Rousseau had a profound impact on the way of life of the late 18th century; thanks to him many parents became aware of and attentive to their children; he fostered enjoyment of natural beauties and contributed to a change in the style of gardening; he was instrumental in shifting the manner of personal relationships from polite restraint to excessive demonstrativeness; with a lag of a generation his political views fired Robespierre; with an even greater lag his Socinian religiosity was to pervade the 19th century. It would be hard to find another writer whose suggestions have proved effective so extensively.

Strangely enough, however, the very core of Rousseau’s doctrine has been almost entirely disregarded. But is it so strange? In this respect, Rousseau was not only intellectually ahead of his day, but also he was affectively in direct opposition to the trend of his time, which has developed ever since. Rousseau is the first exponent of social evolution. His was the first attempt to depict systematically the historical progress of human society: here he comes a full century before Engels and all the others who were to make the evolution of human society a popular theme. His concern to mark out stages of social development and to bring out the factors he deemed effective in the process, is impressive against the background of contemporary writings. Everybody was then talking about progress in a very loose manner, and Rousseau was the only one who thought of it as a process to be understood. Now the first author who offered an understanding of what everybody talked about should have been praised to the skies on that score. This, on the contrary, is what brought Rousseau the enmities which made the last part of his life a misery.

Rousseau attempting to place the manuscript of the Dialogues on the master-altar of Notre-Dame, because that then seemed to him the only chance of ensuring that his protest against his persecutors should reach posterity; Rousseau balked in his attempt and wandering through the streets of Paris, clutching his justification, in despair because there is no one he can trust to procure its posthumous publication; Rousseau standing at street-corners, distributing leaflets copied in his own hand, which are spurned by passers-by; here are images which move us to pity, yet we feel that such conduct is pathological. Also when we read the Dialogues, we feel that Rousseau is mainly the victim of his disordered imagination. I said “mainly,” not “solely.” However much he exagerated it, the evidence seems to me convincing that there was a continuing systematic attempt on the part of the Philosophes to discredit him. A war of derisive bon mots and ridiculous anecdotes was waged upon him which his own disposition made easy and which his sensitivity made effective. It will not do to plead that the Philosophes reacted without the willful malice to his being a “difficult” person: they treated him as a dangerous man, and took advantages of his being difficult, making him ever so more so by their expert teasing, finally driving him to desperate isolation.

But why did these lovers of Progress regard as dangerous the first systematic exponent of social evolution? For a solid and weighty reason: because Rousseau, while sketching evolution with a keen pencil, also painted it in dark colors. The Philosophes fought the Church, which they regarded as a restraining hand upon Progress, but an ever-weakening hand. What if they now found standing in their own path, coming from their own ranks, a new enemy, a voice warning against the dangers of Progress? To this challenger applied a fortiori the war-cry: “Ecrasons l’infame!” Rousseau points out that the Philosophes, having proved powerful enough to drive the Jesuits out of France, found it child’s play to get rid of a single inconvenient individual.

In a concise recapitulation of his doctrine, Rousseau provides the key to the enmity of the Philosophes. A speaker is supposed to sum up the lessons he has drawn from a second painstaking reading of all of Rousseau’s works: “I saw throughout the development of his great principle that nature has made man happy and good but that society corrupts him and causes his misery. Take the Emile, much read but much misunderstood; it is nothing other than a treatise on the spontaneous goodness of man, meant to show how vice and error, foreign to his constitution, invade it from outside and deteriorate it progressively. In his first writings, he is more concerned to destroy the delusive prestige which causes us to admire stupidly the very means of our misery, and he seeks to correct this false valuation which causes us to honor mischievous talents and to despise beneficial virtues. Everywhere he shows us mankind better, wiser, and happier in its primitive constitution; blind, miserable, and nasty as it moves away from it. His goal is to correct the error of our judgments in order to check the progress of our vices.”

It is easy to understand how exasperating the Philosophes must have found so pessimistic a view of Progress. It is also easy to understand that, during two centuries of accelerating Progress, admirers of Rousseau were prone to cast Noah’s mantle upon what they regarded as an absurdity of their hero. But whether absurd or not, a doctrine which a great author explicitly states to be the essence of his message can not be glossed over without a consequent misreading of his works. The respect due to the author requires that his books be read in the light of what he himself names as his central concept.

