Discover more from Forcings
As I said in the first week, we are not interested in this set of lectures in anything like fixing education or even necessarily making an academic style critique of it – there are more than enough of both.
Now, this is, not necessarily coincidently, Rousseau’s own position as stated in his own intro to Emile, the key work of his when we come to think about him as a strange educator. Indeed, as Alan Bloom puts it, ‘Emile is comparable to Plato's Republic, which it is meant to rival or supersede’. ‘But’, Bloom observes, ‘it is not recognized as such in spite of Rousseau's own judgment that it was his best book and Kant's view that its publication was an event comparable to the French Revolution’. But it’s also important to realise that it doesn’t exist in splendid isolation relative to his other works given the ideas he develops, extends elaborates and deploys with specific regard to education in Emile are absolutely consistent with his other essentially political works – which have as their orientation the idea of a community of equals.
Rousseau says this:
I shall say very little about the value of a good education, nor shall I stop to prove that the customary method of education is bad; this has been done again and again, and I do not wish to fill my book with things which everyone knows. I will merely state that, go as far back as you will, you will find a continual outcry against the established method, but no attempt to suggest a better. The literature and science of our day tend rather to destroy than to build up. We find fault after the manner of a master; to suggest, we must adopt another style, a style less in accordance with the pride of the philosopher. In spite of all those books, whose only aim, so they say, is public utility, the most useful of all arts, the art of training men, is still neglected. Even after Locke’s book was written the subject remained almost untouched, and I fear that my book will leave it pretty much as it found it.
The art of training men and, of course, women! Immediately we should note a few things: clearly we are speaking of education here – the art of training men/women; but it is not at all what is usually understood as education, which takes men and women as given and then trains them. A real part of Rousseau’s radicality, that part which speaks to what we have been calling, the educational invariant, is that he doesn’t presume men and women as such – their nature, in other words, is not at all what is assumed or rather, prescribed. Indeed man or woman is not a natural state at all, not at least in the way they are spoken of by what he calls ‘philosophers’, but is already a social production and thus to train up men and women as if they exist is to come too late!
Also, let’s note that while Rousseau does consider the question of the citizen imperative, the citizen is not, finally, equatable to the man. In a certain sense, this is the other education, the pedagogy, I call it, which will take men and women and train them up in the service of society, whatever way it’s constituted. This is almost tautological for Rousseau, as you can see. Thus Rousseau is addressing at once the very basis of the philosophical conception of man/woman, and in terms of education, at a level more formative and foundational than our great scholars of education continue to prosecute as what is good for us.
As with all true educators, what is at stake in education is not a new man or woman per se but the conditions of his or her possibility. Later, it is true, Rousseau will consider such a new man, in the individual sense, anyway, as that figure finally only possible as subtracted from all social arrangements while being at the same time, its true consciousness. This is his famous conception of the solitary figure, truly free as in accord with a nature distinct from conceptions of right or order or telos.
This is fully in accord with the one and only book the tutor J-J will allow Emile to read in his entire childhood – Robinson Crusoe. All of Emile's early rearing, Alan Bloom notes, ‘is an elaborate attempt to avoid the emergence of the imagination which, according to the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, is the faculty that turns man's intellectual progress into the source of his misery. But the larger reasoning – and this is the crucial motif here – is that ‘Every man can be Crusoe and actually is Crusoe to the extent that he tries to be simply man.’ Crusoe's example does not alienate Emile from himself as do the other fictions of poetry – which of course demand active imitation – it helps him to be himself. He understands his hero's motives perfectly and does not ape deeds the reasons for which he cannot imagine … or indeed can only imagine … and hence the imitative process that any true education, since Plato, must have done with.
But nevertheless his project can be seen, in the context of the ancient struggle between individual and polity, and between necessity and decision, nature and thought even, as another attempt to think through these seemingly interminable disjunctions. And of course, at the site of this disjunction, as always, is education.
To begin, as with Loyola, as with Sade and as we’ll see with Fourier, I want to talk through Rousseau, as it were. Follow the general form of his personal trajectory through the social, his education, if you like, and explore in part some of what comes to concern him in terms of the question of education; what makes him strange to his time, to us and especially as educator to education itself. Indeed, as Bloom notes, ‘He himself was born in a cave [Plato’s cave] and had to be a genius to attain his insight into the human condition. His life is a testimony to the heroic character of the quest for nature. But he denies that the cave is natural. The right kind of education, one independent of society, can put a child into direct contact with nature without the intermixture of opinion.’
Rousseau’s own life is the overcoming of the cave but also, more radically, of the supposition of the cave as the natural place of man. The root of this desire to overcome the supposition of the cave is less Plato than Hobbes, whose state of nature thesis Rousseau rejects or at least overturns as his starting point.
Moreover as the great Rousseau scholar Judith N. Shklar notes: ‘For Rousseau, the private biography is of utmost significance … not only because he wrote so personal an autobiography, but because he thought of his Confessions as a public act and an integral part of his moral position. He regarded his public philosophy as an ·expression of his feelings and thoughts and he also regarded his interior life as a public document of the most general social significance. And further she says: In Rousseau's case family origins matter enormously, not because he was a typical son of a Genevan artisan, but because he was not. His immense social mobility, which took him all over society and of which Rousseau was so aware, was just as completely unique as he said it was. No other member of the intellectual world of his time had lived like that. Moreover, Rousseau continued to live among people (Therese's family !) who were completely unlike those whom he wrote for and who read him.’
One writer, introducing Rousseau in the Cambridge Companion, begins with this:
‘There is no need to recommend the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau: the greatest of all critics of inequality, the purest social contract theorist of the eighteenth century, the greatest writer on civic education after Plato, the most perceptive understander of mastery and slavery after Aristotle and before Hegel, the finest critic of Hobbes, the most important predecessor of Kant, the most accomplished didactic novelist between Richardson and Tolstoy, the greatest confessor since Augustine, the author of paradoxes ("the general will is always right" but "not enlightened") that continue to fascinate or infuriate.’
