Abandoned to Ourselves: Being an Essay on the Emergence and Implications of Sociology in the Writings of Mr. Jean-Jacques Rousseau...

Abandoned to Ourselves: Being an Essay on the Emergence and Implications of Sociology in the Writings of Mr. Jean-Jacques Rousseau...

by Peter Alexander Meyers

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In this extraordinary work, Peter Alexander Meyers shows how the centerpiece of the Enlightenment—society as the symbol of collective human life and as the fundamental domain of human practice—was primarily composed and animated by its most ambivalent figure: Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Displaying this new society as an evolving field of


In this extraordinary work, Peter Alexander Meyers shows how the centerpiece of the Enlightenment—society as the symbol of collective human life and as the fundamental domain of human practice—was primarily composed and animated by its most ambivalent figure: Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Displaying this new society as an evolving field of interdependence, Abandoned to Ourselves traces the emergence and moral significance of dependence itself within Rousseau’s encounters with a variety of discourses of order, including theology, natural philosophy, and music. Underpinning this whole scene we discover a modernizing conception of the human Will, one that runs far deeper than Rousseau’s most famous trope, the “general Will.” As Abandoned to Ourselves weaves together historical acuity with theoretical insight, readers will find here elements for a reconstructed sociology inclusive of things and persons and, as a consequence, a new foundation for contemporary political theory.

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Yale University Press
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Abandoned to Ourselves



Copyright © 2013 Peter Alexander Meyers
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-17205-8


"Le Tout Est Bien?"

From its origins in the Scottish Enlightenment through developments in France and Germany, the "classical" tradition of social theory adopted Jean-Jacques Rousseau as one of its figureheads. It was, no doubt, a love-hate relationship. But Rousseau made apparent for many a new and general object for inquiry: society.

The ideas Rousseau began to publish around the 1750s came as a sort of revelation and a prod for his own and then for successive generations of thinkers. It is exactly correct to say that "the Enlightenment invented society as symbolic representation of collective human existence and instituted it as the essential domain of human practice" as long as we add that the enduring "conceptual grid within which the discussion of the social" operated—along axes like needs/Will, contract/constraint, nature/artifice, religion/society—was primarily composed and animated by Rousseau.

Over the subsequent two centuries, the sense that society is an autonomous force in our experience gained traction. The first reason for this was empirical. Practices—big and small, momentary and sustained, local and extensive—of which society is said to be composed expanded exponentially and reached deeper into everyday life. A growing number of effects that touch the lives of most human beings could no longer convincingly be traced back to specific persons, to nature, or to God. The sustained influence of Rousseau's writings derives from the way he attributed significance to such changes in our "life-world" and the meaning they have for us.

Rousseau is known today primarily as a provocative theorist of two major topics of modern political thinking: liberty and equality. Both of these topics, and Rousseau's contribution to them, have been debated in depth and at length. While it is not my central purpose here to enter these debates, it is worth recalling that Rousseau saw human freedom as essentially a collective, rather than an individual, problem. That is, he revived an ancient political conception of human being. However, he accomplished this revival within an emerging climate of modern individualism which—one has good reason to suppose—should have been fatal to the ancient view. This required substantial innovation, some of which we shall consider below.

The topic of human freedom frames many of Rousseau's most important innovations. I want to begin by focusing on one of these. It is, I believe, the point from which Rousseau's influence on subsequent social thought most clearly arises.

In a world intractably full of evil, Rousseau asked "Where does evil come from and how can we moderate its effects?" This question of theodicy had been owned almost exclusively by theologians since Plato. In an especially striking manner, Rousseau brought it to the center of an ethically-charged inquiry into politics and attributed new significance to it. For, unlike the vast majority of his European predecessors who entered upon this terrain, Rousseau did not directly adopt the theological topography of Saint Augustine. The Biblical story of the "original sin," of the Fall and its consequences, shaped Rousseau's anthropological narrative in complex new ways. As he attempted to identify the source of evil and the resources for its resolution, the primary distinction that had structured much of Christian thought—distinguishing between a "city of God" and a "city of Man"—receded into the background.

The word "evil"—which I will use to translate the less specifically charged French word mal or (plural) maux—tends to evoke a narrowly theological register. The discursive context in which Rousseau was entangled inevitably amplifies this effect. Yet, as we shall see, it is precisely in the zone of uncertainty between the theological and the secular, between the relation of a Protestant conscience to God and the social relationships entertained among persons, that Rousseau operates. This ambiguity is a vehicle for his innovations, and we should be acutely aware of it from the beginning.

Rousseau's Émile, ou De l'éducation (1762) will be the primary terrain for exploration in what follows. Open its first pages and find this striking phrase:

Everything is good leaving the hands of the author of things: everything degenerates in the hands of Man.

