La Nouvelle Héloïse is the most influential novel ever written. It shares with the Social Contract the honor of inspiring the French Revolution and, to a lesser extent, German idealism, but it stands alone as the fountainhead of romanticism. It is a celebration and critical examination of love and family. Rousseau’s romanticism seems to pile contradiction upon contradiction. It complicates even more the confusion created by his conflicting praise of both the self-contained independence of natural man and the selfless patriotism of the citizen by adding a third alternative: the lover or spouse. Yet, what seems at first to be a bewildering contradiction is really a helpful piece of the puzzle. Love and family are a mixture of the extreme naturalness of primitive man and the extreme sociality of the citizen.
They are social relations requiring a common good, but are clearly built around and joined together by the pleasures of intercourse and procreation, rather than painful acts of war and punitive legislation. The contradictory elements of Rousseau’s thought are actually human possibilities that attempt to solve the problem of man’s dividedness by making him whole. The dividedness to which Rousseau sought a solution is also a human type. Rousseau called him the bourgeois. The bourgeois is a consequence of the Enlightenment. He is the result of the application of modern science to society. His dividedness reveals an unbearable conflict between truth and life for which Rousseau seeks a solution. Natural science teaches that there is no possibility of community, because the real is the body, and the body individuates. Yet, civil man must live with other human beings. This conflict is a formula for hypocrisy. Not only is the bourgeois incapable of a real concern for the public good, but he cannot even be consistently concerned with his own good. He will sacrifice his own good and interests for the sake of praise.
He lives neither for himself, nor for others. Rousseau characterizes such half-hearted persons as nothing. To be something means to be whole. It means to be all private body or all devotion to the common good, or to be a harmonious mixture of the two. To be all body is to be primitive. To be all devotion to the common good is to be a citizen; and, to be a harmonious mixture of these two extremes is to live a life of private attachments. Such attachments are more within reach for modern man than the two extremes. There is no possibility of simply returning to primitive man, and those who try to do so on the level of civilization are rare because they must be independent of human opinion. As for the citizen, Christianity and the Enlightenment have made the idea of the fatherland almost incomprehensible. Their other worldliness and individualism, respectively, leave no place for the attachment to country and the love of the common good. Love and family are the most practical alternatives for modern man. The hypocrisy that arises from the division between nature and society is seen not only in contradictions between natural inclination and the need to satisfy one’s vanity, but also in the conflict between thought and life. Science and the health of civil man are in conflict with one another.
Most humans cannot live in the world as science understands it. According to science, man is a bodily composition that will decompose; he has no nature different from the nonhuman things. Everything man loves is body on its way to nothing. Most men, however, rebel against imagining the decay and disintegration of what they love. It is too ugly to look upon. Thus, their sentiments and passions are never brought into harmony with their science. The bourgeois, however, is a hypocrite, not only because his sentiments and his passions are not brought into accord with his thoughts, but also because his thought is not brought into accord with his sentiments and his passions. The bourgeois accumulates wealth as if he were to live forever, but he does not believe in immortality, and he seeks the honor and praise of others, even though he does not believe in the possibility of community. His thought is only partially connected to his life. He is in so much contradiction with himself and his opinion about nature that he cannot even have an opinion about what he is. He is absurd, or (what amounts to the same thing) nothing.
The bourgeois’ conflict between himself and others, as well as his conflict between life and death, has its theoretical roots in liberalism, according to Rousseau. He traces the incoherencies of bourgeois life to the peculiar failures of Hobbes and Locke to find their way back to nature. He considers their thought to be an unsatisfactory combination of nature and society, which are formulas for the bourgeois because they satisfy neither natural selfishness nor the social demands of justice. Rousseau’s analysis of the inadequacy of their thought concentrates on two essential elements of nature and society, death and sex. He concentrates on Hobbes with respect to death, and Locke with respect to intercourse and procreation.
