1. Historical Backgrounds
It's fair to ask whether philosophy can say much at all about a process as diverse as coming of age. Philosophers trade in general truths - some still seek necessary or universal ones - but even a little empirical data reveals that growing up is very particular. Coming of age in Samoa is not the same as coming of age in Southampton, and even within a single culture, decades can make a difference, and centuries can make the terrain look unrecognizable. French historian Philippe Ariès argued that early medieval Europeans had no concept of childhood; not until the twelfth century were children considered notable enough to be portrayed in paintings, and even then they were simply depicted as smaller-sized adults, with no difference of feature or expression. Later historians criticized Ariès for drawing too quick a conclusion from iconography to concepts, but his most important insight still stands: whatever concept of childhood medieval Europeans had, it wasn't ours. If we focus on images we can even ask if Ariès's concept of childhood is the same as the one we have today. When he wrote his seminal Centuries of Childhood in 1960, could he have imagined the ease with which some of us take and share reams of baby videos that, apart from a limited number of social scientists, can only be of interest to the baby's grandparents and future fiancée?
Something surely changed when this became possible, but nothing as dramatic as the changes in thinking about childhood when people began to take for granted that their children would survive infancy. Seventeenth-century French children were as familiar with birth and death as they were with sex, and not merely in peasant dwellings where life, of necessity, took place in one room. The royal physician Héroard's diary contains observations like this one, recorded when the future Louis XIII was one year old: 'He laughed uproariously when his nanny waggled his cock with her fingers, an amusing trick which the child soon copied. Calling a page he shouted "Hey there!" and pulled up his robe, showing him his cock ... in high spirits, he made everybody kiss his cock' (Centuries of Childhood, p. 100).
In our current rush to compensate for decades when sexual abuse was ignored, we'd do well to remember that not every form of attention to children's sexuality is an abuse of it. In early modern France, this sort of behaviour was considered perfectly normal until the age of seven or eight, when children were expected to treat sexual matters with more modesty. It is so far from Victorian expectations of innocence, or our current heightened concern over sexual predators and pederasty, that it can well be asked whether having a child's body was the same in those three epochs.
Having a child's mind could not have been the same in a world that had yet to emphasize the importance of education, or separate children from adults in new institutions called schools. Most early medieval European children were absorbed into the world of adult labour as soon as they were old enough to sweep a workshop floor. The expectation that boys should be secluded from adults to enjoy or endure a process of instruction began in the seventeenth century, and created the modern idea that childhood is long. The childhood of girls and poor children continued to be shorter than that of those youths who were sent to school. Even for the latter, we must wonder about the commonalities of experience in an age where schoolchildren were armed, and regularly mutinied against their teachers in incidents like the one at Die, France, in 1649:
The logicians barricaded themselves inside the college, prevented the masters and the pupils of other classes from entering, fired pistol shots, fouled the rostra in the first and third classrooms, threw the benches in the second classroom out of the window, tore up the books, and finally climbed out of the window of the fourth classroom. (Ibid, p. 318)
Ariès tells us that the great school mutinies ended in the late seventeenth century in France, though they continued into the nineteenth century in England, where schoolboys who set fire to their desks and books and withdrew to an island had to be subdued by a company of soldiers. The concepts of childhood and youth were as different from our own as the concept of adulthood which was meant to follow them:
To make a success of life was not to make a fortune or at least that was of secondary importance; it was above all to win a more honorable standing in a society whose members all saw one another, heard one another and met one another nearly every day. (Ibid, p. 376)
It's always possible to construct parallels - certain forms of Facebook behaviour come to mind - but even these few examples make plain how far early modern ideas of life cycles differ from those we now take for granted. Most notably, contemporary historians have argued that the very idea of childhood as happy is a modern one. Barring an occasional fond word for his mother, hardly a classical author from Greece to China left a record of his childhood as golden, or expressed nostalgia or yearning for it.1 For the seventeenth-century French philosopher René Descartes, human unhappiness is due to the fact that we begin our lives as children.
On the other side of the world in more recent times, American anthropologist Margaret Mead's study of adolescent girls in Samoa showed they were having the time of their lives. Mead meant this quite literally. When she wroteComing of Age in Samoa, the bulk of young children's time was consumed by the task of baby-minding. From the age of five or six, the Samoan girl was usually found with a baby on her hip; until the age of eight or nine boys too took some care of the younger children. For both sexes, baby-tending consisted largely in keeping the babies quiet when in adult earshot. As the children grew, 'A fire or a pipe to be kindled, a call for a drink, a lamp to be lit, the baby's cry, the errand of the capricious adult - these haunt them from morning to night' (Coming of Age, p. 21).
If Samoan families were smaller, Mead wrote, this would divide the population into two groups: the sheerly self-sacrificing and the tyrannically self-indulgent.
But just as a child is getting old enough so that its willfulness is becoming unbearable, a younger one is saddled upon it, and the whole process is repeated again, each child being disciplined and socialized through responsibility for a still younger one. (Ibid, p. 19)
The introduction of government schooling has since created a complete reorganization of Samoan household structures, and it's easy to pity those children who, at the time of Mead's research, were unable to have the freedom from labour we regard as essential to having a childhood. Yet it's clear that Samoan children had something ours lacked: the experience of making meaningful contributions to a community. Our children play with dolls or toy tea sets in imitation of tasks they will undertake as adults; the Samoan girl who minded her little brother was performing a crucial function that allowed her mother to go reef-fishing or work the plantation in between intervals of pregnancy. Instead of the long empty space where responsibilities are few and meanings are preparatory - our children are judged according to their performance on tests meant to ready them for real tasks, but which often have no relation to them - Samoan children did things that mattered, and they knew it. Mead's claim that this gave their lives greater coherence than ours have should not be mistaken for an apology for the millions of children still forced to work, primarily in Asia and Africa, under horrendous conditions today, but it is a call to think carefully about what we take for granted.
After puberty, however, Samoan girls were freed from the more tedious forms of labour assigned to young children, and delayed the time until they faced the new responsibilities that marriage brought. They passed their time with light work like weaving baskets, and moonlight trysts with the youths who could successfully woo them. Since Samoan sexual prowess was bound up with knowing how to satisfy the maidens, those trysts were sweet, yet they seldom became tangled enough to cause the kind of pangs we know from (most of) our first loves. Sexual relationships were many and brief. For Samoans, Romeo and Juliet was funny. Mead was well aware that the Samoan culture she described lacked a dimension we would miss:
Love and hate, jealousy and revenge, sorrow and bereavement, all are matters of weeks. From the first months of its life, when the child is handed carelessly from one woman's hands to another, the lesson is learned of not caring for one person greatly, not setting up high hopes on any one relationship. (Ibid, p. 138)
Still she was adamant in underlining the ways in which that culture avoided the crises and conflicts we have come to view as natural to the transition from childhood to maturity. The Samoan adolescent was free to explore her body's desires at the moment they became urgent; should she disagree with her parents, there was usually a nearby relative to whom she could carry her roll of mats and mosquito net. Samoan girls passed
through the same process of physical development through which our girls go, cutting their first teeth and losing them, cutting their second teeth, growing tall and ungainly, reaching puberty with their first menstruation, gradually reaching physical maturity and becoming ready to produce the next generation. (Ibid, p. 135)
Yet none of this physical development was accompanied by the intellectual and emotional development we have come to view as quintessentially adolescent: the storms of disappointment and the strains of anticipation, the teetering between high idealism and sceptical scorn, the desperate, often helpless self-assertion in the search for a self of one's own.
