Reframing Rousseau

What can Enlightenment philosophes – especially Rousseau, arguably the most difficult of them all – have to tell us about modern life that we don’t already know?

Le Lévite d’Ephraïm: la douleur du Lévite (c.1806), by Jean-Pierre Saint-Ours of Geneva, 1752-1809 (MAH Musée d’art et d’histoire, Ville de Genève).

We are a team of scholars from different academic areas, each of whom offers a unique vantage point in understanding Rousseau’s texts. This constellation of approaches – grounded in an appreciation of the shared background of feminist critique promoted by the contributors to our volume Reframing Rousseau’s Lévite d’Ephraïm: The Hebrew Bible, hospitality and modern identity – provides the density that allows Rousseau’s nuanced writings to be read in their full complexity.

This book focuses on a relatively unfamiliar work of Rousseau’s: Le Lévite d’Ephraïm, a prose-poem in which Rousseau elaborates on a little-known Hebrew biblical text to interrogate many of the accepted, conventional views on issues ranging from the role of sacred texts; to Rousseau’s self-construction through the representation of guilt and remorse; to the role of hospitality in structuring both individual self-representation and social cohesion; to the place of violence in establishing national and communal self-identity. In each of these spheres, Rousseau reveals a particularly modern perspective in trying to honor both personal and social needs, and in privileging both the individual viewpoint and the political structure.

In keeping with Rousseau’s own multifocal writings as reflected in our own authors’ distinct voices, each contributor here provides a more detailed description of the sections in this book.

Reframing Rousseau’s Lévite d’Ephraïm: The Hebrew Bible, hospitality and modern identity (Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment May 2021).

In focusing on Rousseau’s rewriting of one narrative in the Hebrew biblical text, the first chapter interrogates the uses to which Enlightenment thinkers put the ancient – to many, still sacred – understanding of the biblical text. Why do 18th-century thinkers feel the need to refer to biblical texts at all? What new ways of reading do they create to construct a world view that differs markedly both from ancient and classical philosophical and political thought? This section foregrounds the ‘strange’ reliance Rousseau places on an ancient text to propose a modern critique of the conventional way of understanding the world.

Although Rousseau named Le Lévite d’Ephraïm the ‘most cherished’ of his works, it has drawn far less scholarly attention than most of his other works. Taking the author at his word, the second chapter of the volume explores the paradox behind Rousseau’s valorization of the most disturbing of his writings and his contention that it provided proof of his gentle nature. This chapter identifies links between Le Lévite d’Ephraïm and Rousseau’s autobiographical works and writings on language and society. Rousseau’s rewriting of this Biblical narrative reflects his vision of language, human nature and the fragility of community bonds while offering unique insight into Rousseau’s understanding of human psychology, manipulation of language, and the dynamics of scapegoating and civil unrest.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Line engraving. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Chapter three looks to how Rousseau incorporates the metatext of hospitality into his œuvre, utilizing the social and textual themes of misguided and absent hospitality. It seems that Rousseau’s personal circumstances intensified his conviction that the subversion of hospitality by the host (individual, group, or nation), ineluctably leads to moral catastrophe. Inter alia, this presentation addresses the issue of failed hospitality as it relates to the marginalization of individuals and to the eventual alienation of the group. In the end, society creates its own strangers, and by mistreating them, prefigures its own demise. Le Lévite constitutes a plea for society to restore its moral compass. While much of Rousseau’s work, including the Confessions and Emile, provides insight into the context of his interpretation of faulty hospitality, it is Le Lévite d’Ephraïm that offers a view from a different vantage point of the developing political philosophy explored more fully in the Contrat social.

The book’s final chapter focuses on Rousseau’s view of how nationalism can intersect with violence. Do these two movements inevitably presuppose each other? What determines the notion of ‘belonging’ to a nation? Concomitantly, Rousseau treats the inverse implication of these questions: what is the status of the stranger, of the person who doesn’t belong? Rousseau’s choice of an abstruse biblical text through which to examine this complicated issue highlights Rousseau’s understanding of the complexities of texts, and of others, as we try to interpret these all to get at their essences.

The Afterword of this volume explores some of the current implications of the questions raised, both implicitly and explicitly, by the text of Le Lévite d’Ephraïm. How do Rousseau’s writings – particularly Le Lévite d’Ephraïm – speak to a 21st-century world fractured by demonization and alienation? This section of the book outlines the ways in which strangeness and nationalism can be utilized to unite the world of variegated individuals and communities that form the complicated texture of our lives.

In Reframing Rousseau’s Lévite d’Ephraim, Abrams, Morgenstern and Sullivan offer us a new look at Rousseau’s writing on political and cultural issues that continue to be salient in contemporary times. The authors look forward to expanding this conversation with the responses and reactions from the readers of this book.

Barbara Abrams, Mira Morgenstern, and Karen Sullivan
(Suffolk University Boston, City College / City University of New York, Queens College / City University of New York)

Reframing Rousseau’s Lévite d’Ephraïm: The Hebrew Bible, hospitality and modern identity is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

A version of this blog first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog in May 2021.

