Rousseau’s Emile — This Time I Got It

“Let him see this necessity in things, never in the caprice of men.”

I had been thinking to myself that I ought to return again to Emile.  I have twice now attempted to read it, each time getting a little farther, but never pushing past the third of five books.  It is a long work – my no-nonsense (possibly counterfeit? – there doesn’t even appear to be a publisher’s name on it – !) edition clocks in at a dense, dense 428 pages. As I’ve written about before, it’s not only long, it’s frustratingly un-structured, digressive.  It is also very, very rich – there is so much to absorb on each page.  I got quite a lot from it even in my previous two aborted readings, but I had a feeling there was still some deeper key to unlocking what was really going on that I just wasn’t grasping.  I knew that I needed to return to Emile again because there was more there.  Over the last few weeks, I did.

What got me interested in it again this summer was actually my attempt to read The Social Contract.  Last winter I’d read and written about Rousseau’s second discourse, a truly fascinating and striking critique of the natural rights perspective of Hobbes and Locke, and I thought perhaps The Social Contract would follow on that work, by describing a way of moving from the state Rousseau described toward something approaching a more fair, representative, more “natural” society.  But as I started reading The Social Contract, it felt strangely disconnected from the Discourse, almost more of a manual for political society that a direct answer to the remarkable challenges raised in the Discourse, and I began to realize that it was actually Emile that was a more direct response to the earlier questions.

Here are my thoughts from a third reading.

More Than “Natural Consequences”

Now that I’ve finally finished (or “finished” – as I’ll write about below) Emile, I can see that books 1-3 are actually Rousseau’s attempt to keep his pupil “natural” for as long as possible – to arrange Emile’s education so that he is responding only to nature and to “things” (Rousseau’s word for responding to circumstances) rather than to man, or more specifically, to men’s wills.  It’s interesting – in my previous reading of Emile, I’d been inspired to read about what I considered to be the advent of Romantic education, child-centered education, and the advent of the intentional designing of “natural consequences” into education, back in the 18th century.  But as I revisit Emile, I’m starting to realize there’s quite a bit more to it than just that.

For one thing, Rousseau is interested in much more than just “natural consequences,” something I’d highlighted in my previous writing about Emile.  Specifically, I think that often when we use “natural consequences” today in the modern sense, I do think we mean what Rousseau means in part – we want children to respond to “nature” – but we sometimes mean it with the goal of teaching children to adapt to the world as it is; our job is to prepare children for the “natural” consequences of their actions – showing up late gets you fired, not washing dishes means you won’t have plates to eat off of, and similar other lessons.  It strikes me though that although Rousseau is trying to teach this (in fact, perhaps he invented this approach in a conscious sense), he’s doing it for much deeper reasons that I missed on my previous reading of Emile.  

For another, Emile’s focus on educating according to nature is much more than just a romantic idealization of nature as pure and uncorrupted (something I also believe Rousseau basically invented in the modern era).  Nor is Rousseau’s vaunted concept of children as inherently good mean he has a simplistic utopian belief in the divinity of children, or a Christian belief in man’s fall.  Yes, he does believe something sort of akin to this – but again it’s more complex and – this is what I really enjoyed – far more specific than that.  Many romantic thinkers in education (and here I am thinking about Emerson, for instance – but also many of the “child-centered progressives” of the early 20th century, many of the “romantic critics” of the 1960s, like Jonathan Kozol, and many, many others) believe that schools kill children’s innate thirst for knowledge.  For these thinkers, there is something pure about children that is killed off by “society” in the form of formalized, compulsory schooling, and the solution is that students should be allowed to develop naturally instead, which means pursuing their own interests with minimal adult interference.  This process is seen in something of a pragmatic view by a Dewey (children only learn well when their interests are taken into account; this is the only way to really ensure learning), and something of a romantic view by many others (the notion that learning should never be painful).  But with Rousseau, both the belief in why humans are naturally “good” and the methods that need to be taken to promote this good through education are much more complex, and much deeper than straightforward romanticism.

It’s all about the difference between two key terms: amour de soi and amour de propre.

