Rousseau at 300 years: nature and law

Tomorrow the birthday 300 years ago of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) will be commemorated, not only in France but in many countries worldwide. In this post I will look briefly at his impact on law, mainly through his views of mankind and nature.

Painting of Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Maurice Quentin de la Tour

Painting of Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Maurice Quentin de la Tour – Saint Quentin, Musée Antoine Lécuyer – image in public domain

Rousseau’s tercentenary

At his blog Jean Stouff published already in January 2012 a webographie, a short guide to websites celebrating the tercentenary of Rousseau. I will take over from this post a number of websites. Stouff points to the Athena website, a database at the Université de Genève with texts in French, where you will find mainly Rousseau’s literary texts. On the Canadian website Les classiques des sciences sociales [Classics of the Social Sciences] texts and pamphlets with a more political orientation are presented. For translations into English available online you can go for example to the Online Library of Liberty where you can read some of the most important texts by Rousseau, among them Emile ou l’éducation and Du contrat social.

In fact you can choose between many starting points for introductions to his life and writings. I stumbled on the entry for Rousseau at the mirror at Leeds of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Worse choices are certainly possible! The University of Leeds organizes on June 28 and 29 a conference on Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Britain. One of the conferences linking Rousseau and law will be held at Chambéry on October 24-25, 2012, L’émancipation par le droit entre utopie et projet. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, XVIIIe-XXIe siècle, with a focus on emancipation by law. You must forgive me for not giving here an exhaustive list of all conferences on Rousseau that have already been held this year.

Looking directly at Rousseau’s writings is one thing, looking at exhibitions concerning Rousseau offers a kind of contemporary window to look at this immensely influential writer. A special Rousseau 2012 blog helps you to keep track of festivities in France. The links guide you to more Rousseau websites. In particular the Rhône-Alpes region bristles with all kind of activities. To be honest, I suspect Rousseau is used here also for the marketing of this region. One of the largest exhibitions is at the Bibliothèque municipale in Lyon, Jean-Jacques Rousseau entre Rhône et Alpes. At Grenoble the municipal library presents the exhibition Avatars de Rousseau: héritage et postérités. The bilingual website of the international Rousseau Association – maintained at Lyon – brings you to more scientific activities and can bring you to more relevant information.

The Art Museum of University College London had earlier this year an exhibition on Rousseau 300: Nature, Self and State, and a conference with the same title. In Paris the Panthéon, where Rousseau is buried since the French Revolution, is the location for an exhibition on Rousseau et les arts. The Musée Jacquemart-André, too, devotes special space to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, especially at its location in Chaalis. Harvard’s Houghton Library presented this year an exhibition on Rousseau and human rights. The guest curator of this exhibition took her lead from Rousseau’s use of the very word human rights, droits de l’homme, in Du contrat social (1762). In Germany the Rochow-Museum in Reckhan (Brandenburg) will bring an exhibition on Rousseau as a man of many talents, a visionary and someone often exiled or banned. The university library of the Freie Universität Berlin presents this year its copies of early editions of Rousseau’s works.

For this post I have found only one recent virtual exhibition on Rousseau, Voltaire-Rousseau: l’éternel duel, created by the Centre international d’étude sur le XVIIIe siècle in Ferney-Voltaire. The database of the Smithsonian Institution on virtual exhibitions in museums and libraries worldwide brings just one example, an exhibition at the Lloyd Library and Museum in Cincinnati on Rousseau and his botanical interests.

A Dutch connection to Jean-Jacques Rousseau will be explored to some extent at a two-day conference at Neuchâtel on Jean-Jacques Rousseau/Isabelle de Charrière. Régards croisés (August 22-23, 2012). Isabelle de Charrière née Van Zuylen (1740-1805) was born in Utrecht where she lived until her marriage. She wrote in French. Both authors were also composers, to mention only one connection between them. The university library of the University of Amsterdam will organize in September an exhibition on Rousseau. Last week the Zentral- und Hochschulbibliothek Luzern presented a new German translation of Rousseau’s letters on botany and an accompanying exhibition.

Rousseau, nature and law

The themes presented by Rousseau can rightfully be called familiar spots, old stamping grounds, classic themes for discussion and research. The proverbial imaginary library is well-stocked with works studying these and other subjects from ever-changing angles: the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, education, anthropology, views of nature, the scope and character of laws, to mention at least a few examples. Even if Rousseau is not on his own completely responsible for introducing views of nature and mankind which influence modern thinking already for more than two centuries, he is surely the author most often associated with new perceptions of nature, man and society. Research on for example his influence on the French Revolution, and more particular the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme, amounts to a veritable industry. Even though he did live for some time as a recluse – the original cabane can still be seen near Chaalis – he was certainly not cut off from society. Either directly on indirectly his views became quickly known and often hotly debated by his contemporaries.

Rousseau brings the idea of liberty to the front in an exemplary way, both in his writings and his private life. This is reinforced by his Confessions, an autobiography which redefined the genre. Nevertheless, one should be wary about this source which is in its own way as particularly constructed as the Confessiones of Augustine of Hippo. A short summary of some of Rousseau’s major ideas does scarcely justice to him, nor does it provide a balanced view of the ongoing reception of Rousseau, not just in intellectual history, but in society at large. However, let it suffice here that for Rousseau nature gets a new significance as the untroubled, innocent and promising origin of man, instead of a state of man taken away by the fall of Adam and forever out of reach. He looked at natural surroundings with new eyes, and indeed introduced nature as an object of beauty and contemplation for its own sake. The exploring of continents and landscapes, supposed or real wilderness near city life or far away, owes to his enthusiasm, not to mention the search for the bon sauvage, the archetypical wild man living in or close to Paradise. To be sure, the concept of the noble savage is much older, and Rousseau’s actual views here might even have been interpreted incorrectly. His view of mankind as susceptible to benevolent influences has had far-reaching consequences for ideas about education and lawgiving. In a way Rousseau seems to encapsulate the Enlightenment at its most optimistic turn. His longing for liberty is perhaps his most lasting influence, shared all over the world.

Maybe this brief post helps you to choose between many opportunities this summer for interesting exhibitions to visit and books to read of reread. This time I have not included a tour of digitized first editions or translations, but that voyage in the wake of Rousseau will no doubt be rewarding, too.

A postscript

In July 2012 the  new website Rousseau Online presents a digitized version of the Collection complète des oeuvres de Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17 vol., Geneva 1780-1788), a project of the Swiss history portal InfoClio. Hat tip to Eric Hennekam!

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