The Education of Democratic Man: Emile

"The Education of Democratic Man: Emile," Daedalus, Vol. 107, No. 3, Rousseau for Our Time (Summer 1978), pp. 135-153.


Thus Emile is one of those rare total or synoptic books, a book with which one can live and which becomes deeper as one becomes deeper, a book comparable to Plato’s Republic, which it is meant to rival or supersede. But it is not recognized as such in spite of Rousseau’s own judgment that it was his best book and Kant’s sentiment that its publication was an event comparable to the French Revolution. Of his major works it is the least studied or commented on. It is as though its force had been entirely spent on impact with men like Kant and Schiller, leaving only the somewhat cranky residue for which the book retains its fame in teacher training schools–the harangues against swaddling and in favor of breast feeding and the learning of a trade. Whatever the reasons for its loss of favor (and this would make an interesting study) Emile merits advocacy for it is a truly great book, one which lays out for the first time and with the greatest clarity and vitality the modern way of posing the problems of psychology.

By this I mean that Rousseau is at the source of the tradition which replaces virtue and vice as the causes of a man’s being good or bad, happy or miserable, with such pairs of opposites as sincere/insincere, authentic/inauthentic, inner directed/other-directed, real self/alienated self. All these have their source in Rousseau’s analysis of amour de soi and amour-propre, a division within man’s soul resulting from man’s bodily and spiritual dependence on other men which rup tures his original unity or wholeness. This distinction is supposed to give the true explanation of the tension within man which had in the past been under stood to be a result of the opposed and irreconcilable demands of the body and the soul. Emile gives the comprehensive account of the genesis of amour-propre, displays its rich and multifarious phenomena (spreads the peacock’s tail, as it were), and maps man’s road back to himself from his spiritual exile (his history) during which he wandered through nature and society, a return to himself which incorporates into his substance all the cumbersome treasures he gathered en route. This analysis supersedes that based on the distinction between body and soul?which in its turn had activated the quest for virtue, the taming and controlling of the body’s desires under the guidance of the soul’s reason?and initiates the great longing to be one’s self and the hatred of alienation which characterizes all modern thought. The wholeness, unity, or singleness of man–a project ironically outlined in the Republic–is the serious intention of Emile and almost all that came afterward.