Rousseau and Emerson on Solitude, Sympathy, and the American Indian

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Rousseau and Emerson on Solitude, Sympathy, and the American Indian

Robinson Woodward-Burns

Ph.D. Student, Political Science

University of Pennsylvania
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This essay asserts that solitude encourages sympathy. This is counterintuitive – Scottish moral sense theorists, for example, held that humans’ sociability encouraged their sympathy. Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Ralph Waldo Emerson refute the Scots’ argument. For both Rousseau and Emerson, solitude allowed aimless contemplation, encouraging the contemplator to imagine himself as another person. Imagining and sharing another’s mental states taught sympathy. Rousseau and Emerson personally experimented with this, taking solitary nature walks that cultivated their faculty of sympathy. Finally, the Scots, Rousseau, and Emerson grounded their arguments on sympathy on descriptions of American Indians – for the Scottish theorists and Rousseau, the Indian hinted at the innateness of sympathy, while for Emerson, contemplating the Indian taught compassion.

Rousseau and Emerson hold solitude encourages sympathy. This is odd - one would expect solitude discourages pity. Hobbes, for example, asserts natural man is solitary, and thus lacks sympathy. Scottish moral sense theorists like Hume and Smith claimed that man is sociable, and thus sympathetic. Canonically, sociability is tied to sympathy. Thus the question for this essay: how does solitude provoke sympathy?

Solitude invites aimless contemplation. In daydreaming, one imagines oneself as another, imagining the other’s feelings, and sympathizing with the other. Rousseau and Emerson personally experienced this. In The Reveries of the Solitary Walker Rousseau recalls his flight to a secluded wooded island. He walked the island in aimless reverie, and returning to society, maintained his haphazard thought. Imagining himself as his companions, he shared their emotions. Emerson, frustrated with Jacksonian slavery and Indian removal, left politics to take solitary nature walks. He slipped into contemplation, eventually imagining himself as the African American slaves of which he read. This sympathy pushed him to abolitionist activism. “In the woods, we return to reason,” to our sympathetic moral intuition, Emerson writes. For both Rousseau and Emerson, solitude allows the aimless, unstructured thought that awakens our natural sympathy.

The American Indian informed Rousseau and Emerson’s ideas on sympathy. Eighteenth-century Scottish moral sense theorists held that Native Americans demonstrated man’s natural, innate faculties, including compassion. Rousseau drew on the Scotsmen Hutcheson and Hume in attributing pity to Native Americans. For Rousseau, solitary contemplation approximated man’s original, innocent, and sympathetic state. Emerson too adopted the Scots’ belief in innate sympathy – moral sense theory was perhaps the greatest influence on Emerson’s thought. Writing a century after Hume and Rousseau, Emerson was unconcerned with the state of nature and natural man. Rather, he looked to race science, which asserted that Indians and African Americans were doomed to extinction at the hands of whites. Indian removal, along with slavery, provoked Emerson’s sympathy, and a chance to educate white Americans in compassion.

This essay proceeds in three steps. First it briefly introduces Scottish moral sense theory, which held sympathy occurred in society of others. Second, it recounts Rousseau’s response to the Scots, which asserted solitary contemplation encourages pity. Finally, it recounts Emerson’s response, which like Rousseau’s, holds solitude brings one closer to others. The paper moves chronologically, and thus is also a genealogy of Indians’ role in moral sense theory. The paper runs from Hutcheson’s 1725 work on Indians and sympathy, to Hume’s in 1738, to Adam Smith’s debates with Rousseau in the 1750s, to Emerson’s writings in the mid-1800s.