And Shklar expands on this theme:
Even among his versatile contemporaries he was extraordinary: composer, musicologist, playwright, drama critic, novelist, botanist, pedagogue, political philosopher, psychologist … an heir of Plato and Aristotle, and a part of the intellectual world they created … Eager to out-do the ancients, Rousseau … nevertheless emulated them all the more intensely, because all the topics that Plato and Aristotle had touched upon had to be reconsidered. Rousseau was no slavish imitator of either one, but he accepted their example, their vision of what was involved in social theory, without a question … The scope of his theory, therefore, demands that all its aspects be studied without allowing later categories of thought to cut out what was essential for him … For surely Rousseau is so penetrating and convincing because his was so comprehensive a structure of ideas about man and society.’
In short, if I may, Rousseau invents a form of thought, the thought of his time which as always, if it touches on what is true of it, escapes any such temporal constraint. His thought is conditional – thus, of his time – but in no way relative and thus exhausted by this time itself. This is the overarching thematic of the Strange Educator lectures: the untimeliness of our strange educators in their situated specificity and clearly this idea informs Rousseau’s work itself; the truth of something exceeds the time of this something; which we can reduce to our idea that there is of education something invariant to it, something which we can think of it despite what one epoch or anther prescribes of it relative to its specific, temporal conception of knowledge.
As with our way of going about education, it matters, as I have said, to give some space to the education of our educators, and in Rousseau’s case it’s perhaps even more important to mark out some key aspects of his becoming educated because this is what his idea of education seeks to overtake, compel and direct almost absolutely. From birth, essentially, until adulthood, every aspect of the life of the child is in the hands of the tutor – ‘the minister of nature’ as he calls him, and reciprocally, the life of the tutor is devoted only to the life of the child.
It is by nature that the child develops and the minister teaches: meaning that the child is not free, as such, to encounter nature, as some romantics interpret it, but he must encounter nature as free, which means the tutor, similarly uncorrupted by a society he knows as corrupt, is he who organises the form of this encounter. Rousseau's full formula, Bloom notes, ‘is that while the child must always do what he wants to do, he should want to do only what the tutor wants him to do.’ In other words, ‘Since an uncorrupt will does not rebel against necessity, and the tutor can manipulate the appearance of necessity, he can determine the will without sowing the seeds of resentment. He presents natural necessity in palpable form to the child so that the child lives according to nature prior to understanding it’. You can see in this already, the operation of what seems a contradictory dualism or disjunction – between necessity and choice, nature and thought, as I’d term it.
And indeed this effort to accord education with nature as necessity – decidedly not as an imagined affect of man’s own constructing – is everything in Rousseau. And is moreover a redoubling of the political framework he constructs. This strange attachment, to a strange nature is nevertheless ultimately the price to be paid for the real possibility of a community of equals, one in which, if I may, the general will is always right, and this not because of what education has made possible but really, in Rousseau, by what an education, in his sense, makes impossible: In short, the corruptions implicit and constant in ‘culture’ generally, and thus in the education which transmits it as the way to ‘enlightenment’.
Here is the depth of Rousseau’s intervention (I must refrain from calling it a critique): One must educate the child before education comes along to make it impossible; before the prejudices and corruptions of society transform the child into the means of the reproduction of social corruption. In other words, education must save the individual such that the community of equals is possible – such that the social individual and even, finally, society is the manifest thought of nature itself. Rousseau worked in paradoxes – which occur in language to be sure but ultimately, this is the project, do not occur in thought: nature/thought/education – hopefully we’ll see how this triptych holds together.
Rousseau was born in Geneva on June 28, 1712. Geneva matters to Rousseau: the political configuration of it; of free citizens. Citizens not subjects, and indeed he always signed his works J.J. Rousseau Citizen of Geneva (up until he renounced them). At the time, Geneva was a city-state and a Protestant associate of the Swiss Confederacy. Since 1536, it had been a Huguenot republic and the seat of Calvinism. In theory it was governed democratically by its male voting citizens. But as so often the citizens were a minority of the population when compared to the immigrants, referred to as ‘inhabitants, whose descendants were called ‘natives’ and, as in Ancient Greece, lacked suffrage. Moreover, rather than being run by vote of the ‘citizens’, the city was ruled by a small number of wealthy families that made up the ‘Council of Two Hundred’; these delegated their power to a twenty-five member executive group from among them called the ‘Little Council.’ There was much political debate within Geneva, extending down to the tradespeople. Much discussion was over the idea of the sovereignty of the people, of which the ruling class oligarchy was making a mockery. So, as I said, just like Ancient Greece and much like our democracies today who praise their own imitation of it. But the idea of it is what remains over from its actuality and remains compelling and again we see Rousseau in this: wedded as he was to the notion of the equality of citizens within an actuality that denies the very thing it supposes.
His mum died when he was ten days old and he was initially with his dad and brother. He loved his Dad, a watchmaker by trade and a fairly renowned one too. Roussaeu would read with him – he especially cherished Plutarch’s Lives. By this introduction he became a voracious reader.
He says in the Confessions about his early reading: ‘I soon acquired, by this dangerous custom, not only an extreme facility in reading and comprehending, but, for my age, a too intimate acquaintance with the passions. An infinity of sensations were familiar to me, without possessing any precise idea of the objects to which they related – I had conceived nothing – I had felt the whole. This confused succession of emotions did not retard the future efforts of my reason, though they added an extravagant, romantic notion of human life, which experience and reflection have never been able to eradicate.’
Note that in Emile reading, in the early stages of education, is banned (except for the exemplary Crusoe), because it precisely induced these affects. Emile was to encounter the natural world or necessity without any such mediation or re-presentation of it. He was to develop his senses purely in relation to his encounters with what was naturally occurring – forestalling thus any representative affects, as given in literature, poetry, history or culture generally, which would corrupt this encounter before it even happened.
