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Christie McDonald and Stanley Hoffman, eds. Rousseau and Freedom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. ISBN: 978-0521515825. Price: US$93

  • Fayçal Falaky

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  • Fayçal Falaky
    Tulane University

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Although titled Rousseau and Freedom, McDonald’s and Hoffman’s edited collection is rather about Rousseau’s many freedoms. Presenting a wide-ranging overview of Rousseau’s approaches to freedom in his political thought as well as in the context of his views on literature and the arts, society, education, religion and women, the panoply of essays that enrich this volume show, as Christie McDonald states in her introduction, that “Rousseau offers not one, but several conceptions of liberty” (2). Far from laying bare the divergent and often conflicting readings that have pitted literary scholars of Rousseau against their political or sociological counterparts, the essays’ cross-disciplinary eclecticism succeeds rather in providing us with a more complete and subsequently more coherent picture of Rousseau.

By proposing different but complementary readings of how freedom is articulated in Rousseau’s Second Discourse – theologically, methodologically and intellectually – the first four contributions of Part I give us a good sense of the cross-disciplinary dialogue that weaves together the many essays of the book. Although Rousseau acknowledges in the beginning of the Discourse that the pure state of nature “perhaps never did exist,” Ioannis D. Evrigenis’ introductory essay argues that there is reason to take the perhaps seriously and to consider it less a hypothesis than a premise for a radically new theodicy through which Rousseau frees humanity from original sin. As Evrigenis goes on to show, the political impact of this theological revamping of man’s genesis is enormous: “By insisting that, although he is everywhere in chains, man is born free from domination and sin, Rousseau was able to part ways with Hobbes, and make the notions of individual agency and responsibility not only plausible, but perhaps also appealing” (18).

The notion that the state of nature is purely conjectural is also challenged in Natasha Lee’s eloquent essay. The purpose of Lee’s argument, however, is altogether different. Pointing to the extensive empirical data found in the footnotes, Lee contends that the conjoining of scientific facts and fictional speculation in the Discourse both grants Rousseau a “tentative structure of authority” and frees him from the “a priori absolutes” of empirical truth (36). By simultaneously relying on and distancing itself from scientific evidence, Rousseau’s liminal methodology authorizes him to perceive through and beyond the established “truths” of contemporary naturalists. It grants him the freedom to challenge the constraints of empirical social sciences and to intuit, for example, in opposition to contemporary theories of naturalistic determinism, that man is born a free agent.

The type of freedom examined in Christopher Brooke’s and Marian Hobson’s contributions could be characterized as intellectual. To the question of whether Rousseau was a Stoic or an Epicurean, Brooke suggests that the best answer would be to disregard labels altogether. Instead of tracing Rousseau’s thought to a distinct philosophical influence, Brooke argues that we should view Rousseau “as an eclectic thinker – remembering that this was itself an important eighteenth-century keyword – one who drew selectively on the various arguments that he found in older texts, juxtaposing them, and sometimes fusing them together as he went about creating his own, utterly distinctive system” (54). Moving from the Ancients to the Moderns, Marian Hobson’s discussion of intellectual freedom revolves around Rousseau’s relationship to Diderot and more particularly a recently discovered copy of William Petty’s Several Essays in Political Arithmetic (1683). Presented as a gift to Diderot (himself the author of the Encyclopédie’s article on “arithmétique politique) sometime between 1749 and 1751, the copy includes a long dedication in which Rousseau deplores how modern political thinkers had abandoned all moral and virtuous ideals and debased their art into a series of statistical operations and calculations in which men were henceforth considered like “herds of cattle” (62). If the dedication is explicit in its criticism of Petty’s methods, it also points to keen philosophical differences between Rousseau and Diderot at a time when they were still collaborators and friends. Rousseau argues in the Second Discourse that one of the differences between natural and social man is that the former is free and that the latter, dependent on his fellows, values his self-worth through the eyes of others. What the gift of the Petty volume reveals is that prior to the Discourse and the eventual break with the philosophes, Rousseau was already outlining the intellectual grounds for his own personal independence.

To distinguish himself from his contemporary philosophes, Rousseau often claimed that his thought was not bound by any doctrinal “esprit de système”. By reading the Letter to d’Alembert’s paragraphs on religious belief and the critique of theater as part of the same debate, Jérôme Brillaud shows us that Rousseau viewed philosophical dogmatism as no different than religious fanaticism: dramatic illusion was yet another “invincible charm” (86) to indoctrinate the people, and the dictates of verisimilitude were but the poetic equivalent of religious coercion. For Brillaud, it is in this vein that we should understand Rousseau’s proposal for participatory open-air festivals. By suggesting that they “become the object of the spectacle, but only if they choose to” (89-90), Rousseau sought to liberate spectators from the “coerced and passive participation” imposed by traditional theaters.

