Rousseau's Solitary Walker

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1788) is one of the more original thinks of Enlightenment France, associated with the idea of the social contract, the nature of power and government, and the primacy of nature and sentiment against what Frederick Copleston calls "arid rationalism, materialism and religious scepticism."

But Rousseau was proscribed and exiled by church and state for his radical writings advocating a freedom and individual autonomy untenable at the time. Because of both his writings and his temperament, he unwittingly collected many enemies among the elite of France and Switzerland until he was literally fleeing for his life. Out of the experience of persecution and exile came the interesting collection of essays called Reveries of a Solitary Walker (Les reveries du promeneur solitaire). The work is of special value to anyone interested in solitude as a way of life.

The Reveries are sketchy essays Rousseau composed not for publication but for his own perusal as he grew older (he was already in his seventies). The Reveries continue his Confessions but no longer as public apologetics. He is still keenly sensitive about past wrongs, but Rousseau is here consciously striving for an equanimity that only comes with solitude. Rather than analyze each "walk" or essay as scholar or critic, we shall walk with Rousseau and consider his frame of mind and insights as a "solitary walker."

"I am now alone on earth, no longer having any brother, neighbor, friend, or society other than myself." So begins Rousseau's Reveries, and Walk 1 briefly reviews what has brought him to this point.

Everything is finished for me on earth. People can no longer do good or evil to me here. I have nothing more to hope for or to fear in this world; and here I am, tranquil at the bottom of the abyss, a poor unfortunate mortal, but unperturbed, like God Himself.

Rousseau describes how solitary walks and reveries are the fruitful solace of his present days:

These hours of solitude and meditation are the only ones in the day during which I am fully myself and for myself, without diversion, without obstacle, and during which I can truly claim to be what nature willed.

This walk opens with a quotation from Solon on the wisdom of age. But Rousseau notes the irony in his own case: "Adversity is undoubtedly a great teacher, but it charges dearly for its lessons." The gregarious extrovert, who relished social mingling and innocuous banter and debate with friends and acquaintances finds that they have all abandoned him when trouble began. It is too late to see the lessons in this bitter experience, he admits. But Rousseau understands how truly one must give up all vain strivings at death, and learn how to die.

Secluded meditation, the study of nature, and contemplation of the universe force a solitary person to search with tender concern for the purpose in everything he sees and the cause of everything he feels.

Rousseau's favorite reading was Plutarch, the standard text of the educated classes for social and political ethics, a manual for virtuous elites. Plutarch taught generations of discontented well-to-do how to conform to their world through a sense of Stoic duty. In this walk, Rousseau examines lying, his own and that of his associates, elaborating on lying and truth-telling as philosophical and practical issues.

This fine section describes Rousseau's life of exile on St. Peter's Island in Lake Brenne, Switzerland. His two months living quietly with the help of the local tax collector, his wife, and their servants, were for Rousseau "the happiest time of my life, so happy that it would have contented me for my whole existence without the desire for another state arising for a single instant in my soul." The source of happiness was what Rousseau calls in Italian far niente or doing nothing. (Is this not what Taoism calls wu wei?)

Rousseau had left his his books and effects boxed and unavailable, so that now he lived each moment fruitfully, in heartfelt conversation with his hosts, in hours of walks in forest and field, happily reviving an interest in botany and flowers, drifting in a boat on the lake or perched on the lake bank in reverie. (The lake bank reminds one of Chuang-tzu's famous justification as a scholar-official in reclusion.)

There is an excellent passage here on the search for happiness and the desire to make a moment "last forever, beyond the flux of time and change, yet not in stagnation or lethargy, for "an absolute silence leads to sadness." Glimpses or reveries of this quality were the fruit of life on this "fertile and solitary island." Rousseau's description of dreaminess, imagination, the blur of fiction and reality, and the influence of an idyllic environment, are all wonderfully described.

An excursion into thought versus feeling, on giving and receiving, indebtedness and friendship. Rousseau tells us that his sense of justice and virtue is too strong to bring him to hate others (the insolent, the scheming, the cruel) and so he would rather just flee them. He imagines that that if he had the power to have anything he wished, he would use it to bring about "public felicity." He concludes:

I have never been truly suited for civil society, where everything is annoyance, obligation, and duty, ... my naturally independent temperament always made me incapable of the subjection necessary to anyone who wants to live among men.

This sentiment accords with Rousseau's philosophical beliefs, for, as he puts it:

I have never believed that man's freedom consisted in doing what he wants, but rather in never doing what he does not want to do.

This section combines Rousseau's interest in nature with descriptions of his method of reveries. This is not an irrelevant combination because contemplation of nature (as opposed to cerebral and social pursuits) is the only source of simple comfort to him. "Brilliant flowers, diverse colors of the meadows, fresh shady spots, brooks, thickets, greenery," all serve to "purify my imagination." Rousseau has deadened his soul to man-made things and is now only open to nature as a source of sensation, pleasure, and happiness. He puts it bluntly:

Seeking refuge in mother nature, I sought in her arms to escape the attacks of her children. I have become solitary, or, as they say, unsociable and misanthropic, because to me the most desolate solitude seems preferable to the society of wicked men which is nourished only in betrayals and hatred.

Rousseau reflects again on what happened to bring him to his present state. He ascribes to his fate neither "direction, intention, or moral cause," for otherwise the soul is left embittered and peace is impossible. Although his reason acknowledged this logic, his heart still grumbled, and the cause of it was self-love. By renouncing the demands and external connections of self-love, Rousseau tells us, peace is possible, making self-love weak and unpersuasive if not banished altogether.

WALKS 9-10
Most of these sections are given over to reminiscences offering Rousseau a mix of pleasant and unpleasant, contentment versus happiness, and reflections on the repayment of the fruits of good deeds. They continue some incidents of his Confessions, but theses sections are thinner that any others.


Quotations adapted from: Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Reveries of the Solitary Walker; translated, with preface, notes, and an Interpretative Essay, by Charles E. Butterworth. New York: New York University Press, 1979.