Since Mead's book was even more of a twentieth-century classic than Ariès's, it was, like Ariès's, subject to professional scrutiny, some of which turned up misinterpretation and error. That's the nature of the empirical: you can get it wrong. Yet whatever misinterpretations they contained, both books remain important and enlightening, for both contain deeper truths that can be called philosophical. Childhood is not fixed, nor are the stages of life that follow it. And this truth is not merely a matter of historical or ethnological interest, for if our paths are not determined, then we are free to choose among them. At least in principle.
These sketches of two famous accounts of childhood and adolescence should remind us how different coming of age can be in different places and eras. Even small variations in space or time can produce worlds of difference. The first years of the Soviet Union, for example, saw experiments in progressive education that American philosopher John Dewey found enviable, while a child born just ten years later would experience the rigid authoritarian climate that Stalinism brought to schools as to other Russian institutions.2 Even in relatively similar societies, differences in childhood assumptions can be vast, as I discovered on overhearing a conversation between my seven-year-old twin daughters in 1998. We were living in Tel Aviv at the time, and I no longer recall which of them first heard the disappointing news that their Massachusetts cousin would not be coming for a long-planned visit, and ran to tell her sister. The State Department had issued a warning against travelling to Israel, and my sister-in-law had put her foot down.
'What's the matter?' asked the daughter who'd just been informed. 'Is he sick?'
'He's fine,' said her sister. 'It has something to do with Saddam Hussein.'
'What's Saddam Hussein got to do with it?'
'I'm not sure,' the other reflected. 'I think they're not so used to wars in America. Maybe he doesn't have his own gas mask.'
'Don't be silly,' came the haughty answer. 'Everyone in the world has his own gas mask.'
Philosophy's greatest task is to enlarge our sense of possibility. When seeking examples to show the possibility of other lives or concepts than the ones we take for granted, many twentieth-century philosophers turned to science fiction. They might have done better to look to history or anthropology. As the examples I've just sketched make clear, so much more is possible than the world that we know. That insight is a philosophical one, and like most genuinely philosophical insights its undertone is normative, that is, a claim about how things ought to be. Philosophy can and should draw on the knowledge that can only be gained by looking at the world as it is and as it was, but its sights are always set on the world as it should be. This is what Kant meant when he wrote that the practical is primary. In one of the few autobiographical notes he left us, he explains how he came to that view:
I am by nature an inquirer. I feel the consuming thirst for knowledge, the restless passion to advance ever further, the delights of discovery. There was a time when I believed that this is what confers real dignity upon human life, and I despised the common people who knew nothing. Rousseau set me right. This imagined advantage vanishes, and I learned to honor human nature. I should regard myself to be far more useless than a common laborer, if I did not believe that my work would contribute to restoring the rights of humanity.3
But given the varieties of the experiences of coming of age that the sketches above merely hint at, what general claims can philosophy make?
What Is Enlightenment?
Coming of age is an Enlightenment problem, and nothing shows so clearly that we are the Enlightenment's heirs, whether we acknowledge that heritage or not. In the fifth century B.C.E. Plato wrote at length about child-rearing; his Republic is studded with discussions of matters from the proper age for learning to play the flute to which tunes should be heard. Not until Rousseau would another philosopher turn his attention to such details. But Plato's attention to detail is not for the sake of the child or the adult she will become; his concern is more for the care and development of the state than of the individuals within it. In an age where traditional social roles began to loosen, the Enlightenment could begin to care about individual human development for its own sake - though political concerns were never very far in the background. Where traditional structures leave little room for deviation, it is no surprise that the Roman philosopher Cicero could describe the business of philosophy as learning how to die, one part of living that allowed for major variation. Once these structures were weakened, so that the course of coming of age was no longer straightforward, the right form of human development became a philosophical problem, incorporating both psychological and political questions and giving them a normative thrust. Thus enough basic features of growing up are common to modern Western societies - which are, for better and worse, increasingly models for growing up anywhere - for some general philosophical claims to make sense.
Kant would define Enlightenment as coming of age, so it would seem natural for him to write, in the 1786 essay 'Conjectural Beginning of Human History', that the first step of human reason is the realization that human beings have the capacity to choose their life's journey, unlike other animals, which are bound to just one. It's a capacity that loomed especially large to a man of the Enlightenment. Medieval French craftsmen or Polynesian chiefs had more choices to make about their lives than their horses or pigs did, but for the greater part of human history, individual choices about the paths a life could take were relatively few. Kant's world was just beginning to accept the open-endedness we take for granted, and he took every advantage of it. Had he been born a couple of generations earlier, the likelihood that the son of a barely literate saddle-maker would become a professor - not to mention one recognized in his lifetime as a major thinker - would have been virtually nil. It is still far more true than it should be that even in countries that claim to promote equality of opportunity, what your parents do influences the number of choices you will be able to make in your life. Still, compared to premodern societies, your life may be statistically, but not inevitably determined by your position as an infant. (The odd exceptions are notably anachronistic: the few remaining members of royalty. Prince George has no career choices.)
The choices we must make require more experience and better judgement at the crucial junctures where we need them most. For a very long time, others must make them for us: unlike other animals, human beings need education. Kant makes an exception for songbirds that, he says, are taught to sing by their mothers like children in school. Anyone who believes they learn to sing by instinct should, he suggests, put sparrows' eggs in a canary's nest and watch the baby sparrows learn to sing like their adoptive mother. Contemporary biologists have confirmed this.4 But we aspire to be more than one-hit wonders, so there's more to be learned than singing a tune. Indeed, says Kant, 'the human being can only become human through education'. But what about the educators? Even those with the best of intentions are themselves in part the product of choices others made. Moreover, education should be education for a future we can only partly foresee. Leave aside technological progress: if we have any hope for moral progress, we want the next generation to be better than we are. A version of that wish is expressed in a popular Israeli song that sighs, 'Take care of the world, child / For we didn't manage to do it.' But one need not be so morose - or irresponsible - in hoping the next generation will become both wiser and braver than ours. Yet how can we possibly help to fashion capacities that are better than those we possess ourselves, even if we want to? No wonder Kant's Lectures on Pedagogy called education 'the greatest and most difficult problem that the human being can be given'.
Matters look even worse when we consider how often the best of intentions are missing. I've been taking the perspective of the benevolent parent or the dedicated teacher, but those are hardly the only ones who determine how education proceeds. As Kant often reminds us, governments prefer immature subjects to independent citizens. Contemporary expressions of that preference range from the growing practice of keeping us all under electronic surveillance, or industry's ability to keep us dazzled by a bewildering number of choices of automobiles or breakfast cereal - while keeping the far more important choices out of our hands. In most cases, the immaturity that governments desire need not be achieved by force or stealth, for we willingly collude in it. It is easier, after all, to let others do our thinking for us than to think for ourselves. Totalitarian regimes are seldom necessary and often counterproductive, for wherever the mechanisms of control are clearly present, some bold souls will be moved to contest them. Sooner or later, direct control leads to rebellion; indirect control leads to dependency. Simpler and subtler are the infantilizing processes of non-totalitarian societies that encourage our natural laziness by giving us comfort through a range of toys. Of course, neither smartphones nor automobiles are described as toys; crucially, they are portrayed as the tools without which no adult life is complete. By contrast, ideas of a more just and humane world are portrayed as childish dreams to be discarded in favour of the real business of acquiring toys, i.e., finding a steady job that fixes our place in the consumer economy. It's a perfidious reversal that leaves us permanently confused. No wonder Kant calls the exit from self-incurred immaturity the most important revolution that can occur within the human being.5
Let me summarize the problem Kant viewed as humankind's most important. We are born into a journey whose path is open, but whose contours ought to be self-evident. As our bodies and minds grow we are able to master them, and with them the world, in a series of stages that looks biologically and psychologically straightforward. It ought to be easy: we begin more helpless than the members of other species, gradually coming alive to the world and our place in it, increasingly gaining independence and experience till we become the self-determining adults our nature suggests we should be. But our own worst instincts, and a range of social forces, are all arrayed against it. Our own worst instincts: passivity is comfortable. Earlier ages minced no words and called us lazy; David Hume thought the majority of the world's evils could be cured if human beings were born a little more industrious. A range of social forces: even the best of governments will find it easier to rule immature and passive subjects than active citizens. Call this an institutional kind of laziness, writ large.