Rousseau’s Goal:  Amour de Soi vs. Amour de Propre

Amour de soi is translated in my edition as “self-love,” but that seems like an approximation at best.  The best I can define it, it seems to mean two things.  Clearly it means the desire to take care of one’s physical needs: to find food, to rest and sleep, to keep warm, to reproduce the species.  Rousseau is clear about all of these comprising amour de soi.  It’s interesting to characterize these as a form of “love,” of course, but again, that’s where I think there’s something lost in translation.  Is amour de soi just a kind of series of natural instincts, and the ability to satisfy them?  Somewhat.  Perhaps it’s right to say that it’s the ability to focus on yourself and your own needs, but not in a way that requires you to depend on or compare yourself with others in anyway.  It’s almost like having wilderness survival skills, in a sense: the ability to understand and manipulate your environment in order to take care of yourself, alone.    But it’s also clear that there’s something else attached to it: it’s a kind of self-possession and instinctive self-esteem.  For instance, Rousseau writes in book IV that once Emile begins reading about famous heroes – and particularly about their flaws – he will feel only pity for them, and only a healthy pride in his own way of life.  This seems to comprise, in some sense, amour de soi – a healthy self-regard.  It’s self-reliance, independence, survival skills, and a healthy sense of self-esteem that doesn’t rely on anyone else for a sense of self-worth.  Above all, it is – as Rousseau often reminds us in Emile – the ability for our desires not to outstrip our powers.  It’s the ability to be content with what we have, and to desire no more than we can reasonably get.

Amour de propre is a little easier to understand.  In my edition it’s translated as a “selfishness.”  It’s also vanity.  It’s a sense of self that is not based on instinctive self-worth, but on the comparison of oneself with others.  This for Rousseau is self-defeating by nature, because by definition our amour de propre is only satisfied if we believe that others prefer us to themselves, which is impossible.  As a result, amour de propre is largely self-defeating by nature.  It is the seat of all the vices of man – avarice, jealousy, arrogance, anger, everything else.  

It’s important to understand that Rousseau does not believe that all of these passions resulting from amour de propre are natural.  Many other thinkers do.  Plato, for instance, believe that these passions were naturally part of the soul – he divided the soul into reason, eros (desire), and thymos (the hunger for recognition, or spiritedness – which is basically Rousseau’s amour de propre).  Plato believed this element was natural in humans and must be checked or channeled; in The Republic he uses those humans who possess this element strongly in their souls as the city’s guardians.  But their spiritedness must be bound to the city and channeled into purposeful action via the “noble lie” and various myths that the guardians are taught in their education.  Hobbes believed this element was natural in man and wished to check it with it with fear of the central authority (the Leviathan).  Locke somewhat sidesteps the question, but does believe that this warring element in man is – if not immediately inherent – at least soon brought on by proximity, scarcity, and the attempt to steal property – and is mollified by a rational entry into a social contract, forming a civil society to protect life, liberty and property.  In this sense, he and Rousseau are somewhat allied – Rousseau’s belief (again, outlined in the second Discourse, which I’ve written about here before) is that amour de propre is only kindled by proximity and especially by private property.  To what extent this process itself – this devolution into amour de propre – is “natural” is up for debate, but regardless, Rousseau’s mission in Emile takes on new clarity in realizing that his whole goal of the book is to rear Emile to avoid amour de propre (Books I-III) and more specifically to engender such strong amour de soi that Emile will be inoculated against amour de propre when he finally enters society (Books IV-V) when Rousseau undertakes to channel amour de propre to change Emile from noble savage to integrated citizen.

This mission, then, is quite striking – and here we return to what I said before about what I appreciate about Rosseau.  Too many thinkers, in my view, are less-than-clear about their goals – both their immediate educational goals, and also about their political goals.  I am thinking here about Paulo Freire, whose apparent underlying goal of “humanization” I spent many hours of reading and many thousands of words of writing trying to puzzle out and untangle, or Henry Giroux, who never seemed clear about what he wanted.  I am thinking here of something the philosopher Susan Neiman said – if Rousseau leveled devastating critiques against liberalism, at least he spent just as much or more time trying to provide his own alternatives – both in education (Emile) and in politics (The Social Contract).  That’s what’s so refreshing about Rousseau – yes, his critique of liberalism and the Enlightenment is powerful in the Discourses (and in Emile!), but he tackles the question of “What’s the alternative / what should we do?” head-on.  

