‘The Lord God said: It is not good for the man to be alone.’
‘The Lord God then called to the man and asked him: “Where are you?” He answered, “I heard you in the garden; but I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid.”’
In the beginning of his Introduction to Christianity, Joseph Ratzinger approaches the question of faith by way of the experience of doubt, of uncertainty, which he identifies as a characteristic of our time. In the same post-war milieu the literary scholar and medical doctor Jean Starobinski wrote a dissertation on Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Ratzinger discusses the common difficulty facing believer and unbeliever today: neither one can claim the certainty of “being possessed of full knowledge.” The believer “is always threatened by the plunge into the void,” while the unbeliever who “may assert that he is a pure positivist, who has long left behind him supernatural temptations and weaknesses and now accepts only what is immediately certain,” is also afflicted by doubt about whether positivism really has the last word…. In short, there is no escape from the dilemma of being a man.”
In addition to the shared concern for “immediate certainty,” engaging the theologian’s contemporary voice is important because Starobinski’s interest is “anthropological in the broadest sense of the word,” exactly like Rousseau’s, and therefore both (Starobinski and Rousseau) are fundamentally religious thinkers, in the Christian sense of that term with its Hellenic and Hebraic roots. Starobinski observes that Rousseau’s oeuvre represents “a continuous treatise on man” as opposed to a great philosophical system. And in this continuous treatise Starobinski has rightly withheld from distilling a series of syllogisms or Questions along the lines of Thomas’s great Summa Theologica; rather he has identified a motif that helps to understand the unity of Jean-Jacques’ search for freedom. That motif is transparency and obstruction. Thus, Rousseau’s fundamental concern is with overcoming the media between the self and the other which prevent certain, immediate knowledge.
In his multi-work treatise on man, Rousseau is a participant in a very long tradition, and his concerns reflect his place in that tradition, his proximity to and distance from other writers and other concerns. But the fundamental questions are immediately recognizable: 1) the search for true knowledge, which for Rousseau is characterized by immediacy; 2) the relationship between man and his neighbor, between I and thou; 3) the place of God and of physis or kosmos. These three questions are obviously interrelated, and the answers to them have ever played upon one another, from Plato and Aristotle, through the Stoics, Augustine, Aquinas, and down to Rousseau.
Starobinski begins be leading us (or by letting Rousseau lead us, in his Confessions) to Rousseau’s earliest memories, in order to introduce us to transparency and to the veil of obstruction. At Bossey, Rousseau writes, he experienced a loss of transparency, with implications for his relationship with Nature (physis), with reality (kosmos), and with other persons, and, by the language he uses, we may suggest that this veil also had implications indirectly for his relationship with God:
“From that moment paradise is lost, for paradise was the state of transparent communication between mind and mind, the conviction that total, reliable communication is possible.”
The allusion to paradise is telling: in the book of Genesis, paradise was the place of the right ordering of God’s creation, with his plan for the human person in his proper sphere. In Genesis, the fall of the man and the woman by their disobedience leads to a rift between them and God (from whom they hide), between one another (as they begin to hide their nakedness), and between them and Nature (as they are cast out of the garden and forced to till the soil by the sweat of the brow and to labor in great pain to deliver new life). The experience of alienation expressed through the biblical language has begun for Rousseau: “Before the self senses its distance from the world, it experiences its distance from others.” Thus the motif of transparency is immediately followed with that of obstruction—the veil—covering others, covering the world, covering oneself through memory (as one’s innocence and happiness is lost to the past).
By this notion of obstruction Rousseau is engaged in a common theme. Morrison notes that Starobinski, making use of the contrast between paraître and être, appearance and being, is drawing upon the tradition of phenomenology: Starobinski recognizes that Rousseau’s thirst for true, immediate knowledge—particularly in regard to nature, when he leaves the company of men for solitude and experiences a lifting of the veil—is a reaching for being, for fundamental reality and not merely for correct facts. Given Rousseau’s milieu, this is an important point. The trajectory of the philosophic “mythology”—Reason lifting the veil of superstition from man’s face, allowing him to see true knowledge—involved a prizing of knowledge of the natural world (consider the apotheosis of Newton or the popularity of Franklin) and at the same time a dropping away of concern with being as such, with the ground of all being. (I suppose in Aristotelian terms, the final cause of the whole and of man fell away in favor of close application of the first three causes). But Rousseau remained concerned with être; his moral education and political philosophy are part of the treatise on man that consists in his study—explicitly in his latter works—of himself. Starobinski identifies as the common feature across Rousseau’s works his goal of a “restoration of transparency”.
