Rousseau's Inhumane Humanity
Paul Johnson shows how Rousseau presented himself as a great lover of humanity. But as so often happens with those who love man in general, he had a complete disregard for men in particular. He seemed to be wholly incapable of loving anyone but himself.
He was a man, he said, born to love, and he taught the doctrine of love more persistently than most ecclesiastics. How well, then, did he express his love by those nature had placed closest to him? The death of his mother deprived him, from birth, of a normal family life. He could have no feelings for her, one way or another, since he never knew her. But he showed no affection, or indeed interest in, other members of his family. His father meant nothing to him, and his death was merely an opportunity to inherit. At this point Rousseau's concern for his long-lost brother revived to the extent of certifying him dead, so the family money could be his. He saw his family in terms of cash. (p. 18)
Was Rousseau capable of loving a woman without strong selfish reservations? ... Of Therese Levasseur, the twenty-three-year-old laundress whom he made his mistress in 1745 and who remained with him thirty-three years until his death, he said he 'never felt the least glimmering of love for her...the sensual needs I satisfied with her were purely sexual and were nothing to do with her as an individual.' 'I told her,' he wrote, 'I would never leave her and I would never marry her.' (p. 19)
Since a large part of Rousseau's reputation rests on his theories about the upbringing of children--more education is the main, underlying theme of his Discours, Emile, the Social Contract and even La Nouvelle Heloise--it is curious that, in real life as opposed to writing, he took so little interest in children... It comes as sickening shock to discover what Rousseau did to his own children.
The first was born to Therese in the winter of 1746-47. We do not know its sex. It was never named. With (he says) 'the greatest difficulty in the world', he persuaded Therese that the baby must be abandoned 'to save her honour'. She 'obeyed with a sigh'. He place a cypher-card in the infant's clothing and told the midwife to drop off the bundle at the Hopital des Enfants-trouves. Four other babies he had by Therese were disposed of in exactly the same manner, except that he did not trouble to insert a cypher-card after the first. None had names. It is unlikely that any of them survived long. A history of this institution which appeared in 1746 in the Mercure de France makes it clear that it was overwhelmed by abandoned infants, over 3000 a year. In 1758 Rousseau himself noted that the total had risen to 5082. By 1772 it averaged nearly 8000. Two-thirds of the babies died in their first year. An average of fourteen out of every hundred survived to the age of seven, and of these five grew to maturity, most of them becoming beggars and vagabonds. Rousseau did not even note the dates of the births of his five children and never took any interest in what happened to them, except once in 1761, when he believed Therese was dying and made a perfunctory attempt, soon discontinued, to use the cypher to discover the whereabouts of the first child... (p. 21)
To have children was 'an inconvenience'. He could not afford it. 'How could I achieve the tranquillity of mind necessary for my work, my garret filled with domestic cares and the noise of children?' He would have been forced to stoop to degrading work, 'to all those infamous acts which fill me with such justified horror'. 'I know full well no father is more tender than I would have been'... As for cruelty, how could anyone of his outstanding moral character be guilty of such a thing? '...my ardent love of the great, the true, the beautiful and the just; my horror of evil of every kind, my utter inability to hate or injure or even to think of it; the sweet and lively emotion which I feel at the sight of all that is virtuous, generous and amiable; is it possible, I ask, that all these can ever agree in the same heart with the depravity which, without the least scruple, tramples underfoot the sweetest of obligations? No! I feel, and loudly assert--it is impossible! Never, for a single moment in his life, could Jean-Jacques Rousseau have been a man without feeling, without compassion, or an unnatural father.' (p. 22)