Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Botanist Loving, Serpent Kissing Prophet of Modern Man

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (28 June 1712 – 2 July 1778) was somewhat of a tipping point, a prophet of the modern man to come. It caused him no small angst to be such a harbinger; Karl Barth writes, as he reflects on Rousseau’s place in history: rousseau1“twenty or thirty years later he would have been able to find a thousand people who shared his knowledge.”[1] This begs the question, what exactly was it in Rousseau that caused him to kick up against the waning religious establishment of his day? There are many ways to answer that question, but I thought for the purposes of this post I would share one long paragraph from Barth on Rousseau that I think captures well the broad framework which Rousseau developed in his own rather tortured existence (but not always tortured, just sometimes).

Karl Barth writes of Rousseau’s thought, this (at some length):

But we would be failing to understand Rousseau’s—or Goethe’s—Pelagianism if we simply ascribed it, as theologians have so often done, to a lightness of conscience, and therefore judged it, so to speak, as a moral deficiency. The decisive factor we must take into account in considering Rousseau’s belief in the goodness of man, held with a firmness astonishing even to such a time as his, and the wholehearted support for this view which the age of Goethe then lent him all along, is the fact that this new age, And Rousseau as one of the first within it,  had made a completely new discovery in the realm of anthropology, and that it was this same discovery which underlay its contention that man was good, its rejection of the dogma of original sin, and such self-appreciations as those of Rousseau, so moving to us now in their naïveté; but which also underlay Goethe’s glorified vision of his own existence and development. From this fact it follows also that what we might call optimism of the new age was not only incomparably more powerful, but essentially different from what might strike us as being optimism in those belonging to the age which was then drawing to its close. The natural goodness of man which Rousseau claimed exists is definitely not in any simple or direct sense that which we are in the habit of calling moral goodness, freedom from evil impulses, freedom from all kinds of temptation, and freedom to respect the feelings of our fellow-men. And hence his self praise is not in any simple or direct sense moral self-praise. The goodness of which he speaks is of course moral goodness too: Rousseau imagined that he was good-hearted truly and particularly also in this respect. But his kind of goodness was not primarily moral goodness. If Rousseau believed his heart was good he did so because he imagined that in the midst of a society whose whole striving and interest were directed outwards, he had discovered quite anew that man has a heart, and what the human heart actually is. The heart is simply the man himself, discounting everything he produces or which confronts him as an alien existence or as the work of alien hands. This is what Rousseau has found: himself. And this is what he holds to be good and even precious: the fact that he exists and does not-exist, precisely as the man he is, situated precisely as he is in fact situated. A whole world revealed itself to him when he gazed into himself. He did not do this in the manner of the individualism of his time, which looked within in order to go out again at once into the outside world, desiring to apprehend, form and conquer. Rousseau intended to linger there because he had recognized that in it he possessed his own unique world full of unique forms of truth and beauty. Existence was not just a predicate, not entirely a matter of how I conduct myself towards the outerworld. It was definitely not just acting and suffering. Existence was a beautiful, rich and lively inner life of its own, so beautiful, rich and lively that anyone who has once discovered it no longer attributes any worth to any life which differs from it, and can only have and love anything different from it as it is connected with this life; but he really could have and love it now in this connexion. Existence was, so to speak, the realm of the middle, the mean. It was the paradise of the happy and at the same time the secure haven of the unhappy. It was the dependable norm for all the distinctions and choices that are necessary in life, and a norm which functioned as it were automatically. Man existing, being himself as Rousseau more than once said, was in God’s presence and like him. If a state exists where the soul can find a secure place which can contain it whole, a place secure enough that it can find complete rest in it and can collect again the forces of its being in it, without needing to recall the past, nor encroach upon the future, a place where time is as nothing to the soul and the present lasts for ever, without making its duration noticeable and without leaving any after-effects, a place where the soul is without any other feeling, be it privation or pleasure, joy or pain, fear or desire, except for that existence, if there is such a state and if this feeling can fill the soul utterly, while it lasts he who is enjoying it can call himself happy. It would not be an imperfect, poor and relative happiness, like that found in the pleasures of life, but a happiness which is sufficient, perfect and full, leaving no void in the soul which the soul experiences the need to fill. Such is the state in which I often found myself in St Peter’s Island during my solitary day-dreams, sitting sometimes in my boat, which I simply let drift as the waters took it, or sitting sometimes on the shore of the troubled lake, or beside a river murmuring over the pebbles. What does one enjoy in such a moment? One enjoys nothing exterior to oneself, nothing except oneself and one’s own existence; while it lasts one is self-sufficient, like God. The feeling of peace and security, which would alone be quite enough to make one’s existence sweet and dear.[2]

I share this only to highlight something that I find highly informative; in a way it is like reading commentary on where humanity currently reposes. In fact I think learning such things, about the origins of the modern psyche are beneficial in a way such that it provides space to be self-critical about the ‘spirit’ of our own age; insofar as all of this serves as the intellectual and ‘spiritual’ precursor to what ended up fomenting (and now de-fomenting, but not really).

Barth goes on, as he closes out his chapter on Rousseau, to tease out the theological implications and impact that Rousseaus’s thought would end up having on 18th and 19th century theological development. What interested me most though was simply what was shared in the long paragraph from Barth on Rousseau above. While most people aren’t deep enough in North American society to think as reflectively as Rousseau, that doesn’t mean that the ‘spirit’ he was “séancing” with isn’t alive and well among even the so called garden variety pagan of the 21st century today; that ‘spirit’ (among many others) indeed is present and is just as alluring and seductive now to the heart of modern and post-modern man as it was in the 18th century. Even though the Serpent looks like an innocent creature doesn’t mean it still is not a Serpent. Rousseau, ironically loved the study of botany; he believed it was the purest form of knowing himself as non-identical and identical with the spirit-nature world he participated in. This is ironic, to me at least, because ‘the garden’ is where this all started to begin with (Gen. 3).

[1] Karl Barth, Protestant Thought: From Rousseau to Ritschl (New York, New York: Simon&Schuster, 1969), 115.

[2] Ibid., 109-11.