If Rousseau is set apart from the philosophes he lived among (broadly speaking), what about the more distant voices in the tradition “on man”? The removal of obstruction in the way of true knowledge is as old as Plato in the Greek tradition (and as we have seen goes back to Genesis in the Hebrew tradition, though in a covenantal rather than epistemological relation). It would seem Rousseau shares in the platonic epistemological structure: he can see true realities behind or above the level which the mass of mankind knows, and he places great importance upon memory and distant origins of man, which is reminiscent of platonic nostalgia. Moreover, his inner conviction, articulated by his character Julie as immaterial, “immediate communication” with no need for speech or writing (or even bodies), is suggestive of platonic knowledge-as-participation. The connections are there perhaps, yet Rousseau’s is not platonic philosophy: his are intensely personal, individual concerns (think of his descriptions of the love affairs in his own life, and the relationships in La nouvelle Héloïse). Furthermore, for that classic figure of the sage, whether for Plato or Aristotle or (especially) the Stoics, control of the passions and obedience to Reason was essential. Consider Aristotle’s three kinds of life described in Book I of the Ethics: the life spent in pursuit of pleasure, the life of public affairs, and the life of contemplation. All those who are ruled by their emotions and have no self-control are “choosing the kind of life lived by cattle.” Aristotle considers the vast majority of men to be “absolute slaves.” If Rousseau also holds that men are everywhere in chains, the cause lies in society itself, not in the common man’s ignorance of philosophy.
In fact, for Rousseau, emotions are of entirely different import: “In these extraordinary moments immediate feeling is immediately expression. To be moved and to display emotion are one and the same.” In philosophizing itself, in making judgments, one participates in the veiling rather than in unveiling. That is why for Rousseau childhood and origins are so important. “Sensation is always correct,” and, with Condillac: “if error enters in, it does so only insofar as we presume to judge.”
It becomes clear thus that Rousseau is a thinker who is firmly situated after or within Christian thought, and also that his position is closer to that of Augustine than that of Thomas Aquinas. Rousseau’s concern with universal human dignity bear the mark of Christian influence, yet his experience of alienation which is so fundamental for him is strongly at odds with the great stability of Aquinas’s system. Indeed, it is the confidence of scholastic (and classical) thought in its own judgments which is so lacking in Rousseau. If Aquinas distinguished between the rational and sensitive souls in sober statement of man’s place at the summit of the material world, Rousseau is confident in sensation and emotion, but distrusts ratio.
Rousseau is in a conundrum: he has the same concern with être, but not the same confidence in reaching it. Josef Pieper describes the scholastic/classical position:
“The spiritual being is [in Aquinas’s words] ‘capable of grasping the whole of being’… That is the tradition of Western philosophy: to have spirit, or to be spirit, means to exist in the midst of the whole of reality and before the whole of being… That is what is meant by the proposition omnes ens est verum (everything that is, is true)—though we have almost ceased to understand it—and by the complementary proposition that being and truth are interchangeable concepts. (What does truth mean, where things are concerned, the truth of things?) ‘A thing is true’ means: it is known and knowable, known to the absolute spirit, knowable to the spirit that is not absolute.”
Starobinski puts Rousseau’s goals thus: “To be oneself and to see the truth: he wants both, and he wants each by means of the other.” The problem is that Rousseau is distrustful of communication itself, and therefore of the means of knowing. Society did not see the truth of him, and his own attempts through writing to convey himself fail as well (forcing him to try again and again). He therefore withdraws from society.
In Rousseau’s final withdrawal to inaction (as well as his request to be imprisoned) we are reminded of comparisons: Albert Camus and his rebellion, Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, and Boethius and his consolation. His struggle to maintain authenticity is intensely individualistic, always returning to himself and always questioning his relationship with society as a whole and with other actual acquaintances. Unlike Camus, his rebellion cannot involve actual brotherly charity. Unlike the Underground Man, his isolation can achieve some measure of meaning and even of freedom. But unlike Boethius, philosophizing can offer no remedy.
* * *
The religious element (especially the Fall) would seem to generalize Rousseau’s strivings into an a-historical tradition of the essential condition of man, and to some extent this is proper as such is the domain claimed by philosophy in the broad sense in which Rousseau participated. But on the other hand, Rousseau is asking timeless questions in a very particular time and place. And to the extent which he critiqued the evils of history, which place man “everywhere in chains,” he speaks to a particular experience of alienation and isolation in the midst even of society that is the condition of the human person in the modern age. To the extent that he strongly criticized the project of the philosophes, he remains a defiant rebel today, as the iterations of the Enlightenment project are continuously generated. In this way in particular, he speaks to the post-modern doubt that characterized the milieu in which Starobinski worked and in which Ratzinger wrote his Introduction.
