On the Happiness of the Philosophic Life: Reflections on Rousseau's Rêveries in Two Books

On the Happiness of the Philosophic Life: Reflections on Rousseau's Rêveries in Two Books

by Heinrich Meier, Robert Berman

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On the Happiness of the Philosophic Life presents Heinrich Meier’s confrontation with Rousseau’s Rêveries, the philosopher’s most beautiful and daring work, as well as his last and least understood. Bringing to bear more than thirty years of study of Rousseau, Meier unfolds his stunningly original interpretation in two parts. 
The first part of On the Happiness of the Philosophic Life approaches the Rêveries not as another autobiographical text in the tradition of the Confessions and the Dialogues, but as a reflection on the philosophic life and the distinctive happiness it provides. The second turns to a detailed analysis of a work referred to in the Rêveries, the “Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar,” which triggered Rousseau’s political persecution when it was originally published as part of Émile.  In his examination of this most controversial of Rousseau’s writings, which aims to lay the foundations for a successful nonphilosophic life, Meier brings to light the differences between natural religion as expressed by the Vicar and Rousseau’s natural theology. Together, the two reciprocally illuminating parts of this study provide an indispensable guide to Rousseau and to the understanding of the nature of the philosophic life.

“[A] dense but precise and enthralling analysis.”—New Yorker

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226074177
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/01/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 400
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Heinrich Meier is director of the Carl Friedrich von Siemens Foundation in Munich, professor of philosophy at the University of Munich, and permanent visiting professor in the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. He is the author of eight books, including Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss and The Lesson of Carl Schmitt. Robert Berman is professor of philosophy at Xavier University of Louisiana.

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On the Happiness of the Philosophic Life

Reflections on Rousseau's Rêveries in Two Books

By Heinrich Meier, Robert Berman

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-07417-7


The Philosopher among Nonphilosophers

Les rêveries du Promeneur Solitaire always seemed to me to be the most beautiful and the most daring of Rousseau's books. Their beauty and their daring areintimately connected with one another, without being equally conspicuous, or precisely because they are not. The charm of the poetry, the lightness of the style, the interweaving of urgency and reticence, the shift from deeply touching passages to seemingly casual remarks, the interplay of motion and rest, the power of the language and the art of silence, which give the book its own tone, its unmistakable face, its special character, have earned it readers in large numbers, even from the most remote regions and across time. The literary rank of the Rêveries is beyond question. Their splendor outshines whatever is in question in them and pushes it into the background.

"I am thus now alone on earth, no longer having any brother, any neighbor, any friend, any society but myself." Thus reads the thought-provoking start of the book. Do we hear the voice of a man who, with an opening that is unforgettable, wants to draw attention to the wretchedness of his fate? Or does a philosopher speak who with the first sentence identifies the starting point of an enterprise that distinguishes itself from everything he has begun up to that point, if not in society then nevertheless for society? Does the author from the very beginning pursue the intention of moving his readers to think for themselves? Or does he ask straight out for their pity? In other words: this work, whose alpha and omega is solitude, to whom is it directed and to what end was it written?

The Rêveries have in common with all of Rousseau's other books that the path to their understanding leads through an understanding of their rhetoric. And they are distinguished from all the others in that they have remained Rousseau's least understood book. What Rousseau said in a famous passage from the Confessions about the Discours sur l'inégalité nearly twenty years after its publication could be asserted with almost as much right about the Rêveries two hundred twenty years after their posthumous publication: We are dealing with a book that "in all of Europe found only very few readers who understood it, and none among them who wanted to talk about it." If, in a no less famous sentence from the Confessions, Rousseau characterized the Discours sur l'inégalité as that writing in which his principles "are made manifest with the greatest boldness, not to say audacity," then it must be added to this judgment, regarding the work Rousseau died writing, that the audacity of the Discours is surpassed only by that of the Rêveries. For in the Rêveries not only does Rousseau reaffirm at the end of his life the philosophical principles he expounded in the Discours "for a very small number of readers," but in contrast to a quarter-century earlier, he makes the philosopher himself the central object and has the contours of his existence stand out with astonishing sharpness, not to say shocking clarity. Yet just as the true boldness of the Discours is not evident, the daring of the Rêveries does not spring immediately into view. The inverse relation that exists in both cases between the philosophic audacity and the general understanding of the work has its basis in the special art of writing Rousseau employs and thus in the intention that is determinative for it.

