Of Savages and States

By Gabriel Blanchard

The political and cultural cascades we tumble over today find their headwater in the cool, glassy well of Lake Geneva.

The parts of Europe that lie roughly between modern France and Germany, from the Low Countries to northern Italy, were contested territory throughout the Middle Ages and early modernity.* Contested in every sense—language, government, religion, all were ceaselessly quarreled over. The Alps were occupied by various city-states which formed the Swiss Confederacy, the ancestor of modern Switzerland; its western extremity was the French-speaking republic of Geneva, situated on the lake of the same name. This city became a stronghold of the second phase of the Protestant Reformation, under the leadership of John Calvin, and a place of refuge for French Protestants. About a century and a half later in 1712, one of the best-known (and, at the time, most heterodox) disciples of Calvin was born: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who went on to transfigure the political order as much as Calvin had the ecclesiastical.

Rousseau’s youth was somewhat chaotic. At just 15 years old, he ran away from his home and from Geneva itself, settling for a time in the Duchy of Savoy. From here he proceeded to Turin, the city of the famous Shroud, where he became a Catholic. He wandered Italy and France for a time, surviving on odd jobs, until a patroness helped him to acquire a humane education and enter into writing and teaching as professions. In 1742, he moved to Paris, seeking to enter the academy more formally through the Académie des Sciences; though it took nearly a decade, he finally gained recognition for his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, in which he argued that, far from elevating human character, civilization had degraded and corrupted the natural goodness of mankind.

In 1754, Rousseau reconverted to Calvinism and resumed his Genevan citizenship. The next year, his career began in earnest, with the publication of his Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men. The inequality he was interested in was not that of physical differences: some people are stronger or taller or tougher than others, but these differences do not correspond to the differences in prestige, wealth, security, and power enjoyed by high-status members of a given society. Those are established by convention, of which Rousseau took a very dim view. His conception of human nature was just about the polar opposite of that maintained by Hobbes; Rousseau thought man was naturally good and capable of perfection. He also made a striking departure from most earlier and later philosophers in the Western tradition by denying that man naturally possesses reason. He held that rudimentary societies developed first, followed by reason and language, which came into being as men compared themselves to one another, thus acquiring traits like envy at the expense of the natural gift of empathy. (It has been proposed that the radically different societal models of the North American peoples may have been an influence on Rousseau in this regard, as they were a fashionable topic of discussion at the time.)

This positive attitude toward man as such, and the blaming of moral degeneration on society, was more than unusual for a Calvinist: it was positively contrary to everything Calvin (drawing on St. Augustine) had maintained about human nature. Yet with this, the Swiss statesman had hardly even begun. In 1762, two more books were published that cemented Rousseau’s reputation, both as one of the fathers of classical liberalism (alongside men like Locke) and as a dissident from any version of contemporary orthodoxy. The Social Contract and Émile, or On Education threw the fashionable intellectual salons of Europe into an uproar. Let us take each in turn.

A country cannot subsist well without liberty, nor liberty without virtue.

The Social Contract is one of the seminal works of Enlightenment politics, and lies (with other influences) behind the documents of the American Revolution. Rousseau here altogether denies that force can carry any obligation of obedience with it, arguing that only mutual consent has the power to impose subsequent obligations. Moreover, this consent must be from all members of the society in question—including women, a position practically unheard-of at the time—and must involve all giving up an equal proportion of their rights in order to establish a commonwealth. (Slavery too was, to him, absolutely wrong, a less than popular opinion in the mid-eighteenth century, when the slave trade was making a fortune for both individuals and states.) He also argued that the contract governing society must establish not one body, but two, which must be distinct from each other: the sovereign, from which political power justly derives, and which can only consist of the whole people; and the government, which handles practical administration, and is subject to dissolution by the sovereign if it exceeds its powers. Depending on the size of the realm, he was prepared to allow an elective aristocracy or a monarchy to function as the representative of the sovereign; but the idea that one or more nobles could be the sovereign was, to Rousseau, only one of the decadent effects of civilization’s corrupting influence on humanity.

Émile appeared not long afterwards. It is somewhere between a treatise and a novel, using its title character as a model for Rousseau’s philosophy of education. The method he sets forth places great emphasis on activity and experience, postponing education in most abstract ideas until the middle teens (indeed, some see in Rousseau a precursor to the Montessori model). Despite his interest in women’s equality in the political sphere, he curiously did not recommend it in the educational; but neither this odd inconsistency nor his “learn by doing” outlook were what earned Émile the condemnation of authorities, including bans in both France and Geneva. This wrath was aroused, rather, by the “Profession of Faith of the Savoyard** Vicar,” detailing how he recommended children be taught religion: the priestly instructor appeals only to reason and arrives with his pupil only at a natural religion, disclaiming any more specific creed as not properly the object of education. This would have been enough to anger both Calvinist and Catholic leaders in itself, but he went still further, arguing that insofar as every religion prompts its devotees to virtuous living, every religion is of equal worth, and the state should not busy itself in matters of religious conviction. This advocacy of indifferentism was, to Catholics especially, tantamount to a denial of truth and rationality as such.

Despite expressions of sympathy from such illustrious figures as Voltaire, Rousseau was forced to leave first France, then his native Geneva, and then the city of Bern; he stayed for a while in Neuchâtel, another Swiss principality, under the protection of the famous patron of Enlightenment thought, Frederick the Great. In 1766, he traveled to Britain, at the invitation of admirer David Hume; however, their relationship soured not long thereafter, as Rousseau seems to have become increasingly paranoid (a condition exacerbated by unrelated but real misfortunes, including being accused—by Voltaire, bafflingly enough—of setting a fire that had destroyed a theater). He spent his last years in worsening health and increasing remoteness from the fashionable intellectual life of Paris; yet, impressively, he never lost his optimism about human nature as such. He died in 1778; in 1794, the French revolutionary government had his tomb moved to the Panthéon,† where it remains to this day.

*And into the twentieth, even. The territory of Alsace-Lorraine (now in northeastern France) changed hands between the French and the Germans three times in the two world wars, and even attempted to declare itself an independent Soviet republic in 1918.
**A Savoyard is a person from Savoy.
†Though of far later date, the Panthéon in French culture is approximately equivalent to Westminster Abbey in Great Britain; to be laid to rest there is a mark of immense distinction


Gabriel Blanchard works as a freelance author and CLT’s editor at large. He is a proud uncle of seven nephews, and lives in Baltimore, MD.

If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy our profiles of Josephus, St. Anselm of Canterbury, and James Madison, or our pieces on what makes our test “classic” and how a humane curriculum respects the dignity of students. For more information about the Classic Learning Test and the educational revival we’re a part of, visit our main site here. Thank you for reading the Journal!

Published on 27th March, 2023.

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