I. Indians and Scottish Moral Sense Theory

In the seventeenth century, English debate on the innateness of sympathy hinged on descriptions of American Indians. To English observers, Indians revealed man’s original, innate qualities, untainted by civilization. Hobbes’ natural man, driven by an inborn “restless desire of power after power,” lacked compassion and thus lived in solitude – famously his life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651) buttressed this assertion by repeatedly recounting the savagery of Indians. What little sympathy Indians had was not innate or unconscious, but came through civilized reason. Indians, Hobbes claimed, had rudimentary language, and thus the capacity to reason, and form moral truths – “the savages of America are not without some moral sentences” he wrote.1 Hobbes drew widespread backlash. Locke too claimed Indians represented natural man, writing “Indians in America, [are] still a pattern of the first ages in Asia and Europe.”2 Yet in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), Locke rejected Hobbes’ innately brutal savage by asserting that humans largely lacked inborn qualities. Locke did grant humans had an innate, God-given faculty of reason which, if properly developed into right reason, led them to be “rational and industrious,” not “contentious and quarrelsome.” Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, grandson of Locke’s patron, also refuted Hobbes in his 1699 Inquiry Concerning Virtue. Like Locke, Shaftesbury claimed God granted man reason, adding that this reason led man to sympathy.3

By the eighteenth century, the rebuttal to Hobbes shifted north to Scotland. Francis Hutcheson’s 1725 Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue followed Shaftesbury in claiming empathy was ingrained in human nature, but more particularly, Hutcheson claimed empathy was so innate as to come unconsciously. As John B. Radner writes, “Hutcheson tries very hard to free both the feeling of compassion and whatever action follows this feeling from thinking; for thinking of any sort would be an opening to selfish calculation. So he emphasizes that the feeling of compassion is instantaneous and virtually automatic…not the product of any sort of reflection.”4 Since man empathized unreflectively, he impartially sympathized with friends and strangers alike. Hutcheson admitted that empathy, sharing the pain of others, was unappealing to Hobbes’ self-interested individual, but since empathy was automatic, the Hobbesian individual would have no choice but to empathize with others. Thus Hutcheson refuted Hobbes. Further, Hutcheson debunked the hyperbolic travel literature that portrayed American Indians as merciless savages. Among Indians he found an uncorrupted “simplicity of manners, and innocence of behavior” that revealed man’s innate moral sense. Hutcheson concluded that Europeans and Native Americans shared much, including a common moral sense.5

Two of Hutcheson’s pupils, David Hume and Adam Smith, revised Hutcheson’s moral sense theory. For Hume and Smith, sympathy was neither automatic nor unconscious. In his 1738 A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume responded a spectator could only roughly infer another’s mental state through behavioral cues. To sympathize with the other took an extra step – imagination, conjuring “a lively notion” of the other’s feeling. Since it took “a great effort of imagination to form such lively ideas of even the present sentiment of others,” sympathy was a difficult and a voluntary exercise. Sympathy grew easier as the observed person grew more expressive, particularly when in pain.6 Finally, for Hume, sympathy was an innate faculty of man, and one that pointed to man’s natural sociability. He asserts, against Hobbes, that “’tis utterly impossible for men to remain any considerable time in that savage condition, which precedes society…[man’s] very first state and situation must be esteem’d social.” Thus, even Indians live sociably: “this we find verified in the American tribes, where men live in concord and amity among themselves without any establish’d government.”

Smith followed Hume in asserting sympathy required imagination. Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) opens: “As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel,” Smith claimed, “…it is by imagination only that we can form any conception of what are [their] sensations.”7 Rather than sharing in the feelings of another, we can imagine them, though “weaker in degree.” In seeing a man stretched on the rack, we shudder at the pain we would feel in his place. This is not self-interested fear that we will someday be in the victim’s place; rather, we imagine we are the victim, and the pain he feels. “Men of the most robust make,” Smith claims, “observe looking upon sore eyes [of another] they often feel a very sensible soreness in their own, which proceeds from the same reason.” The strongest affects are those of bodily suffering or pleasure, common to all humans.

