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.