In l979, two hundred years after the death of Jean-Jacque Rousseau, Allan Bloom, who had translated Plato’s Republic, translated Emile, a book Immanuel Kant thought an event comparable in importance to the French Revolution. Bloom had become something of a national celebrity, and the object of considerable criticism, not to say abuse, with the publication of The Closing of the American Mind, a critique of American higher education that demonstrated the utter failure of American universities to take seriously the liberal arts, or even to know what they were. Perhaps that was the reason he decided to translate a work that had not been translated into English in more than seventy years, a work that changed, or tried to change, what education meant; a word that changed how we think about the world.
Emile or On Education, as is the full title, is Rousseau’s attempt to restore, on a more solid foundation, what the ancients tried to do: raise men and women who think everything about their country and little about themselves. He provides two remarkable examples to show, and to heighten, the contrast between the past and the present, one from ancient Sparta, one from the Roman republic. A Spartan woman is told that all five of her sons have been killed in battle. She shakes her head in annoyance. She does not want to hear about that, she wants to know if the battle had been won, and when she is told that it has, she goes to the temple to give thanks to the gods. A Roman general, Regulus, captured by the Carthaginians, is sent back to Rome to give the Roman senate the terms under which Carthage will end the war. He promises that once he has done this he will return. He goes to Rome, tells the senate what the Carthaginians propose, and urges the senate to reject the offer. The senate follows his advice, and Regulus , having given his word, goes back to Carthage and certain death.
Where are the men and women who would do such things today? asks Rousseau. There are no more citizens, only what he was the first to call the bourgeoisie, “double men, always appearing to relate everything to others and never relating anything except to themselves alone.” They think only of acquiring, and keeping, the means for the “comfortable self-preservation,” to use John Locke’s phrase, they care about. It is impossible “to teach living to one who think of nothing but how to keep himself from dying.” Medicine has become “the fashion among us,” and the only pleasure is “that of not being dead.”
What can be done? Change the way we teach, change what we call education, change the way children are raised. Rousseau will take a normal child, that is to say, one not unusually gifted, and make him a man, a free man, a man who does not believe anything except what he has understood himself. The child’s name is Emile.
Emile, four hundred eighty pages long, is divided into five books, each of them a record of the sequential stages of the boy’s growth and education. But Emile is not a straightforward account, and it is certainly not a textbook. Rousseau insists that Plato’s Republic is the best book ever written about education; the best book, that is, until now. Like the Republic, Emile is written in a way that tells you something different the closer you examine what it says. In the preface, Rousseau writes, “I do not see as do other men.” And then, as if in passing, remarks, “It is up to me not to go overboard, not to believe that I alone am wiser than everybody.” This is nothing more than to state the obvious, is it not? But then, suddenly, you realize what he is saying, not that he is not wiser than anyone else, but that there might be others, a few others, or perhaps only one other, who is also “wiser than everybody.” Perhaps Plato, whose Republic is the only book he compares to Emile.
Everyone thinks education is about books, but Rousseau hates books. “They only teach one to talk about what one does not know.” They “teach us to use the reason of others.” They “teach us to believe much and never to know anything.” He is equally dismissive of all that passes for the fields of learning: “some are false, others are useless, others serve to feed the pride of the men who possess them.” It gets more radical, and more profound. “Remember, remember constantly that ignorance never did any harm, that error alone is fatal, and that one is misled not by what he does not know but by what he believes he knows.” What is left, what is there to educate Emile about, and how, without books, is he to be taught?
This is how he teaches Emile the rights of property, and, by implication, the equal rights of others. He learns about agriculture by planting seeds to grow beans. He has the great enjoyment, the sense of accomplishment, of seeing the beans he has taken such care of begin to sprout. Then one morning he discovers to his horror that someone has dug them up and scattered them on the ground. The gardener admits he did this, but demands to know why Emile has by planting his seeds destroyed the melons the gardener was trying to grow. He tells Emile he should respect the rights of others. Emile protests that he does not have a garden. Rousseau asks the gardener (with whom this whole episode has been arranged in advance) whether he will give Emile some ground to cultivate if Emile agrees to give him half of what he grows. The gardener agrees, but warns Emile that he will plow up his beans if he touches his melons.
