Rousseau the Pessimistic Evolutionist

Bertrand de Jouvenel, “Rousseau the Pessimistic Evolutionist,” Yale French Studies, No. 28, (1961), pp.83-96.

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Rousseau had a profound impact upon the way of life of the late XVIIIth century: thanks to him many parents became aware of and  attentive to their  children; he fostered enjoyment of natural beauties and contributed to a change in the style of gardening; he was instrumental in shifting the manner  of personal relationships from polite restraint  to excessive demonstrativeness; with a lag of a generation his political views fired Robespierre; with an even greater lag his Socinian religiosity was to pervade the XIXth century.  It would be hard to find another writer whose suggestions have proved effective so extensively. Strangely enough, however, the very  core of Rousseau’s doctrine has been almost entirely disregarded. But is it so strange? In this respect, Rousseau was not only intellectually ahead of his day, but also he was affectively  in direct  opposition  to the trend of his time, which has developed ever since. Rousseau is the first great exponent of social evolution. His was the first attempt to depict systematically the historical  progress of human  society, here he comes a full century before Engels and all the others who were to make the evolution of human society a popular theme. His concern to mark out stages of social development and to bring out the factors which he deemed effective in the process, is impressive against the background of contemporary writings. Everybody was then talking about Progress but in a very loose manner,  and Rousseau was the only one who thought  of it as a process to be understood. Now the first author who offered an understanding of what everybody  talked about should have been praised to the skies on that score. This, on the contrary, is what  brought Rousseau the enmities which made the last part of his life a misery.