But it’s worth noting Emile does come to read Plutarch and some history more generally, too, in order to be stoically prepared when he confronts the rich and the possibility of falling sensually into envy! The study of Plutarch’s Lives will reveal, Rousseau proposes, ‘the vanity of the heroes' aspirations and, in Bloom’s words, ‘cause revulsion at their tragic failures. Emile's solid, natural pleasures, his cheaply purchased Stoicism and self-sufficiency, his lack of the passion to rule, will cause him to despise their love of glory and pity their tragic ends … this education, grounded in that of Emile’s sensibilities in compassion, realised after his workings with the poor – which gave him the conception of fellow feeling – produces contempt for the great of this world, not a slave's contempt founded in envy, indignation, and resentment, but the contempt stemming from a conviction of superiority which admits of honest fellow feeling and is the precondition of compassion.’ As I said, this reading comes later in the education of Emile. It is introduced decidedly, with the aim to achieve some intelligence built out of Emile’s learned sensibilities, established in his encounters with nature, and is by no means the means to education itself.
Later in the process of Emile’s education he also reads fables. These come late because the point is to learn the moral form and not identify with one ‘animal’ or another without understanding what was at stake in such an identification. As Bloom sums this series in Emile: ‘The first stage of Emile's introduction to the human condition shows him that most men are sufferers; the second, that the great, too, are sufferers and hence equal to the small; and the third, that he is potentially a sufferer, saved only by his education. Equality, which was a rational deduction in Hobbes, thus becomes self-evident to the sentiments in Rousseau’.
After some time with his Dad and Aunt, and after time under the tutelage of his Uncle who held some position in the city, he and his cousin are sent to Boissey, to board with the Minister Lambercier and his sister. Here, he says, ‘we were to learn Latin, [along] with all the insignificant trash that has obtained the name of education.’ Nevertheless the country had its effects on him and he was adapted to its sensibilities; he says: ‘I conceived a passion for rural life, which time has not been able to extinguish; nor have I ever ceased to regret the pure and tranquil pleasures I enjoyed at this place in my childhood; the remembrance having followed me through every age...’
He also makes there a passionate attachment to Miss Lambercier, a sort of Oedipul one, really; one he tends to repeat throughout his life; don’t forget he never knew his mother other than through the pain and reminiscences of his father. Speaking of reciting the catechisms, ‘nothing’, he says, ‘gave me greater vexation, on being obliged to hesitate, than to see Miss Lambercier’s countenance express disapprobation and uneasiness. This alone was more afflicting to me than the shame of faltering before so many witnesses, which, notwithstanding, was sufficiently painful; for though not over solicitous of praise, I was feelingly alive to shame; yet I can truly affirm, the dread of being reprimanded by Miss Lambercier alarmed me less than the thought of making her uneasy.’
‘All this affection, aided by my natural mildness, was scarcely sufficient to prevent my seeking, by fresh offences, a return of the same chastisement; for a degree of sensuality had mingled with the smart and shame, which left more desire than fear of a repetition.’
Alan Bloom remarks that Rousseau ‘discovers that sexual desire, if its development is properly managed, has singular effects on the soul.’ Books IV-V of Emile are, ostensibly, he continues, ‘a treatise on sex education, notwithstanding the fact that they give a coherent account of God, love, and politics. ‘Civilization’ can become ‘culture’ when it is motivated and organized by sublimated sex.’
Rousseau was clearly a Freudian. But, politically speaking, ‘Such a passion is necessary in order to provide the link between the individual and disinterested respect for law or the rights of others, which is what is meant by real morality’ in Rousseau. Bloom, with some Straussian conceit, remarks here that ‘Rousseau knew that there are sublime things; he had inner experience of them. He also knew that there is no place for the sublime in the modern scientific explanation of man. Therefore, the sublime had to be made out of the non-sublime; this is sublimation. It is a raising of the lower to the higher.’
Later, after his father is forced to leave town, Rousseau is sent to work: first, to a notary, then to an engraver. Neither turn out that well and he is found, and found by himself, unfit for such work, which is to say, the work of workers as such, and this is so basically ‘by nature…’ Which is to say that his early education has forestalled him from such a manhood. But this early education is an incomplete education nevertheless, and very auto-didactic, which he cherishes as a kind of freedom but given the unsystematic nature of it, he also feels a certain lack in it. He is neither one thing nor another, so to speak and indeed this is a serious and consistent motif in Rousseau’s life and, we could say, finds its reflection in his work.
When he was about 16 he found himself locked out of the city gates one night – a not infrequent occurrence he says – and so wandered off, first to Confignon and then on the order of the local priest, to Annecy in Savoy. There he was taken in, as it were, by Madame de Warens – they became lovers a few years later. He notes by way of recollection: ‘I was in the middle of my sixteenth year, and though I could not be called handsome, was well made for my height; I had a good foot, a well turned leg, and animated countenance; a well proportioned mouth, black hair and eyebrows, and my eyes, though small and rather too far in my head, sparkling with vivacity, darted that innate fire which inflamed my blood; unfortunately for me, I knew nothing of all this, never having bestowed a single thought on my person till it was too late to be of any service to me.’
Anyway, she was young, 28, and beautiful and was a finder of lost souls, a sort of mother Theresa insofar as she was like a pimp for the catholic church sending wastrels off to be converted. M. de Warens enacted this passion, as it were, ‘dutifully’; another key paradox in Rousseau. Rousseau renounced his Calvinism and became catholic: a re-birth into the arms of his new Mamam, as he called her. He did go to a seminary for a bit but left when one of the monks tried to have his way with him. plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose!
Madem de Waren’s own education, Rousseau says, ‘had been derived from such a variety of sources, that it formed an extraordinary assemblage’ – thus not unlike his own to date and he says of her that his desire to please her constituted his greatest feeling of freedom. So, ‘At maman’s, Rousseau completed his education, and undertook his earliest writings; including the quite remarkable Chronologie universelle (ca. 1737), which contains praise of Fenelon's charitable moral universalism. Note: in caritas we have love, in morality we have nature and in universalism we have the all: three ideas which will circulate repeatedly and in distinct formation throughout.