So – who is Emile, and how does Rousseau attempt to education him?

Emile Himself

Rousseau’s whole goal in educating Emile is not to keep him isolated from society for forever, but just for long enough to, as I said, innoculate him with so much natural amour de soi that he can resist the vices of amour de propre once he finally enters society as a teenager.  Everything that Rousseau does in books I-III, as I have written about previously, is designed so that, as Rousseau puts it, Emile is always responding to “things” (to nature, to necessity) rather than to “wills” (of men).  The former engenders a kind of self-reliant coping and learning – all of the cunning described by Dewey’s “responding to one’s environment” but also a resignation to circumstances beyond one’s control, while the latter engenders amour de propre – the anger that another’s will is against one.  This is all exemplified in Rousseau’s description of a baby’s tears – if an adult responds to these at a moment when a baby really needs something, the baby is looking out for its own interests and demonstrating self-love, but if the adult responds to the baby’s tears when they are out of want (rather than need) then the baby will start to try to exert power and control over the adult, and will become frustrated when the adult doesn’t respond – the well-spring of all amour de propre and selfishness, anger, and vices of all sorts.  

Clearly this is an almost impossible line to distinguish, but the tutor must do everything possible to make this evaluation all through the child’s education – everything must be created so that the child is always reacting to circumstances (“there are no cookies left”) rather than to a human will (“no, you can’t have anymore”).  Again, this engenders both a kind of self-reliance and problem-solving ability, and a feeling toward other humans that is positive – they are, like his tutor, never against him, only there to advise him and help him now and then, but largely they are incidental.  This is truly the tutor as guide-on-the-side; in fact, he doesn’t even appear to Emile as a guide because Emile is not to realize what the tutor is doing.  Instead he’s a friendly confidant and fellow traveler.  It’s also true “student centered education” – the child has complete liberty to choose and to live as he wishes – or so it seems; in fact, everything has been set up by the tutor so that the child does what he wants – but only wants what the tutor wants for him.  This is Rousseau’s concept of – what a great phrase – “a well-regulated liberty.” 

In order to keep Emile’s desires tamped down, Rousseau bans all reading during this period, because books encourage the imagination and make Emile long for what he cannot have.  Instead, the only book he is permitted is Robinson Crusoe – a good model for Emile about solitary self-reliance in nature.  Emile does learn science – he learns how to navigate home for his food by astronomy, and he learns other useful, practice sciences in this vein as well.  Again, it’s important to remember that Rousseau is not necessarily pursuing utilitarian education in this fashion in order to prepare Emile for the world (society) as it is; yes, being able to survive on one’s own once in society is key – Rousseau often talks about what we would now call “transferrable skills,” and he also suggests Emile learn carpentry to aid his self-reliance in society – but more importantly Emile’s utilitarian education is largely designed to further and deepen his amour de soi – his self-possession.  He is practicing looking after his own interests, dealing with present problems as they arise before him, not aspiring to economic prosperity.  It’s a mindset Rousseau is trying to engrain, a way of life life he is teaching Emile (the only liberated, truly free way of life) – and not just a set of marketable skills.

Entering Society

What is remarkable about Emile is that Rousseau – right from the start of the book, in fact – does not aim to keep Emile removed from society forever – only for as long as he can postpone Emile’s need for others.  Surely it’s true – and again, Rousseau admits as much early on – that Emile is not mean to be a practical treatise on education, in the style of Locke’s book.  It’s clearly a thought experiment, designed to push the thinking of anyone who reads it.  But within the context of this patent “impracticality,” I thought it was striking that Rousseau takes on what’s difficult: trying to integrate his noble savage into (corrupted) modern life.  Again, this goes back to what I appreciate about Rousseau (as opposed to many other thinkers – I mentioned Freire earlier, but let me also include the most egregious example – Henry Giroux) – he’s never afraid to show you in careful detail just what his vision entails.

So here is Emile, kept away from society for 15 years by his tutor, and wholly unaccustomed to society.  On this point, I think, he does agree with Locke, who did say that it’s better to prepare a child well ahead of time for the vices and challenges of living with other humans by building up his “immunity” (my word) – inculcating a strong sense of reason (in Locke) or self-possession (in Rousseau) that will stand the child in good stead once out among temptations.  