Rousseau on stage: Vitam impendere vero


Fig. 1: João Luís Paixão in the role of Pygmalion, in the research project Performing Premodernity’s production of Rousseau’s Pygmalion at the Castle Theatre of Český Krumlov 2015. Photo by Maria Gullstam.

In the Lettre à d’Alembert (1758) – Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s critical assessment of the Parisian theatre – the philosopher writes in a footnote: ‘[J]’ai presque toujours écrit contre mon propre intérêt. Vitam impendere vero. Voilà la devise que j’ai choisie et dont je me sens digne. Lecteurs, je puis me tromper moi-même, mais non pas vous tromper volontairement; craignez mes erreurs et non ma mauvaise foi. L’amour du bien public est la seule passion qui me fait parler au public.’[1] Rousseau claims to be writing with the ‘public good’ in mind, even though it might go against his own interests – such as his love for theatre and opera. When approaching Rousseau’s writings for and about theatre, we need to consider the often forgotten parts of his œuvre, as well as highlight the relation between these works and his political, musical, and literary writings. There are still numerous links to be made, and the task of making the connections is not always easy.

An illustrative example of this is Rousseau’s essay De l’imitation théâtrale – a translation and adaptation of parts of the tenth book of Plato’s Republic, with personal annotations by Rousseau himself. Originally, the text was composed in connection with the Lettre à d’Alembert in 1758, and Rousseau planned to publish the two texts together. However, he writes in the preface of De l’imitation théâtrale, ‘n’ayant pu commodément l’y faire entrer, je le mis à part pour être employé ailleurs’.[2] A few years later, Rousseau finds himself in a similar situation when publishing Julie, ou La Nouvelle Heloïse in 1761. Its preface in dialogue form had to be published separately from the novel, ‘sa forme et sa longueur ne m’ayant permis de le mettre que par extrait à la tête du recueil’, as its author writes in the avertissement of the separate publication.[3] Interestingly, he then attempts to publish it together with De l’imitation théâtrale, though without success.


Fig. 2: Laila Cathleen Neuman as Galathée and João Luís Paixão as Pygmalion, in the research project Performing Premodernity’s production of Rousseau’s Pygmalion at the House of Nobility (Riddarhuset) in Stockholm 2016. Photo by Maria Gullstam.

Two years later, in 1763, Rousseau has new plans to publish his ‘extrait de divers endroits où Platon traite de l’Imitation théatrâle’[4] – this time together with the Essai sur l’origine des langues and Lévite d’Ephraïm, and he starts to write a preface (Projet de préface).[5] But, just as in previous attempts, this third initiative to publish De l’imitation théâtrale is never finalised. Instead, the text is published on its own in 1764.

Rousseau saw fit to publish his essay on theatrical imitation together with texts ranging over a whole spectrum of topics and genres: his apparently complex treatise the Lettre à d’Alembert – criticising the Parisian theatre from both an anthropological and a moral perspective; the Préface to his novel Julie, ou La Nouvelle Heloïse, which when published separately in 1761 carried the subtitle Entretien sur les romans; further, the Essai sur l’origine des langues, which has strong connections to both Rousseau’s political writings (through its kinship with the Discours sur l’inégalité) and his writings on music (parts of the Essai started to develop in his unpublished response to Rameau’s accusations in the Erreurs sur la musique dans ‘l’Encyclopédie’); and finally, his moral tale Le Lévite d’Ephraïm. Thus, Rousseau could see connections between his essay on theatrical imitation and all these works. This is just one example amongst his many works for or about theatre that need to be reincorporated in his œuvre as a whole.

Rousseau loved drama passionately, he was aware of the consequences of attacking the Parisian theatre, and yet he criticised the Comédie-Française so fiercely in his Lettre à d’Alembert that this work’s inflammatory reputation still echoes in the twenty-first century. The Lettre’s notoriety has kept most theatre scholars from further exploring Rousseau’s own works for the stage, while the widespread labelling of Rousseau as an homme à paradoxes has every so often justified loose ends within Rousseau studies on the topic. Rousseau’s seemingly dual position in relation to theatre does entail numerous challenges. Our volume Rousseau on stage: playwright, musician, spectator does not claim to resolve these challenges, but to aim, nonetheless, at probing certain difficulties and starting to unravel others. The point of departure for Rousseau on stage is Rousseau’s passionate and double relationship to theatre as expressed and elaborated in the Lettre à d’Alembert, his theoretical texts on music and opera, his compositions for the stage and many descriptions of his experiences as a theatre-goer. Its authors and editors hope to add to the recent increasing interest in Rousseau as playwright, musician and spectator.

– Maria Gullstam and Michael O’Dea

[1] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Œuvres complètes, ed. Bernard Gagnebin and Marcel Raymond, 5 vols (Paris, 1959-1895) (henceforward OC), vol.5, Lettre à d’Alembert, ed. Bernard Gagnebin and Jean Rousset, p.120.

[2] Rousseau, OC, vol.5, ‘Avertissement’ in De l’imitation théâtrale, ed. André Wyss, p.1195.

[3] Rousseau, OC, vol.2, Préface de la Nouvelle Héloïse, ou Entretien sur les romans, ‘Avertissement’, ed. Henri Coulet and Bernard Guyon, p.9.