If you have looked at Emile you know Rousseau makes indistinct the various terms for he who takes up the role of the educator he prescribes: so a tutor is a teacher is really, finally, a master. Let me cite this from Emile but note the translation is from Alan Bloom and he uses other terms, ones which renders another reduction and distinction, that of the political and pedagogical (which is fair enough really and certainly has a Platonic ring to it but note of course it’s an emphasis we pretty much avoid at all costs today: we don’t make men or women per se or citizens, but employees and or employers. These don’t require education, really, not the sort concerned with freedom in Rousseau’s sense, just a certain form of subjectivity amenable to the demands of the market: flexibility, resilience, adaptability etc. Hence the way we educate already implies this, given we move from tutor to tutor, school to school and so on).
Here is Rousseau: ‘It is quite different, I agree, to follow a young man for four years than to lead him for twenty-five. You give a governor to your son after he is already all formed; as for me, I want him to have one before he is born. Your short-term man can change pupils; mine will have only one. You distinguish the preceptor [tutor] from the governor [master]: another folly! Do you distinguish the student from the pupil? There is only one science to teach to children. It is that of man's duties. This science is one, and whatever Xenophon says about the education of the Persians it is not divisible. Moreover, I call the master of this science governor rather than preceptor because his task is less to instruct than to lead. He ought to give no precepts at all; he ought to make them be discovered.’
In a way, as I’ve said, and will come back to, the master/governor in Emile is the General Will of the Discourses… and the pupil is the citizen torn between what is and must be and where its interests or passions drive it. As Bloom notes, ‘Sexual desire, mixed with imagination and amour-propre, if it remains unsatisfied produces a tremendous psychic energy that can be used for the greatest deeds and thoughts. Imaginary objects can set new goals, and the desire to be well thought of can turn into love of virtue. But everything depends on purifying and elevating this desire and making it inseparable from its new objects.’
Hence, again, education names the procedure of the sublimation of these pure passions whose effect is the community of equals: individuals of the General Will.
Now, in 1740, suitably well-educated after the years with Madame de Waren, he goes off to Lyon to become tutor to the kids of one M. de Mably. In Emile, he says something to the effect that he was not a good tutor – at least not in the way he wants himself to be as the Ideal tutor of Emile, who is named Jean-Jacques. This is an Ideal work after all no matter how much detail Rousseau goes into in setting out the manifest attributes and practical means of the master or governor of the child. And I say child, singular, for ideally it is one master per child because of course the master and child are inseparable from birth, essentially, until the child no longer needs him. This is again typical of Rousseau: he himself was somewhat recalcitrant at the very things he was so ideally capable of rendering at their most exacting and true. Some call it a contradiction and use these to beat Rousseau over the head with – or mark him as a crank, someone outside the philosophical canon or as a dangerous obscurantist responsible for the ‘shock, horror!’ radical politics of the French Revolution etc.
In another vein he is readily interpreted as both a voice of liberation and of conservatism. As Geraint Parry notes, with regard to educational theory in particular, his fame rests on his contribution to the development of [so called] ‘child-centred’ education with its attendant emphasis on the freedom of the child to develop at its own appropriate pace and on learning by discovery rather than by forms of imposition. His belief that in education the guiding principle should be to do the opposite to what was the prevailing method of schooling has often seemed to be the inspiration of many of the radical experiments in the rearing of children over the succeeding period. Yet any examination of Rousseau's writings on education will demonstrate that this advocate of child liberation was as deeply concerned with discipline, albeit in a different manner, as the most conservative of writers.’
Hence nature is no laissez faire monster for Rousseau but offers by its necessity an intrinsic discipline of the subject. Really, when it comes to the dualisms of his time and also of ours, Rousseau is a champion of neither or of ‘both choices are worse’ and it’s this that give his paradoxes a real consistency across the variety of his work.
So I’m with Leo Strauss, who points out there are immediately many contradictions in Rousseau but when you work through them you see, he says, four that recur and these then are operative insofar as they have to be thought through. It’s like a task of Rousseau: these contradictions must be worked through; perhaps the greatest one being that the general will is right but it is not enlightened and thus it is that which is for all but is not a matter of any knowledge as such.
Indeed, if it is General how could it be known to a specific knowledge. Rather, we might say the General Will, which is true or the truth of all, is subtracted from any such knowledge – that’s what it is and why it’s general. Let’s note that Rousseau’s educational ethic, if I can call it that, must not be in contradiction with this contradiction and that’s the sort of thing that matters. Thus he fashions his Emile in light of this political configuration and as its integral part at the same time. The polity does not exist and then educates after the fact; its existence is only possible insofar as there is the education to make it manifest. Another contradiction?
Let’s just extend this example: ‘Rousseau’s answer to the question of the good life takes this form: the good life consists in the closest approximation to the state of nature which is possible on the level of humanity’ (Strauss, 1953, 282). A polity ‘constructed in conformity with the requirements of the social contract’ (Strauss, 1953, 282) is one such approximation, in that each citizen is subject only to the general will, not to ‘the private will of any other man’ (Strauss, 1953, 285). The citizen avoids self-contradiction by avoiding personal dependence and immersing himself in a greater whole.’
But since Rousseau regards even the legitimate society as a kind of bondage – at least in the Second Discourse – he thinks that ‘true freedom must be sought beyond civil society’ (Strauss, 1953, 290) and particularly in solitary contemplation.’ In other words: There is an ‘obvious tension’ in Rousseau’s thought between Rousseau, a la the classical citizen who accepts the complete subordination of the individual to society, and Rousseau, the promeneur solitaire who regards all authority and hence all social restraint as necessarily illegitimate.