Sympathy requires deliberation. First, Smith’s sympathy entails one contemplate another’s mental state. One will not mirror the rage of an angry man if his grievance is unknown: “[t]here are some passions of which the expressions excite no sympathy…As we are unacquainted with his provocation, we cannot bring his case home to ourselves.” The angry man, unable to communicate his frustration, grows angrier when he sees we do not approve of it. Second, even with adequate information, one may willingly withhold sympathy. If sympathy is voluntary, when do we grant it and when do we withhold it? Smith suggests we imagine ourselves as an impartial spectator, and grant approbation and disapprobation accordingly.8 Following Hutcheson, Smith claims humans are naturally and impartially sympathetic, but Smith adds that sympathy is contingent on our deliberation about others’ behavior. We constrain the impartial spectator with rules drawn from our personal experience and from society. Spectators derived from different cultures will have different moral codes. Smith writes “[e]very age and country look upon that degree of each quality which is commonly to be met with in those who are esteemed among themselves, as the golden mean of that particular talent or virtue.” The moral sentiments of a people depend on their development, on the age in which they live.9

Writing in the early eighteenth century, Hutcheson and Hume relied on sparse secondhand accounts of Native Americans, and discussed primitive human societies in vague, speculative terms.10 By the middle of the century – Smith’s time – Scotsmen populating the American colonies regularly contacted Indians. Roving Scottish naturalists staffed American universities, Scottish settlers and missionaries flocked to the frontiers, and Scottish soldiers fought Britain’s Indian wars. Accounts of Indian warriors’ hardiness and sternness filtered back to Scotland, informing the Smith’s work.11 Smith asserted Indians were primitive and solitary, blunting their moral sensitivity. Smith’s argument was economic – he claimed division of labor increased productivity, allowing increased leisure time. The leisurely diversions of theater and literature trained audiences to imagine themselves as the drama’s characters. A society trained in moral imagination would be more inclined toward sympathy. Smith claimed Indians lacked division of labor and the leisure time to develop their aesthetic and moral sense.12 Smith writes: “If our own misery pinches us very severely, we have no leisure to attend to that of our neighbor: and all savages are too much occupied with their own wants and necessities, to give much attention to those of another person. A savage, therefore, whatever the nature of his distress, expects no sympathy from those about him.”13

This stoicism was the Indians’ chief fault, but also their chief virtue. Throughout The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith lauded self-restraint or “self-command,” particularly in the face of death. Smith asserts “We are disgusted by that clamorous grief” with which some confront death, but “reverence that silent majestic sorrow” of Socrates, who stoically faced death in the Crito. Similarly, when an American “savage is made prisoner of war and receives, as is usual, the sentence of death from his conquerors, he hears it without expressing any emotion, and afterwards submits to the most dreadful tortures without ever bemoaning himself…the spectators express the same insensibility; the sight of so horrible an object seems to make no impression on them.” Smith admires the Indians’ for this “heroic and unconquerable firmness.”14

II. Rousseau on Solitude, Reverie, and Pity

In his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1755), Rousseau affirms Hutcheson’s assertion that sympathy is reflexive, not deliberative, as Hume and Smith claim. The Discourse claims reflection – the ability to reason sequentially – is not a faculty of solitary, primitive man. “All the kinds of knowledge that demand reflection,” Rousseau clarifies in a footnote “all those acquired only by the concatenation of ideas perfected only successively, appear to be beyond the grasp of savage man, owing to the lack of communication with his fellow man.”15 Incapable of sequential reasoning, Rousseau’s Caribbean savage lacks foresight, selling his bed in the morning and tearfully repurchasing it in the night. Rousseau explains “His soul, agitated by nothing, is given over to the single feeling of his own present existence, without any idea of the future, however near it may be, and his projects, as limited as his views, hardly extend to the end of the day.”16 Savage man feels amour de soi, the impulse toward self-preservation, but like animals, he responds to pleasure and pain as he meets them, lacking a sense of his own future or his death. Here Rousseau intentionally rebuts Hobbes. For Hobbes, natural man is aware of the potential of his death. For Rousseau, natural man is ignorant of this threat, and thus is less bellicose than Hobbes claims.”17 Consequently, amour de soi is largely an innocent passion.