That his most daring books are at the same time those most difficult to gain access to, that the different manner of addressing unequal addressees who are given different things to understand plays an outstanding role in them, and that the prohibitive potential of a deliberately employed rhetoric comes into effect thereby to a high degree, cannot be surprising; on the contrary, it is to be expected from an author who from the beginning of his public effectiveness never tires of warning of the corrupting influence of the sciences and the arts on the virtue of the citizens and on the well-ordered political community, who like no other in the century of the Enlightenment opposes the opinion that it is necessary, possible, or even indeed desirable to make philosophy popular, who agrees with political philosophers before and after him that by its nature philosophy is threatening to society, that the truth is dangerous, and that the distinction between philosophers and nonphilosophers is insuperable because men are by nature unequal. All the important determinations that demand our attention if we want to understand Rousseau's rhetoric adequately — its prohibitive function and its pedagogical eros, the distinction between addressees, the author's intention, and the philosopher's self-understanding — are already brought together and expressed emblematically in the frontispiece that Rousseau chose in 1750 for the first edition of the Discours sur les sciences et les arts. The etching for the prize essay, whose "paradoxes" made Rousseau famous overnight throughout Europe, shows, in the picture's upper left half, Prometheus descending from a cloud with a torch in his right hand; in the middle of the picture a human figure can be seen on a stone pedestal, his face turned toward Prometheus: a naked youth in a receptive posture, on whose shoulder Prometheus encouragingly lays his left hand; from the other side, lower than both of the other figures, a satyr approaches impetuously with an arm extended upward. The caption under the illustration, "Satyre, tu ne le connois pas. Voy. note pag. 31," refers the reader to a Note Rousseau added to the first sentence of the second part of the Discours: "It was an ancient tradition, passed from Egypt to Greece, that a god who was hostile to the tranquillity of men was the inventor of the sciences." The Note to this reads: "The allegory in the fable of Prometheus is easily seen; and it does not seem that the Greeks who riveted him to Mount Kaukasos thought any more favorably of him than did the Egyptians of their god Theuth. 'The satyr,' an ancient fable relates, 'wanted to kiss and embrace fire the first time he saw it; but Prometheus cried out to him: Satyr, you will mourn the beard on your chin, for fire burns when one touches it.' This is the subject of the frontispiece." What does it have to do with the "ancienne tradition" that Rousseau recalls at the outset of the second part? At first glance it is appealed to as a witness for the prosecution against the sciences and philosophy, just as the clarifying Note seems to bring the authority of the Greeks to bear against Prometheus. But a God who is hostile to the tranquillity of men need not be an enemy of men. What if, on closer inspection, he turned out to be a friend? And what should we think of the power of judgment, of the opinion of the Greeks who chained Prometheus to Mount Kaukasos? How does what we hear in the first part of the Note look in light of the second part, which shows us Prometheus as a benefactor? Attentive readers will be able to consider these and similar questions and to answer them for themselves. Moreover, some may be familiar with the "ancienne fable" to which Rousseau refers in the Note, or may look up the precise wording in Plutarch in order to ascertain that the quotation from Amyot's translation of the Moralia, completed with the aid of the source, confirms the result that an intelligent reading of Rousseau's text suggests: After Prometheus has warned about fire, he continues: "for it burns when one touches it, but it gives light and warmth and is an instrument that serves all crafts, assuming that one knows how to use it properly." The unintelligent reader, to whom an unidentified voice calls in the frontispiece: "Satyr, you are not familiar with it, you do not know it, you do not understand it," not only is unfamiliar with the dangers of "fire" but also does not know anything of its beneficial and gladsome possibilities.

Who approaches us in the figure of the satyr? Whom does the youth represent, for whom the torchbearer intended the fire? And who or what is the divine being that towers above both and that turns toward both, to each in a different way? According to Rousseau's own interpretation of the allegory, which he offers to a critic in 1752 on the last page of his last public response in the long controversy surrounding the Discours sur les sciences et les arts, the torch of Prometheus symbolizes the torch of the sciences, which is made to inspire the great geniuses; the satyr who runs to embrace the fire represents the common men who, seduced by the splendor of literature and the sciences, give themselves over immoderately to study; but the god who warns the hommes vulgaires of the danger — and who, nota bene, holds the torch in his hands for the grands génies — is none other than Rousseau himself. Rousseau's interpretation of the frontispiece makes it clear beyond all doubt that he does not adopt the judgment of "the Greeks" and "the Egyptians" about the God and that he by no means speaks as an "homme vulgaire" about the sciences and philosophy, even if at the end of the Discours he expressly counts himself among the "vulgar men" — immediately after he has declared philosophy to be the privilege of the few who feel the strength to walk in the footsteps of the "great geniuses," alone and without any assistance, who think themselves capable of emulating a Bacon, Descartes, or Newton in order to get beyond them. The youth whom the frontispiece shows in the center of the picture and whom Rousseau does not refer to by name in his interpretation represents the "small number" of future, potential philosophers, those readers of the Discours for whom the allegory does not need to be authoritatively interpreted, because they know how to think and to interpret for themselves, because they, relying on themselves, "know how to understand."