The Deterioration of Democracy 

This dawned upon me many years ago, while studying the Social Contract, when I found it to be, not a hopeful prescription for a Republic to come, but a clinical analysis of political deterioration. It is hard to misconceive what Rousseau meant when he himself summarized it:

The principle which constitutes the various forms of Government is to be found in the number of members which compose it. The lesser this number, the stronger this government; the greater this number, the weaker the Government; and as sovereignty tends ever to loosen, the Government tends to reinforce itself. Thus the executive must in time overpower the legislative; and when Law is finally subjected to men, there remain only masters and slaves; the State is destroyed.

Before such destruction, the Government must, by its natural progress, change its form, and pass by degrees from the greater number to the lesser.

This summary turns our attention to Book III, chap. I of the Contract, where Rousseau offers what would now be called “a dynamic model of political transformation.” While men should be active partners in the formulation of the public interest and voluntary agents thereof in private capacity, Rousseau asserts that such active partnership declines as the number of citizens increases, that individual conducts are increasingly inspired by divergent particular interests, that the role and pressure of Government must therefore develop; that, as the government apparatus grows, authority therein must be more concentrated; that, in sum the more numerous the people, the smaller the number of rulers. These rulers exert a heavier control over subjects, while they are ever less answerable to the citizenry:

A (governing) body which acts all the time can not render account of each action; it renders account only of the more important, and soon it may render account of none. The more active the acting Power, the less important the Power that wills….Thus perish in the end all Democratic States.

In the Social Contract, Rousseau offered no recipe for turning the government of a large and complex society into a democracy: on the contrary, he offered a demonstration that on the one hand great numbers, on the other requirement of great activity in Government inevitably led to the centralization of political authority in a few hands, which he regarded as the opposite of Democracy. Quite early, Rousseau had expressed alarm about plans for the radical reconstruction of the French political system, and in the Dialogues designed for posthumous publication he complained bitterly:

His object could not be to bring back large population and big States to the initial simplicity but only to arrest, if possible, the progress of those small and isolated enough for their preservation form their perfection of Society and the deterioration of the species…But the bad faith of men of letters and that silly vanity which forever persuades everyone that he is being thought of, causes great nations to apply to themselves what was meant for small Republics; and, perversely, one wished to see a promoter of subversion and troubles in the man who is most prone to respect national laws and constitutions and who has the strongest aversion for revolutions, and for ligueurs of all kind, who return the compliment.


It is perhaps characteristic that the instance which immediately comes to our mind when think of the purest democracy, Athens, found no favor in the eyes of Rousseau. Not only does he disparage it by comparison with Sparta on the Discours sur le Sciences et les Arts, but speaking of a political incident in Geneva, he exclaims in a private letter: “Here are these misguided people making great strides in imitation of the Athenians, and thus racing towards the same fate, which they shall encounter soon enough without running into it.” Why this low valuation of Athens? “With all this, never was Greece, excepting Sparta alone, given as an example of good mores.” Since Athens was lacking in mores and not a good example of democracy, the two things are linked in Rousseau’s mind, and linked to the urban character of Athens. Note than when he pictures his assembly of the people, he mentions peasants: “When in the happiest people, we see peasants gathered under an oak to transact public business and acquitting themselves always wisely, can we fail to despise the refinements of other nations which achieve their fame and misery with so much art?”

Democracy sits well with a sturdy peasantry and perishes through the riff-raff of the big town (Contract, Bk. IV, chap. IV). “Men were not designed to live in ant-heaps…The closer you pack them the more they spoil….Towns are the sink of all human species.” “The happiest of all conditions,” states Rousseau, “is that of a villager in a free State.” Now we have moved on from Rousseau’s political views to his social views, quite naturally since they are closely connected.