Post-Enlightenment people will not be content without some form of activity that expresses the desire to choose our life's journeys, and the neo-liberal way of fulfilling that need is far more effective than anything totalitarian regimes ever devised. We are kept dazzled by a wealth of small decisions; Steve Jobs revealed that the question of which washing machine to purchase could dominate his family's dinner table for weeks. (Nor did the brilliant inventor find this fact problematic; he offered it as an example of democratic deliberation.) Our opportunities for decision-making utterly exhausted, we ignore the fact that the important decisions are made by others we cannot even name. Or did you choose a world in which oil companies profit from wrecking the planet? Women are stoned for adultery or murdered for going to school? Children die of easily preventable diseases or are collaterally damaged by drones? Do your choices make a difference to any of these?
Only free and equal grown-ups can build a free and equal society, but if society has an interest in cultivating mindless dependents, where are the grown-ups to come from? Which came first: the chicken or the egg? is a children's conundrum, but behind it lies the most serious riddle in political philosophy. You can't get the one without the other, so how can we ever begin? These were the questions that tormented Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the first philosopher to treat growing up as the philosophical problem it is, and the only one to propose a comprehensive and radical solution. After nearly a decade of agonizing over the problem, and driving most of his friends away in the process, Rousseau offered an answer: we must radically reconsider the way we raise children. We should raise the child apart from society, creating for him a little one in which everything makes sense. A child raised properly will come of age slowly and surely to become a self-determining adult who can create, on a larger scale, a world that makes sense.
Two events were said to have shaken Kant so profoundly that he departed from his infamous routine and forgot to take his daily walk. (The routine makes for easy snickering, but how many of us slot a morning run or a yoga session into our day, knowing that if we don't make a regular appointment with our bodies we are likely to neglect them?) The second event was not surprising: the news of the French Revolution so thrilled the democrat Kant that it crowded every other interest out. A few years later, in the middle of the Terror, he would write that the natural excitement which uninvolved bystanders felt at the thought of the Revolution was proof of humankind's capacity to make moral progress. Most of us can understand how the sound of a distant revolution might disrupt our routine; three German newspapers quoted Kant on that score at the start of the Arab Spring. But the first event that interfered with Kant's walk is far less intuitive: Jean-Jacques Rousseau left him spellbound. It wasn't an easy experience. Kant later wrote that he had to read Rousseau's sentences several times in order to understand them, so stirred was he by the beauty of their prose. The experience was liberating, as we saw in the note that said it was Rousseau who changed his life and taught him his true calling. He also called Rousseau the Newton of the mind, the highest form of praise the eighteenth century could muster. Though many readers mistook Rousseau's critique as a call for Romanticism, Kant's reading of his work places him squarely in the Enlightenment.
On the surface, the only thing the two men had in common was class background. Rousseau's father made watches, while Kant's father made saddles, which put each boy squarely in the class of small artisans who could not have expected to receive much by way of an education, let alone become a major force of Western thought. Surely a strong sense of the effort required to become independently thinking adults made each of them view growing up as an ideal, not as a given. Coming of age at a time when even the contributors to the Encyclopedia - avowed engine, and product, of Enlightenment - could be offended by its editor Diderot's proposal to print their names without their titles, meant living in a world of class distinctions that were barely touched until the French Revolution. Rousseau always noticed, and commented on them keenly.
Still in every other way Kant and Rousseau seem different souls. Kant's routine was so regular his townsfolk set their watches by it; Rousseau threw away his own watch and was pleased to record the feeling of liberation that accompanied the act. Rousseau turned down a lifelong pension from the king of France to live the life of a (usually well-kept) vagabond; Kant became a Prussian professor. Rousseau's Confessions was the first work of modern autobiography, and he often lets allusions to his own life intrude into places in his works you may think they had no business; with the exception of the comment that residence in Königsberg can be a substitute for travelling, Kant's personal references are confined to a couple of unpublished notes. Rousseau's erotic life, both in fantasy and reality, was as intense, varied and open as many today; the only suggestion of Immanuel Kant as a sexual being is a letter from a local matron asking him to wind up her clock. The reference is to the opening of Tristram Shandy, whose hero was conceived during the monthly household clock-winding, but there it is, that clock again. Rousseau's travels were extraordinary even for his time, for he was no tourist: sometimes from choice, sometimes from necessity, he changed countries often. Though he never fit into any of them, it wasn't for want of trying.
He began as a fifteen-year-old apprentice who left his native Geneva to cross the Alps on foot into Italy, where he worked as a sign painter and engraver before getting a post as a diplomat's secretary. Moving to France, he styled himself as 'Mr Greene from England', earning a living giving music lessons though he'd never received any of his own. Nevertheless his first opera, Le Devin du Village, made such an impression on Louis XV that he was offered the post of royal composer, a post he turned down in order to live, more or less independently, as a writer who alternately enchanted and outraged the salons of Paris, and went off to the countryside to escape them. Several of his travels were involuntary, such as the one from France to Switzerland after being warned that his Emile was about to be burned by the public executioner in Paris, and advised to flee lest he meet a similar fate himself. There was also the ill-starred voyage to England as a guest of David Hume after the Swiss decided their native son was too wild after all, and the return to France after it proved clear David Hume was not his cup of tea. And these are only the highlights: his journeys were so many that a very careful reading of the Confessions is required to keep track of them. Kant, as we know, never left his native town.
Yet Rousseau was Kant's guiding star, and his Königsberg house contained one piece of art: a portrait of the wild Swiss philosopher. Much as Newton's Principia is the background text for most everything Kant wrote about nature, Rousseau's Emile is the text Kant took for granted in most everything he wrote about humankind. Although, as I will argue, it is fatally flawed, Rousseau's attempt to solve the problem is so important that it deserves its own discussion below.
Before turning to it, however, it's worth addressing the question: why turn to the Enlightenment at all? Enlightenment-bashing has become such a popular sport that it's hard to count the number of charges made against it. Here I will discuss only three.6 The Enlightenment is often dismissed as Eurocentric. In fact it was the first modern movement to attack Eurocentrism and racism, often at considerable risk. Today Christian Wolff's name is known only to scholars, but in the early eighteenth century he was the most famous philosopher in Germany, and a major influence on the young Immanuel Kant. Yet in 1723 he was given forty-eight hours' notice to vacate his professorship at Halle, and the territory of Prussia, or face execution. His crime? Wolff had publicly argued that although the Chinese were a people without Christianity, they were a people with morals. Wolff's experience was not exceptional: nearly all the canonical Enlightenment texts were burned, banned or published anonymously. For however different they were, all seemed to threaten established authority in the name of universal principles available to anyone, whether Christian or Confucian, Persian or French. To be sure, offensive remarks about Jews or Africans can be found in many an Enlightenment correspondence, or even a publication. Such remarks are often emphasized today, while passages like Kant's attack on colonialism are overlooked:
Compare the inhospitable actions of the civilized and especially of the commercial states of our part of the world. The injustice which they show to lands and peoples they visit (which is equivalent to conquering them) is carried by them to terrifying lengths. America, the lands inhabited by the Negro, the Spice Islands, the Cape, etc., were at the time of their discovery considered by these civilized intruders as lands without owners, for they counted the inhabitants as nothing ... [they] oppress the natives, excited widespread wars among the various states, spread famine, rebellion, perfidy, and the whole litany of evils which afflict mankind. China and Japan, who have had experience with such guests, have wisely refused them entry. (Kant, Perpetual Peace, 1795, Third Article)
Anyone who praises China and Japan for keeping out predatory Europeans cannot fairly be accused of blindly imposing Western ways on the rest of the world. Enlightenment thinkers were men of their time, educated by men of earlier ones, and their struggle to free themselves of prejudice and preconception could never be final. But it is fatal to forget that those thinkers were not only the first to condemn Eurocentrism and racism; they also laid the theoretical foundation for the universalism upon which all struggles against racism must stand.