Hobbes’ state of nature is premised on the insight that man is an asocial animal, that his selfish passions are more fundamental than any of his attachments to others. But Hobbes attributes to man in the state of nature characteristics that presuppose society. He attributes to him the fear of violent death and the desire for vainglory. These are passions that require the use of a developed imagination—an imagination that can call images to mind at will and that must, therefore, be accompanied by self-consciousness. 1 The development of the imagination, however, requires language and reason, because speech is necessary for general ideas, and general ideas are, in turn, necessary for the ability to recall images at will; and, since speech is a mode of communication, it presupposes sociality.
Hobbes did not think through the premise that man is by nature asocial. He mistook anti-sociality for asociality. If reason is in the service of the asocial passions by nature, as Hobbes presumes, then man must be stripped of all the passions that depend on reason in order to discover his nature. Hobbes did not do this. His failure to think through man’s asociality leads him to an understanding of life that is an unsatisfactory mixture of passion and reason. Hobbes places “in the first place a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power,that ceaseth only in death.”2
Reason is a calculative tool that helps man to gain the power to satisfy his deepest desire—the desire to preserve himself. Rousseau thinks this interplay between reason and passion is a kind of madness that fails to understand properly both natural passion and society. Rousseau opposes Hobbes by returning to the ideas of wholeness and contentment. He finds, in animal nature, something more fundamental than the restless desire for power after power. The desire for the power to preserve oneself presupposes that existence is pleasant. The sentiment of existence is a complete satisfaction that affirms the goodness of life.3 It precedes reason in that it is oblivious to the past and the future; its immersion in the present is haunted by neither fears, nor hopes. The sentiment of existence is definitive of man’s pre-social nature.
Civil man, on the other hand, cannot have the immediate contentment characteristic of man in the state of nature. But the character of desire requires that he be restored to himself, if only through the promise of a state of complete satisfaction. All desire that is not immediate—bodily desire—requires the promise of a permanent state of satisfaction in order to sustain itself. It is this understanding of desire that makes Rousseau’s rhetoric so searing. He speaks of women who perform a useless act over and over again; and he ridicules wealthy gluttons, who go to so much trouble to eat what they will pass the next morning. It is not the nature of desire to be unlimited, for limitlessness undoes desire. Rousseau conceives of reason, therefore, not as a tool of desire, but as a power (although a very weak power limited to a few) for limiting desire. Love, marriage, and family are important themes for him because they give meaning to sexual desire by placing limitations upon it, although those limitations are not simply the work of reason.
Hobbes neither got back to nature, nor attempted to restore civilized man to his lost wholeness because he looked to nature to solve the problems of his time rather than the permanent human problems. Hobbes’ thought is directed against the horrors of war, especially religious wars and civil wars. He is concerned with the establishment of a legitimate central authority that can maintain civil order among factions. His state of nature is an untenable combination of nature and society because it is an ad hoc construction that is meant to point directly to his doctrine of sovereignty. Rousseau goes so far as to call him an apologist for the monarchy.4
Hobbes’ attempt to give direction to life by concentrating the imagination on fear of violent death is a form of social and rational optimism that fails to address the human situation. By turning the imagination toward violent death at the hands of other men, Hobbes directs the mind to solving problems through social arrangements. Death, as a simple fact of nature, is not part of his thought. His attempt to preserve humanity from the brutality of force through a teaching of justice fails to protect humanity from the animality of a safe, but meaningless, existence. Hobbes cannot find any meaning other than peaceful coexistence, because he does not address himself to the problem of man’s end—to his mortality. The necessity of death means that self-preservation cannot be the fundamental passion, because it is a desire that clearly has no hope of being satisfied. The mortality of the body makes living for oneself, especially in the narrow sense of one’s breathing existence, a problem. Yet, one cannot live for anything beyond oneself in Hobbes’ civil society because it presents itself as an aggregate of individuals forming an artificial legal body. Hobbes did not have the intransigence necessary to think through the distinction between nature and society because he did not address himself to the meaning of death for life.