Translation here veils something important in the French, which goes this way:

Tout est bien, sortant des mains de l'auteur des choses: tout dégénére entre les mains de l'homme. (OC IV.245)

This is without doubt a play on one of the most famous lines from one of the most famous poems of the generation of Rousseau's own youth. Challenging theological skepticism, Alexander Pope published in his Essay on Man (1733) the provocative claim that

    All nature is but art, unknown to thee
    All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
    All discord, harmony, not understood;
    All partial evil, universal good:
    And, spite of pride, in erring reason's spite,
    One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.

This final line reappeared in French three years later in the widely read translation of Etienne Silhouette as "Cette vérité est évidente: que tout ce qui est, est bien." In this eccentric formula a Panglossian vision of Providence was sustained in the French philosophical discourse of Rousseau's time. It seems inevitable, therefore, that Pope's commonplace would suffer collateral damage when the author of the Discours sur l'origine et les fondemens de l'inégalité parmi les hommes (1755) laid literary siege to "everything that is [tout ce qui est]." Rousseau understood perfectly how the question of theodicy would resurface at the very center of his social critique.

When Rousseau was attacked the next year in the Mercure de France by his fellow Genevan Charles Bonnet, he provided what may be the pithiest summary of the accomplishment of his prize-winning Discours sur ... l'inégalité and he placed it in just this socio-theological perspective: "Faced with the enumeration of the evils which befall mankind and which I claim to be the work of their very own hands, you assure me, Leibniz and you, that everything is good [tout est bien], and that therefore Providence is justified" (OC II.232).

Barely months later the infamous earthquake of 1756 laid Lisbon low and shook the faith of believers across Europe. Voltaire shouted down the "the deluded philosophers who cry out 'all is well' [tout est bien]" in a Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne. Rousseau took this as an opportunity to state again the view he opposed, but opposed in a manner distinct from Voltaire: "Pope and Leibniz tell me 'Man, hold steady; the evils that strike you are a necessary effect of your nature, and of the constitution of this universe. If the eternal Being didn't do better, it's because he couldn't do better.'" This paraphrase reflects Rousseau's reticence—more from authorial pride than from intellectual humility—to propose unadorned commonplaces to the greatest literary figure of his age. With Bonnet he had no such compunction, to whom he simply writes that "according to Leibniz and Pope, everything that is, is good [tout ce qui est, est bien]." Rousseau's eloquence is regrouped in the next phrase, where he adds that "it is neither to Leibniz nor to Pope that I have to respond ..." This is the gesture of a schoolmaster, at once exposing and exploiting tout ce qui est, est bien as a commonplace. All the while, of course, he continues the debate with Leibniz and Pope.

It is striking that Rousseau believed, or wanted his reader to believe, that these two authors spoke to him with a single voice. This was exactly the voice that Rousseau mocked as he set out to write the pointed beginning of the final version of Émile. One must be careful, he chides Voltaire further, to distinguish between "mal particulier" and "mal général."

... instead of "everything is good," it could perhaps be better to say: "the whole is good," or "everything is good for the whole."

Just behind this metonymic reduction lie Rousseau's primary efforts to isolate the individual—he will evoke the metaphor of Nature for this—and identify the social—he will invoke the metaphors of contractus and pactum for this. Already the image Rousseau opposes to Pope and Voltaire has, like all topics of part-and-whole, a spatial quality. He extends this image by displaying the significance of the maxim tout ce qui est, est bien as a function of time as well. This conjunction of time and space is what will join a vision of order and society to the question of theodicy. Yes, Rousseau tells us, perhaps it can be said that up to the moment when things leave the hands of God "tout est bien." At that decisive threshold, however, the condition of our existence, our world, begins to degenerate. It becomes utterly human.


"The Island of the Human Race"

This is where the study of the development of humanity begins. Across the portal of his book Rousseau, as if in emulation of Dante, plasters a declaration alerting readers that they enter here a new and uncharted domain where our human lives have "left the hands of the author of things" (OC IV.245). In this realm—société—evil is our "own creation." It is something we have made and we must own. It cannot be laid at the doorstep of God or Nature, or of the "Laws of Nature and of Nature's God."

Nor, Rousseau insists, does evil arise in the individual as such. It is, rather, a product distinctively social, a quality that appears only in the "homme social" and his condition ("état"). "The island of the human race is the earth" (OC IV.429) and, like Robinson Crusoe on his island, we must collectively make our way with what is at hand. We must become "sovereign of the world like Robinson on his island" (OC III.354).

What sense does it make to represent the study of society with the most famous trope of modern individualism? I think Rousseau is both blunt and subtle on this point.

Later in Émile, Rousseau will tell us "I hate books," but that the first reading for the child in his educational program should be Daniel Defoe's fantastically famous book. It is, as Charles Dickens noted, a kind of science, and, as Harold Bloom suggests, "a book that cannot fail with children." And, indeed, in Rousseau's scheme "the child's entire library will consist of Robinson Crusoe alone for quite some time."

