Thursday, June 28, 2012

Happy B-Day Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Today is the 300th anniversary of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, philosopher, pedagogue, author, composer and botanist, born in Geneva on 28 June 1712. Rousseau became famous in 1750. The Academy of Dijon held a competition for academics to answer the question whether the boom of the sciences helped to "improve morality."

The answer Rousseau provided in his essay Discours sur les Sciences et les Arts shocked Europe and instantly made him famous. He won the competition with the disturbing notion that the development of civilization was in truth a story of decline and decay: in his "natural state" man lives independently and freely, but in society he is like a slave in increasingly tight chains — the evil lies in the essence of society. This provoked a scandal in this age of Enlightenment that celebrated the continuous, indeed inevitable, improvement of life by science and technology.

At age 50 he published his novel Emile on pedagogy (and the profession of a religion without a church) and his philosophical treatise Contrat Social on the reconciliation of human nature with political rule. He wrote: "The problem is to find a form of association in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before." Only the law should be above the individual.

The books were burnt under a parliamentary decree in the courtyard of the Palace of Justice in Paris, and on 9 June 1762, Rousseau fled from Paris to his native Geneva, where this time his books were burnt in front of the city hall and he was declared persona non grata.

Rousseau did not propose solutions, he unveiled paradoxes. His arch-enemy Voltaire summed it up with a marginal note he wrote in one of Rousseau's books: "You always exaggerate everything." It took until his 200th anniversary in 1912 to be accepted with Dunant and Calvin as one of the embodiments of the esprit de Genève. Today he is considered a forefather of environmentalism and the occupy movements, but his main message is that we continuously fail to meet our own expectations. Society has changed: Rousseau's estate is now part of UNESCO's world heritage.