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A Rehearing for Rousseau

Canonical authors, it seems, are always on trial. Not only do they face a jury of contemporary readers disinclined to recognize their greatness, but they must re-argue their case with every succeeding generation that charges them with irrelevance. As the arbiters in this tribunal are biased and the prosecutors zealous and unprincipled, a skilled and tenacious advocate can be an extraordinary asset. It is convenient, then, that Nelson Lund, who has published a new defense of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Rousseau’s Rejuvenation of Political Philosophy, is a lawyer. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that, because the author is a lawyer, his study of Rousseau, subtitled “A New Introduction,” turns out to be an expertly argued motion for rehearing.

Rousseau’s critics, according to Lund, are a diverse and querulous lot. One set would consign Rousseau to the irrelevance of all proverbial dead white men, out of touch with scientific developments—whether we are talking about biological science or political science—and thus unable to speak to the modern condition. Another set of critics accuses him of the opposite defect: of participating in the modern project to overthrow ancient political philosophy. It is a tricky undertaking to disprove both accusations at once, and to demonstrate that Rousseau is simultaneously a partisan of the ancients and a modern natural scientist. But every lawyer has an obligation to develop the strongest possible arguments on behalf of his client, and Lund carries out this duty admirably. The question is whether the Rousseau that emerges from Lund’s defense is an author who can still command our respect or excite our interest.

The book is divided roughly into thirds. The first third is concerned with harmonizing Rousseau’s ideas about human origins with the arguments of ancient philosophy as well as the findings of modern science. The second takes up Rousseau’s ideas about women, education, and the family in two chapters. The concluding section addresses the French thinker’s relation to American politics. Lund does not advance a single, synoptic thesis about Rousseau’s often-paradoxical writings to tie these parts into a whole. Instead, he offers a series of observations about individual works. What ties the chapters together is Lund’s insistence on Rousseau’s continued relevance to both contemporary science and contemporary politics, as well as his continuity with ancient philosophy.

The first thing Lund would demonstrate is that “the principal arguments” in the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality (1755) “do not depend on assumptions that have been falsified by modern science.” Unlike previous state-of-nature arguments, Rousseau’s is based on an evolutionary account of human history, describing man as originally an animal lacking moral ideas and even speech, but whose moral, social, and finally political possibilities are gradually activated by changes in his way of life. Rousseau did not go so far as to say that man evolved from another species, but his developmental sketch plainly shares a sensibility with Darwinian evolution. Where Rousseau runs afoul of current scientific consensus is when he claims that man was not originally social, and that the early tribal societies of “the happiest epoch, and the most durable” of human history were egalitarian and pacifist.

To vindicate Rousseau’s depiction of the first human societies, Lund draws on the anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ observations of the isolated San people of the Kalahari Desert. Although most tribal societies studied by modern scholars are warlike and hierarchical, Lund argues that the San, as described by Thomas, corroborate Rousseau’s picture of “the happiest epoch.” Their very persistence in this way of life is evidence that it is indeed “the most durable,” although few other peoples have endured in it.

The idea that humans are naturally solitary poses even more difficulty, since it is rejected by pre-modern philosophers and modern scientists alike. Lund tries to reconcile this conflict between Rousseau and everyone else by simultaneously softening Rousseau’s rejection of natural sociability and casting doubt on both Aristotle’s commitment to it and modern scientific evidence for it. According to Lund, Rousseau understood sociability not as strictly unnatural, but as only one of several possible directions of human development. Although Rousseau explicitly criticized Aristotle’s famous claims that the city is “by nature” and that man is “a political animal,” Lund maintains that what he really rejected was not Aristotle himself but a “Christianized interpretation of Aristotle” that distorted Aristotle’s true teaching. The true Aristotelian teaching turns out to be identical with Rousseau’s: What is natural about human sociability is not that it is necessary or inevitable, but only that the flexible human constitution leaves room for it.

Although we know that relatively early humans lived in societies, Lund points out that the archeological record has not yet allowed us to determine with any certainty whether the very earliest humans were social. However, we do know that our close evolutionary relatives, orangutans (though not other primates), live solitary lives resembling Rousseau’s description of pre-social man. Given the gaps in our knowledge of human origins, it remains possible that the earliest humans lived solitary lives like orangutans, although it is also possible, Lund concedes, that the earliest orangutans lived social lives.

After these simian considerations, Lund turns to a new topic: domestic politics (sex, marriage, education) in the Letter to D’Alembert (1758) and Emile (1762). These chapters avoid the pugilistic approach of the rest of the book, and are its strongest. Lund’s aim is to lay out the Platonic basis of Rousseau’s educational project.

Plato’s influence on Rousseau is well-established, particularly the Emile’s link to the Republic, which Rousseau makes explicit, but Lund makes a novel argument linking the Letter to Plato’s Laws. He suggests that Rousseau’s account of the relations between the sexes in Geneva is an adaptation of the Athenian Stranger’s proposed legislation for Magnesia. Plato recognized the danger that improperly channeled female ambition posed to political stability, and the need for laws and education to create civic functions for women beyond their natural childrearing roles. Because the modern dangers threatening the increasingly idle Genevans are the inverse of those facing militaristic Magnesia, Rousseau’s recommendations for Genevan women in the Letter—that they cultivate private, family-oriented lives and govern the morals of the domestic realm  —reverse the Stranger’s suggestions to give Magnesian women public, and even military, offices.

