On Rousseau’s ÉMILE, or the Making of a Real Man

emile rousseau.jpgYou cannot help but pity poor Émile, condemned for no reason to a life of solitude and friendlessness, except for a grown-up pervert (read tutor) who is both know-it-all, comprehensive guide book and highly-evolved CCTV camera, and who is bent on making a junior double of himself out of Émile. From a little after infancy, Émile is literally surrounded, saturated, and manipulated by the sole presence of the sly tutor-master who claims to be Émile’s friend and equal. The child is like clay that can be worked into anything; and as far as clay is concerned, it is not hard to read. For fear of misleading him, Émile is not taught religion, morals, fables, stories of any kind, nor allowed to engage in solitary excursions, chit-chat, gossip, play with peers, chill time with the ladies, and in short, everything unpredictable and capricious in its workings.

Don’t mind my sardonic intro, the book is still wonderful for two reasons:

  1. It tries to understand childhood and devise a proper method for its education, contrary to traditional practice.
  2. It values the necessity of learning from visual stimuli, first-hand experience, and of encouraging natural curiosity, instinct, reasoning ability, dignity of the human person irrespective of age, sincerity towards work, individualism, and so on.

It must be noted, however, that he’s talking about boys’ education. Girls are a different matter altogether (dealt with in the final section, “Sophie”; on account of the fact that females are incapable of reasoning and are, anyway, made for the purpose of pleasing men, bearing their children and managing the household, they need to be learnt in those areas only. I can’t believe he contradicted the very fundamentals of his philosophy of natural equality in order to vehemently preserve his notion of the feminine ideal, which was, by the way, increasingly under attack by the debut of the roots of feminism and the intrusion of women into male dominated professions such as the arts.

Halfway through Book V, I ardently wished Sophie, who was carefully trained to become Émile’s wife or helpmeet, as Rousseau terms her, would meet her death prematurely, due to unforeseen circumstances, despite her good health and pleasant disposition. If not this, atleast something quite similarly drastic. When Sophie’s parents decide to send her, the village lass who was hardly 18, to town in the care of an aunt, in order to attract suitors, I hoped she would meet among the genteel upper class, a debonair, young knave, apparently of not unseemly character, who would trick her off her chastity under the promise of marriage and thence, ruin her. How Hardyesque! How anti-Rousseau! As the consequence, Émile, the prospective idiot husband would be deprived of his prize; Rousseau, the insufferable tutor, would be merely affronted before spouting his grand theory of the corruption and artificiality of townspeople and the frailty of women who are curiously both despicable and worhippable; Sophie’s parents, their hopes dashed and their hearts broken, would be forced to marry her off to their Italian gardener, whom, however, she would refuse, and condemn herself to a life of pious penance and spinsterhood.

CLOWNIN’ Score: 3/5

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3 thoughts on “On Rousseau’s ÉMILE, or the Making of a Real Man

  1. You know, I always liked the book. I picked it up while studying European History for my ‘A’ level. I admired Rousseau, the same way I have a perverse sense of partiality towards all the manipulative sociopaths in history – Stalin and Garibaldi come to mind immediately. Apart from all the dominating and killing, they were ingenious in their methods of setting progress apace. Self-centered and single-minded AF, but they had their contribution. Same thing with people like Rousseau and Voltaire, necessary to get the ball rolling, especially for the French Revolution and Unification of Italy. But that is all history. Put it in a social setting, Emile was necessary also. The kid got the short stick in life but modern parenting gained a lot from Rousseau’s work. For example, his statements on punishment fitting the crime or the lesson he doles out on teaching the value of truth… Parents get parenting wrong all the time and this book is probably the best of counsel. You know what Jenny Crusie said, “If you can’t be a good example, be a horrible warning”. Rousseau was both.

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    • I agree with you of course, Rousseau was essential for the times, and his ideas are the cornerstone of modern edu systems. His arguments are sincere and naive in a way, and therefore perhaps more powerful. I loved reading Emile, except for the last quarter of the book when the twenty year old boy was still stuck with his tutor, and the drama of the romance, the manipulation, and so on kind of destroyed the book for me.

      Thanks for reading and following my blog!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I understand. Philosophical texts are all about working through the rights and wrongs of the arguments the author is trying to make. You can accept some while scoffing at other reasoning. Like with religion :/

        Liked by 1 person

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