Understanding Love and Marriage with Rousseau

I like slim volumes of pith and punch. Mark Kremer’s little study, Romanticism and Civilization:  Love, Marriage, and Family in Rousseau’s Julie, is both. Its bold thesis can be similarly stated: Jean-Jacques Rousseau diagnosed the problems of modern thought and society, and, above all, their subjects, modern men and women, better than anyone. And even if he didn’t quite get the response right, he is remarkably contemporary, because penetrating and prescient. Put in personal terms, the claim is: Read Rousseau to help sort out your love-life. Put sociologically: Read Rousseau to understand why our divorce rate is so high. Put philosophically: Read Rousseau to take the measure of “modern civilization” and its erotic discontents.

As studied here in connection with his 1761 epistolary novel, the New Heloise, or Julie, Rousseau’s thought is of a rather capacious, dialectical, and intriguing sort, not least because of its central themes: men and women; love, sex, marriage and family. It is capacious, because in his erotic studies Rousseau surveyed western civilization from antiquity to modernity, with the Christian interlude still somewhat present in his own day. Dialectical, because he considered relevant alternatives before proposing his own. Intriguing, because his work deals with men and women as such, their differences, their attractions, their bonds—and their fissures and failures.

There’s more. He does so as a modern philosopher who critiqued modern philosophy and science. The moderns were more right about nature than the ancients, mechanism was more true than teleology. But that relative truth led to pernicious results, so something must be not quite right with it. Rousseau worked in that space.

While he could not share their natural grounds, Plato and Aristotle helped him in this endeavor. Two contributions stand out:  the classical treatment of love—of eros—in the Symposium, and the discipline of political philosophy. “Everything is connected with the constitution [or regime],” wrote the young Rousseau. Once humanity has stirred from its original doldrums and entered the adventure of History, society shapes man decisively, and political society most of all. This is as true of his erotic dimensions as any other. Hence Kremer’s close attention in Julie to what an earlier commentator (Joel Schwartz) called Rousseau’s “sexual politics,” and which he writes about under the rubric of “sexual relations in three societies” (cosmopolitan Paris, Calvinist Geneva, and the site of the New Heloise, “a small village at the foot of the Swiss Alps”).

Rousseau famously named the human type envisaged by modern philosophy, the bourgeois. He is a self-centered individual who perforce lives in society. This divides him: satisfying his needs depends upon currying favor with society, and his happiness is caught up in the gaze and judgment of equally self-centered individuals. This is not a prescription for equanimity or integrity, much less admiration and sacrifice for others. Split, torn, a hypocrite—Rousseau excoriated the Hobbesian-Lockean individual.

He also pitied the real men and women who had adopted this self-image. Hence came a search for ways to reconnect emancipated modern individuals. Thanks to the partial truth of modern thought, the old ties of religion and patriotism, and of the patriarchal aristocratic family, were, if not simply unavailable, unavailing. But John Locke’s substitute-ties of lust, calculation, and consent to bring together men and women were not only uncharming, but admittedly revocable. New ones had to be found or forged. Here was a task for a new Columbus of the spirit.

Rousseau found their source in an assortment of psychological elements that could be artfully mixed by the philosopher-novelist. “Rousseau create[d] love from sexual desire, imagination, and amour-propre.” Romantic love was the quasi-natural, deliberately-cultivated motive in the human heart that could make a whole of body and soul and draw men and women together in couples. However, it required a candid look at both differentiated bodies and differentiated souls. Here the probing of analysis and the dialectic of synthesis needed to be most acute.

Remarkably, Rousseau’s analysis took its bearings from the distaff side, he sought to look at the female, as it were, from within, and at the male, as she should. “Love is determined by the female situation.” This Rousseauan protofeminism is often overlooked. In part, this is because feminists then and now rejected the character and role he assigned to the female in the all-important mating pas de deux. She had to exercise the arts and wiles of the weaker sex, while also possessing the virtues of modesty and strict concern for her public reputation. The roots of this amorous regime were certain psycho-somatic realities of male sexual performance which the female had to manage; but while acknowledging the mechanism, Rousseau also elevated and transformed it. He did so by connecting it to imagination’s products.  Here Romanticism comes to sight.

In modern times, Rousseau became the philosopher-poet of the beautiful. Like Plato, he saw its centrality in human life, its power to elevate, to transport, to inspire. Unlike Plato, however, he accepted modern science’s disenchanted view of the cosmos and of man’s place in it—bleak, unlovely, unsupported. Hence his—and beauty’s—Sisyphean task: to give, if not a reason, an ideal, to help mortals to confront death and eternity. The city that had promised immortality by way of everlasting glory was no more, Christian hope had lost its credibility. Rousseau therefore charged the beautiful with the task. And the couple. And within the couple, especially the female. As Allan Bloom once said, modernity is harder on the female than the male.

Rousseau himself indicated doubts about the adequacy of his proposal, and never called it a solution: being human does not admit of any such thing. On one hand, modernity’s great principles of human equality and freedom, along with a designedly utilitarian technological science, would militate against it and conspire to increasingly form a social order and ethos after their image and likeness, one inhospitable to romantic love. Radicalized, equality would bristle at the inequalities inherent in domestic life, freedom would chaff at permanent commitments that necessarily entail personal sacrifice, and technology would empower emancipated men and women in their intimate lives, whether with contraceptives or abortions.

Similarly, the project of deriving something high and permanent (conjugal love) from the low (desire, self-love) always suffered from the Achilles heel of its natural origins and the fickleness of its dependence upon imagination. The latter especially made it subject to charges of artifice and illusion.

The philosopher-poet of love therefore indicated reservations about his creation dramatically. The action of the novel begins with two lovers who, after discovering, testing, then consummating their love, find themselves permanently separated by her marriage to another. In the course of the subsequent action, she loses her own life in the attempt to save her child, leaving both husband and lover bereft. (A similar melancholic lesson is drawn in the postscript that Rousseau wrote to the Emile (1762), in which the apparently well-matched Emile and Sophie divorce.)

Noting the unhappy ending of Julie, Kremer seeks and finds its root in Rousseau’s thoroughgoing commitment to modern thought and principles, and ventures the suggestion that one might revisit the ancient, that is, Platonic, view of eros that modern philosophy rejected. There is certainly merit to that suggestion, although I might add Aristotle to the list because of his more explicit natural teleology and a subtle pro-female teaching (on this, see Ann Ward’s 2016 book Contemplating Friendship in Aristotle’s Ethics).

Be that as it may, I would also add the following from Allan Bloom, whose presence and groundbreaking readings of Rousseau loom in the background of this very fine study of Rousseau’s little novel. This passage of The Closing of the American Mind (1987) is a diagnosis and a critique, as well as a sursum corda:

I am speaking here not of the unhappy, broken homes that are such a prominent part of American life, but the relatively happy ones, where husband and wife like each other and care about their children, very often devoting the best parts of their lives to them. But they have nothing to give their children in the way of a vision of the world, of high models of action or profound sense of connection with others. The family requires the most delicate mixture of nature and convention, of human and divine, to subsist and perform its function. Its base is merely bodily reproduction, but its purpose is the formation of civilized human beings. In teaching a language and providing names for all things, it transmits an interpretation of the order of the whole of things. It feeds on books, in which the little polity—the family—believes, which tell about right and wrong, good and bad, and explain why they are so. The family requires a certain authority and wisdom about the ways of the heavens and of men.

Here, I would venture, is an idealism that can support love, as well as instruct it in its search for its own deepest meaning.