Thus: ‘how can one reconcile Rousseau’s praise of natural man in the Second Discourse with the Rousseau who proudly signs his name ‘Citoyen de Genève’ in the Social Contract, and how to reconcile both with the man who self-consciously rejects the claims of society in the name of the solitary life in the Reveries of a Solitary Walker?’ In similar vein, and because he is a Straussian, Alan Bloom in his introduction to Emile says: ‘Rousseau's paradoxes – his attack on the arts and the sciences while he practices them, his praise of the savage and natural freedom over against his advocacy of the ancient city, the general will, and virtue, his perplexing presentations of himself as citizen, lover, and solitary – are not expressions of a troubled soul but accurate reflections of an incoherence in the structure of the world we all face, or rather, in general, do not face…’
Let me note that Alain Badiou, who considers Rousseau obligatory reading for every philosopher today, treats this idea of Rousseau’s contradictions in a unique way: ‘Rousseau is very close to us by dint of the diagonal approach to languages which he proposes, his advocacy of a complete de-specialization of knowledge. Abrupt, abstract and formulaic in The Social Contract, dramatic and elegiac in The New Heloise, enchantingly supple in the Reveries, the inventor of an intimate eloquence in The Confessions, insistent and didactic in Émile, he adjusts his writing to the various registers of thought, thereby exhibiting, in the phrase itself, the multiple of Ideas.’
This is what Rousseau treats: the multiple of ideas – and thus he treats each idea as idea; to do so he must write the register each idea as idea demand, such that it can be thought as it is and as idea at once. Hence the contradiction is only the division that any thought is insofar as it can be thought.
Back to the life:
So in Lyon, being a tutor, he met M. de Mably's two elder brothers - Etienne Bonnot (later the Abbe de Condillac, with Voltaire the greatest ‘Lockean’ in post- Regency France someone said) and the Abbe de Mably.
This, Patrick Riley notes, ‘was the beginning of Rousseau's connection to the Paris philosophes, with whom he would later (and permanently) have a love-hate relationship.’ So Rousseau heads off to Paris a very accomplished character – music, musicology, composer, theorist, dramatist, comic, poet etc., etc. There, he does some teaching and music copying, a short stint as a secretary to the ambassador to Venice. He meets Diderot, the editor of the famous Encyclopedia who commissioned his first essay in which the general will makes an appearance: Political Economy.
This is all before he composes the essay for the competition held by the Academie du Dijon, the essay which effectively makes Rousseau, Rousseau! The essay, which we know as the First Discourse, dealt with the question whether morals had been harmed or advanced by the rebirth (renaissance) of the arts and sciences? Of course, Rousseau argued that it did, sort of, that is, if you take poets and orators as the mark of a renaissance of arts and sciences, which Rousseau argued was the case in his time, but really that these were not truly what art and science were, thus in the essay he defended Spartan-Roman civic generalite against the Athenian literary ‘tyranny’ of poets and orators. Ostensibly, something that Plato did too, of course, and indeed in his famous Letter to D’Alembert a few years later, after he had moved from Geneva to the country estate of Mme de Epiney, he criticized d’Alembert’s idea for a theatre at Geneva along Platonic lines, that such a theatre would be inimical to civic virtue and good morals and that Moliere's "Misanthrope" would have a deleterious effect…’ or in Lacoue-Labarthe’s terms: ‘an indissoluble link between political corruption and the spectacle.’
Rousseau's so called Second Discourse, that on the ‘Origins of Inequality Among Men’, was finished in 1754; it is perhaps his most radical work arguing that existing government is a kind of confidence trick on the part of the rich, who persuade the poor that it is universally and equally advantageous to be subjected to law and to political order. Clearly, this was the one that inspired some of the key actors in the French Revolution and made him forever associated with it. Rousseau was a revolutionary but whether the French Revolution was what he imagined is difficult to say. He certainly wrote Emile as a sort of post-revolutionary text insofar as it was a sort of ‘what is to be done’, educationally speaking, as revolutionary post the event of the revolution itself.
In 1758, Rousseau wrote but left unfinished The State of War, which is a scathing critique of Hobbes and Hobbeism. This is worth mentioning for a couple of reasons – one clearly educational, but also because Leo Strauss’s influential and I’d say, important reading of Rousseau, requires that Rousseau be somewhat Hobbesian, up to a point. As Riley puts it: ‘Taking over observations first made by Descartes and Leibniz (Theodicee, 1710), Rousseau insists that Hobbes has simply mistaken badly socialised, ill-educated Englishmen for ‘natural’ men, leading to Hobbesian unquestionable ‘sovereignty’ as the only antidote to rapacious appetitiveness: Looking out his London window, Hobbes ‘thinks that he has seen the natural man,’ but he has really only viewed ‘a bourgeois of London or Paris.’ Hobbes, for Rousseau, has simply inverted cause and effect; he has mistaken a bad effect for ‘natural’ depravity.’
So we see the theme: bourgeois man is the effect of a depravity in his nature, the effect of what Rousseau calls a bad education but what I would call, in today’s context, the best education money can buy. Thus the cause of the depravity Hobbes seeks a sovereign to guard against is not nature but contemporary education itself; culture if you like. It’s clear, the Platonic link, but it’s also clear, to me anyway, that this is exactly current today – the disgusting and perverse and absolutely corrupting effects of what we call neo-liberalism are absolutely and actively inscribed in our education system: it is neoliberal, absolutely, and those who perpetrate this system are the best educated of the lot – as we are constantly reminded.
Oxford, Harvard, Sorbonne, Melbourne etc., etc., such that education is itself colonised by these forces and this education cannot then be the way out. A defining feature of this illiberal neo-liberalism is of course the dependence of men on the will, whim and social and economic interests of others. Instead of growing up to be self-reliant, men must, actually or metaphorically, Rousseau asserts, ‘sell themselves to others’ – a relationship that demeans both buyer and seller. We see it today, especially with kids being made job ready and so on – selling themselves to economic interests as what is education. More education – in this sense – is the problem not the solution, as Rousseau well understood.