Of course, in our day the most “advanced” countries are characterized in terms of occupational statistics by having quite a small proportion of their man-power in agriculture. The proportion is very large on the contrary in the “under-developed” countries, and, quite currently, the rate at which the land cedes manpower to the town is taken as a rough measure of the rate of progress. Here then we have a stark contrast between Rousseau’s view of welfare and that which is current among us.

For Rousseau, “the condition natural to man is to till the soil and live from the fruits thereof…this occupation is the only necessary one and the most useful: it is an unhappy estate only when others tyrannize it by their violence or seduce it by the example of their vices.” The “agriculture” which Rousseau has in mind is of course not “the food factory” producing essentially for the market, but it is the “subsistence farm” whereby the farming family is self-sufficient and then produces some surplus to support a small minority of non-farmers. Those who tyrannize the peasant, interfering with the natural happiness of his condition, are of course the “privileged classes” which levy too heavy a tribute on him: and presumably Rousseau would have seen also as tyrannical the levy on the peasants for the sake of “socialist industrialization.” But the happiness of the peasant is jeopardized not only by levies, but also by the temptations of the town: “Both the more substantial and the poorer peasants have the mania of sending their children into the towns, the former to make them gentlemen, the other to make them wage-earners…”

It comes as something of a shock to a reader of 1962 that Madam de Wolmar’s great maxim should be to do all that is possible towards the happiness of peasants, but to lend no hand towards individual promotion out of that condition. It is indeed stressed that the distribution of talents among men is independent of the class into which they are born: why then should the talents from the peasant class not be helped to positions consonant with their gifts?

Because mores and happiness are the major considerations. Rousseau does not deny that promoting a man to a position wherein he can make full employment of his talent is to the advantage of society but, he stresses, men should not be considered as “instruments,” and therefore one should not so distribute employments as to put the best man in the place where he can be most efficient, but so as to put men in positions where they can be as good and happy as possible: “it is never permissible to deteriorate a human soul for the benefit of others.”

Nothing perhaps is so foreign to the attitude of 1962 as Rousseau’s view of the peasantry. A hasty reader must regard it as fantastically conservative: it is conservative from the angle of economics, since he advocates the preservation of a form of production, subsistence farming, which is inimical to economic development; moreover it is socially conservative since he does not want to afford gifted individuals opportunities for promotion out of this condition! But Rousseau never pretended to be interested in economics and social development. Repeatedly he stated that his purpose was to reverse our valuations. Throughout history, peasants have been the despised basis upon which the social pyramid has been reared: there have been a few exceptions to this “rule of contempt,” such as early Rome, the pioneer age of the U.S., the simpler Swiss cantons. These are the social systems of which Rousseau approves. If peasants are exploited and spurned, then of course they cannot be happy and contented, but a society made up of peasant families would be a virtuous and contented society. This Arcadian dream already lies at the core of the Discours des Sciences et des Arts.

This does not imply that men should remain ignorant of skills other than those of agriculture. There is a picture in the Letter a D’ Alembert sur Geneve of a happy society in the neighborhood of Neufchatel: here equally spaced farms display the quality of land possessions of the farmers, and afford the inhabitants the advantages of privacy together with the benefits of society. These happy peasants are all in favorable circumstances, free from any levies, dues or taxes, they each live from their own produce; however they have leisure to display their own creative genius in many handiworks, especially in the winter, each family isolated by snow in their house built by its own hands practices many arts which are both pleasurable and useful. “No carpenter, locksmith [etc.] ever entered the country; they have no need of specialized craftsmen, each is his own craftsman…Indeed they even make watches; and, incredible as it may seem, each united in his own person the various professions which watchmaking, and its very tooling, seem to require.”

The last phrase irresistibly suggests the contrast of Adam Smith’s opening remarks: a pin is a simple object, yet many men are assembled to make it, and its manufacture is subdivided into “about eighteen different operations.” Adam Smith eulogizes this massing of hands and sub-division of tasks in the production of a simple object: this is the diametrically opposite position from that of Rousseau who rejoices that a complicated object is made by a simple of man. Surely Rousseau would conceded to Smith that a division of labor was more efficient and led to higher production, but he would have argued that the Neufchatel procedure made the worker a happier and better man.