In the last essay of Part I, Tracy B. Strong argues that contrary to theater where “chacun s’isole,” Rousseau regarded music as an art form that could move and persuade rather than reason and convince. Since it penetrates the heart directly and transcends, thus, the simulacra inherent in theatrical representation, music is susceptible of holding “our attention because it is part of who we are” (104). That one of the objectives of the Legislator in the Social Contract is also to “persuade without convincing” is not surprising. As Strong eloquently demonstrates, Rousseau’s vision for the political ideal – to reconcile individual freedom with the communal sentiment of existence – is modeled on his aesthetics of music. In its capacity to overcome the ontological dualism of theatrical/political representation and to evoke common and pure passions within each individual, music is susceptible of creating a meaningful human social bond wherein each is free to be himself.

Whereas man in the state of nature was free from constraints, or negatively free, to use Isaiah Berlin’s terminology, the (positive) freedom treated in most essays of Part II subsumes a moral or aesthetic subjugation to a higher authority. One of the reasons Stanley Hoffman declares the general will a mirage rather a tangible reality is because in his attempt to fuse liberty and authority in the political ideal of the Social Contract, Rousseau was basically transposing the conditions for individual moral freedom – obedience to an internal will – to the larger scale of the state. By solving the quintessential problem of political philosophy, Rousseau could have well declared that he had “squared the circle.” But as Hoffman argues, the solution’s inapplicability in real-life political arena only cements Rousseau’s regretful belief that the kind of political freedom he sought lied in a distant mythical past: “This is the beautiful dream of a man who did not believe that the real world was capable and worthy of such salvation” (128-129).

For Diane Berrett Brown, moral freedom in Rousseau may not be a myth but it is certainly an illusion. Taking the case of Emile’s education as an example, Brown shows how the tutor systematically “provides the guise of freedom in a space that is rigidly engineered” (162). Emile may think he is free and master of his actions but what he does not know is that behind each of his movements and desires lies the master’s internalized will. Brown proceeds to read Emile’s misadventures in Les Solitaires as proof that Rousseau’s “attempt to establish liberty while offering only its simulacrum” (171) is conceptually flawed. This conclusion, however, seems problematic when we consider (as Marie Hélène Huet and Stanley Hoffman do in their respective essay and postface) that it is as a slave in Algiers that Emile, recalling the tenor of his master’s teachings, experiences freedom in all its fullness: “I am freer than I used to be […] I never had as much authority over myself as when I was in the barbarians’ chains” (262; 293). Wouldn’t this passage from Les Solitaires suggest rather that moral freedom for Rousseau required some sort of subjugation?

This is in any case the conclusion Marius Hentea draws from his study on yoke imagery in Rousseau’s writing. Hentea argues that while Rousseau presents himself as impatient and even rebellious when under the yoke (joug) of men and opinion, the image of the yoke does not disappear from his experience of freedom. For Rousseau then, freedom is not simply a question of breaking the chains but is constituted rather through one’s willful subordination to a more natural or at least more legitimate authority. Whether under nature, women, God, Law or conscience, freedom, for Rousseau, is experienced as a “yoke that one has imposed upon oneself” (187). This masochist penchant is also implicit in Jason Neidelman’s disquisition on Rousseau’s undogmatic and unspecific Christianity. For Rousseau, Neidelman notes, “which specific “sect” one chooses is almost irrelevant; that one chooses it is essential” (147). Whereas this principle of personal and willful voluntarism reflects Rousseau’s tolerance when it comes to religious belief, it also highlights the necessity of surrender entailed in the experience of freedom.

The issue of Emile’s constrained liberty reappears again in Philip Stewart’s essay but it is raised this time to propose a reassessment of Rousseau’s views on women’s freedom and autonomy. Although Stewart does not challenge the fact that Rousseau regarded men and women as essentially distinct, it would be too simplistic, he argues, to think that Rousseau dismisses women’s right to freedom or for that matter, as some critics have suggested, that he is “anti-feminist.” Raised to fulfill her role in the domestic realm, Sophie is indeed refused any hint of self-determination. But does that make her “any more a marionette than Emile” (210)? The same can be said of Julie. Although her liberty is but a mere illusion hanging under the invisible threads of a God-like figure, she is no less free than Emile. Or rather, Stewart concludes, they both participate in the same kind of moral freedom that one experiences under the “yoke of necessity” (214).