Phenomena like Trump et al., are the rightist consequence of this rightist neoliberal hegemony, a hegemony which includes today, too, the men and women of the ‘arts and sciences’ who shamelessly and ignorantly blame this phenomenon on the so called uneducated, never looking to themselves. And why can they avoid looking to themselves? Because they are educated!
It’s just this sophistic mess that Rousseau attacks with his contradictory interventions, attempting ultimately to find in education that which the educated cannot corrupt. Emile is written, Alan Bloom says, paraphrasing Rousseau himself, ‘to defend man against a great threat which bids fair to cause a permanent debasement of the species, namely, the almost inevitable universal dominance of a certain low human type which Rousseau was the first to isolate and name: the bourgeois; defined essentially by Rousseau as the man motivated by fear of violent death, the man whose primary concern is self-preservation or, according to Locke's correction of Hobbes, ‘comfortable self-preservation’. Or, to describe the inner workings of his soul, he is ‘the man who, when dealing with others, thinks only of himself, and on the other hand, in his understanding of himself, thinks only of others. He is a role-player. The bourgeois comes into being when men no longer believe that there is a common good…’
And for Rousseau, the effort is to make sure this figure does not come to predominate in the post revolutionary sequence in which equality provides the new rule. Emile is written, then, as the education of the new man capable of living free in a community of equals; an education absolutely antithetical to bourgeois man.
In about 1761, Rousseau published the epistolary novel, Julie, or the New Heloise, a remarkable study of love, setting up a division between a mature ascetic vision and a radically passionate vision of it or as Alain Badiou reads it in a remarkable intervention in his Logics of Worlds, between a knowledge of love consecrated to objectivity, order and finitude and the truth of love whose subjects are the infinite procedure of its occurring. The novel was a best seller.
Finally, in mid 1762, Rousseau published his most notorious works: The Social Contract and Emile – hence why they probably need to be read together. They caused him great trouble: They were burned at Paris by the Bishop with parliament’s approval and so he fled to Geneva only to see them burned there too and to be charged with, of course, impiety, which is to say, corruption of the youth.
He renounced his citizenship. He went to England at Hume’s invitation but that went badly as well: he saw Hume as another in the ‘league of malignant enemies’. To make matters worse, he published a series of Letters From the Mountain which defended civic religions of old against Christianity – which made good men, he said, but shit citizens. The first part of this, as we know today, is ideally the case only, the second part is absolutely accurate! Rousseau was both paranoid and correct - as he was in serious danger.
He wrote the Confessions, a remarkable work, truly. It begins: ‘I have entered upon a performance which is without example, whose accomplishment will have no imitator. I mean to present my fellow-mortals with a man in all the integrity of nature; and this man shall be myself. I know my heart, and have studied mankind; I am not made like any one I have been acquainted with, perhaps like no one in existence; if not better, I at least claim originality, and whether Nature did wisely in breaking the mould with which she formed me, can only be determined after having read this work.’ This is J-J Rousseau as Emile.
He wrote a couple of constitutions and finally the last great confession, The Reveries of a Solitary Walker, which begins: ‘Here I am, then, alone on the earth, no longer having any brother, or neighbour, or friend, or society except myself.’ And here it is then, the singular universal, which is not at all to say Rousseau is exemplary, representative - indeed his work was a great effort to subtract himself from representation in all ways - but rather when it comes to writing what it is in man of man, man as free, which for R is his natural or true condition, then to do so is to write for all.
Rousseau is alone all of us, all of us alone. Just as the boy Emile stands for all children born within existing society, who must be educated out of it. Something like this, poetically speaking; not just nature but the thought of nature, too; cashed out more philosophically it’s this: ‘By nature men are free, but left to their own devices they will inevitably enslave each other.’ Or the famous: ‘Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others but remains more of a slave than they are.’ Hence, man must be ‘forced to be free’. Hence, the general will which is precisely what Emile’s education aims at as true for him, as for all, by nature.
So freedom as natural state; society as corruption of it; the possibility of natural freedom through the force of … what? Education. But not as we, the good bourgeoisie, know it but by an education very strange to just such an education. The education, then, of the General Will.
So let me explain this general will and its conditions in Rousseau as best I can. As I noted, it’s a powerful contradiction, so it seems, and in doing so we can see what the education of Emile is truly about. The more procedural details of this education we can then leave aside, given their orientation and form, what we are talking about, is precisely what these details are set out to manifest.
As everyone knows, this famous sentence ‘Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains’ opens section 1, after the short intro to Book 1 of the equally famous The Social Contract, written in 1762. In Alain Badiou’s estimation, what is at stake is not to solve the passage from one state of nature to one state of civil society – or of how a certain natural freedom has resulted in a certain state bond – but rather, setting aside the established facts, historical and natural, Rousseau looks to establish the legitimacy of such a passage, of passage as such we could even say. Thus: ‘[t]he social pact is not a historically provable fact, and Rousseau's references to Greece or Rome merely form the classical ornament of that temporal absence.’ In essence, what Rousseau is trying to think here is the event of this passage from nature to society or even as with Emile, the form of this encounter.
Rousseau says, I undertake to enquire: ‘With men as they are and with laws as they could be, can there be in the civil order any sure and legitimate rule of administration? In tackling this I shall try always to unite what right allows with what interest demands, so that justice and utility don’t at any stage part company.’ This is not a compact between justice on the one hand and utility on the other – it is that utility has no legitimacy but to effect justice. Justice is simply the philosophical name for equality, that a people belongs to itself and thus justice and freedom, coincide, the argument goes, in the general will.
Rousseau continues that it doesn’t matter whether anyone thinks this question important, thus whether it is a matter of fact. He is a citizen, he says, and as such, in a free state, he is like any other tasked to enquire into such a thing. And in the first instance, how did it come about that born free we pass into being in chains. ‘I don’t know’ he says. His question instead is: ‘what makes it legitimate?’ And moreover, if it is not by force that this is sustained – force being eminently reversible and so finally unstable – then, by what?