It's also common to attack the Enlightenment for its elevation of human reason. The Enlightenment in general, and its greatest philosopher, Kant, in particular, are accused of holding reason in the sort of uncritical adulation earlier ages had for God. The frequency of the charge is puzzling in view of the fact that you needn't read much to see its foolishness - the very first sentence of the Critique of Pure Reason is a statement about reason's limits. Enlightenment thinkers never held reason to be unlimited; they just refused to let church and state be the ones to set the limits on what we can think. Nor is reason opposed to passion, a subject to which Enlightenment thinkers devoted nearly as much space as to thought. This was an age, after all, in which men and women wept in public over melodrama. For calling reason our highest faculty, Kant has been compared to the Reign of Terror and the Marquis de Sade, or less dramatically dismissed as dour, severe and slightly mad. Readers who do so misunderstand his conception of reason entirely. It's a large conception, embracing the capacity to do logic and mathematics and figure out the best means to getting whatever end you may happen to want tomorrow. But these, for Kant, are banal sorts of reasoning. Far more important is what he calls the real use of reason: the ability to form ideas of goodness, truth and beauty that orient us in action. Through those ideas, reason can make claims on nature and validate thereby our deepest longings. Pace fashionable caricatures, the Enlightenment's icon is not the cold, rule-obsessed technocrat but Mozart's self-possessed Figaro - the servant who uses his own reason to get the better of his feudal master in order to realize the passion that is deeper and truer than any the aristocracy can display.
Finally, and most recently, it's common to blame the Enlightenment for ecological disaster. Critics charge that Enlightenment thinkers' inclination to defend what they considered reasonable over what was considered natural set up an opposition between reason and nature which encouraged the human domination of nature that has so dramatically backfired in recent years. This objection ignores the fact that the Enlightenment appealed to nature more often than not, arguing that the claims of reason were more natural than the claims of arbitrary convention. Even more important, where reason was opposed to nature, it was in the interest of questioning conventions that tradition insisted were natural. Consider some of the things generally held to be natural at the start of the eighteenth century: poverty, slavery, the subjection of women, feudal hierarchies and most forms of illness. As late as the nineteenth century some English clerics would argue that efforts to relieve the Irish famine contravened the natural order willed by God. What is natural is contested. As Enlightenment thinkers realized, you cannot abolish slavery, overthrow existing hierarchies or cure illness unless you can show that they are not necessarily part of the way the world is. The ability to question what is natural and what is not is the first step towards any form of progress. The Enlightenment sought moral progress; technological progress was only desirable insofar as it brought humankind more happiness and freedom. To be sure, it was impossible to foresee every consequence of the technological advances the Enlightenment set in motion. But before you blame the Enlightenment for some of the technological advances we might do without, you might pause to be grateful for the processes it set in motion that doubled the lifetime you have in which to complain about it.
Why turn to the Enlightenment? There is no better option. Rejections of the Enlightenment result in premodern nostalgia or postmodern suspicion; where Enlightenment is at issue, modernity is at stake. A defence of the Enlightenment is a defence of the modern world, along with all its possibilities for self-criticism and transformation. If you're committed to Enlightenment, you're committed to understanding the world in order to improve it. Twenty-first-century Enlightenment must extend the work of the eighteenth by examining new dangers to freedom, and extending social justice. Growing up depends on both.
Rousseau describes the right path to adulthood against the norm he has in view:
We were made to be men; laws and society have plunged us once more into childhood. The rich, the nobles, the kings are all children who, seeing that men are eager to relieve their misery, derive a puerile vanity from that very fact and are very proud of care that one would not give to them if they were grown men. (Emile, p. 85)
The information that Prince Charles has a servant to squeeze toothpaste onto his toothbrush can make one wonder how much has changed since Rousseau's lament, but few of us, honestly, really envy Prince Charles. The warning applies to those of us whose cages are more ample, and less gilded. Rousseau makes clear the multitude of ways that civilization infantilizes us. He held that all of us are born free, but are everywhere in chains. The famous sentence comes from his Social Contract (1764), but the note is sounded in the very first text he wrote. The Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (1749) challenged the Enlightenment's most basic assumption that culture and science are the only means to progress, and in particular to freedom. Not only, he wrote, do they not lead to progress; they actually enslave us. The tools they took for liberation turned out to be garlands of flowers that decorate - and conceal - the chains that bind us. 'Need raised up thrones; the arts and sciences made them strong.' Culture, as it stands, is less despotic but more powerful than government itself, making us love our own slavery by convincing us that this is what civilization comes to. Two passions, for glory and for luxury, are the source of all our ills; we are wicked because of the one and miserable because of the other.
Luxury corrupts everything: the rich who enjoy it as well as the wretched who covet it. Even worse, it turns human beings into market values, letting us appraise people like herds of cattle. Rousseau is no ascetic: many passages of the Confessions extol the pleasures of good wine, and Emile's descriptions of the joys of fresh fruit can sound ecstatic. No particular trifle - be it good food or the latest hi-tech toy - is an evil in itself. The problem is that they create false needs that make us dependent. The pleasure you get from buying the latest smartphone is briefer than your anxiety and confusion when you forget to charge it: suddenly you are helpless. Even those of us who are slow to take up new bits of technological progress can hardly remember what life was like before them. Those who rule society promote our dependency; they do everything in their power to cultivate a taste for luxury, to deceive us into thinking that more luxury will make us feel sexy and satisfied. In doing so, they distract us from thinking about the real matters that condition our lives. You can walk into any electronics store and choose from a dizzying number of smartphones. How many choices can you make about the government that represents you, the use of tax moneys that it claims from you, the laws to which you are bound?
Minus the smartphone, this is all in Rousseau's first Discourse, which caused a sensation in Paris in 1750. Other philosophers had inveighed against luxury; Voltaire, for example, wrote that Satan's mistake was tempting Job with misery, for we're more likely to turn to religion when we are wretched than when we are very comfortable. It's a clever version of the claim that there are no atheists in foxholes. But this sort of criticism lacked the complexity of Rousseau's. It would take twentieth-century Marxists like Marcuse (and, less lucidly, Adorno and Horkheimer) to make such arguments again. When we take time to look at them closely, they have lost none of their power. So far you might think they apply to Steve Jobs or Anna Wintour, but not to the creators of higher forms of culture. What about the writers and critics, artists and philosophers whose business is precisely to confront the things that really matter? According to Rousseau, we're the worst of the lot. First of all, we are no less susceptible to the temptations of luxury than anyone else is, and rather more susceptible to the temptations of vanity. So we construct the justifications that keep our careers, and the world as it is, going, weaving garlands of rationalization around the chains that bind us all. Those who raise concrete and serious doubts about them will seem self-righteous, preachy or just plain nuts.
