Jean-Jacques Rousseau Quotes
Jean-Jacques Rousseau - An Introduction
Recently, a friend published an article casting Rousseau in a very negative light. So negative, in fact, that I had to query him on it. It transpired that he had not read Rousseau himself and had relied entirely on second-hand 'bad press' by a couple of populist 'historians' whom I won't bother to credit.
Now, I had not read Rousseau either, but I had read of him in the works of, among others, Bertrand Russell and Bryan Magee. Nothing I read drew me to learning more about him, particularly as he seemed intent on dethroning Reason in favour of Emotion as the prime motivator in society and its organisation. Nevertheless, I did not believe he could deserve the all-out assault he had received at the hands of my friend. I therefore decided to subject him to a reasonable trial, as follows:
The 'Goodreads' website presents no fewer than 702 Rousseau quotations. By way of pseudo-random selection among them (so I could not be accused of bias) I have copied (below) every fifth prime-numbered quotation, of which there are 25 in total, fairly equally spaced through the 702 samples. These follow, some with my comments in italics, some without.
Please make up your own mind on whether Rousseau's work is of any value.
Pseudo-Random Quotations with Commentary
Quote no. 7
I would rather be a man of paradoxes than a man of prejudices.
So would I. Many lines of enquiry end in paradox or open questions which should not be closed by prejudice.
Quote no. 23
“I have never thought, for my part, that man's freedom consists in his being able to do whatever he wills, but that he should not, by any human power, be forced to do what is against his will.”
He does not like being ordered about by authority.
Quote no. 43
“It is easier to conquer than to administer. With enough leverage, a finger could overturn the world; but to support the world, one must have the shoulders of Hercules.”
Maintenance is harder than anarchy!
Quote no. 67
“To renounce freedom is to renounce one's humanity, one's rights as a man and equally one's duties.”
Note the implication that freedom brings with it duties as well as rights.
Quote no. 89
“Truth is an homage that the good man pays to his own dignity.”
Quote no. 109
“There is peace in dungeons, but is that enough to make dungeons desirable?”
The quiet life may not always be the best option.
Quote no. 139
“I can discover nothing in any mere animal but an ingenious machine, to which nature has given senses to wind itself up, and guard, to a certain degree, against everything that might destroy or disorder it.”
He considers humans to be qualitatively above the animals. (So do Chesterton, Lewis et al). In fact, he seems rather disparaging of the 'higher' animals.
Quote no. 167
“For if men needed speech in order to learn to think, they had a still greater need for knowing how to think in order to discover the art of speaking"
I think he could have expressed this more clearly!
Quote no. 193
“Society perverts the human being.”
He did embrace the 'noble savage' notion, but did not advocate a return to that condition.
Quote no. 227
“But so long as power remains by itself on one side, and enlightenment and wisdom isolated on the other, wise men will rarely think of great things, princes will more rarely carry out fine actions, and the people will continue to be vile, corrupt, and unhappy.”
Rather pessimistic. To turn this around, he is implying that society can be salvaged if (and only if) the powerful and the enlightened come together in cooperation. Just my opinion, but the current populist trend across US and Europe is in exactly the wrong direction.
Quote no. 251
“Christianity preaches only servitude and dependence. Its spirit is so favourable to tyranny that it always profits by such a regime. Genuine Christians are made to be slaves, and they know it and don’t much mind: this short life counts for too little in their eyes.”
He does not think that Christ-like, or even monastic Christians are well-adapted to hold their own in a tyranny. (Onward! Christian Soldiers wasn't written for another few hundred years!)
Quote no. 277
“Those who think themselves the masters of others are indeed greater slaves than they.”
Quote no. 311
“So much good my persecutors have done me by recklessly pouring out all the shafts of their hatred. They have deprived themselves of any power over me and henceforward I can laugh at them.”
Quote no. 347
“The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before.”
In other words, society is bound to curtail individual freedoms to an extent, but should be organised such that individuals still feel net benefit of the arrangement and partake willingly.
Quote no. 373
“Happy am I, for every time I meditate on governments, I always find new reasons in my inquiries for loving my own country.”
(Which was Switzerland, not France, though he wrote mostly in French).
Quote no. 401
“The desire to be better understood has been extinguished from my heart.”
So, he was not a populist and was OK with that!
Quote no. 433
“The wise man observes the public disorder he cannot prevent; he observes it, and reveals by his sad countenance the grief it causes him; but as for individual disorders, he opposes them or averts his eyes, lest his presence be taken for approval.”
Tacit approval of antisocial behaviour is to be avoided. Good!
Quote no. 461
“Happiness has no particular outward sign to discover itself by; we must be able to view the heart before we can be certain who are truly happy; but contentment is to be read in the eyes, the conversation, the accent, the manner, and seems to communicate itself to him that perceives it.”
Quote no. 491
“He who wills the end wills the means also,”
Krishna: we are entitled to our actions but not to the outcome of our actions.
Quote no. 523
“The great secret of education is to use exercise of mind and body as relaxation one to the other.”
Mens sana in corpore sano - a sound mind in a sound body.
Quote no. 569
“Finally, when the State close to ruin subsists only on an illusory and vain form, when the social bond is broken in all hearts, when the barest interest brazenly assumes the sacred name of public good; then the general will grows mute, everyone, prompted by secret motives, no more states opinions as a Citizen than if the State had never existed, and iniquitous decrees with no other goal than particular interest are falsely passed under the name of Laws.”
When society breaks down, the common good is usurped by everyone's perceived self-interest.
Quote no. 599
“Nature never deceives us; it is always we who deceive ourselves.”
Quote no. 619
“What good is it to seek our happiness in the opinion of others if we cannot find it in ourselves?”
Quote no. 653
“We are born sensitive and from our birth onwards we are affected in various ways by our environment. As soon as we become conscious of our sensations we tend to seek or shun the things that cause them, at first because they are pleasant or unpleasant, then because they suit us or not, and at last because of judgments formed by means of the ideas of happiness and goodness which reason gives us. These tendencies gain strength and permanence with the growth of reason, but hindered by our habits they are more or less warped by our prejudices. Before this change they are what I call Nature within us.”
Rather a complicated warning against allowing reason to degenerate into prejudice, through habit.
Quote no. 683
“If then the people promises simply to obey, by that very act it dissolves itself and loses what makes it a people; the moment a master exists, there is no longer a Sovereign, and from that moment the body politic has ceased to exist.”
'Sovereign' here is not a person, but the body politic that should be governing society. Put more simply, the people should always be on their guard against illegitimate 'authority' eroding their freedoms.
Thank you for reading
Some of these quotations lose their power and shades of meaning for lack of context, but I hope they have given a flavour of Rousseau's work. I have certainly learned something from the exercise.