Rousseau’s savage is innately sympathetic. Primitive man does not differentiate himself from his surroundings, making his home as he finds it in nature. Nor does he distinguish himself from his fellow man, for he is tied to them through pity, imagining their suffering as if it were his own.18 This pity predates self-interested calculation, which Rousseau dubs “reflection.” Pity is “a virtue all the more universal and all the more useful to man in that it precedes in him any kind of reflection, so natural that even animals sometimes show natural signs of it.” Rousseau recounts the angst of a prisoner unable to save a child from a crazed animal. “What anguish he must suffer at this sight,” Rousseau concludes. “Such is the pure movement of nature prior to all reflection. Such is the natural force of pity, which the most depraved mores still have difficulty destroying.” And later: “Pity is what carries us without reflection to the aid of those we see suffering.”19 Here Rousseau follows Shaftesbury and particularly Hutcheson.20 For Hutcheson, “compassion is instantaneous and virtually automatic…not the product of any sort of reflection.”21

Man eventually leaves his primitive, solitary state for society. Entering society, man develops language, and, per Hobbes, language yields reason. Words allow man to conceive of universals existing independently of particular objects. Linking words into a sentence strings universal concepts into a meaningful chain, the grounding for reflection. This opens man’s troubles. Rousseau asserts: “most of our ills are our own making, and…we could have avoided nearly all of them by preserving the simple, regular, solitary lifestyle prescribed to us by nature. If nature has destined us to be healthy, I almost dare to affirm the state of reflection is a state contrary to nature, and that the man who meditates is a depraved animal.” Humans gather in primitive society, but natural variation privileges some over others. Gathered around their huts or beneath a tree, humans observe some are better dancers or singers than others. Public reflection on difference implants in man an awareness of himself as distinct from others, yielding amour-propre – vanity and the desire for approval.22 This desire yields instrumentality and forethought, and men plan to better themselves relative to others. Pity atrophies. As Locke notes, property and enclosure of land follow, and from that, rules of justice to enforce division. Difference in natural talents favors some over others, the distribution of property becomes lopsided and protected by law. Rousseau concludes “a few ambitious men henceforth subjected the entire human race to labor, servitude, and misery.”23

In The Reveries of the Solitary Walker (1778), Rousseau posits that through solitary contemplation, civilized man regains his primitive sympathy.24 The Reveries recount Rousseau’s flight from persecution and refuge on a secluded island on Lake Bienne, near Bern, Switzerland in 1765. For five weeks he wandered the island in quiet, unstructured reverie. Returning to society, Rousseau maintained this impulsive, haphazard thought. Rousseau found his natural, innate impulse toward sympathy guided his interactions with others. In sum, solitude invites unstructured thought, which stirs one’s natural inclination toward pity.

The Reveries open as Rousseau flees to his wooded island seeking solitude. He seeks to forget his persecutors, writing “I might forget [the world’s] existence, and that it might forget mine.” Embracing his exile, he wishes never to see “any inhabitant of the continent to remind me of all the different calamities they have taken pleasure in heaping on me for so many years! They would soon be forever forgotten.” Solitude helps Rousseau forget his detractors by fixing his mind on nature, rather than his fellow man. Later he claims “I never meditate, I never dream more explicitly than when I forget myself. I feel ecstasies and inexpressible raptures in blending, so to speak, into the system of beings and in making myself one with the whole of nature.”25

This self-forgetting happens in nature. Rousseau pocketed Carl Linnaeus’ Systema Naturea, identifying plants as he walked. Frequently he would return with samples, assembling a herbarium he kept long after he left the island. “Botany,” he claims, “makes me forget men’s persecutions, their hatred, scorn, insults.” He adds “I clamber up rocks and mountains, I go deep into values and woods in order to slip away, as much as possible, from the memory of men and the attacks of the wicked.”26 Immersing himself in nature, he forgets the attacks of others, and gradually, he forgets himself, becoming one with his surroundings. Like the Caribbean savage, in reverie, he loses sense of time, and with it memory. The Caribbean savage is surprised to find he sold his bed in the morning, having forgotten this. Similarly, Rousseau forgets his tormentors and himself.