Rousseau also criticizes Locke’s unsatisfactory combination of nature and society. He takes aim at Locke’s attempt to build civil society, especially the family, on nature. At the beginning of Book V of Emile, Rousseau says that Locke ends the education of a gentleman where it ought to begin—with his erotic education.5 This criticism must be understood in combination with note (l) of The Second Discourse where Rousseau takes issue with Locke’s understanding of the genesis of the family.6 According to Rousseau, Locke’s failure to educate gentlemen in matters of love and marriage is the consequence of his hidden teleology. Locke argues that the sexes cohabit because of the desire to preserve the species. The male remains with the female in order to protect her in pregnancy and to help preserve the child until it can take care of itself.
Locke, however, fails to explain how the desire to preserve the species can be a conscious desire if man is by nature asocial. Furthermore, even if the desire for intercourse is nature’s ruse that uses individual desire for the continuation of the species, there is still no reason for the male to remain with the female by nature after he is satisfied. According to Rousseau, Locke’s confidence in nature blinds him to the task of educating the sexes for one another. This is Rousseau’s colossal task and what clearly separates him from Enlightenment thought.
In opposition to Locke, Rousseau argues that men must become husbands before they become fathers. He traces the cohabitation between the sexes to the construction of permanent dwellings.7 Since permanent dwellings, unlike caves, require repairs, they prepare the ground for a division of labor, one to gather and hunt, and one to fix the dwelling. It is private property in its most primitive form that is the seed for the family, not the desire to preserve the species. After being in the hut together for some time, man discovers himself a father, and then the primitive family is born. According to Rousseau, Locke failed to think through the effects of his understanding of nature and justice on the relations between the sexes because he had an unjustified confidence in nature. The differentiation between the sexes, which Locke himself takes for granted, has no justification in nature or equality. A great deal of Rousseau’s rhetoric and reasoning is devoted to differentiating the sexes and giving them a common good. His reasoning and rhetoric is directed against the idea of the free and equal relations between the sexes, which is a powerful prejudice in Paris and which gains support from the modern understanding of nature and equality. Rousseau openly addresses himself to the free and equal relations between the sexes in several places, but nowhere does he address himself to it more single-mindedly than in The Letter to d’Alembert and the beginning of Book V of Emile, where he introduces the education of Sophie.8
Rousseau’s arguments were met with resistance by Enlightenment feminists, most notably Mary Wollstonecraft. In her A Vindication of the Rights of Women, she isolates Rousseau as a sensualist, whose differentiation of the sexes tyrannizes over women and debases both sexes. Her book is meant to lay the foundations for the esteem of women by arguing that they are the equals of the male, because they can partake in the universal dignity of human beings.9 Through the cultivation of the faculty of reason, the female is free and virtuous, and pursues a human end independent of her sex. This cultivation, according to Wollstonecraft, will cause men to esteem her. Wollstonecraft, however, is not critical of women becoming mothers and wives. She hopes that the esteem given to women will simply change the nature of love, marriage, and family. These relations will be changed by making the female a friend in the highest sense of the term. The male and the female will esteem one another as beings in pursuit of and capable of knowledge.
Wollstonecraft was not the first woman who attempted to gain the esteem of men by proudly renouncing the virtues of her sex and proposing that men and women share one excellence. St. Preux makes mention of women who, having given up the virtues of their sex, try to imitate those of the male, and Rousseau addresses himself directly to the question. He says that he only knows of one female who was successful in imitating the virtues of the male, and that for all her virtue he would not find her attractive.10 This criticism is decisive. Society requires procreation, and, therefore, attraction leading to intercourse. The virtue of the female must not only make her estimable, but also pleasing. Wollstonecraft takes for granted what Rousseau does not, that men will continue to want to be husbands and fathers, and that women will continue to want to be wives and mothers, even though their virtue is unconnected to these relations. Friendship does not require intercourse and procreation.
