What Would Rousseau Make of Our Selfish Age?
Few thinkers have left their fingerprints on the modern age as indelibly as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the tricentenary of whose birth we celebrate on Thursday (28 June).. He was a philosopher who helped shape the destiny of nations, which is more than can be said for Pythagoras or AC Grayling. He was also a political visionary of stunning originality, a potent influence on the French revolution and a source of inspiration for the Romantics. Those who like their fiction drenched in lofty moral sentiment can also claim him as a great novelist.
Much of what one might call the modern sensibility was this thinker’s creation. It is in Rousseau’s writing above all that history begins to turn from upper-class honour to middle-class humanitarianism. Pity, sympathy and compassion lie at the centre of his moral vision. Values associated with the feminine begin to infiltrate social existence as a whole, rather than being confined to the domestic sphere. Gentlemen begin to weep in public, while children are viewed as human beings in their own right rather than defective adults.