Dreaming of Justice, Waking to Wisdom: Rousseau’s Final Insight

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Dreaming of Justice, Waking to Wisdom: Rousseau’s Final Insight

Laurence D. Cooper

Carleton College

Prepared for delivery at the 2015 Annual Meeting of

the Western Political Science Association, Las Vegas, April 2-4

The inquiry undertaken in this paper was launched by two tentative observations. The first observation was that there is a narrative movement to Rousseau’s Reveries of the Solitary Walker. Not just coherence, but a story. The better interpreters of the Reveries have noted that the book has an order—an order, incidentally, that belies Rousseau’s claim to have written the book only for himself.1 But I am not aware of any interpretations of the book as a single narrative or story. My second observation was that there seems to be a significant relationship between the Reveries and Plato’s Republic: a thematic relationship—each work treating such themes as contemplation, truth-telling, and the divine—and perhaps even a formal or structural relationship. These two observations taken together raise the question of whether there isn’t a third observation to be made: is the story told by the Reveries akin to the story told in the Republic?

The Republic does indeed tell a story, a narrative of a conversation as recounted by Plato’s character, Socrates. The conversation that Socrates recounts has an arc—it progresses. The topic of the conversation, as everyone knows, is justice; the progress of the conversation is progress toward an improved understanding of justice. The dramatic culmination of the Republic is a twofold realization (592b). The first part of the realization is negative: justice understood politically is shown to be problematic with respect to both desirability and possibility. The pursuit of perfect political justice is shown to impose costs that many would argue amount to the imposition of a nature-suppressing tyranny (and therefore no justice at all). The second part of the realization is that there is a kind of justice that is not problematic but rather both desirable and, in principle, possible. This desirable justice is justice within the soul, or between the various parts or forms of the soul. Understood at this level, what justice really means is the individual human being’s health of soul. The Republic also seems to suggest a relationship between these two realizations. It would seem that truly understanding the impossibility and undesirability of perfect political justice is necessary to and partly constitutes the achievement of justice in the soul. And so my question becomes, does the Reveries tell a comparable story?

I believe that it does, and in what follows I will try to sketch the grounds for that position. My central contention is that over the course of the book Rousseau moves toward a deeper acceptance of the insuperability of injustice among human beings—that is, an acceptance of the fact that wrongs are not always made right—and then, or even thereby, toward the actualization of justice, understood as health of soul, in himself. To see how this is so requires that we recognize the distinction between Rousseau as the subject of the book and Rousseau as the narrator. By Rousseau as subject I mean the person who is at the center of the book’s various recollections and meditations—the young lover of Mme. de Warens, the famous author, the target of a cruel conspiracy, the amateur botanist, the philosopher who meditated on such matters as the sentiment of being, truth and lying, etc. These recollections and thoughts are not recounted in chronological order. By Rousseau as narrator I mean the person who is speaking to us “now,” or from the page, about those prior events and meditations. Crucial to my reading is the claim that Rousseau the narrator is as much a character in the book as Rousseau the subject. It is Rousseau the narrator whose story I mean to outline. I will try to show that the narrator develops over the course of his narration. He comes to understand things that he hasn’t previously understood and he achieves things that he hasn’t previously achieved. Rousseau the narrator is a bit like Socrates in the Republic in that he narrates “now” events that have already taken place, though he is unlike Socrates in the Republic by virtue of developing or changing over the course of the narration.

My theme, then, is the philosophic development enacted in the narrating of the Reveries. This theme should be understood to belong to an even larger theme, which I regard as the theme of the Reveries—namely, the being and coming-to-be of the philosopher as understood by Rousseau. The focus of this paper, however—because I take it to be the focus of the “action” of the Reveries—is the final step of Rousseau’s philosophic development.

A final prefatory point is required. In claiming that the Reveries is akin to the Republic concerning the being and development of the philosopher, I do not mean to say that Rousseau simply restates Plato’s view, or what he takes to be Plato’s view, for a different age. As we will see, and as I have argued elsewhere, Rousseau’s conception of the philosophic life, while closer to Plato’s conception than is typically thought, nevertheless is distinct and unique.

Let me sketch the outlines of Rousseau’s story of development before turning to a necessarily selective examination of the ten Walks that constitute the Reveries as we have it.2

The major thrust of my case is that over the course of his narration Rousseau (1) deepens his understanding of the insuperability of injustice and the consequent need to resign himself to injustice and that he (2) learns how to achieve this resignation. The particular injustice that Rousseau grapples with and ultimately comes to accept is not injustice among political entities or actors but rather the injustice done to himself, an innocent, by a conspiracy of enemies, a good many of whom had formerly been his friends. Rousseau’s condition, as he depicts it, was much like that of the perfectly just man whom Glaucon imagines in Republic book 2—the man who is actually just but who is perceived as unjust and is thus subjected to the most horrific penalties.3 That Rousseau himself is the victim of the injustice adds vividness to the story and permits an intimate experiential account. Rousseau shows us the moral consciousness at work—a moral consciousness that struggles and develops, in some respects overcoming itself.