Up until this point, Emile is a child who is marked by his lack of desires.  He only wishes to satisfy his needs; he has not developed the capacity for “wants.” But Rousseau recognizes that by adolescence sexual desire will begin to make Emile wish to leave his secluded independence, and Rousseau, having waited as long as possible, is determined to turn this desire to his (the tutor’s) own benefits.

The techniques that Rousseau uses to bring Emile into society, to channel his new sexual feelings toward stable citizenship, marriage, and family, are interesting (it’s also key to note that unlike Aristotle, who felt friends were a critical part of the best life, Rousseau never mentions friendship in Emile; this goes along with his belief in the second Discourse that natural man was largely solitary).  Rousseau uses the techniques of pity, the introduction of books (finally), and romantic love.

Rousseau believes, like Adam Smith the A Theory of Moral Sentiments, that we naturally pity others into whose situations we can project ourselves.  Given this, Rousseau tells us that although envying others is the seed of all vice – the worst of amour propre – pitying others is not necessarily bad because it does not force us to see others as better than we are.  If we only regard others as being worse off than us, that’s a nonthreatening way to start thinking of others, says Rousseau.  In fact, it both teaches us to envy others, and to feel fortunate about ourselves.  “Pity is sweet,” he writes.  This reinforces Emile’s positive self-conception, and makes him begin to feel concern and compassion for others.  In this sense, Rousseau disagrees with Locke, who used rational self interest to bind together civil society, or Hobbes, who uses fear.  Rousseau, instead, uses compassion.  

The next step, which only apparently happens at age 18, is to introduce Emile to books other than Robinson Crusoe.  But the goal is not to expand Emile’s horizons exactly, but to make him feel pity for the famous heroes of Plutarch.  Rather than aspiring to be one of these characters, which would cause a sense of envy or inadequacy, Emile, secure in himself and in his own amour de soi, will feel pity for the flaws of mankind – and all this reading will have the added benefit of teaching him about the different types of humans (another way for forming this gradual path into society for Emile).

Is Emile a “Good” Person?

Once again, it’s worth contrasting Rousseau’s approach with Locke’s or even with Aristotle’s.  Emile, even prior to his entry into society, is not so much a good person in the sense of being virtuous (like Aristotle’s vision in the Ethics) so much as he is indifferent.  He hasn’t mastered his passions through the learning of reason (like in Locke) so much as he has never developed these passions.  As a result, it’s always hard in this book to think about Emile as an ideal person.  I kept thinking to myself, “Isn’t Rousseau raising a pretty limited simple-minded boy?”  Yes, he has self-possession – he doesn’t worry about the opinions of others, he’s not a bully or a coward, he doesn’t exploit people, and generally he doesn’t possess many of the usual human flaws.  But he doesn’t seem – at least up until he is very cannily taught to pity others – like a particularly “good” person.  Locke’s point in Some Thoughts, I think, was that children can be taught not only to obey but to understand why it’s good to be virtuous (liberality, for instance, was important for Locke).  The same receptivity for pity toward others that Rousseau waits until 15 to engage exist much earlier, Locke seems to say – perhaps ingraining it more strongly.  It surely seems reasonable, after all, to confront (without unencouraging) amour de propre and chip away at it, if not overcome it, starting at a much younger age – all while avoiding the kind of quixotic and impossible dream of avoiding civil society until one is a teenager.  This is Aristotle’s point – that moral virtue requires habit.  It’s hard not to think of Rousseau in some sense as the ultimate Over Protective Parent whose charge – having had no practice checking his vices – becomes a wild man let off the leash once he’s let loose in a society filled with temptation.  

It’s also interesting that Rousseau, like Plato, sees books as dangerous rather than inspiring for his student.  Plutarch’s heroes are dangerous because they will make him long for more than what he has.  But isn’t this the source of all noble deeds, all genius, all great attainments and achievements?  Emile is held up as being happy because he is limited in his desires, but isn’t he also limited in his scope of achievements?  If he reads the great epics and feelings nothing but pity for the heroes, isn’t he necessarily incapable of the kinds of great sacrifices, great ambitions, and great accomplishments that we want a human to be capable of?  Restraining one’s passions is one thing, but aiming low is entirely another.  Is this really the ideal student we wish to produce? 