Well, it is by convention. This is sometimes translated as agreement. But the sense of convention, just like the famous convention of the French Revolution is of event. Even agreement has this sense, no? It’s not the lead up to it, it is what happens that agreement names or convention contends. So it’s not a natural situation and so Rousseau's goal is to examine the conceptual prerequisites of politics, to think the truth of politics which he is arguing resides in 'the act by which a people is a people.’ In the act of new association.
Rousseau cites Hugo Grotius, the great jurist of the 17th century, to the effect: ‘A people can give itself to a king’ – which, and this is not what Grotius, who Rousseau describes as a suck up, was after but Rousseau insists on: ‘Before examining the act by which a people elects a king, it would be well to examine the act by which a people is a people. For the act of being necessarily prior to the other is the true foundation of society.’ So what is the truth of the people, such that it is presupposed by any single sovereign or form of sovereignty at all?
Thus if legitimacy is existence itself then the form of such an existence is what is in question. How is a people a people, what is the form of it? Is it that it presents itself or is it what counts relative to some criteria of determination?
Rousseau is thinking ‘a self-founding politics’ – hence autonomous as such, free of any shackling to some a priori claims to what it is or must be, just as his Emile must also be originally situated in order that he really be educated – thus the political as such always begins with an event rather than a structure. Rather than emerge from any sort of social bond, politics begins all at once with an effectively axiomatic ‘contract,’ where contract or convention, Badiou argues, is the ‘evental form that we must presume if we want to think the truth of this aleatory being that is the body politic’.
That the people exist as self-constituting – that is the task Rousseau presupposes and sets himself. It is not a fact that it appears as sovereign, hence the ‘everywhere in chains’ – which is to say, how it has come to be represented: it is not a natural feature of the world as it only appears as a collective, whereas naturally, we are individually born and make our way. Thus how is this collective, named here ‘people’, legitimate such that it is neither reducible to nature nor subject to enslavement? Rousseau notes that it is impossible for a free people to choose slavery?
So not reducible to nature but, in terms of what binds any collective, oriented by it insofar at least that as a generic constitution it is one that draws it’s principle from its own being, as such, and not from language, history or knowledge itself – all the things which work to deny to this form of the collective any reality at all. In other words, a people is not a matter of the state: ‘the empirical reality of States and of civil obedience does not prove in any way that there is politics.’
For Rousseau, then, the idea is that politics – and it’s the same, finally, with education – is founded elsewhere than in the state form: for Rousseau most states are dissolved or unfaithful states or a-political anyway, for a variety of reasons: they function but the ‘social pact’ or Idea if you like, is gone out of them; nothing orients them in their trajectory other than that of a certain perseverance, maintaining a sort of vital interest in interest alone; thus a sort of administration of competing desires all of which are counted as natural; an ‘inherent and inevitable vice which relentlessly tends to destroy the body politic from the very moment of its birth.’ This is the marrying of the state to nature we can say. Again, in his Emile, this corruption is exactly what Emile – the every child – must be subtracted from such that an education be at all possible.
Thus to produce an actual people or an actual person is rare, being one not reducible to either tendency or vice but one that is essentially faithful – to the convention or encounter which founds it. In Emile, as noted, this founding encounter is with nature and it is the tutors job as minister of nature to maintain in the student the fidelity to this encounter such that education is truly possible. Rousseau says, ‘One always has to go back to a first convention’.
So, of this convention or this encounter there is no existing knowledge: it is not a social fact; it is in act what brings into existence a something that had no existence previous and which by definition there could be no positive or constructive knowledge of. That no knowledge of the convention/event exists – that in fact knowledge can see no reason in an event at all – means that clearly this existence is fragile and in terms of what it declares, almost all to come. To make what founds it exist as something in and for this situation, wherein for all intents and purposes knowledge equates with existence, can only be a matter of some other force of action than that which fits with the processes of knowledge.
To put it another way, and again, to reflect Rousseau’s concerns for Emile, a people, then, are a collective in so far as each element is counted in terms of its capacity to avoid the state. That such a strange count is legitimate is what a politics attests to, and let’s note, it is a count that gets between being or nature in Rousseau’s sense, and the state. A people is prior to the knowledge that constructs it and as such forces its own legitimacy.
Or, educationally speaking, a ‘man/woman’ is that which is subtracted from the society of knowledge which would construct it and subtraction is essentially the education process that Rousseau tries to think through; it’s the art of the impossible, we might say. Not a bad definition of education and one which has the benefit of coinciding with what Freud had to say of education, that, like politics and psychoanalysis it was ‘an impossible profession’ (and I take profession here in the sense of being said of that which is).
So the general will: ‘Each of us puts his person and his full power in common under the supreme direction of the general will.’ As Badiou says, this is a novel term, in the sense that it can be said but has no referent. Indeed, its referent is the unknown event of this convention – what does the convention announce? A statement has to be found for this and it is the general will. As Peter Hallward glosses: ‘The sovereign general will is indivisible by definition; it cannot be broken into more elementary units or interests. It exists precisely as the active process that transcends such division, that transcends the operations of the state.’
Politics is the name for when a people assert themselves as this people – as the general will. It’s not the name of their administration or determination. Here is a couple of attempts at definition which clearly reveal its paradoxical nature as a formulation but not as a thought: ‘the general will is both presupposed and constituted. Before the contract, there are only particular wills [because there are only individuals in nature]. After the contract, the pure referent of politics is the general will. But the contract itself articulates the submission of particular wills to the general will. A structure of torsion may be recognized here: once the general will is constituted, it so happens that it is precisely its being which is presupposed in such constitution.’
So the idea really is this: that the existence of multiple particular wills implies their collection, that they might be presented as one. But such a one is impossible on its own terms, nothing seals their collection, nothing exists as part of these particular wills to mark them as such. Indeed, as Rousseau argues, their incompatibility is everywhere recognized.
There are three points:
1. each person or will is motivated by self-love, by a concern for his/her own good. More particularly, it is a concern for self-preservation and personal security, and for the goods required for individual well-being.