Rousseau was accused of all three. Immediately recognized as brilliant, the Discourse turned the thirty-eight-year-old vagabond into a Paris sensation - until the denizens of the salons realized that he hadn't simply written the piece in order to win the first prize of the Academy of Dijon. He was entirely serious. The first Discourse was followed by a second, in which Rousseau argued that inequality and private property were the source of all our woes, and seemed to advocate a return to the state of nature. The fact that this attack on civilization came from a self-taught genius the Parisians had just condescended to patronize must have been particularly galling. Here's what Voltaire wrote as thanks for the copy of the second Discourse the younger man had sent him:
I have received, Monsieur, your new book against mankind ... Never has anyone used so much cleverness to make us into beasts. Reading your book makes one feel like marching on all fours. However, since I lost that habit more than sixty years ago, I unfortunately feel that it is impossible for me to regain it, and I leave that natural gait to those who are worthier of it than you or I. (Letter to Rousseau, 30 August 1755)
It's unlikely that Voltaire read the book with any care, and the same must be said of the many people who, to this day, follow him by repeating that Rousseau was calling for a return to a state of nature. He was not, though he thought the state of nature was better than the state we're in. Only a cursory reading of Emile, which he called his best and brightest book, could confirm the philosophers' suspicions. Rousseau's insistence that developing mature moral character requires forbidding the child access to both books and society demanded the child reject everything they had to offer. They should have read more carefully, for Emile is the clearest and most detailed practical manual of Enlightenment ever written. If Emile is to begin by remaining in ignorance, it's only the better to overcome it.
Emile purports to be a record of an experiment in raising an ordinary boy under conditions that will lead him to become a genuinely free adult. The experiment is all in Rousseau's head, but this will seem less preposterous when we learn that eighteenth-century chemistry, for example, was not conducted in laboratories, but by means of what was called rational analysis. Even in natural science, thought experiments were experiments like any other. In fact,Emile is a book without a genre. Its first sentence is a statement of theodicy - a defence of Creation and its Creator - its last is the happy end of a sentimental novel. In between is the first modern manual for child-raising, a sharp attack on the established church and a mixture of epistemological and political reflection. Its attention to our bodies is sharp and explicit, its flights into fantasy no less so. Before we can ask whether it belongs to the Enlightenment, shouldn't we ask whether it belongs to philosophy?
This is a book that raises questions about both. Neither the Enlightenment nor philosophy should look the same after you've finished it. The questions it raises will seem less strange if you place Emile by the side of the book Rousseau seldom forgot while writing it: Plato's Republic. Emile isn't odd if you remember that the very first book of Western philosophy similarly moves between fantasy and argument, interrupts itself with myth and non sequitur and puts discussions of the right sort of sexual relations, and the wrong sort of rhythm, in the middle of what is unmistakably metaphysics. Both turn to political theory, however, as a way of answering another question, which Kant would describe as the question of the systematic relation between happiness and virtue: shouldn't what you do in the world be related to what the world does to you? Living rightly with this question is the single most important task of becoming adult.
Emile was an attempt to provide the basis for healing the split between reason and nature that elsewhere gapes like an open wound. To see this, it's important to understand Emile not only as a piece of philosophy; unlike many seminal texts on education that built on it, it is also a demand for philosophy as, if done rightly, a part of being grown-up. For Rousseau, philosophy and Enlightenment are one enterprise, and it's intrinsically related to the subject of Emile: growing up properly. Much of Emile's apparent peculiarity, even as a set of instructions for raising a child, is connected to the seriousness with which Rousseau takes the task Kant would go on to describe as thinking for yourself. Unlike the philosophers whose call to écrasez l'infâme masked a deep reliance on convention, Emile will be raised to have no habits. Thinking for himself in childhood is exercise for doing so as a man. Or to put it the other way round: the child who is surrounded by babbles of baby-talk, the schoolboy who is forced to sit still before a teacher's blather will not squirm when he hears a politician's empty lies. Because Rousseau knows how easy it is to refuse to think for yourself, his training can seem hard. His prescriptions are a curious mixture of infinite love and apparent brutality. This last, he insists, is only perceived as such by those who would prepare the child for a state of permanent infantilization. Here is his attack on the normal teacher:
About what do you want him to think, when you think about everything for him? What need does he have to foresee rain? He knows that you look at the sky for him. What need has he to organize his walk? He has no fear that you would let the dinner hour pass. You may soften his body by inactivity, you do not for that make his understanding more flexible. On the contrary, you complete the work of discrediting reason in his mind by making him use the little he possesses on the things which appear the most useless. (Emile, p. 118, italics added)
Like reading and writing and arithmetic, none of which the child will learn until he is twelve, Rousseau's view of intellectual development rests on a belief, so evident from experience that it hardly needs to be confirmed by philosophers like John Locke, that the senses develop before reason in time. This gives them no particular authority over it; it's just a matter of chronology. It seems but good sense for Rousseau to describe childhood as 'reason's sleep' (p. 107). On these nearly trivial observations Rousseau built a theory of moral development which was largely confirmed by later psychologists. Children are not born acting on principle, and most adults never get there. If we want them to have a chance of doing so, we have to adopt an education appropriate to their development.
One way to bring home how radical this idea must have seemed is to take a look at portraits of children up to Rousseau's time. It needn't be Velásquez's portrait of a Spanish infanta; any child whose parents were noteworthy enough to get its portrait painted was dressed in the stiff and formal - albeit gorgeous - clothing that was a miniature version of what its parents wore. Rousseau's demand that children be given clothes that feel comfortable, and get dirty, may seem trivial in an age of designer jeans, but it was part of his insistence that childhood is not a faulty version of adulthood, but a form of life in its own right. All of us who wore overalls and sneakers and made mud-pies owe him a debt - as do those of us who were breast-fed, or nursed our own children. In Rousseau's day, women who could afford it left their babies to a wet nurse. His insistence that babies should be nursed by their mothers from the day they are born was taken up in Kant's lectures on education - a detail that shows us just how wide the scope of philosophy can be.
No books at all? Rousseau's attacks on culture come from an awareness of its power. He is brutally clear about the ways in which culture can enslave us. Let us count them: it can, if you're lucky, provide you with income; as long as the crowd is applauding, it can give you a tenuous sense of self-esteem; it may even provide you with moments so sublime that you're prepared to ignore more important, moral facets of the world in order to enjoy them. Only one so conscious of the force of culture can be conscious of its capacity to subdue us. Next to Rousseau's descriptions of the mechanisms by which culture holds us in bondage, the blithe Enlightenment assurance that culture is an instrument of liberation shows a superficial awareness of its claims. It's as if someone who'd written an essay in praise of love after a lifetime of light flirtation found himself confronted by a man with a broken heart. Just because Rousseau's awareness is as subtle as it is fervent, his attempts to free himself will verge on the tortured: 'I want nothing more to do with a deceitful profession in which one believes one is doing much for wisdom while doing everything for vanity.'7 After reading Rousseau's critique of philosophy, anyone who hasn't occasionally felt the force of such an outburst is either a saint or a liar.
How does a man with this sense of vulnerability approach the task of educating a child to adulthood? The young Emile will be allowed no books, not because Rousseau despises them but because he adores them. Emile learns those things that naturally spark his interest - not the rote lessons that were enforced by corporal punishment, or more subtly, by the wish to show off to his elders. His astronomy lesson takes place in the forest, where his tutor has taken him at twilight; Emile is hungry, and needs to learn the position of the stars to guide his way back home. He learns mathematics by figuring out what angle the ladder must be placed to pick the cherries, what height the rope must be to place a swing. Every step in an education for freedom should be freely chosen. At the age of ten, Emile 'does not know what routine, custom or habit is. What he did yesterday does not influence what he does today. He never follows a formula, does not give way before authority or example, and speaks only as it suits him' (Emile, p. 160).