Thus we return to the beginning: Christopher Bertram says that Rousseau’s primary concern throughout is to preserve human freedom, yet he is at the same time “consistently and overwhelmingly pessimistic that humanity will escape from a dystopia of alienation, oppression, and unfreedom.” As Starobinski well demonstrates, Rousseau’s pessimism was grounded for him in the very experience of his own inability to convey his true self to others immediately. But perhaps a path exists to break beyond Rousseau’s veiled “I” (even if he himself never took that path). In his tales of the unveiling statues (Galatea and the wicked idol), Rousseau provides the “initial gift, given unconditionally” (of existence [Galatea] and truth [from Christ]). But does not that unconditional gift describe the place of each person—of Rousseau himself? In contrast to the identity of man as having a freedom of unrestrained volition which has been the achievement of the Enlightenment, this “givenness” precedes the will in both the order of time and that of existence. Rémi Brague has raised this point in the context of his call to return from Aristotle to Plato and be confronted by ontological goodness. Brague asks, “How can I tolerate not having created myself?...If and only if I come from some utterly good principal” The soul of Descartes’s disembodied ego may be faced with insurmountable isolation, obstructed by a veil that may hide nothing at all. But that is not in fact the condition in which man finds himself. Man is from first to last in relationship.
In this way, Rousseau is closer to Augustine than to Aquinas. At the time of his conversion, Augustine looks for God along the path of (platonic) philosophy, in his dialogic Soliloquia. How can I know that I know God? But much later, in his own Confessiones, Augustine reveals to us one side of his cor ad cor loquitor with God. Less Greek and more biblical, Augustine is in a covenantal relationship rather than an analytic epistemological act: You have made me for yourself. Though the idea of personal relationship to God remains at most in the background in Rousseau, inter-personal communion, communion personarum, does in fact arise as at least an ideal of overcoming the obstruction. Rousseau, then, for all his pessimism, is not a nihilist; there really is être behind the paraître, and the way to reach it, as for Augustine, is through love. And so we return to the milieu of Starobinski and of Ratzinger (perhaps not so different from our own today) in the relevance of Rousseau’s thought. Ratzinger suggests that the article of the creed that “expresses the unparalleled experience of our age” is the descent into hell—the absence of God. This absence is for Rousseau the very experience of human beings in their condition of living under a veil and participating in the covering over of transparency. But perhaps Rousseau, in his internal convictions, hinted at an Augustinian path beyond doubt through love:
“God has drawn a veil across his face, but Julie penetrates the veil that separates matter from spirit, life from death.”
Aristotle. Ethics. In The Philosophy of Aristotle. Trans. J.L. Creed and A.E. Wardman. New York, NY: Signet Classics, 2003.
Augustine of Hippo. Confessions. Baltimore, MD: Penguin Classics, 1968.
——. Soliloquies. Trans. C.C. Starbuck. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 7. Ed. Philip Schaff.(Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888.) Rev. and ed. for New Advent by Kevin Knight.
Brague, Rémi. “Necessity of the Good,” in First Things No. 250 (Feb 2014): 47-52.
Pieper, Josef. Liesure the Basis of Culture. Trans. Alexander Dru. London, England: Faber and Faber, Ltd., 1952.
Ratzinger, Joseph. Introduction to Christianity. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2004.
Starobinski, Jean. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Transparency and Obstruction. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1988.
 He wrote this book in 1967.
 Ratzinger, 45 (emphasis mine).
 Starobinski, xxxiv.
 Starobinski, 273.
 Starobinski, 8.
 Starobinski, 10.
 Starobinski, 11-12.
 “Rousseau was totally preoccupied with one affaire: his own” (Starobinski, 22).
 Starobinski, 13.
 Aristotle, Ethics I, 317.
 Starobinski, 138.
 Starobinski, 26.
 Joseph Pieper, Leisure the Basis of Culture , 115-116.
 Starobinski, 80.
 “Rousseau, unlike most previous moralists, is not content merely to criticize external things: he incriminates the external in his very definition of evil. This condemnation is merely the counterpart of an exculpation that claims, once and for all, to save man’s inner essence” (Starobinski, 20).
 Bertram, Christopher, “Jean-Jacques Rousseau,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =
 Starobinski, 78-79.
 Rémi Brague, “Necessity of the Good,” in First Things No. 250 (Feb 2014), 52.
 Starobinski, 118. It is true that Starobinski reads this as a “triumph of the veil” in the inevitability of death. But may one not question his reading of the gaze of the Judge (God) and his opposition between community and salvation? For Augustine and Aquinas, and perhaps also for Rousseau, to the extent that he received the Christian tradition, the gaze of the beatific vision is salvation is communion. As John has it, “I and the Father are one” and “If you remain in my word…, you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” and “this is eternal life: that they know you” (10:30, 8:13, 17:3).