JJ Rousseau: Autonomy lost


His work laid the ground both for a radical conception of autonomy, and its critique.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was of the Enlightenment. He fraternised with the original self-styled lumieres, the philosophes – indeed, as a caustic, eloquent multi-talented thirtysomething in the Paris of the 1750s, earning a living copying music, penning essays and poetry, and forging a reputation as a composer, he was considered one of their number. He was a close friend of Diderot, the editorial force, alongside D’Alembert, behind that testament to an Enlightenment-style thirst for knowledge, the Encyclopédie – that was until he felt a cooling in their relationship, and the warming of a seeming conspiracy against him. He was close in spite of himself to Baron D’Holbach, whose rebarbative materialism was anathema to him. And he was a close enemy of the aristocratic Voltaire, with whom he exchanged chippy vituperations for much of his later life. Their deep mutual antagonism was only overcome in 1790, when Rousseau’s body was disinterred from its grave in Ermononville, in northern France, transported via a solemn procession to Paris and placed in the Pantheon next to that of his great adversary-in-arms, who, like Rousseau, had, in death, become a revolutionary hero of the living.

And yet what marks Rousseau out is that he also seems to swim against the Enlightenment mainstream. Not because he really was the primitivist of ‘noble savage’ apochrapha. But because he draws on the radical promise of Enlightenment to denounce the supposedly Enlightening world. He draws on the promise of the emancipated individual, free of external authority and strict social hierarchy, to denounce the individual’s present-day servility. That is, he draws on the promise of autonomy to denounce the nascent modernity that denies it. Much is made of Rousseau’s use of paradox on stylistic grounds. But it is on social grounds that it makes sense; Rousseau used paradox because his reality was paradoxical, or better still, contradictory. ‘Man is born free’, runs the promise, ‘and everywhere he is in chains’, comes the rejoinder.

Rousseau’s target here is just as much the world of his Enlightened peers – the world of Paris, of the salons in which intellect glitters, wit sparkles and reason trumpets its worth; the world of commerce and celebrity; the world of industrialising production methods and private property; the world of cities and crowds – as it is the bondage of a still semi-feudal France and the tyranny of monarchic absolutism under which it was staggering on. Because, as Rousseau discerned, the new Enlightened world, the world of ‘the bourgeois’, was in the revolutionary ascendant, despite regal appearances to the contrary. ‘We are approaching a state of crisis and the age of revolutions’, he wrote in 1762, addressing an imaginary member of court. ‘Who can answer for what will become of you then? All that men have made, men can destroy. The only ineffaceable characters are those printed by nature; and nature does not make princes, rich men, or lords.’ (1)

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