The most important thing he learns is to respect the limits provided by the natural world - and nothing else. Children should yield to the forces of nature, but never to the commands of other people. Rousseau thinks that common treatment of crying babies fosters both the false needs and subordination he is determined to prevent. The crying baby, he tells us, soon learns that after his initial true needs for food and warmth are satisfied, he can continue to cry and thereby control the wills of all the adults around him. If we allow him to do so, he soon learns that control over people's wills is more valuable than control or adaptation to things. And this means that his first ideas are those of domination and submission. It also leads to superstition, for the child attributes will to natural objects, and the world as a whole. So Rousseau tells us to let the child wail, for 'it is important to accustom him early not to give orders either to men, for he is not their master, nor to things, for they do not hear him'. He then turns to example to show that children do not perceive natural suffering as unjust, or natural limits as constraints. 'The cookies are all gone' produces a very different reaction than 'You can't have one before dinner'. If the child is to be educated for freedom, he must be educated to submit to nothing but the demands of nature. If he breaks a window, his punishment is not chastisement; he will simply have to sleep in the cold.
Rousseau's claim, in his Social Contract, that 'men must be forced to be free' should seem less ominous in light of his analysis of the ways in which we - with society's blessing - contribute to our own enslavement. Still critics have complained that Emile's freedom is illusory, for he is accompanied day and night by an all-seeing tutor who is able to manipulate the environment so as to make all causes and effects appear natural. But how do you educate a child to be free? Freedom isn't merely licence; Rousseau and Kant tell us it's the capacity to obey a law that you give to yourself. Freedom cannot simply mean doing whatever strikes you at the moment; that way you're a slave to any whim or passing fancy. Real freedom involves control over your life as a whole, learning to make plans and promises and decisions, to take responsibility for your actions' consequences. How is the child to learn this if, like Peter Pan, he is ruled by the successive play of desires? How then to develop a self that will be capable of freedom?
Remember: a free child submits only to the necessity of things, not to other people's wills. So he cannot be given commandments, even by the best of tutors or parents. However eminently reasonable they may be, the child will perceive them as the arbitrary expression of another will. The tutor, therefore, must manipulate the appearance of natural necessity, determining Emile's will without creating resentment. By doing so he fosters Emile's feeling of satisfying his own desires, so he experiences doing what pleases him for his own reasons and with his own strength. This gives Emile a taste of what it's like to be free: neither a slave to his own whims nor to the will of others. We can call it managed freedom: extending Emile's experience of freedom by letting him learn self-reliance through pleasure, while controlling the environment so that nothing goes wrong.
Among the many bits of apparently random advice contained in Emile is this one:
Many night games. This advice is more important than it seems. Night naturally frightens men and sometimes animals as well ... I have seen reasoners, strong-minded men, philosophers, soldiers intrepid by daylight tremble like women at the sound of a leaf in the night. This fright is attributed to the tales of nurses. It has a natural cause ... the same one which makes men distrustful and people superstitious: ignorance of the things which surround us and of what is going on about us. (Emile, p. 134)
Unlike the strong-minded men and philosophers whom Rousseau can't resist taking another shot at, Emile will never be prey to superstition, nor afraid of the dark. As Rousseau lays out ways in which the most ordinary practices should be arranged so as to leave us immune to any but natural authority, he is filling in the spaces that other Enlightenment thinkers simply left as empty wishes. The metaphor of light and darkness to express what we mean when we oppose reason to superstition has seemed so natural that it goes all the way back to Akhenaten, the Egyptian pharaoh who preceded Moses in establishing monotheism, and the words for 'light' and 'clarity' are built into every European word for 'Enlightenment' itself.
Simple lout that he was, Rousseau took his metaphors seriously. They wanted to bring light to humankind? Rousseau has his child roam fearless in the night. So it was with other forms of democratic ideals. Far closer to the working classes than were his critics, he was far more willing to let them in on Enlightenment too. Few were as explicit as Hume in leaving the people to be governed by habits the enlightened few could leave behind, or as cynical as Voltaire in maintaining for the masses the very superstitions his writings were devoted to undermining. But most tacitly accepted the assumption that Enlightenment would be restricted to the bourgeoisie, with varying degrees of bad conscience. With Rousseau, it is different, for the point of Emile is to show that any ordinary boy can grow up to live the Enlightenment dream: of not only becoming a man whose freedom is second to none, but also one who, at the end, is a philosopher.
Emile's education has made him free of the chains of state authority as well as the garlands that disguise them. As an adolescent, however, he will not only read books; he may go on to write them. Twice the book tells us that Emile, without knowing it, will become a philosopher, though 'if he writes books it will be not in order to pay court to the powers that be but to establish the rights of humanity' (p. 458). It seems certain that Kant took the hint; as we saw, he wrote that Rousseau changed his life by showing him that all his scholarship was of less value than the work of a common labourer, unless it helped to establish the rights of humanity.
Emile's slow introduction to culture is based not merely on Rousseau's indignation at the rote learning to which children of his day were subject, nor on empirical observation of children's development, but also on the theory of humankind's development laid out in the Discourse on Inequality (1755). In Rousseau's version of human history, the savage lived in isolation until accidents of nature drove him to form rough group settlements. These might have remained benign had not culture and sexuality, born at the same moment, combined to lead us into a cycle of vanity that produced inequalities from which we never recovered. As Rousseau tells it, the desire to do more than simply copulate and reproduce like other species is the desire to be desired - the element of sexuality which is peculiarly human. That desire led primitive folk towards the first forms of culture, adorning themselves with paint and feathers, inventing song and dance to get the attention of the opposite sex. We were left not only with permanent rivalry, but the inability to see ourselves except as reflected in the eyes of others - two facts that poisoned most further attempts at civilization.
Culture and sexuality thus come from the same source, and each draws much of its power from the other. Emile will need no culture until he reaches puberty - and then he'll need it bad. At this point history and poetry can teach him what he now needs to know about the human heart and soul. For by turning a natural drive into a search for the ideal erotic object - a woman who is as good as she is beautiful - the educator can create a love for the ideal itself that produces forms of striving that will be of real value. If properly managed, sexual desire can be the natural connection between self-interest and morality.
Like many others, Rousseau sought the right sort of link between members of civil society. Hobbes's instrumentalist social contract presumes we can only be linked by fear - of each other, as well as of anarchy - while standard Enlightenment assumptions that we are naturally sociable presume too much. Rousseau held that we are naturally neither as bad nor as benevolent as his forebears assumed.8 While we, like other animals, are inclined to compassion, our interest in our own freedom comes first. But there is one act in which your interest is naturally identical with the interest of another. Erotic love, at its best, dissolves the tension between human desires. Thus Rousseau thought that love between men and women could be the cornerstone on which a decent society might be founded. The theme is introduced just after his discussion of religion, which denied that grace - hence religious education - is required for salvation. No wonder church authorities thought the book should be burned. Instead of religion, Emile is prepared to find his salvation in love. To keep his erotic sights focused, the tutor describes an ideal girl called Sophie, and to make sure we get his message, Rousseau draws our attention to the fact that the name is not an accident. Philo-sophia means love of wisdom; Emile will find both at once.
By the end of the book Rousseau is so enthralled with his creation that he has switched to the first person: it's Jean-Jacques who is the perfect tutor who forced (prodded, guided) Emile to be free. The contemporary reader who may have followed Emile's and Jean-Jacques's journey towards adulthood is liable to be pulled up short in the final book - not because it has become a sentimental novel with a happy ending, but because it's an ending most of us will reject. Rousseau's discussion of the boy's education is as uncompromisingly radical as his discussion of the girl's is disappointing. He is to be raised without convention, she is to be raised to conform to most of them - because, says Rousseau, while a man should submit to none but natural authority, a woman should submit to a man's. Such a view was beginning to look reactionary in corners of the eighteenth century: the fact that Voltaire's beloved mistress, Madame du Châtelet, translated Newton and wrote treatises on physics was clearly one of her charms. And whatever he thought of Voltaire, we know Rousseau revered Plato, whose Republic claimed that men and women who were educated equally would have equal abilities, rights and duties. But Plato was a welcome anomaly in the history of philosophy; it would take more than two millennia until John Stuart Mill wrote a critique of sexism. I will not speculate about why Rousseau took such a step backwards, but I will claim that his miserable discussion of women's education does not threaten the core of his theory. It wouldn't be hard to rewrite the final book of Emile, making Sophie's education a counterpart to Emile's, and propose the love of these two free and equally unconventional persons to be the foundation of a free society. Alas, as we will see, Book V is not Emile's only problem.