The contrast with Adam Smith gives us a key to Rousseau’s thinking: he cared little for efficiency, which has been ever more highly valued in the course of the two centuries elapsed. It is in terms of efficiency that we can call ourselves greatly superior to the men of 1762; it is by means of efficiency that we enjoy many goods and possibilities they lacked. The great “success story” of the West is the Story of Efficiency, our elites are efficiency elites, our new wisdom consists in efficient processes and maxims of efficiency. It is in that form, and in that form only that the “wisdom of the West” is eagerly accepted throughout the world. As we shall see, Rousseau’s “advice to an under-developed nation” stands in sharp opposition to ours.

What is the mainspring of Rousseau’s contempt for efficiency? He understands that increasing mastery over Nature implies increasing material independence of men: this he regards as corrupting. His great concern is to promote a condition of mutual friendship. He considers the thesis according to which a practical equivalent is obtained when each man is moved, for his own personal advantage to serve that of his fellows, and he forcibly rejects this equivalence. Not only is the feeling for the neighbor utterly different in quality if he is regarded as a means to services, however mutual, but it is not true that on this personal advantage basis, harmony will be achieved. On the contrary there will be in each man a propensity to feel that he is not getting as a good a bargain as he should. Man feels less at home in his work if its nature and discipline are imposed, directly or not, by his fellows, and more dissatisfied with its proceeds, if these seem determined at the discretion of his fellows. Thus Rousseau sees in the division of labor not the proceeds thereof but feelings arising therefrom: unfreedom, frustration, and resentment.

 Advice to an Under-developed Nation

Nowadays we quantify Progress. We evaluate in current prices the sum of goods and services produced in a nation in a given year, and then measure against the flow in some succeeding year, making corrections for price changes: this calculation, put on a per year and per inhabitant basis, yields us the per capita rate of growth, which we commonly identify with rate of progress. Also we use the “flow of goods and services per year” concept to compare the National Product per head in various countries and then we can place these countries on a graduated scale with India at the bottom and the U.S. at the top. It is indeed in terms of position on this graduated scale that we define “under-developed countries”: in the case of the latter we deem it mandatory that they should adopt the policies and structures apt to move them up the scale at the fastest feasible pace.

In Rousseau’s day there was no pressure of population problem and therefore we cannot presume to say what his view would have been in the case of countries so afflicted. But taking the case, of say, African countries, it seems quite clear from his writings that he would not have advocated the imitation of the Western economy. He would have said that maximizing the flow of goods and service was a purpose different in kind from a fostering a virtuous and happy community, and that his own purpose was the latter.

Nothing is more telling in this respect than his advice on the political and social reformation of Poland. In his day Poland was an “under-developed country,” lacking the administration, industry, and trade of the western kingdoms, although it possessed a cultural elite (which is also the case of a good number of now “under-developed” nations).

If you only want to become noisome, brilliant, formidable, and to make your weight felt to the other people of Europe, then follow their example, cultivate the sciences, the arts, trade, industry, have a regular army, fortresses, academies, above all a good financial system, which stirs up the circulation of money; make money indispensable to everyone in order to increase social dependence and toward that end foster material and intellectual luxury…

But if perchance you should prefer to shape a free, peaceful, and wise nation, self-sufficient and happy, then you should take quite another path, maintain or re-establish at home simple mores, healthy tastes, a martial spirit devoid of ambition, form courageous and disinterested souls, apply your people to agriculture and to the arts basic for living, make money despicable…

In those days the suggestions of the French way of life had perhaps an even stronger “demonstration effect” than in our day the American way of life. This is what Rousseau feels about social imitation:

A great nation which has never been too intimately mixed with its neighbors must have many [civil and domestic customs] which are its very own, but which are presumably being adulterated, due to the general bent throughout Europe towards the adoption of French tastes and mores. You should maintain or re-establish any ancient custom of yours, and indeed introduce some which shall be specific to yourselves. Even if such specific customs are in themselves of no value, even if they are somewhat bad, provided they are not essentially so, their very difference is of value as tying the Poles more closely together and giving them a natural reluctance to mix with foreigners. I regard it as a boon that they have a national style of clothing. Carefully maintain this advantage: do exactly the reverse of that much vaunted Czar [Peter the Great]. Let neither king nor senator nor any public man ever appear in any other raiment than the national, let no Pole dare to produce himself at court in clothing of the French style.