By comparing two passages from the Confessions wherein Rousseau describes his visits to the Pont du Gard and the Arènes de Nîmes, Louisa Shea’s original essay considers the concept of freedom in Rousseau through his aesthetic and emotional appreciation of ruins. Whereas Rousseau delights at the sight of the Roman aqueduct “all the more so since it is in the middle of the wilderness” (196), the “nasty-looking houses” (200) that occupy and surround the Arena of Nîmes “disturb his viewing pleasure and trouble his ecstatic reunion with mythical Rome” (200). Like the Second Discourse’s statue of Glaucus, disfigured by the action of time, modernity, writes Shea, “has, so to speak, ruined the ruin. It has transformed the arena from a classical ruin, capable of signifying political liberty, into a modern ruin, which signifies nothing at all, save the abjection of modern man” (202). Viewed as such, the blemished ruins around Nîmes are, in a sense, more politically significant. Not only do they symbolize the lost political liberty of an idealized past; they also point to the reason for this loss: modern civilization.

In considering Rousseau’s freedom as both negative and positive (the reference again is to Berlin), the concluding essay of Part II is also an apt preamble to the psychological turn taken in the third and last part of the volume. Mathieu Brunet and Bertrand Guillarme argue that although Rousseau conceives of freedom primarily as a duty to oneself, this does not mean that it conforms to a dualistic vision of the body. Unlike the Christians or Stoics for whom freedom entailed a struggle against one’s base instincts, the essay’s authors contend that for Rousseau the “experience of (or desire to experience) liberty takes place time and again in the sensuous arena” (221). Far from negating the body or its desires, Rousseau’s kind of abnegation opens up a sensual space of intense emotions in which the disengaged self “rediscovers a feeling of plenitude and self-realization” (224).

Likewise, Marie-Hélène Huet describes Rousseau’s experience of (and desire for) self-anéantissement as “a luminal space, where freedom […] expresses itself in the sensuous world of aimless wanderings” (271). If according to Huet, Rousseau’s “willed negation of all actions” cannot entirely fit within Berlin’s categories of freedom, it is because Rousseau’s liberty oscillates between the negative and positive. Although born of abstention, freedom is experienced nonetheless as both an act of will and a desire. It is through withdrawal that Rousseau’s “feeling of existence expands” (264); and it is through self-imposed boundaries that he can delight in that oceanic feeling which Freud describes in Civilization and Its Discontents as “a sensation of ‘eternity,’ a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded” (264).

Leo Damrosch calls this feeling “the jouissance of the imaginary” (240). While noting, in agreement with Jean Starobinski, that the fantasy of the complot freed Rousseau from the consequences of his actions, Damrosch adds nevertheless that by “securing a privileged space within which he can free himself from a lifelong vulnerability to the gaze and judgments of other people” (237), Rousseau’s paranoia also paved the path for a kind of freedom that was far from passive. Manifest in the Reveries ideal of oisiveté, this freedom is neither “passive laziness” (239) nor “paralyzing delusion” (240) but rather an “inner emigration” (243) by which a disinterested and disengaged Rousseau becomes “at last truly himself and truly free” (242).

In Pierre Saint-Amand’s admirable essay, Rousseau’s ideal of oisiveté, or the vita otiosa, is presented as akin to an “intellectual suspension of the will,” (246) a sort of botanical reverie where each plant encountered in the course of the promenade becomes a “poetic pause, a way to freeze what is fleeting” (251). Here, the ideal of freedom is not only opposed to the gaze of others but rather to the “discipline of the clock,” (248) to the emotionless and subjugating “rhythm brought to bear by the industrial machine” (252). Removing himself from the machinelike cadence of human history, Rousseau, Saint-Amand writes, encounters “the serene and radical quietude of freedom” (254). Rather than pure ascetic stasis, detachment in this case is the opportunity to invest in a different kind of movement: one that is all interior; one that is freed from the social (and artificial) constraints of time, interest or labor.

Christie McDonald begins the concluding essay of the volume by stating that “Failure for Jean-Jacques Rousseau […] is the basis on which his “social, political and personal thought rests” (274). In the Confessions, Rousseau recounts how his admiration for Venture de Villeneuve, a musician without musical knowledge, pushed him to fashion himself likewise and to put on a concert whose ghastly cacophony left the audience covering their ears. While this failure represents Rousseau’s general inaptitude for conventional rules (social, political or aesthetic), it also signals that “freedom of creativity and innovation […] could only come with detachment from facts and the concrete realities that tormented him” (285). Failure in the social scene confirms, in a sense, the freedom of a thought that was as impractical in contemporary society as it was independent from it. In making sense of Rousseau’s thought through its disjunctions (in this case, between the real and the ideal, the autobiographical and the sociopolitical), Christie McDonald’s essay is also a fitting end to this eclectic yet robust collection of essays which reach across the disciplines to give us, each from different points of view, a comprehensive understanding of the concept of freedom in Rousseau.