Important as Emile proved to be for the history of philosophy and education, it was immediately attacked. The church burned the book for its assault on religious education, but that was a last grasp of a dying ecclesiastical hold on political authority. The more interesting attacks on Rousseau were made by his erstwhile colleagues. These were mostly ad hominem, the sort of arguments about the man rather than his work that philosophers generally consider off-limits. But with a man whose work was so self-consciously personal, might they be legitimate? The search for sincerity and authenticity runs throughout Rousseau's work - whether he is debunking the self-deluded claims of high culture, or examining his own lapses and sins. If his own behaviour diverged so radically from the principles he so fervidly proclaims, shouldn't he be held to account?
It's a question Rousseau did his best to answer, at least in regard to his literary output: how can a man who declaims against the ill effects of culture continue to produce it? He avows his commitment to producing only such works as would avoid his own objections, that is, only those that help us to become better and freer. He even offers to burn his own work should his readers believe he has not met his own standard. He also points out that any criticism that his practice doesn't live up to his principles can only prove he's behaved badly, but doesn't reflect on the principles themselves. It is reason, he wrote, which shows us the goal, though passion may divert us from reaching it. With proper education, reason and passion work together, but few of us have the good fortune to be educated properly. Isn't that as true of the author of Emile as of anyone else? Few people in history have publicly admitted to more dubious behaviour, nor questioned their own motives in the search for sincerity. It's Rousseau himself, after all, who alerts us to the possibility that his refusal of the king's pension may have been more the result of his anxiety over the prospect of having to speak at court than of the nobler desire for independence. His pursuit of self-knowledge was extraordinary; it is fair to say he single-handedly invented the notion of bad faith, that peculiar form of self-deception later developed by the French existentialists.
But what if the behaviour in question is not simply continuing to create works of genius after winning fame for arguing that culture undermines morality, but abandoning five infants while writing a masterpiece about the importance of devoted child-raising? Even for those inclined to be indulgent towards human failings, this much of a gap between theory and practice will be hard to accept - particularly when they learn of the mortality rates in eighteenth-century French orphanages, where all five infants born to Rousseau's lifelong companion, the illiterate washerwoman Thérèse, were sent. Much later, Rousseau expressed regret about the fact that the conditions of his life did not permit him to raise children in the manner they deserved. It is true that his finances were precarious, and he was often on the run, whether because of quarrels he provoked or political persecution he endured. It was not an ideal framework for raising a child, much less for raising one with the superhuman devotion of Emile's guardian. Nevertheless: given that 80 percent of infants left in French orphanages were liable to die there, wouldn't an inferior upbringing have been a better choice?
There is no good way to square Rousseau's tenderness towards abstract children with the callousness with which he decided the fates of his own very real ones. Pointing out that almost none of the major figures in the history of philosophy, including Rousseau's critics, had any children at all may undermine, just a little, the authority of the critics, but it will do nothing to elevate Rousseau. It was he, after all, who insisted that fathers' responsibility for their children consists of a great deal more than conceiving and providing for them.
Was the man simply mad? It's a charge that was made often enough in his lifetime, and even more often thereafter. Jean Starobinski, who is both a psychoanalyst and one of Rousseau's greatest interpreters, wrote that the list of the diagnoses that have been made of Rousseau say more about the history of psychiatry than it does about the man. This is not the place to investigate them, but even without more biographical discussion, you may be struck by the depth of the paradox involved in realizing Rousseau's views, which is hardly ameliorated by the fact that he was the first to point to it. In the Social Contract he wrote a programme for 'men as they are, and laws as they should be'; in Emile he offered a strategy for creating men as they should be within laws as they are. Neither, it seems, could get off the ground without the other. If not mad in any other sense, didn't his work show him to be so out of touch with reality as to be considered, at the least, of unsound mind?
'Propose what can be done', they never stop repeating to me. It is as if I were told 'Propose doing what is done' or at least 'Propose some good which can be allied with the existing evil'. Such a project, in certain matters, is more chimerical than mine. For in this alliance the good is spoiled, and the evil is not cured. I would prefer to follow the established practice in everything than to follow a good one halfway. There would be less contradiction in man. (Emile, p. 158)
So Rousseau anticipated our objections in the preface to Emile. Is it contradictory that a society in which individual freedom is cherished could also be one in which social bonds are most highly valued? A society in which people are tolerant of diversity and friendly to strangers, but willing to die as proud patriots for their country if necessary? Where life is frugal rather than luxurious, but given over to periodic rejoicing in great bacchanalian festivals? Where the ideal man is gentle, modest, lenient, but also heroic, courageous, strong-willed? Where love and sexuality combine not only to strengthen each other, but also the bonds of society itself? These are features of Rousseau's ideal society, in which all true human needs are satisfied. He was the first who dared to ask: what if we could have it all?
He was under no illusions about the difficulty of his project. 'I show the goal that must be set; I do not say that it can be reached. But I do say that he who comes nearest it will have succeeded best.' (Emile, p. 95.) He was also the first philosopher to ask whether the constraints that we take to be part of the human condition are in fact self-imposed. His answer to objections that his proposals go against human nature is as simple as it's true: 'We do not know what our nature permits us to be!' We do not. Very deep assumptions about human nature have been overturned in the last fifty years; just think about the changes in Western views of gender or race or power. Rousseau overcame any number of supposedly natural constraints in his own lifetime, a time in which real restructuring of society, depending on restructuring assumptions about human nature, took place. We may be living in such a time again, if we stop focusing our attention on new forms of technological progress and allow Rousseau to help us think about other kinds of possibility.
It is never crazy to say that life contains more possibility than you have been told. What, then, can we say of the potential for achieving Rousseau's experiment? Emile's coming of age takes place under conditions that are almost impossible to organize. For a start, it requires the full-time commitment of a guardian for some twenty years. Even if you share Rousseau's view that no task in the world is more important than raising a child properly, you may have to earn a living; even if you needn't earn a living you might turn out to have twins. The attention the guardian is told to devote to the child is so complete that it precludes siblings, so even a return to traditional divisions of labour that left women in charge of child-rearing, should you choose it, would rarely be enough to fulfil Rousseau's programme. Emile is to be raised in the country, away from the seductions of society - difficult to arrange at a time when even remote bucolic villages are getting broadband. All these conditions were hard enough to fulfil in Rousseau's day, and may be even harder in ours, but they are not in principle impossible, just a matter of very complicated logistics. Reading the book can tempt you to undertake them, for the logic of Emile can seem necessary and compelling.