Keen to foster patriotism, Rousseau conceives it as an attachment to and pride in what is specific to the nation. Obviously he would have applauded the resurrection of Gaelic in Eire and of Hebrew in Israel. In contradiction to Voltaire’s hatred of the Jews, Rousseau expressed the utmost admiration for their conservation of the national character throughout their ordeals.

Out of these vagabonds Moses dared to make a political body, a free people; while this herd wandered in the desert he instituted it in a manner invulnerable to time, mishaps, and conquerors, which the passage of five thousand years has neither destroyed nor altered, and which subsists in its pristine vigor even while the nation has ceased to form a body politics.

To prevent his people from melting into others, he gave it mores and customs incompatible with those of other nations; he burdened it with specific rites and ceremonies, he introduced a thousand constraints to keep it on the alert and to make it forever a stranger to other peoples; and all the bonds of brotherhood which he created between its citizens were as many obstacles to its absorption in other peoples.

Rousseau goes on to glorify the Jewish nation which shall subsist as such to the end of the world, whatever the persecutions.

The mere quoting of Peter the Great as a model of what should not be done suffices to stress that Rousseau deliberately advanced the view opposed to that of the Philosophes. They all thought highly of Peter’s efforts to “westernize” the Russian people; indeed in his day they were enamored of Catherine the Great, who was pursuing the same object, denounced by Rousseau. Jean-Jacques’s position here is consistent with the more general and extreme statement he made twenty years earlier in the preface to Narcisse: “Everything which facilitates communication between the several nations carries to each not the virtues but the vices of another, and alters in all the mores suitable to its climate and constitution.”

Again his attitude is opposed to that of the Philosophers, and to the modern attitude, in terms of administration. They were all in favor of centralization: he stands against it. He would like to see Poland “a confederation of thirty-three small States.” This fully accords with his desire to involve all citizens in public affairs, and with his finding that the proportion of those so involved declines as membership of the body politic increases. It seems strange that Rousseau should have been invoked as patron by the centralizing Jacobins.

Political confederation rather than unification, limited rather universal suffrage, systematic cultivation of national traits rather than westernization, self-sufficiency rather than foreign trade, rural life rather than westernization, taxes in kind rather than in money, subsistence agriculture associated with cottage crafts rather than farming for the market and establishment of industrial complexes – at every point Rousseau’s advice to the Poles stands in contradiction to that which is now currently given to under-developed countries.


Undergraduates find it easy to think that Rousseau’s views were “advanced” in their day, and have become “reactionary” in our own, due to the march of Progress. This will not do. At every point at which it clashes with now prevalent views, Rousseau’s doctrine conflicted in his own day with the views of the Philosophes. It is in conflict with developments which have occurred because it was conceived in opposition to developments due to occur.

An analogy immediately comes to mind: Plato pictured his small, closed, self-sufficient City while he was well aware that Greek cities were being swept into larger wholes. Rousseau’s recommendations now seem Utopian, but he knew them for such at the time. He sensed the accelerating pace of social evolution, but chose to dwell on what was being lost rather than on what was being gained. No doubt we can read in his works the bitter condemnation of the society he lived in, but in the name of a better past, not of a better future. His attitude is fundamentally pessimistic: the course of social history cannot be reversed or indeed stopped, except in isolated cases.

This pessimism explains the contradiction which has so often been noted between the Social Contract and Emile. The man of the Contract is essentially a patriot, while Emile is educated for a life of privacy: the Contract is offered as the recipe which can preserve small rustic communities from deterioration, while also describing the process of their inevitable corruption: Emile is offered as advice to the inhabitant of a corrupted society, who should as far as feasible avoid involvement. The Contract is for Corsica, Emile for a Frenchman.