Notice one more effect of this subjective focus. By showing the way he experiences and reacts to injustice, Rousseau in the Reveries treats one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest of, political themes. The perception of injustice, especially injustice to oneself, is arguably the primary political experience as such, the primary impetus to political passion and action. Thus the Reveries, which is as personal as any writing we have from Rousseau, is also, for precisely that reason, a profound book of political philosophy.

As a student of the Socratic tradition, Rousseau sees the possibility of breaking free of the conventional moral consciousness. This is evident from the beginning of the Reveries and in prior works as well. But at the start of the Reveries Rousseau is still, let’s say, a semi-Socratic: Socratic insofar as he has seen the impossibility and undesirability of perfect political justice and the consequent need for acceptance, but semi- because he has not yet been able to achieve that acceptance. The fiery language of moral indignation that marks so many of Rousseau’s books testifies to his distance from complete Socratism. But it is my contention that in the action of the Reveries Rousseau finally achieves—he enacts for us—the acceptance that marks him as fully Socratic, or nearly so, at least in this decisive respect. For the Socratic tradition resignation to injustice may well be the most important step or marker in becoming a true philosopher. (But wait: Doesn’t the Platonic Socrates teach that that philosophy is the acceptance not of injustice but of death?4 To be sure. But the reason our own death is so difficult to accept is that it strikes us as the ultimate injustice against ourselves. We are offended. Life still owes us something, we think.) And so we may add that the Reveries is a profound work of Socratic political philosophy.

Rousseau’s acceptance of injustice isn’t perfect, as indeed, by the lights of his most mature thought, it cannot be. All human beings, even the most self-sufficient, have some dependence on others, and with this dependence comes—inevitably, it would seem—a certain psychological investment that marks a limit to our resignation to external injustice. The name of this investment is amour-propre. As the relative form of self-love, amour-propre is a chief source of injustice. But as a form of self-love that judges merit or worth (whether fairly or not—alas, usually not), amour-propre is also a sense of justice and a passionate devotee of justice. And as a passionate devotee of justice, amour-propre must also be a great believer in justice—it believes that justice must and will be done in the end. (Without such belief one may admire and love justice, but not in the passionate way of the morally expectant and energized.) Amour-propre rebels against the possibility that justice will not be vindicated. It resists resignation. Therefore the key to achieving internal justice or wisdom in Rousseau’s reformulation of classical philosophy turns out to be the overcoming of amour-propre. This, as we’ll see, Rousseau learns to do—again, not completely, but nearly so. This is the culminating accomplishment of the Reveries and indeed of Rousseau’s life as a philosopher. Incidentally, Rousseau’s acknowledgment that he cannot utterly overcome amour-propre and thus cannot achieve resignation to injustice in all circumstances arguably makes him more philosophic than Socrates. More philosophic than Socrates because more honest than Socrates. Socrates, in Rousseau’s estimation, falsely believed that he could remain indifferent to the opinions of others in all circumstance. Even in his philosophizing this great Socrates remained captive of a certain pride, which is a form, albeit the noblest form, of amour-propre. Rousseau, by contrast, comes to be free of amour-propre during all the time that he is not engaged with society.

Now one might question whether the endpoint I see Rousseau as reaching in the Reveries is truly desirable or that it has anything to do with wisdom. Is it really an intellectual and moral achievement to let go of the belief that justice will always be vindicated in the end? Many would say that ceasing to believe in justice constitutes an intellectual and moral failing. And others who might agree that overcoming faith in justice would be an intellectual achievement would nevertheless consider it a mournful achievement. Rousseau himself, throughout his career, consistently called attention to the perniciousness of doctrines that undermine faith. And in his own life, at least early on, Rousseau explicitly relied for consolation on faith in God’s justice (Confessions 198, Reveries 21). He certainly does not wish to discourage such faith among people at large. Indeed, his popular religious teaching—the “The Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar,” which appears at the center of Emile—seeks to rationalize, in a sense to naturalize, and thus to buttress precisely this kind of faith.5 Rousseau clearly hoped the Profession would be influential on the broader culture of his time and times to come. In the Third Walk of the Reveries he calls the Profession “a work vilely prostituted and profaned among the present generation but which may one day make a revolution among men, if good sense and good faith are ever reborn among them” (34).