But logic, as Kant told us, is reason's least important achievement, and one aspect of Rousseau's proposal is, however, not logically but metaphysically impossible. The guardian's attention to Emile, more extensive than the most devoted parent can imagine, is not for the sake of Emile's safety or comfort. As Kant would later echo, Rousseau is adamant that a healthy number of bruises acquired by tumbling and falling is far better than the cosseting that prevents the child from standing on his own. The guardian's concern is not for Emile's physical but his moral safety. To ensure it, the guardian must completely control Emile's world. For the right kind of child-rearing requires that the world always make sense. Emile never experiences a gap between what is and what should be; virtue and happiness always go together. Each of his efforts is naturally rewarded: instead of empty marks or praise for memorizing geometric theorems, he gets the cherries on the tree when he figures out the proper angle for the ladder he needs to climb to them. What unhappiness occurs is the result of natural necessity; should he gorge himself on junk food, his belly will ache. Having been raised apart from servants or masters, he does not know haughtiness or obsequiousness, and meets the few people he does meet on equal terms, for he knows no other. Nothing ever seems to him unfair or arbitrary.
A child raised in this way would very likely be naturally moral, for he trusts the world to work as it should. Where it doesn't, the guardian steps in to discretely create the appearance of natural necessity, so that Emile will never perceive a gap between the is and the ought. But this ability, Kant will tell us, is available only to God, who (presumably) controls the entire natural world as He (presumably) sees into the depths of human hearts. The guardian is thus not only more patient, even-tempered and available than any guardian the world has known; he is qualitatively different from all of them, for he possesses the attributes monotheism assigns to God: omnipotence, omniscience and benevolence. Should Emile's world ever be out of joint, the guardian is always there to give it a nudge so that in Emile's own eyes, everything is as it should be.
But isn't it crazy to want to be God? This question should loom all the larger for the reader who is puzzled by the change in pronouns in the middle of Emile. Rousseau moves from describing the perfect guardian to becoming him, clearly carried away by the fantasy of controlling the world for the child he wished he had raised. Yet none other than the sane and sober Kant would tell us that the wish to be God is part of being human. The message of his metaphysics is to warn us against it; more precisely, to show us how the wish to be omniscient infects our understanding of human knowledge. It isn't a wish we can outgrow, since Kant thinks it is 'prescribed by the very nature of reason itself', but it's a wish that can be understood and contained. The longing to transcend human limits is as human as the fact that we cannot. At the heart of Kant's ethics, however, the wish is not only indulged but endorsed: we are to act only on those principles that we could will to be a universal law of nature. Kant's metaphysics remind us that we are not God; his ethics give us permission to pretend that we are. This is a method, and it isn't mad.9
This means that Emile has never experienced what Kant called the gap between is and ought. This is not just any old hardship, but the basic fact that things go wrong. You may want to protect your child from many things, but if you protect them from that, how on earth can they grow up? Though there's no evidence that Rousseau knew anything about Buddhism, Emile's environment is remarkably similar to the one Buddha's royal father tried to construct for his son, for whom he built three palaces to shield him from all knowledge of human suffering. At the age of twenty-nine, say the legends, Buddha ventured from the palace and saw decay, illness and death - shadows that fall on even the most fortunate of lives. The shock drove him towards a life of extreme asceticism, though after some years as a wandering beggar he found a more temperate path. Except for the palaces - Emile would prefer a country cottage - his metaphysical education is no different. Emile has not been prepared for any but the best of all possible worlds.
Now Rousseau thought most illnesses result from lack of proper diet and exercise. Even if modern medicine has confirmed that much sickness could be avoided by many of Rousseau's prescriptions - good air, physical activity, little meat, fresh fruit and vegetables - it does nothing to confirm his more important claim: that human beings are not naturally afraid of death. It's a claim he makes often, largely in order to undermine Hobbes, who thought fear of death so natural that it's reasonable to submit to the will of any old absolute sovereign who can stave off war for a while. We needn't go as far as Hobbes, nor believe in a terrifying afterlife, to find the thought of total annihilation appalling. The Austrian philosopher Jean Améry, who survived two years at Auschwitz, thought that even the most natural death is an affront to human reason more unbearable than any he experienced in the concentration camp. How can this whole world that is mine be slated for extinction? We learn, of course, to accept the fact of it, but it may be impossible to conceive it, however often we try. The fact that human beings begin potentially endless journeys that are arbitrarily cut short, that we are endowed with abilities to undertake projects - be they loves or works - that cannot be fulfilled in one lifetime, can seem the most monstrous cosmic joke. We may tell ourselves that mortality makes human lives richer, and it may even be true; next to Odysseus or Antigone, the Greek gods look flat. Still the Stoic air of indifference towards death often praised by Rousseau seems deeply inhuman. However you steel yourself, most deaths will produce, at least for a moment, the ache of response: that should not have happened. The throb in that moment is the pain of the gulf between is and ought. When it happens, even atheists may feel the pull of Christianity's understanding of death as punishment, though they may reject its promise of eternal life.
But forget about death, for the time being. Long before you have to face it, you will face other trials. Even the luckiest among us will stumble over pieces of the world that are not as they should be. How we react is the key to whether or not we grow up. In a perceptive passage of Peter Pan, Barrie describes what happens to the hero when Captain Hook returns his generous, chivalrous gesture with violence.
Not the pain of this but its unfairness was what dazed Peter. It made him quite helpless. Every child is affected thus the first time he is treated unfairly. All he thinks he has a right to when he comes to you to be yours is fairness. After you have been unfair to him he will love you again, but will never afterwards be quite the same boy. No one ever gets over the first unfairness; no one except Peter. He often met it, but he always forgot it. I suppose that was the real difference between him and all the rest. (Peter Pan, p. 113)
You have probably forgotten the details of your first unfairness, presumably because it happened very early, and was followed by many more. Still Barrie is probably right to say no one ever gets over it, and the reason Peter Pan remains an eternal child is that each succeeding unfairness is a surprise. None is ever internalized, so his trust in the world remains unscathed.
Not so for the rest of us; Peter Pan is a fairy tale. Even babies, as we'll see, sense and suffer from a world that doesn't fit. It's the beginning of alienation, but also of indignation that, if properly guided, will be needed to make a life active. What guidance is proper? We want our children to see as little suffering as possible, and we know that even Buddha's royal father couldn't shield him. Most of us have considerably fewer resources than he did. When my own son was eleven or twelve he came home from school complaining that a teacher had treated him unfairly, and hearing the details I thought he was right. Here's what I told him: This won't be the last time that someone in power treats you unfairly. They may be threatened or jealous or simply tired, they may prefer the kid or the employee who flatters or falls. Besides reading and writing and arithmetic, one of the things you need to learn in school is how to live with that - without losing yourself. Was the balance right? After too many encounters with unfairness I could not share his outrage. We want our children to remain awake to injustice; we just don't want them to be undone by it. I was rather pleased with my little speech; it was certainly better than anything I'd heard as a child, when my own parents' refusal to acknowledge that a teacher might be anything less than benign left me not only alone with my indignation but deeply confused: weren't they just saying the is is the ought? But the problem is one of proportion. The thought may be sustaining when the teacher in question is one among many; when such teachers are in the majority, you begin to suspect that your children would be better off out of school.
Even if confined to a single educator, it isn't a lesson Rousseau would have his pupil learn. Emile has been raised, you'll recall, in a world without masters and servants, authorities and subjects, precisely so he will not learn to tolerate injustice. It's possible that this could prepare him to resist it. But what if he finds it crippling, and can only react with the helpless daze of Peter Pan?
There are no empirical answers to this question; no one was raised like Emile. Let's give credit where it's due: even if his larger aim is to force them to become free adults, our attention to children's development began with Rousseau. He's been called the inventor of childhood itself.
What must be thought of that barbarous education which sacrifices the present to an uncertain future, which burdens a child by making him miserable in order to prepare him for I know not what happiness he may enjoy?... Why do you want to fill with bitterness and pain those few years which go by so rapidly and can return no more for them than they can for you? (Emile, p. 79)
These are very good questions. But they do not let us avoid an even more pressing one: how do we prepare a child for a world that is not the way it should be?
Copyright © 2014 by Susan Neiman