But why does Rousseau regard social evolution with such horror? His enemies were wont to say that, having gained fame through a clever paradox, he had lacked the wit to extricated himself from it, and that the joker’s mask had helped to mold the philosopher’s face; but this is the sort of stupidity of which clever men become capable when obfuscated by unkindness. Rousseau replies with dignity: “His system may be false, but in its development he had painted himself truly.” Jean-Jacques has left us in no doubt about his main personal need: it is to feel at peace with himself and in trusting harmony with his fellows. It seemed to him that these basic needs of the human heart were increasingly thwarted by social evolution.

A century earlier, Hobbes had written in Leviathan: “Felicity is a continual progress of the desire from one object to another, the attaining of the former being still but the way to the later….The power of a man, to take it universally, is his present means to obtain some future apparent good. And therefore, man’s desire moving from one object to another….I put for a general inclination of all mankind a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death….Competition of riches, honor, command, or other power, inclineth to contention, enmity, and war….”

These simple quotations suffice to evoke a questing and contentious being. Rousseau in Inegalite adopts this picture without reservation: “Indeed men are nasty, a sad and ceaseless experience is enough proof.” But he swings the Hobbesian model right around: according to Hobbes, and according to Bayle, man is naturally avid, and therefore violent when he is crossed, but education and society tame him. Rousseau wants it the other way around: but “Man is naturally good”; he asserts it, believes that he has proved it, he feels it within himself: man therefore must have deteriorated. “What can have depraved him other than the changes intervening in his constitution, the progress he has made, the knowledge that he has acquired? Admire if you will human society, it is no less true that, of necessity, it leads men to hate each other proportionately to the criss-crossing of their interests.”

The 17th century had seen in Society mainly the mutual guarantee; more realistically the 18th century takes social co-operation as the fons et origo. This practically beneficial co-operation is morally corrupting, says Rousseau, because it arouses our imagination. While in conditione naturali, man’s desires are limited; in the state of society, having others at hand to help him, he can dream up ends achievable if others sufficiently connive at his purpose, and having enjoyed such achievement in imagination, he then feels unhappy and resentful if others in fact do not help him to it. Nor is this to be thought of mainly in material terms. The individual good which social commerce endows with a very high value is “consideration”; the individual learns to see himself through others’ eyes, and suffers if he is not looked up to as much as he wants, as much as another: and however efficient society may become in multiplying material goods, esteem, being assessed relatively, is by nature a scarce good, which all come to desire and but few can enjoy. The greater social co-operation is, the higher the prospects it offers to the individual who takes his Ego as the center, and the more bitter his disappointment when the others fail to treat him as the center.

Thus he finds himself shifting from the unexacting selfishness of the natural condition to the demanding selfishness of the social condition, the more demanding, the more extensive and intensive the social co-operation is. In a small rustic society it is possible to shift the individual’s intense Ego concern to a We concern, but it requires that the community be small and immutable. It cannot be done in a large, progressive society, and it is mere fancy in the case of the societas humani generis. Therefore, given the large progressive society, the best that can be done is to so educate the individual as to deflate foolish desires. Emile shall make no bid for a large share or high place at the social banquet, but seek happiness within himself, in domestic life and the quiet enjoyment of Nature. While the ecstasy of the Lake of Bienne is perforce a rare event, life can be well spent in a pleasant retreat with charitable attention to a very narrow circle of neighbours. There is probably great symbolic value in Wolmar’s garden with its closed horizon and its moderate re-arrangement of Nature. There is rather unexpected rapprochement here with the final sentence of Candide. However this calls for some curbing not only of lower appetites but also of finer feelings (witness Julie).

I did not propose here to discuss the ideas of Rousseau. What I wanted to do is to display their consistency, which appears as soon as one envisages them from the center which Rousseau many times indicates as his own: the search for “a true system of the human heart.” Whether Rousseau found the “true” system is not my concern. But it is surely a singular merit to have considered the affective needs of Man. While the adoption of Rousseau’s practical recommendations would have stopped us from progressing as we have done in the satisfaction of human material wants, our very advance on the road he so bitterly spurned quickens our sensitivity to the problems he raised.

Originally published in Encounter on the 250th anniversary of Rousseau’s birth, December 1962.