The key role that falls to the frontispiece of the Discours sur les sciences et les arts for the proper understanding of Rousseau's rhetoric is underscored by the genealogical connection that the pertinent passage in the Discours draws between the Gods of science and of writing, between Prometheus and Theuth and, by means of them, between Rousseau and Plato. The reference to Theuth refers the "lecteur attentif" to the Phaedrus, thus to the Platonic dialogue that, like no other, confronts the question of which rhetoric philosophy needs and which it is capable of. Socrates introduces the legend of Theuth as the bringer of geometry, astronomy, and other sciences, but especially as the inventor of writing, in the context of the criticism that he makes in his speech about writing in philosophy. Just as Plato saw himself as in a position to fix in writing the objections he has Socrates raise in the Phaedrus against speeches fixed in writing — that they are available everywhere and accessible to everyone, both to those who know how to understand them and to those for whom they are not suited; that they are not capable of distinguishing between those to whom they should and those to whom they should not speak; that they are not able to protect themselves and help themselves with reasons, but rather remain dependent on the assistance of their author — just as Plato was in a position to raise these and other objections to written speeches in order to take account of those objections in precisely that dialogue in which they are raised and to accord with the Socratic requirements of philosophical speech in the medium of writing, likewise Rousseau sees himself as in a position in the Premier Discours and the works that follow it to do justice to the arguments that the Discours raises against the sciences and philosophy and by means of the art of careful writing to satisfy the Socratic standard of philosophical speech, which knows to whom it should and to whom it should not speak.

In the case of the Discours sur l'origine et les fondemens de l'inégalité parmi les hommes, Rousseau's art sees to it that the philosophic audacity of the book is integrated in an extremely elaborate rhetoric. More than in any other of Rousseau's writings, rhetorical elements determine its face. The distinction between the "judges" of and the "listeners" to the discourse is to be mentioned here, as are the diverse "discours dans le Discours," the discourses that Rousseau brings into play in the course of the argumentation and that help his discourse become a masterfully conducted polyphony and give it a modulated resonance. In no other book of Rousseau's do the interlocking of and the shift to and fro between the level of philosophic analysis and the level of polemical presentation play a similar role. None possesses a politico-philosophic topography comparable in significance to that of the Discours sur l'inégalité, which was written in France, dated from Savoyard Chambéry and published in Amsterdam, formally dedicated to the Republic of Geneva, but "presented" in the "Lyceum of Athens" to philosophers and from there brought to the ears of the "human race." None has such a complex outer form, such a multifaceted structure, whereby all the individual parts out of which the Discours is composed are tightly woven into the rhetoric of the writing as a whole and therein receive their respective, special function: beginning with the frontispiece Rousseau chose for the book, via the title, the motto, the dedication, the preface, the notice on the Notes, the question of the Academy of Dijon, which precedes the "real" discourse, via the exordium, the first part and second part, down to the nineteen quite peculiarly numbered Notes, which make up not less than a third of the entire text. The writing in which Rousseau discloses the principles of his philosophy with the greatest boldness during his lifetime is simultaneously his most rhetorical writing.

But what are we to expect in the case of the Rêveries, if even the boldness of the Discours sur l'inégalité is surpassed by the daring of the Rêveries? What protection and what assistance was Rousseau able to give his last book? Was it possible to outdo the rhetoric of his most rhetorical publication? The Rêveries do not seem to have any complex outer form. At least they lack a multifaceted structure. No frontispiece and no motto, no dedication, no preface, and no Notes. Nothing but ten "walks" and a laconic title. Nor do they have a significant politico-philosophic topography. The places that show up in the Rêveries take on significance solely because Rousseau frequents them and associates them with his life. Finally, the distinction between "judges" and "listeners," which is of such importance in the rhetoric of the Discours, does not come into play in the Rêveries, since Rousseau, if we take him at his word, speaks to no one, turns toward no one, and writes for no one — except to, toward, and for himself. In the Rêveries Rousseau does not exceed the rhetoric of the Discours sur l'inégalité by increasing its complexity, by achieving a refinement of the coordination or an increase in the tension among all the structure's components, for instance, through the introduction of further stylistic elements, additional discursive figures, or new levels of argumentation. Instead, he does an about-face. He takes the path of simplification and reduction. He chooses the rhetoric of an absolute sincerity that does not seem concerned with any addressee and of an immediate transparency that appears not to be motivated by any intention regarding others. The principle of the rhetoric that Rousseau employs in the Rêveries reads: The author and his reader are one. It is the principle of a rhetoric that pretends to get by without any rhetoric, to renounce all rhetoric, to be beyond all rhetoric.


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Table of Contents

Contents Preface Preface to the American Edition Note on Citations Translator’s Note and Acknowledgments First Book I. The Philosopher among Nonphilosophers II. Faith III. Nature IV. Beisichselbstsein V. Politics VI. Love VII. Self-Knowledge Second Book Rousseau and the Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar Name Index

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