Introduction to Relationships

But just when you think Rousseau is pitching us all on becoming small-minded simpletons, he abruptly changes course.  After introducing books (and – Rousseau is so outrageous in this book – occasionally arranging for Emile to get taken advantage of by “strangers” in order to remind him that he is not immune to hardship – !!), and introducing Emile to hunting as a distraction from thinking about sex (!!), Rousseau has his tutor give “the talk” to Emile – and immediately the tutor begins the process of sublimation of sexual desire: building up the forbidden fruit of intercourse as a thing much more grand, noble, idealized, and aspirational than merely bodily need:  Love.  Now Rousseau actually *is* asking Emile to dream big – this is the first time he introduces any mythology, wonder, or longing into an otherwise fairly simple and literal young man.  Rousseau even goes so far as to invent an ideal girl, Sophy, who the tutor tells Emile is out there somewhere, waiting to be found.  This section is very Platonic – in the sense that it resembles outwardly Aristophanes’s famous mythological vision of love as searching for one’s other half in Plato’s “Symposium.” This, Rousseau tells us, ever attuned to the temptations of the flesh, in the short term will distract Emile from wishing to pursue casual sex and give in to temptation; it will “repress his senses by means of his imagination” (284).  In the long term, it will avert all temptations of amour de propre and bind him to society as a husband and father.

Meanwhile, Emile enters society, where Rousseau tells us that he is seen as something of a lovable eccentric: “not just like everybody else” and perceived as “an agreeable foreigner” (293).  Rousseau writes, “At first his peculiarities will be excused with the phrase, ‘He will learn.’ After a time people will get used to his ways, and seeing that he does not change they will still make excuses for him and say, ‘He is made that way’” (293).  He is simple, but everyone likes and respects him, he is discriminating, and above all, common sensical.  Others appeal to him as a judge; he clearly has self-possession and independence, and a kind of natural, innate goodness.

There is an immense (ten page) digression into Rousseau’s own views on the good life.  It is – like all of these lengthy digressions in Emile – immensely rich, almost too rich – every page has something interesting and profound, and you either have to start skimming it, or you’re going to be thinking deeply about each paragraph and spending months of your life trying to finish the book.  Rousseau’s whole issue with bourgeoise society (though it’s not clear to me that he uses that term in the book) is that it creates artificial desires that are ultimately unsatisfying and self-defeating – desires which Emile, because of his grounding in natural, negative education, will smartly avoid.

By the fifth book, Emile itself has turned into a picaresque, a novel, really, taking us along on Rousseau’s (the tutor’s) travels with Emile to meet Sophy.  It’s refreshing after so much digression, so much formlessness, to be following a plot, and Rousseau is very good at telling the narrative.  The book really gains power as Rousseau brilliantly describes the “accidental” meeting of Sophy at her parents’ house one night.  It’s a wonderful scene – he writes of the immediate and escalating romantic tension between Emile and Sophy, with a power for description of such moments.  It reminds me of similar scenes between Levin, the protagonist of Anna Karenina, and his future wife in Tolstoy’s masterpiece.

Eventually, Rousseau makes Emile leave for several years, ostensibly to locate an ideal farm on which to live with his future with, but really to encourage him to study political science through real world observation, and there are many interesting observations of Rousseau’s own (much of it sounding like something of a dry run of The Social Contract).  Again, very, very digressive, but very, very rich.

Toward the end of the book, Emile finally returns to marry Sophy, and pronounces something of a verdict on / thank you for his own education to his tutor, and it’s all surprisingly moving.  The final book – in becoming less of a manual / thought experiment and more of a story – really brings home the meaningful bond between Emile and his tutor – and even between the tutor and Sophy herself.  It’s a very moving portrait of a teacher-student relationship – really more of a father-son bond, and the humanity that infuses the novelistic final book really brings Emile to a whole different level of meaning for me.  Emile has moved from being a somewhat solitary, self-possessed boy to a fully socially integrated young man, about to marry, and on a footing of equality now with his tutor, for whom he is immensely thankful.  The whole passage reminded me somewhat of Locke’s advice that a father should begin to treat his son like a man at a certain point, and pull him into his own affairs.  It’s a moving ending to a fascinating book.

