Jean-Jacques Rousseau


Today is Jean-Jacques Rousseau‘s birthday (1712-1778).

Frye on Rousseau:

It was largely Rousseau, who had brought into European consciousness the discovery that the continuity of subject life, which is dependent on memory and conscious thought, is very largely an illusion, and that a violent alternation of irrational moods keeps exalting and dethroning one consciousness after another.  The result was the growth of a literature of self-revelation, which is a very different thing from self-consciousness.  In self-revelation, a writer takes takes himself for his theme, but, with insight and control granted, can treat himself as objectively as any other subject. (“Recontre: The General Editor’s Introduction,” CW 10, 64)

This is the conception of “natural society,” which, largely through the influence of Rousseau, became central to the development of revolutionary thought in France.  Central to it is the identity of the natural and the reasonable: whatever in society seems logically absurd will sooner or later be found to be unnatural as well.  In England a similar issue was raised by Lord Bolingbroke, a friend of Pope and an influence on his Essay on Man.  The conservative views of Swift and Johnson, to be understood in depth, have to be seen as vigorous repudiations of the conception of natural society and defences of the opposed and more traditional view, that civilization, including law, class ascendancy, and the restraints of society, is what is really natural to man.  (ibid., 87)

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