It is important when reading to read not only what is written but what is not written. This story about a garden reminds us, and is meant to remind us, of another story about a garden, the Garden of Eden, where God’s punishment for taking what was not supposed to be taken was the loss of innocence and banishment forever. Emile will only be taught what he can see, what he can understand. When Rousseau says he hates books, he does not exclude the Bible.
Emile has now learned the necessity of respecting the rights of others, and learned it in a way he will never forget. It no longer comes as a surprise that the one exception to Rousseau’s refusal to let Emile read books as a child is Robinson Crusoe, the story of one man, isolated and alone, who learns to meet all the necessities of existence by his own, unaided, efforts. When does Emile first learn to read? When he wants to, which means when Rousseau thinks it is time for him to do so. A note will be sent to him, a note inviting him to do something he would really like to do, but there is no one there to read it to him and when someone finally arrives who can, it is too late. Emile now wants to read for himself.
Emile reads Robinson Crusoe as a child. When he is a young man he reads history, but not for the reason we might think. The whole object of Emile’s education is that “he not let himself get carried away by either the passions or the opinions of men, that he see with his eyes, that he feels with his heart, that no authority govern him beyond that of his ow reason.” The best way to do this? “Nothing is more fit to make a man wise than follies that are seen without being shared.” Emile will read the histories so that he can learn the misfortunes of famous men, men like Augustus who, “having subjugated his fellow citizens and destroyed his rivals, ruled for forty years the greatest empire which has ever existed,” experienced every kind of suffering. Warned against the passions that lead men to wish to dominate others, Emile will not prefer Augustus, or anyone, to himself. He will even learn to pity “kings, slaves to all that obey them.”
If Emile learns to admire the self-sufficiency of Robinson Crusoe living along on an island, he begins, like everyone, to experience that inner need that by drawing the sexes together makes it possible for men and women to live beyond their lives and the species to continue. Book V, the last book, of Emile, is all about sex; or rather, to the great discomfort of the dominant, and some would say intolerant, thought of the present age, all about marriage. Rousseau turns the sex drive into love, and manages to make, or rather show how, love depends on the workings of the mind.
He makes Emile fall in love before Emile has met the young woman with whom this is going to happen. Emile falls in love with an idea. It is only after he has the idea of what he hopes one day to find, that he will know what he is looking for.
“And what is love itself if it is not a chimera, lie and illusion? We love the image we make for ourselves far more than we love the object to which we apply it. If we saw what we love exactly as it is, there would be no more love on earth.”
The chimera becomes a model for the woman who will be the perfect match for Emile. It will “attach him to everything resembling it and will estrange him from everything not resembling it, just as if his passions had a real object.”
Knowing what she should be, drawn closer to a girl he has yet to meet by what he has been told she will be like, Emile knows he is in love the moment when, seemingly by accident, he finally lays eyes on the girl, Sophie, who will be his wife. But not very soon; not until there is no question in their hearts that they belong together. And not even then, because once they agree to marry, Rousseau reminds Emile of a promise he has made, a promise that he would do whatever he was asked when the time came for marriage. Emile must go away, travel for two years, learning how other people live and how they are governed; learn by comparison what is needed to become a free citizen, because only then will he know how to educate the children he and Sophie will have to raise. This is necessary because, for Rousseau, the two sexes are, as Allan Bloom, described Rousseau’s thought, “different and complementary, each imperfect and requiring the other in order to be a whole being, or rather, together forming a single whole being.”
If this seems a reactionary attempt to limit the freedom of women, Rousseau was certain that there is no freedom, but only slavery, when our passions, our desires, are the only things we feel or think important. Rousseau understood, and deplored, the “scandalous morals of our age!” Men and women both, “do not know how to feel anything great and noble; they have neither simplicity nor vigor, abject in all things and basely wicked, they are only vain, rascally and basely wicked; they do not even have enough courage to be illustrious criminals.”
Published in 1762, Emile was immediately condemned by the Parlement of Paris and the Council of Geneva. That did nothing to stop it becoming one of the most influential books ever written, or to prevent Jean-Jacque Rousseau from becoming the most influential author read by those who played the leading parts in the French Revolution, a revolution that changed not just the face of Europe, but the way nearly everyone thinks about the rights of man.