I’ll be honest: Even though I was really only attempting to complete Books III-V this time (having read Books I-II several times already), I still skimmed a lot, and it still took me a long time to finish.  There is just so much in Emile – it’s too rich, too much, too formless, too complex.  I even skipped the famous Savoyard Priest section in Book IV – the provocative digression about religion that was the reason Emile was banned upon publication in some places.  But . . . it’s 49 pages and feels like a major digression.  There were a lot of these in the book.  Sophy was introduced at one point early in Book V and then doesn’t reappear for 30 pages.  The same thing happens over and over again with poor Emile.  You want to stick with him and with the tutor’s plan for him, but then Rousseau interjects with paragraph after paragraph and page after page of amazingly interesting but only tangentially related thoughts.  And as I noted in previous posts, each paragraph seems to start with some brilliant aphorism – Rousseau is one of the most gifted aphorism writers of all-time, clearly – but it makes it as though every single paragraph is kicking off some grand, new idea – totally unrelated to the one before.

Again, there is so much that I just didn’t get to.  I know, for instance, that I have not touched on – and frankly skimmed over while reading – the other most controversial aspect of Emile (along with the Savoyard Priest) – Rousseau’s much debated and much critiqued ideas about the education of women in Book V, when he describes Sophy’s education and social position.  But there is just too much in this book – I just couldn’t get to (figurative and quite literally) all of it.  I was listening to a podcast about Rousseau recently and the host asked, “Has anyone actually read all of Emile?”


I was reading an article the other day about fatherhood, and in it the author described how many fathers do not commit to making “parent” a major part of their identity.  I found this notion incomprehensible, of course, but I could tell from what he was saying that it is a pervasive attitude among many men he’d interviewed.  He said – I am paraphrasing –  “Seeing yourself as a father for your children – not just a provider – is not only important in their development, but it is meaningful and rewarding in its own rite.” Once again, even though this is something that seems foreign to me, this author seemed to be speaking of the real attitudes of many real men.  My first thought when I was reading this was of the Emile, and what a moving ending it has in its depiction of the tutor-student relationship.  It’s worth noting of course that the tutor is not Emile’s real father, but over the course of the book he surely becomes a father-figure, and his comprehensive long-term planning for Emile’s development is depicted in the final book as a process not only in playing out a theory, but as a pursuit deeply rewarding in itself.

Rousseau was very good here – really taking the long view.  He doesn’t just stop with education of a young child, and he doesn’t just stop with removing a child from society.  He takes on such a tremendous amount, but it’s all spelled out, and it’s all animated by (once you learn to understand his system) on a clear philosophy, and admirably clear social, personal, and political goals.  Is it perfectly realistic, in the sense that Locke’s book is realistic?  Surely not – but Rousseau is even clear about that right from the intro: this book is a thought experiment designed to challenge your thinking, not a practical manual on how to raise a specific child.  

I think often in education about the different visions of what the ideal person really is, because in the end, that’s the goal of education.  I think of Locke’s industrious citizen who mixes labor with the fruits of the earth to create prosperity.  I think of Plato’s philosopher king, dragged out of the cave of convention and up toward the light of the truth.  I think of Freire’s Liberatory Man (as I call it), a kind of communist / Christian Socrates, leading the people to revolt against their oppressors by speaking “The Word” and to enact a kingdom of God / classless society in which one loves one’s enemy / former oppressor.  I think about Aristotle’s virtuous man who has maximized every natural endowment that humans possess to the highest degree: a person morally and intellectually excellent.  Then Dewey’s Democratic Citizen, the ultimate pragmatist – always active and searching for the best solutions to pressing social problems, working in groups, collaborative, un-dogmatic, experimentalist, always pushing forward, learning by experience.  Or Jefferson’s vision of “Republican machines” – informed democratic citizens who believed deeply in the cause of democracy.  The virtuous person, the pious person, the dutiful citizen, the tolerant man — there are so many competing visions throughout history.

To these compelling ideals I now add Rousseau’s Noble Savage-Made-Citizen, his vision of the good man as a kind of agreeable foreigner, a truly natural man-become-lover-then-husband-and-father.  It’s surely one that will stick with me for a long time in its power and originality and its influence on so much of our thought about education since.