In fact, intercourse and procreation get in the way of friendship. Wollstonecraft throws the baby out with the bathwater. In order to correct and guard against the degradation of sexual relations, she looks to a standard of virtue that does not relate the male and the female through their sexuality. This is, of course, what Plato does in his Republic. But, Plato knew he was abolishing love and family. Furthermore, Plato outlines what his regime is and what it means to belong to it as a citizen. Wollstonecraft does not do this. She is too caught up in the spirit of protest to give an account of her new republic.
Both Plato and Wollstonecraft would have the sexes on a footing of equal familiarity, while maintaining austere relations, even when having intercourse. Plato’s male and female warriors have intercourse for reasons of duty, and Wollstonecraft’s male and female philosophers have intercourse as part of their mutual admiration for one another. Rousseau argues that the equality and familiarity between the sexes, far from accompanying austerity, will lead to promiscuity and the most intolerable abuses. Wollstonecraft is aware that the enlightenment of women, familiarity, and equality between the sexes has its greatest example in Paris.
“Yet, far from being a republic of philosophers, it is dissolute: In France, there is no doubt a more general diffusion of knowledge than in any part of the European world, and I attribute it, in a great measure, to the social intercourse between the sexes. . . . And modesty, the fairest garb of virtue! has been more grossly insulted in France than even in England, till their women have treated as prudish that attention to decency, which brutes instinctively observe.”11
She does not think there is a necessary relation between equality, familiarity, enlightenment, and dissoluteness. Rousseau thought there was, and he states his reasons. One might add that Rousseau thought he was really of like mind with Plato on this question, since Plato is not, like Wollstonecraft, in earnest about the equality of men and women, but proposes it in order to show how incommensurate the mind is with political life.
Rousseau argues that equality accompanies promiscuity because equality is inconsistent with modesty. The modesty of the female differentiates the sexes and regulates sexual desire because it is accompanied by an awareness of both love and morality. It is informed by the desire for an exclusive and permanent attachment, and is, therefore, inconsistent with the pleasures of a hedonist and the indifference of a scientist. It is no accident that Wollstonecraft argues against female modesty and tries to replace it with a kind of intellectual modesty characteristic of both male and female.12 Once modesty is abandoned there will not be a society of mutual esteem, but of mutual degradation because the fear and shame that controlled sexual desire will be removed. Furthermore, the female, finding herself unprotected by respect for the virtue of her sex and unable to imitate the virtues of the male, will seek power over him by making him effeminate. He will give up his freedom in order to enjoy her favors. Wollstonecraft is aware of the power of coquetry, and, like Rousseau, she despises it for degrading both sexes. Her mistake is in confusing coquetry with modesty. The sexual relations of her times were so debased that she turned against them all together. She, in fact, only contributes to the debasement by casting off female modesty and failing to give an account of responsible sexual relations.
One might ask why the female cannot be sexual and still imitate the male virtues. The reason is simple. The female risks far more in the act of intercourse than does the male.13 She is weaker, and, due to anatomical necessity, can be raped, but cannot rape. Most important, she risks pregnancy. How can the sexes be the same with respect to an act, which does not contain equal risks? One might argue that commerce diminishes the difference with respect to risk. A wealthy female can support a child. Furthermore, birth control and abortion mean that pregnancy is not even a factor. But, society cannot do without the people reproducing themselves, and the general disorder caused by promiscuity among them is destructive to society as a whole.14 The free and equal relations between the sexes is necessarily accompanied by the opinion that a mother does not need a father for her child, and is likely not to have one for it.15 Paternal duties cannot be derived from an indeterminate act. The free and equal relations between the sexes are, therefore, terrible for the bulk of human beings who make up society and for society as a whole; they are the self-serving prejudices of the upper class, and Rousseau says as much. They are “the philosophy of a day which is born and dies in the corner of a big city and wishes to smother the cry of nature and the unanimous voice of humankind.”16
Although the differences between the male and the female have a basis in biological necessity, those biological differences do not by nature legitimate their different virtues. Primitive man is asocial precisely because the female does not need the assistance of the male to bring the child to a state of independence. But, the dependency of civil man translates the biological differences into different ways of life. This is where Rousseau’s disparate geniuses as a philosopher and a poet meet. The differentiation of the sexes not only must be a social necessity, but must be made beautiful and just. Those differences can be made legitimate only by creating an order of wills. The order of wills is not founded on authority or on abstract principle. The order of wills is found in a sweet union of complimentary virtues.