2. individuals are indeed interdependent. Thus, the satisfaction of the needs and interests associated with self-love—minimally, interests in personal security and protection of goods, more expansively, interests in the development of our faculties— depends on how others (as well as oneself) act(s)…. But this interdependence is entirely uncoordinated, with each acting on a separate plan, and this leaves each of us less well-off – that is to say, we remain less than we might be. Let’s put it in terms of Rousseau’s notion of the ‘‘will of all’ which is distinct from the general will. He says that, while the general will ‘looks only to the common interest,’ the will of all ‘looks to private interest, and is nothing but a sum of particular wills’ (SC 2.3.2). Thus the idea is that the will of all, unlike the general will, is really not a single, unitary will at all. It is not, then, a will free of its parts. You see what I mean? The general will is that which is beholden to no part, which is of course the same for the education of Emile; to be in society yet free, ultimately, or always at a point, by his education of its determinations.
3. individuals have views about the claims that they can legitimately make on one another, and those views tend to conflict. Conceptions of justice and entitlement tend to be highly contested, because they arise under conditions of interdependence from several distinct sources. Again we can refer back to the will of all argument to conceptualise this. It’s really straight relativism based on some identitarian, and thus preservative, notion of being and our capacities.
The convention, then, which is what general will names – and which is, I say, the educator of the educator or tutor – is that which marks what was hitherto uncollected and constitutes that collection at once. As a collection it announces what it is for the particular wills qua individuals to be general – that there is that which is ‘of all’ which is generic to and so beyond individuals or particularities or interests per se.
The event of the convention or encounter presents the particular as the general it already is – again recall that for Rousseau, the problem of education is precisely that the man/woman is already conceived in its particular or self-interested form and thus educated accordingly – back toward what existing society demands – while for Rousseau, this conception is where education goes wrong. Again, it’s a case of education not knowing what it professes too. Thus a true education, like a true politics, submits the particular will – the will which is determined as such by the will of all – to its form, the form it presupposes and can constitute: ‘the self-belonging of the body politic to the multiple that it is’ or the self-belonging of the citizen/subject to its very nature and thus to the freedom that it is.
‘General will’ names the durable truth of this self-belonging. Rousseau says: ‘The body politic . . . since it owes its being solely to the sanctity of the contract, can never obligate itself . . . to do anything that detracts from that primitive act… To violate the act by which it exists would be to annihilate itself, and what is nothing produces nothing’,
So: ‘the act or the encounter is the event which supplements the state of nature’.
- the people or the man/woman, is that which interposes itself between nature and itself
- the general will is the orientation of the educative or political procedure.’
Here is what Rousseau says: ‘To protect the social compact from being a mere empty formula, therefore, it silently includes the undertaking that anyone who refuses to obey the general will is to be compelled to do so by the whole body. This single item in the compact can give power to all the other items. It means nothing less than that each individual will be forced to be free. It’s obvious how forcing comes into this, but. . . to be free? Yes, because this is the condition which by giving each citizen to his country, secures him against all personal dependence, i.e. secures him against being taken by anyone or anything else. This is the key to the working of the political machine; it alone legitimises civil commitments which would otherwise be absurd, tyrannical, and liable to frightful abuses.’
When this whole body becomes a part of the body as representative – as that which establishes its legitimacy on something other than the all; thus on some knowledge which presupposes it and assumes to know it, e.g. that number trumps all – then force and freedom also come apart. Some have the force which gives them the freedom to decide on what freedom actually can be, and again, once we have the criterion for discernment we are back in the state – whereby selection and classification determine what may and may not be free, and thus un-freedom becomes the principle of orientation: this is what Rousseau, in the Discourse on Inequality, calls the false contract – based on radically un-equal private interests and property ownership! It is the general taken as sum of private interests – not the general as something in-itself; something in fact alien to the private as public good.
For Rousseau, the whole is what guarantees the freedom of all. Obedience to the ‘general will’ is the mode in which civil liberty is realised. As Rousseau says, in ‘an extremely tense formula’: ‘the words subject and sovereign are identical correlatives’. This is the citizen. Still, as Rousseau avers, ‘One believes himself the others master and yet is more a slave than they.’ And thus this dialectic of the citizen is still not enough. Hence Rousseau’s turn toward an educated subject, a solitary, as he calls it, who finally might be subtracted from this dialectic itself as, as he says, ‘its consciousness’.
In his own introduction Rousseau, in my opinion, gives not only the starting point of his own specific project but the project yet to come or that must perhaps be recommenced and indeed perhaps this is what is most critical in all thinking of education when it comes time to really think again what it is. This thinking is called upon when the times have assumed precisely, in specifying education everywhere, for everyone and always in the same manner that they know what it is and that this knowledge of education exhausts all possible knowledge of it.
For R there were essentially three regimes that have supposed this: the Spartan, with its denaturing, the Christian in its piety, the calculatory regime of the bourgeois. The latter exemplified in his time in the vanities of his implacable enemy, Voltaire but which became and has become the educational regime of our time. ‘Throughout Emile, Rousseau shows that all previous thinkers following in the stead of one of these regimes had added some kind of reward or punishment -wealth, honor, heaven or prison, disgrace, hell- to faith, thereby reducing it to the calculation of the other palpable goods which have been allied with it. Duty seems always to stem from the will of another…’ To make (not too unlike Augustine) what is good the very natural inclination and will of the subject is Rousseau’s education, and as always it comes as you see in this paradox – to make the subject be what it truly is and thus to have made it nothing, really, at all. The subject thus appears to itself as itself and nothing other.
So let’s end with R speaking to our educators such that it is they not him who are strange to education: ‘They are always seeking the man in the child without thinking of what he is before being a man. This is the study to which I have most applied myself, so that even though my entire method were chimerical and false, my observations could still be of profit. My vision of what must be done may have been very poor, but I believe I have seen clearly the subject on which one must work. Begin, then, by studying your pupils better. For most assuredly you do not know them at all.’