Forgetting the judgment of others, Rousseau slips from instrumental, civilized reflection to haphazard reverie. He contrasts reverie and reflection in The Reveries’ seventh chapter: “Reverie relaxes and amuses me; reflection tires and saddens me; thinking was always a painful and charmless occupation for me.” One afternoon Rousseau rows into the middle of the lake. He recalls “and there, stretching myself out full-length in the boat, my eyes turned to heaven, I let myself slowly drift back and forth with the water, sometimes for several hours, plunged into a thousand confused, but delightful reveries.” He reiterates: “without any trace of time’s passage; without any other sentiment or deprivation or of enjoyment, pleasure or pain, desire or fear, except that alone of our existence, and having this sentiment alone fill it completely as long as this state lasts, he who finds himself in it can call himself happy.” Like the savage of the Second Discourse whose “soul, agitated by nothing, is given over to the single feeling of his own present existence,” Rousseau feels only the sentiment of being. However, Rousseau consistently notes he cannot fully return to this savage state, for these moments are “too rare and too rapid to constitute a state of being.”27

Reverie quiets amour-propre. Later pausing by the lakeshore, Rousseau finds “some weak and short reflection about the instability of things in this world arose, an image brought on by the surface of the water.” “Reflection” here has twin meanings. Rousseau sees his image reflected in the water, aware of himself as distinct from his surroundings.28 Second, this pushes him to contemplate his unfortunate fate at the hands of others, interrupting the reverie. “But soon these impressions were erased” by the uniform, timeless lapping of the waves, which “plunged [my soul] into a delightful reverie in which night would often surprise me without having noticed it.” Waves break the image of Rousseau in the lake, distracting him from his self-reflection.

Reverie is a sentiment of connection to the world, opposed to reflection on man’s distinction from the world. When one retreats into the solitude of nature, “[a] sweet and deep reverie takes possession of his senses then, and through a delicious intoxication he loses himself in the immensity of this beautiful system with which he feels himself one. Then, all particular objects elude him; he sees and feels nothing except in the whole.” Rousseau’s use of “elude” is deceptive. Rather than suggesting particular natural objects are beyond his grasp, Rousseau implies he merges with all natural objects while in reverie. For Rousseau, this connection is a bodily one. The primitive savage, “agile, fleet-footed, and vigorous,” moves seamlessly through nature. When threatened by predators, “[n]atural arms, which are tree branches and stones” supplement his hands. Hottentots of southern Africa exemplify this handiness for Rousseau. Quoting a contemporary source, he claims the Hottentots have “such a sure hand,” they can peg a target with a stone with such skill, it seems “their stone is carried by an invisible hand.” 29 Objects do not impede the savage, but are ready at hand. Here Rousseau anticipates Heidegger’s claim that a human is most peaceful when at harmony with the objects in the world.30

Finally, reverie encourages sympathy. In reverie, Rousseau is unconcerned with the future. Without prospective, instrumental thinking, Rousseau does not use others instrumentally, and thus can sympathize with others. Rousseau opens the sixth chapter of The Reveries with an example. On a nature walk, Rousseau crossed paths with a disabled child and on impulse gave the child alms, expecting no gratitude in return. Coming from fleeting inclination, rather than hope of future reward, this “tendency was intense, true, pure, and nothing in by most secret self ever belied it.” For Rousseau, this was a moment of sympathy, particularly of shared contentment: “following the impulses of my heart, I could sometimes make another heart content.”31 As Charles Butterworth notes, it is “[b]ecause he follows his feelings, rather than the dictates of his reason,” Rousseau acts in accord with “his natural goodness combined with his excessive pity.”32

As he returned to society, Rousseau’s impulsive reverie, and thus his sense of sympathy, atrophied. As Rousseau repeated this walk and donation to the boy, “[t]his pleasure, having become a habit, was inexplicably transformed into a kind of duty I soon felt to be annoying.” Eventually Rousseau came to anticipate the child, making donations to assuage his guilt, the child in turn used him for alms, and the relationship grew instrumental. Rousseau thus concludes: “the continuation of the very attentiveness that had charmed me at first no longer struck me as anything but an almost unbearable annoyance…from these first good deeds, which my heart poured out effusively, were forged chains of subsequent liabilities I had not foreseen and whose yoke I could no longer shake.” In reverie, with no sense of time, Rousseau does not expect future interactions, cannot informally contract with the child, and thus his gift is an innocent, sympathetic one. With the prospect of future interactions, he views the child merely as a means to assuage his guilt, and the relationship is corrupted.

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