[4] Rousseau, OC, vol.5, ‘Avertissement’ in De l’imitation théâtrale, p.1195.

[5] Neuchâtel, Bibliothèque publique et universitaire, MS R 91.

Rousseau and the perils of public address

In December 1776, the Courrier d’Avignon reported a curious incident in Ménilmontant: a supposedly mortal collision between the famed philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and…a great dane.

‘Rousseau, qui se promène souvent seul à la campagne, a été renversé il y a quelques jours par un de ces chiens Danois qui précèdent les equipages lestes: on dit qu’il est très malade de cette chute, et on ne peut trop deplorer son sort d’avoir été écrasé par des chiens.’ (no.97, December 3, 1776, p.4).

‘Jean-Jacques Rousseau est mort des suites de sa chute. Il a vécu pauvre, il est mort misérablement; et la singularité de sa destinée  l’a accompagné jusqu’au tombeau.’ (no.102, December 20, 1776, p.4).

Jean Jacques François Le Barbier, Brusselles (éd. de Londres), 1783, ‘Rousseau apportant le manuscrit des “Dialogues” à Notre-Dame de Paris’. Illustration pour Rousseau, juge de Jean-Jacques dans Œuvres de J.-J. Rousseau.

Rousseau, as we know, died a few years later in 1778 – the event in Ménilmontant leaving him not mortally injured, but with a face bruised and beaten. The mistaken reports in the Courrier d’Avignon prompted his Rêveries critical assessment of eighteenth-century public culture and, in particular, the social and discursive mechanisms that permitted the spread of rumours, an absence of fact-checking, and sensationalism. It was hardly, however, his first diagnosis of ‘fake news’.

In the very era when the postal system and print culture brought people together in ‘imagined communities’, Rousseau worried deeply about the risks of dead letters. Although Rousseau’s colleague, Diderot, was convinced that the two most important technological developments in early modern Europe were the postal system and print culture (enthusing to his sculptor friend Falconet, ‘Il y a deux grandes inventions: la poste qui porte en six semaines une découverte de l’équateur au pôle, et l’imprimerie qui la fixe à jamais’), Rousseau was much more leery of the new information age.

A critical assessment of the Enlightenment’s faith in transparent communication must attune itself to the persistent traces of ancient modes of rhetoric: the traditions of doublespeak and dog-whistle politics. Rousseau, sensitive to the tensions between an esoteric, libertine tradition of communication and an intellectual climate of social progressivism, frames the debate in a series of vexed questions: for whom should I be writing? what is a public and what can it do? Despairing over the absence of any true ‘ami de la vérité’, Rousseau heads to Notre Dame cathedral to deposit, in a famous acte manqué, a copy of Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques on the altar of the church.

‘En entrant, mes yeux furent frappés d’une grille que je n’avois jamais remarquée et qui séparoit de la nef la partie des bas-cotés qui entoure le Chœur. Les portes de cette grille étoient fermées, de sorte que cette partie des bas-cotés dont je viens de parler étoit vuide & qu’il m’étoit impossible d’y pénétrer. Au moment où j’apperçus cette grille je fus saisi d’un vertige comme un homme qui tombe en apoplexie, et ce vertige fut suivi d’un bouleversement dans tout mon être, tel que je ne me souviens pas d’en avoir éprouvé jamais un pareil. L’Eglise me parut avoir tellement changé de face que doutant si j’étois bien dans Notre-Dame, je cherchois avec effort à me reconnoître et à mieux discerner ce que je voyois. Depuis trente six ans que je suis à Paris, j’étois venu fort souvent et en divers tems à Notre Dame; j’avois toujours vu le passage autour du Chœur ouvert et libre, et je n’y avois même jamais remarqué ni grille ni porte autant qu’il put m’en souvenir.’ (‘Histoire du précédent écrit’, Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques, OC, t.1, p. 980).

He notes that in spite of having been in the church scores of times, he had failed to notice the barrier blocking access to the altar. The unpredictability of the reading public – indeed, the plurality of publics and their occasionally indeterminate nature – makes literary reception a chancy affair. In the very loud and crowded market of ideas of the French Enlightenment, the rhetorical gesture of address underscored the vulnerability and power of the modern writer. In my study, Jean-Jacques Rousseau face au public: problèmes d’identité, I explore the vagaries of public communication during the Enlightenment and the dialectical tensions between shadow and illumination, musicality and transparency.

As an insider of the Encyclopédie project turned outsider, Rousseau understood the complexities of the new social and ethical demands placed on the philosophes in a way that is fundamentally different from his contemporaries. By noting the unpredictability and inconsistencies of systems of public address (with readers and spectators moved alternatively by emotions, reason, flows of information, and the major works of a few key power players), Rousseau proposes alternative ways of thinking about communication and the circulation of information. He places value on economies of speech that include silence, babil (babbling), laconism, and musicality – modes of communication that contest conventional modalities of rationality and social exchange. His work is thus an invitation to consider the precarity of address within modern social life and, consequently, the politics of truth at stake in symbolic exchange.

Masano Yamashita