Rousseau creates love from sexual desire, imagination, and amour-propre. Love is determined by the female situation. Her situation is very simple. She must inflame desire and be subjected to its satisfaction, but she must always have an excuse for giving in.17 Modesty allows her to do all this. Modesty inflames desire because it kindles the imagination. It places a barrier between the senses and, thereby, forces the imagination to substitute an image far more alluring than the senses could apprehend. It is, thus, that Rousseau finds the Spartan maidens, who dance nude at their festivals, to be more chaste than a Chinese girl, who extends her covered toe from beneath her gown.18 The Spartans were so simple in their morals that the female body was not an object of fantasy. Besides inflaming desire through the imagination, modesty mixes amour-propre with the senses. Clothing is not the only barrier to overcome. The male must gain the will of the female, and not only against other men, but, more importantly, against herself. She must submit to the bold audacity of the male, for nature demands it, but in the midst of submission there must be an ambiguity about her intention. The male must remain in doubt about whether he takes by strength or receives willingly. The ambiguity in the male’s mind sweetens the pleasures of both with amour-propre. This is how both feel the charm of love and avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of force and sensual pleasure. The male senses his strength, but is charmed by the thought of being chosen, and the female feels her weakness, but is charmed by the thought of giving herself. These are not games, but necessary parts for a union that is permanent and sweet.
The differentiation of the sexes gains inward conviction from the sweet experience of love. Lover and beloved form a union, without the need of outside authority. But, these felt differences also require outward confirmations. They must believe that they are made for love. There must, therefore, be a teleology of the body, which apprehends a plan in sensual beauty. This is one of Rousseau’s poetic achievements. He describes the female body in teleological terms, which affirm the virtue of modesty. Her skin is thinner and lighter than the male’s, so that her blush can be seen. Her muscles are more supple because boldness and strength are unseemly in her. She runs more slowly so as to be caught in her flight. She is smaller and of more delicate feature because hard labor is not her task. She is inclined to chatter more than the male because she is inclined to learn the art of pleasing. Rousseau’s description of the beauty of the female body abstracts from the harsh biological differences. He lends beauty to necessity and reason to sensuality.
Rousseau does more than analyze the theoretical problems at the root of the bourgeois and explain the psychological requirements for his romantic solutions. In La Nouvelle Héloïse, he portrays bourgeois and romantic relations. He paints a picture of each so that the reader can grasp the character of each as a whole. The bourgeois is painted in his home, the enlightened city, Paris. The depiction of Paris is outside the action of the novel, and, therefore, serves as a foil to the romantic relations in the novel. Paris is not alone in being a foil that is outside the action of the novel. The Upper Valais and Geneva play a similar role. These three societies clearly create a spectrum that outlines the human possibilities. The Upper Valais is a society dominated by nature; Paris is a society dominated by the arts and sciences; and, Geneva is a society dominated by civic virtue. Each of the ruling elements correspond to a kind of female beauty. Natural goodness, cosmopolitan charm, and conjugal virtue are the respective types. The three societies and their corresponding beauties are the key to figuring out Rousseau’s literary opposition, as well as his departure from them. In Pamela, Richardson depicts both the simple goodness of a fifteen-year-old girl from a poor village, and her life as a virtuous wife and mother who is the mistress of an English country estate.
In Manon Lescaut, Prévost depicts the sensuous charms of a young Parisian girl. The three societies and their corresponding females depict a spectrum of sexual relations that Rousseau rejects. The first chapter is devoted to the three societies and their female heroines. While the first chapter is devoted to sexual relations that are dominated by the bourgeois, nature, and civic virtue, the second chapter discusses Rousseau’s romantic reform of Christian piety, aristocratic honor, and patriarchal authority. This triumvirate also has its representative heroines, who, like Julie, are famous for their letters. Clarissa Harlowe is a Christian aristocrat whose virtue places her in opposition to her father’s authority and the vindictive pride of both her brother and her suitor; and, Héloïse’s love for Abelard places her in conflict with her vocation as a nun. Julie, however, is a lover, unlike Clarissa, and she is a mother, unlike Héloïse. Rousseau reforms the traditional authorities on the strengths of erotic and procreative attachments.
