Clif's Reviews > Emile or On Education

Emile or On Education by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
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Oct 24, 2010

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If we want to produce a good man, how would we go about it? That's the problem that Rousseau presents himself in Emile.

In this lengthy work, no aspect of upbringing is overlooked. Starting with the health of the mother before she gives birth, we follow the course of a boy's life as he becomes a man and marries - all under the tutelage of Rousseau.

The basis of the upbringing is refreshing: a child must be allowed to follow his natural inclinations and do so in a natural setting away from the society that would corrupt him. There is to be no lecturing because the child will not understand the reasoning of the adult who lectures. Instead, the child must find out for himself why a behavior might be good or bad. His curiosity must have free play for him to learn by doing and discovering.

Practicality is paramount. There is to be no book learning, no second language study, no grammar, no moral parables beyond the understanding of the child. When nature is the teacher, the youngster will learn to accept necessities without complaint and his confidence will come from his own accomplishments, not from mimicking an instructor or following step by step instructions.

The result, Rousseau says, is a person who understands who he is and his own capabilities without vanity or false pride.

The book is filled with good advice that stands the test of time; much being similar to what would be advised today, though the possibility of such isolation from society and the city would be almost impossible in the modern urban world.

Unfortunately, 3/4 of the way through the book, Rousseau begins a prescription that is almost unbearable to this reader - that of what an ideal woman should be. To be fair, he could not be other than a man of his times when patriarchy was all, but any modern reader, especially female, would find Rousseau's passive, subservient, shy, withdrawing, homebody, not-speak-unless-spoken-to girl outrageous. He doesn't hesitate to say a woman's husband is her master and that she must accept her lot with equanimity, or risk being rightfully rejected if she complains. Though there are many patronizing comments about the excellence of female intelligence, the female brain might as well be a grapefruit for all the limitations on what is acceptable for her to learn and do.

The reader gets a lot of the pap that was historically dispensed about the woman being the real master, using her charms and wiles to make the man do her bidding. This falls flat in the 21st century in (most of) America.

Most striking is Rousseau's claim that while a man should be indifferent to the opinions of others, a woman must go out of her way not only to be virtuous, but to appear to be virtuous as well. The good opinion of others is what she must live for or she will be ruined.

The idea that sex could be fun, that one could serially have several partners without the utter destruction of character is beyond Rousseau, but he didn't live in a time when contraception was easily achieved. At least he admits that women can enjoy and want sex as much as men, something quite revolutionary for the time.

Overall, Rousseau's grasp of what it is to be a child is a marvel. His understanding of the frivolities of society, of the emptiness of basing one's worth on money, things and appearances is impressive and persuasive. He is always eager to make himself clear to the reader and defends his views well. But he places little faith in the ability of a human being, once adulthood is reached, to learn from failure or discover truths that might not have been prepared for as a child. To Rousseau, there are many times when, if things are not done right, the price will be paid for the rest of a life.

He is, after all, presenting an ideal that few could achieve, but there is nothing in what he suggests be done that could not be done, fitting perfectly with his high evaluation of practicality. Don't ape everything I suggest, he says, just pick and choose what you think is best. See what I accomplish with Emile, my model of a man, and see if you can do better.


Not long ago I read Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Tolstoy must have read Emile because the similarity between Rousseau's title character and the male protagonist in Anna K. is remarkable. Not only that, but the female ideal Rousseau presents is present in the character of Kitty in Anna K. - right down to acting in exactly the same way in the same situation - that of caring for a sick man. Anna K. herself, who takes command of her life and steps out of the traditional female role - goes mad, of course.

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October 24, 2010 – Shelved
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