Lund seems to conclude that Rousseau’s Platonic educations in the Letter and in the Emile offer a relatively plausible solution to modern conflicts between men and women: a purification of marriage and a retreat into pastoral family life. But the logic of these solutions is incomplete and Rousseau’s own confidence in them is ambivalent at best. For example, Rousseau does give to women in Geneva a civic function, if tacitly: They exert a “secret rule” over men through the preservation of morals within the family. But will this be effective in warding off the boredom and dissipation that Plato understood to be politically fatal? If the tacitness or secrecy is key, it may be a problem that Rousseau casually betrays woman’s secret to his male readers.

What are we to make of the collapse of Sophie and Emile’s assiduously purified marriage in the sequel Emile and Sophie (1783), or of the suicide of the title character in Julie (1761), Rousseau’s other marriage novel? Lund concedes that Emile’s fate in the sequel suggests that the success of Rousseau’s program rests largely on favorable circumstances. Despite having the best possible education, his pupils may prove unable to face unexpected adversity.

Lund takes comfort in the conclusion that the two of them at least fare better than those without such education. Or at least Emile does: After discovering his wife’s infidelity and abandoning her and their child, Emile achieves a kind of Stoic equanimity as a slave in Algiers. But this conclusion, together with the tensions in the Letter and the outcome of Julie, should engender serious doubts about the possibility that traditional marriage can resolve the conflict between nature and society that Rousseau lays out. Although Lund recognizes some of this ambivalence in his discussion of Emile and Sophie, he nonetheless recommends Rousseau’s depiction of family life as an antidote to “politically correct pieties enforced by intolerant proponents of sexual license, of doctrinaire feminism, and of redefining marriage.” There is some reason to doubt, however, that Rousseau’s teachings will have the salutary effects that Lund identifies.

In his final section, on Rousseau’s political thought, Lund asks whether Rousseau’s standard of  political legitimacy requires direct democracy, as the Social Contract (1762) apparently affirms. Since our Constitution is designed to restrain direct democracy, readers may be inclined to dismiss Rousseau as incompatible with American constitutional government. Lund argues, however, that Jean-Jacques Rousseau can be harmonized with James Madison. For one thing, the former accepted representative assemblies for already-corrupted regimes. More surprisingly, although Rousseau says that “the exercise of the general will can never be alienated” and the sovereign “cannot be represented except by himself,” Lund insists that direct democracy is “not a necessary consequence of the terms of the social contract, for the general will could guide a representative assembly or even a single representative like a monarch.” Lund concedes that direct democracy is “desirable” for Rousseau, but, because Rousseau nowhere rejects representation under all conditions, it remains possible that he might have favored it.

Although it is enjoyable to follow Lund as he subjects Rousseau’s critics to cross-examination, his book is ultimately strongest where he reads Rousseau primarily to understand him, rather than to defend him against maligners. In the chapters on women and education, for example, Lund poses probing questions and develops insightful observations that have been overlooked by many readers. Yet in his effort to defend Rousseau against critics, Lund occasionally strains too far to elevate Rousseau above even the most benevolent criticism. Lund vehemently rejects, for example, mild expressions of skepticism about Rousseau’s omniscience from otherwise friendly scholars such as Roger Masters, Arthur Melzer, and Leo Strauss. Here, Lund resembles the punctilious lawyer who eschews reliance on favorable precedent merely because of a single dubious citation.

It is possible that Lund secures Rousseau’s credibility as a participant in contemporary discussion by minimizing the most provocative aspects of his thought. The temptation to harmonize a favored thinker from the past with the latest discoveries of the present is understandable. It demonstrates that he has not been superseded, so his thought cannot be dismissed as antiquated. But even if it can be shown that Rousseau anticipated evolutionary biology, no student seeking an empirical account of human evolution will turn to Rousseau in preference to Darwin or his followers. What, then, does such a reading of Rousseau truly offer?

Even if the sociability of the earliest humans remains in question, the most promising way of arriving at an answer is to study archeology and anthropology. Demonstrating that modern science hasn’t falsified Rousseau does not prove that Rousseau has anything to offer to modern science. Reading past authors for hints and anticipations of current ideas is unlikely to satisfy skeptics, but may end up narrowing these authors, whittling them down to mere predecessors of later but greater intellectual progeny.

A similar difficulty arises when going in the other direction, that is, assimilating modern authors to their ancient predecessors to demonstrate that they have not broken with them. If Rousseau were merely translating or “rejuvenating” Plato and Aristotle for the modern situation, why shouldn’t we skip him and go straight to the source? Even if a modern translation is necessary for modern readers, surely by now there are more up-to-date “rejuvenations” of philosophy for 21st century America than these 350-year-old French texts. From this vantage point, Rousseau, rather than being elevated and enlarged by an emphasis on commonalities with other important thinkers, is liable to seem a mere way station directing our attention to them instead.

What is compelling about Rousseau is his striking difference from his philosophical predecessors, from his successors, and even from his contemporaries. It is his very insistence on direct democracy that merits the attention of Americans who are accustomed to accepting the legitimacy of representation. In defending an alternative to our Constitution, he illuminates important weaknesses in it.

It is his rejection of natural sociability that allows us to examine an important problem: that our sociability is a source of both intense pleasure and immense pain. To say, as Aristotle does, that sociability is natural and that it points to the best life for man may be correct, but it leads us into a different kind of political inquiry, one that addresses different questions than Rousseau’s. We need not compel Aristotle to become a philosopher of amour propre since Rousseau’s account of this problem is far more illuminating. Rousseau need not be everything to everyone to be worth reading. What Rousseau already is is arresting enough.

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