novel Emile, was the best seller of the 18th century.  His influence was directly reflected in the Zurich pedagogue and teacher, Johan Pestalozzi, who came up with the idea that education should involve “the head, heart and hands” of the child.

Rousseau famously wrote that “man is born free yet everywhere is bound in chains”.  His Discourse on the Social Origins of Inequality and his The Social Contract are classics of political philosophy.  They are as pertinent today as ever. The former is considered to be one of the founding documents of socialism, the latter one of the founding documents of liberalism.  They influenced philosophers as diverse as Kant and Marx. In real terms his political thought was a major influence on the American Declaration of Independence (Thomas Jefferson was a fan) and the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.  Rousseau, although no longer among the living, probably influenced the thought of the revolutionaries more than anyone else.  In 1793 they interred his body in the Pantheon in Paris where, even today, it shares pride of place with his arch-rival, Voltaire (who was most definitely not a fan).
Rousseau's Last Resting Place: The Pantheon, Paris

Had Rousseau had not chosen the route of the vagabond thinker, he could easily have earned his bread as a composer or musical director.  Indeed, while living in Venice he was offered a position as director of opera, which he turned down. His theoretical writings on music are considered by some to be the birth of modern musicology.

 Of course Rousseau was far from perfect. He was an impossible person and placed such demands on friendship that he left a trail in his wake of embittered ex-friends.  Notoriously he dumped his five children on an orphanage. And although he was a champion, indeed the champion, of equality, he did believe that women were different than men and needed an education that, from today’s perspective, leaves a lot to be desired.

Nevertheless, much of what he has left to us is worth remembering, namely: nature is not necessairily our enemy; that which seems primitive is not necessairly inferior and, above all else, take a critical approach to authority. A government gains its mandate from the people and retains it only when it is serving the people.

Since January of this year Switzerland has had a series of exhibitions,concerts and symposia on the works and life of Rousseau.  Yesterday the Swiss national classical radiostation had an entire day’s broadcasting dedicated to musical works, classical and jazz, that have been influenced by Rousseau’s ideas. The celebrations will continue through Rousseau’s birthday, on June 28th, until the end of the year.  Three hundred years from now, if we manage to preserve the rudiments of human civilization for that long, I doubt if anyone will be celebrating the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. But Rousseau’s work and influence will still survive.


  1. Composer, musical director or opera manager? He certainly had gigantic talents and very diverse interests. Enough to make an ordinary human feel inadequate. But I am not sure how romantic philosophy became linked to socialism and liberalism.

  2. Hello Paul, I just wanted to say that, maybe nowadays we should think a little bit more about the three important factors, heart, head and hand, in order to learn.
    Very best regards and many thanks for your interesting articles.

    1. Couldn't agree with you more. "Heart, head and hand" in education is the idea that originated with Pestalozzi in Zurich, a great thinker and practitioner. Thanks Martina.