In the third chapter, I discuss love and family as romantic alternatives to the Enlightenment and Christianity. Love and family are actually syntheses of reason and belief. In attempting to harmonize religion and reason, Rousseau turns to classical philosophy. The ancient schools, unlike modern science, are not methods; they make claims about first principles, which give character to the life of reason. But, in using the ancient schools to bring harmony to reason and religion, Rousseau modifies classical philosophy by bringing the modern understanding of nature to bear upon the theoretical life. Rousseau completes reason through the love of a woman because he subjects the theoretical life to the body—to intercourse and to procreation. Julie is clearly a replacement for Socrates. Her death scene imitates the Phaedo; as Socrates finds himself surrounded by a Platonic lover (Kebes), an Epicurean beloved (Simmias), and a Stoic friend in need of support (Phaedo), Julie is married to an Epicurean, passionately loved by a Platonist, and admired by a Stoic. Rousseau’s rhetoric is used to depict the apotheosis of a female, rather than a philosopher. Furthermore, by making Julie the centrepiece of La Nouvelle Héloïse, Rousseau also opposes pagan heroism. Julie replaces the fatherland as an object of honor and glory, just as she replaces God and knowledge. Rousseau is opposed to Plato and Plutarch, as well as Christianity.
Love and family are a mean between enlightened cosmopolitanism and Christian patriarchy. Yet, these two unities are not themselves united. They have two different and incommensurate ends, which bring them into conflict with one another. They give meaning to what are, in the beasts, inarticulate drives, but their reasons and pieties are not the same. The conflict between love and family gives romanticism its character. Its irresolvable conflicts make Julie’s death a dramatic necessity. These conflicts can be seen in the character of Julie’s renunciations and returns. The novel, as a whole, maintains the outline of biblical religion. Julie is a disobedient daughter who falls from virtue, only to return to God through marriage and family. But, upon her deathbed, she renounces her marriage and hopes to be reunited in heaven with her lover. Love and family belong together and apart because of the duality of man’s sexual nature. Intercourse and procreation are inseparable, but distinct. La Nouvelle Héloïse, taken as a whole, is an attempt to solve the conflict between nature and society by creating meaningful communities around intercourse and procreation. Nature, God, and reason are reformed to accord with love and family.
1. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Second Discourse, trans. Masters (New York, 1964), pp. 116–17.
2. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Macpherson (New York, 1981), ch. 11, p. 161.
3. Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Reveries of the Solitary Walker, trans. Butterworth (New York, 1982), ch. 5, pp. 62–73.
4. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, trans. Bloom (New York, 1978) p. 458.
5. Ibid., p. 357.
6. Second Discourse, pp. 213–20.
7. Ibid., p. 146.
8. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Letter to d’Alembert, trans. Bloom (New York, 1960) pp. 83–89. In the pages cited above, Rousseau addresses himself to the feminists of his age. He does not mention them by name because he considers their arguments to be popular protests and prejudices, rather than thought.
9. Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women (England, 1992), p. 91.
10. Emile, p. 386.
11. A Vindication of the Rights of Women, p. 86.
12. Ibid., pp. 231–44.
13. Emile, p. 358.
14. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Julie ou La Nouvelle Héloïse (Pléiade, 1964), II, xxi, p. 272. References are to part, letter, and page.
Letter to d’Alembert, p. 85.
16. Ibid., p. 83.
17. Ibid., p. 86.
18. Ibid., p. 134.
This excerpt is from Romanticism and Civilization: Love, Marriage, and Family in Rousseau’s Julie (Lexington Books, 2017) with our book review here.