Rousseau on Authenticity and Self-Love

Portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1753), by Maurice Quentin de La Tour

A restless genius in cosmopolitan Paris, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) contemplated the nature of authenticity and superficiality amidst the salon culture of Enlightenment Paris. Rousseau was an outsider looking in, in many ways. He was Geneva and proud of it. He signed his work ‘citizen of Geneva,’ though he spent very little of his adulthood in that city. Nevertheless, he preferred the simplicity of Calvinist Geneva to the decadent French capital of the Old Regime. In an age of social media, rampant cosmopolitanism, decadence, and superficiality, Rousseau’s critique is much needed in this world we moderns inhabit. This article will look at Rousseau’s ideas about authenticity and self-love as well as how they relate society at large.

It is my contention that Rousseau’s philosophy serves to bolster the idea that, what is needed, is a mean (in the Aristotelian sense) between two extremes — the lack of civilization among hunter-gatherers and the excesses of civilization which can be seen in the decadent cosmopolitanism of many of the world’s major cities. What is needed is a culture which is developed enough to hold people together and allow for some expressions of art and intellectual discourse but not so much that abstraction for the sake of abstraction and ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ become central. Rousseau the proto-Romantic Enlighenment philosopher was to philosophy what Paul Cezanne was to art — the ultimate expression of the avant-garde : a voice seeking to balance the rational and irrational aspects of human nature in a kind of coherent philosophy which serves as a form of creative expression.

“I know my heart, and have studied mankind; I am not made like any one I have been acquainted with, perhaps like no one in existence; if not better, I at least claim originality, and whether Nature did wisely in breaking the mould with which she formed me, can only be determined after having read this work.”

-Jean-Jacques Rousseau, ‘Confessions’ (1765–1770)

Rousseau was both a genius and really ‘out there’ in his opinions and the way he lived his life. In any event, he sought to live his life increasingly as authentic as he possibly could. Despite this, as any critic of Rousseau would point out, he was sometimes hypocritical and and failed to live up to his ideals. His political philosophy was quite problematic, though the excesses of the French Revolution cannot be laid on his shoulders so much as those who selectively interpreted him and claimed to represent his views. Just as Friedrich Nietzsche would have been horrified to see how the Nazis distorted his philosophy, so too, Rousseau would have been horrified to see how his ideas were abused by radicals in the French Revolution.

The Age of Enlightenment emerged as a kind of via negative reinforced by the visceral carnage of the violent seventeenth century. Not abstraction for the sake of abstraction but idealism grounded in a deep understanding of what was far less violent in mid-eighteenth century Western Europe — warfare. While the European continent was recovering from a series of wars from 1618–1714, the intellectual world was still reeling from the ideas brought about by giants like Rene Descartes and Baruch Spinoza. France was finally free of Louis XIV (a kind of French Trump) in 1715. The period which followed was one in which cafes and salons took a central role in intellectual life. This was the age of Voltaire, Diderot, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau’s philosophy was forged in relation to his conversations with the philosophers of Paris, most notably Denis Diderot.

Rousseau developed a concept, or rather delineated two concepts, of self-love. This he did to differentiate an authentic form from one based in artifice. The terms for these are amour de soi and amour-propre. Rousseau identifies amour de soi as a kind of genuine self-love grounded in seeking practical necessities for survival. Amour-propre, by contrast, is an artificial form of ‘love’ grounded in the opinions of others. One can conceive of this latter type of ‘love’ as a ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ attitude. Rousseau critiques this latter form of self-love in his Emile and his Discourse on Inequality. His critique does go in quite a radical direction. He expands it beyond its utility as a criticism of what we can construe as bourgeois superficiality and implicates the entire concern for competitive success rather than seeing the utility in competitive success while critiquing the excesses in ornament that it can and usually does take. Thus, a moderate approach is probably best when seeking to apply Rousseau’s analysis to influencing opinions in the contemporary world.

“In reality, the difference is, that the savage lives within himself while social man lives outside himself and can only live in the opinion of others, so that he seems to receive the feeling of his own existence only from the judgement of others concerning him. It is not to my present purpose to insist on the indifference to good and evil which arises from this disposition, in spite of our many fine works on morality, or to show how, everything being reduced to appearances, there is but art and mummery in even honour, friendship, virtue, and often vice itself, of which we at length learn the secret of boasting; to show, in short, how abject we are, and never daring to ask ourselves in the midst of so much philosophy, benevolence, politeness, and of such sublime codes of morality, we have nothing to show for ourselves but a frivolous and deceitful appearance, honour without virtue, reason without wisdom, and pleasure without happiness.”

-Jean-Jacques Rousseau, from the ‘Discourse on Inequality’ (1754)

Rousseau strongly praised simple living. One can easily imagine that he would have been sympathetic toward, if not fully supportive, of modern minimalist living. Rousseau concerned himself with what corrupts virtue. This was the mindset he began with when writing his Discourse on Inequality, as well as his earlier Discourse on the Arts and Science which argued that developments in the arts and sciences have actually corrupted morality rather than improved it. One can build on this to craft a solid critique of modern consumer culture. Additionally, one can critique developments in the arts and sciences since Rousseau. The arts have moved from being a coupling of craft and creative exploration toward a bunch of narcissistic and snooty -isms and away from unified traditions found in nearly all pre-modern cultures (where the visual arts go along with the music, myths, and clothing to form a more coherent whole).The sciences have, since their academic inception, fallen victim to ideological bends — whether ‘scientific’ racism of the nineteenth century or social justice politics of the twenty-first. These critiques, however, must be balanced with an understanding that many scientific innovations are essential for human flourishing.

Rousseau was not so much a prophet of Enlightenment as was believed by many a revolutionary in 1790s Paris. Rather, he was the ultimate dissident. A critic of both the Old Regime and the prevailing orthodoxies that were developing among key Enlightenment figures like Voltaire. Rousseau may have been a secular patron saint for the French Revolution but he would not have been its cheerleader had he lived long enough to see the violence, abuses, and statism that was to emerge. In short, the French Revolution was a tragic caricature of what the Enlightenment had to offer — a caricature acting as facade for the darker elements of human nature which lurked just beneath.

Rousseau’s philosophy is not one that seeks to restore humanity to the hypothetical state of nature but one which seeks a kind of nascent form of civilization whereby people can flourish without the absurdities of cosmopolitan decadence. To look at civilizations in a Rousseavian-Aristotelian sense, one can conclude the following:


  • Mean: nascent civilization, preferably small, bottom-up, inflence of the city-state of Geneva
  • Excess: decadence, superficiality, decline and fall of empire
  • Deficiency: tribalism, lack of coherence

Rousseau’s critiques of the excesses of amour-propre and what one can call bourgeois and aristocratic decadence are insightful. His political philosophy is, unfortunately, the lowest hanging branch on his philosophic career. People may best know Rousseau for his Social Contract but this work is his most problematic. One can and should approach that work the same way one would approach Plato’s Republic — not as a blueprint for an ideal society but an exploration of a theoretical polity predicated on a deeper interest in the meaning of a particular ideal (whether justice, virtue, or something else).



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