It is obvious that everyone who encounters the ink-and-paper Defoe will be unlike Crusoe, who is "on his island, alone, deprived of the assistance of his kind and of the instruments of all the arts or crafts, yet looking after his subsistence, his own preservation, and even obtaining a kind of well-being" (OC IV.455). With Defoe in hand, the reader brings before his or her own imagination "the desert island that serves first and foremost as comparison." While this isolation is not the condition of human beings in society and, obviously, it must be nothing like the situation of the young Émile,

... it is with respect to this condition that he must assess all others. The most certain manner to raise oneself above prejudices and to order one's judgements concerning the real relations amongst things is to put oneself in the place of an isolated man, and to judge everything as that man himself must judge, particularly attentive to his own utility.

Precisely because the "island" represents a condition having little or nothing to do with our real social existence, it can, placed conceptually within a framework of radical contrasts, provide a measure by which to evaluate life in society.

Establishing this distance between "island" and "society," and suggesting its analytic utility, Rousseau brings forward a second and extraordinarily subtle deployment of Defoe's figure. To write that "the island of the human race is the earth [la terre]" is to locate as unitary and entire the object Rousseau proposes to study—mankind in society. This is "le tout" he recommends to Voltaire, with and against Pope. It is an object both figurative and, like an island, utterly material, for something literal in all metaphors must bring to life what is fantastic about them.

What is la terre? Notes Rousseau made for a "Course in Geography" propose "description of the earth" in ways both familiar and surprising: there is a "cosmographique" side to his description that deals with physical features, but also a "historique" side that considers "government, forces, religion, and mores [le gouvernement, les forces, la réligion, et les moeurs]." The "terrestial globe" is distinct from the "celestial" but must be studied "in relation to the heavens" (OC V.535). The hint of old theodicy is present, but Rousseau also places mankind squarely on the island of the earth, and his approach, here through géographie, literally writing-the-world, is like a sailor to an uncharted place. He follows—in image and in text—the only unequivocal sign that heaven provides: the stars. Thus, the fragmentary "Course in Geography" is punctuated by "the names of the constellations and planets set in Latin verse." Just after this moment of hesitation, an ephemeral chapter "Of the Sphere" ["De la sphére"] opens. Then the course trails off.

Rousseau's caesura again echoes Dante, as "we come out to traverse apace the vast expanse of the heavens." Even if the earth, in its celestial surroundings, "is only a point [n'est qu'un point]," it is also a "theater of disputes, and of the ambition of mankind."

Rousseau pushes on. He tries his hand at a Traité de sphére ["Treatise of the Sphere"], adopting an old theological genre primarily associated with Johannes de Sacrobosco, whose book De Sphaera from the year 1230 passed through 295 print editions before the end of the seventeenth century and gave birth to a large number of imitations. One version by Nicolas Malezieulx (Paris, 1679) under the title Nouveau Traite de la sphere states on its first page the traditional purpose of such books: "Taken literally, the word Sphere means 'a ball,' but here we understand by 'Sphere' a figure composed of several circles, which serves to explain the movement of stars, the sun, the moon & other planets, and which represents the order and situation of the principal parts of the universe." In Rousseau's hands, however, the Sphére is brought down to earth. His treatment is inflected in a way that resonates with another hugely successful contemporary work, Buffon's discourse on the Histoire et théorie de la terre from 1749, where "it is not a question of the figure of the earth, nor its movement, nor the exterior relations it can have with the other parts of the universe; it is its interior constitution, its form and matter, that we propose to investigate." In a clear rejection of the tradition of Sacrobosco, the earth alone becomes the object in Rousseau's Traité de sphére. However, his study of la terre is also radically different from his friend Buffon's. It is configured, astonishingly, as a general method for learning to think and act, for the study of plural men in diverse times and places, and "in the contrasts," he adds, "we will learn to extricate man from his mask."

This is how Rousseau makes the island of mankind reappear in a very different light. He interrupts our desire to interpret it as a sign of nature, a topos of the primitive or timeless. Nor is isolation, here, solitude, that unhappy life of constrained communication which Rousseau, however much he lived it, certainly did not want or recommend to the rest of humanity. And if the island amplifies the image of a "state of nature" as contrasting critical hypothesis to our social estate, it also pushes in the opposite direction. It depicts absolutely clear boundaries around the human enterprise; it envisions, in the language of De Sphaera, a "circle" with no beyond. And "Man is king of the earth."

Within that sphere, distinct spatial possibilities and material conditions come into focus. Only the "island of the human race" can tell us all we must and all we can know about the composition of relations among ourselves, of société. As if to underscore the point, Rousseau suggests that it is "at least very plausible that society and languages were born on islands" (OC III.169). Such are the elements, the only elements, from which to conceive the civitas terrena, the ancient cité, or the modern république.

Excerpted from Abandoned to Ourselves by PETER ALEXANDER MEYERS. Copyright © 2013 Peter Alexander Meyers. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Peter Alexander Meyers is professor of American studies at the Université Paris III—Sorbonne Nouvelle, and a recurring visitor in the departments of Politics, Philosophy, History, and Sociology at Princeton University.

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