Rousseau himself, however, seems to depart from this faith—and seems not to suffer from this departure. In the very same passage in which he expresses his hope that the Vicar’s Profession will “make a revolution among men,” Rousseau indicates that he does not himself fully subscribe to its teaching. He recounts a sustained religious inquiry he undertook at age forty whose result was only “approximately [à peu près] that which I have since set down in the ‘Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar’” 34; emphasis added). In fact the Vicar’s Profession contradicts a number of the tenets of the philosophic system that Rousseau propounds in his own name, including the principle of natural goodness, which is the foundation of Rousseau’s entire system.6 (Unlike Rousseau himself, who vindicates human nature by attributing the origin of evil to society, the Vicar attributes evil to individual choice.)

How is it that Rousseau can do without the Vicar’s teaching and not suffer? The answer, I believe, is twofold. The first part of the answer lies in what are probably the most striking moments in the Reveries, moments of exultation and spiritual self-sufficiency. Indeed, so exultant are these moments that I would say that Rousseau not only doesn’t suffer from giving up faith in the Vicar’s God, or God as an ontological Other—he gains from it. More than once Rousseau likens himself to God in respect of his self-sufficiency (5, 69). But a serious qualification is called for. For all that he seems to proclaim spiritual self-sufficiency during extended moments, Rousseau still seems potentially needful of a providential if not a personal God in other moments. In which other moments? Well, he especially has recourse to faith in such a God when he is suffering at the hands of his enemies (21). But I think I can give an answer that is both broader and more precise than that: Rousseau may need recourse to a just God precisely insofar as he is animated by amour-propre. Only when, and for as long as, amour-propre is dormant can he or anyone, in his view, be altogether free of the need for faith. Whether that need can be fulfilled, though, is another question. It’s possible that Rousseau feels the moral need for God less frequently than other men but also more poignantly. In which case we’d have to say that he does suffer for lack of faith, but that the suffering is a price worth paying.

The second reason Rousseau can survive and at times positively flourish without anything like the Vicar’s faith is the ability and disposition to live well in the face of metaphysical and theological uncertainty. Surely this ability serves as the enabling foundation of Rousseau’s capacity for exultation and spiritual self-sufficiency. In the Reveries Rousseau indicates that the case for the Vicar’s God faces “insoluble objections” (34). Now such objections don’t prove anything. Indeed all sides face insoluble objections. If one finds doubt intolerable, as Rousseau supposes that most of us do, then the Vicar’s Profession might be not only the most salutary creed but even the most rationally defensible. Rousseau himself, however, does not seem to find doubt intolerable. And for such a one as himself it may well be that spiritual self-sufficiency is not only possible but best. In the Fifth and Seventh Walks Rousseau depicts himself ecstatically transcending the limits of the separate self and becoming one with nature or with being or else filling himself with the pure sentiment of being, godlike not only in his sufficiency but also in his expansiveness.

Here too, however, I must introduce a serious qualification—or, rather, restate the same qualification of a moment ago. Rousseau can tolerate and even flourish in conditions of uncertainty only when his amour-propre is not enflamed—perhaps only when his amour-propre is altogether dormant or nonexistent. When his amour-propre is enflamed, he needs someplace fixed to lay down his head. The workings of the world must be seen somehow to make sense. Indeed, this is a way in which to understand not only Rousseau’s recourse to God but also his presumable exaggeration of the diabolical intricacy of the conspiracy against him. (Does Rousseau the author see the Rousseau the narrator as exaggerating the conspiracy? Quite possibly so.)

Rousseau’s overcoming of faith in God as an ontological Other may also be of help in the progress toward his final insight (Eight Walk). Who knows if it would have been possible to overcome amour-propre if he hadn’t already overcome faith in amour-propre’s kind of God, that is, a God who vindicates justice.
Finally, before making our way (briskly) through the text, it is worth emphasizing that the story told in the Reveries was indeed something new in Rousseau’s work and arguably in the history of Western thought. Although he hadn’t realized it at the time, in his prior writings Rousseau had not shown a complete understanding of the need to transcend amour-propre for the sake of accepting injustice in the world. He’d lacked crucial practical knowledge. He hadn’t understood how amour-propre prevents resignation or, consequently, how to reliably free himself from amour-propre’s stifling hold. Even as he had sometimes seemed to present himself as returning to a life of natural goodness (in the Confessions, for example7), he had remained notably vulnerable to the unjust moral opprobrium heaped on him by his enemies. In the Reveries, by contrast, we watch Rousseau finally free himself to the extent possible. The process is protracted. From the start of the Reveries Rousseau understands the hold his enemies have on him by virtue of their false depiction of him as wicked. He understands that resignation is the way out of this hold. He even professes to have accomplished this resignation. Yet his claim must strike the reader as doubtful—not insincere, but rather a self-deception. However much he claims to have resigned himself to necessity and to the insuperability of external injustice, he has not yet succeeded in doing so. It is only after he has come to see (in the Eight Walk) that amour-propre is what has kept him from resignation, and how it has done so, that he makes good on his earlier professions of resignation.

Now to the text proper.

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