Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 15, 2014

Emile, or On Education (1762), by Jean-Jaques Rousseau, translated by Barbara Foxley

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, portrait by Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1704–1788) Source: Wikipedia Commons

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, portrait by Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1704–1788) Source: Wikipedia Commons

Émile, or On Educationby Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) is a difficult book to read.  For a start, it’s quite long at 500+ pages, and it’s a task made more challenging because in amongst his insights for which he is lionised, Rousseau had some very odd ideas which I suspect may make many readers abandon him in dismay.  You can get a glimpse of how I felt about Rousseau’s attitudes to women from my recent snippet and yes, tested well beyond the limits of my patience, I nearly abandoned this book when I came to Book 5 and found reading at the top of his list of Five Perilous Paths to be avoided by adolescents.  (The other four are solitude, idleness, a soft and sedentary life and intercourse with women and young people) (p.335).

In Book 1 he rants about the evils of swaddling clothes; mothers who won’t do their duty by nursing their own children; and eating meat.  (Nursing mothers should not eat meat, he says, because decaying animal matter swarms with worms and so children who are nursed on human milk from meat-eating women, get worms.  But curdled milk is fine, ok?)

He thinks that only Frenchmen can travel where they like and be citizens of the world but that people of colour should stay where they are because they’re not as wise as Europeans.   He thinks they have an inferior sensibility too:

Savages suffer less than other men from curiosity and from tedium; everything is the same to them–themselves, not their possessions–and they are never weary.  (p. 225).

While he devotes this book to his daft theories of education, he believes that there’s no point in educating the poor because the education of his own station in life is thrust upon him, he can have no other. 

In Book 2 we learn that children need lessons in courage, and bearing pain. So they should not be coddled because bearing pain is the first, most useful lesson they can learn.  He rants about doctors all being quacks and he is especially cross about exposing children to fables because they will copy the folly rather than the moral lesson.  (Trust me, there is no sign of this among our little Preps, to whom I read Aesop’s Fables every year in first term.)   There is more, lots more, of this nonsense, but I think I’ve made my point.

So why was I reading it?  Well, I’ve signed up for a Melbourne University Alumni course called Great Books, and Émile was the first book under consideration.  Obviously finer minds than mine considered it a Great Book, and recommended it to read.   Rousseau is a Big Deal in the world of Philosophy and he was – and still is – a major influence on political, sociological and educational thought.  (I vaguely remember reading bits of Émile when I studied Philosophy of Education).  Still, why bother?  Why not just read the summary at Wikipedia, or any number of philosophical works which have sorted the wheat from the chaff?

As Wikipedia tells us

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (28 June 1712 – 2 July 1778) was a Genevan philosopher, writer, and composer of the 18th century. His political philosophy influenced the French Revolution as well as the overall development of modern political, sociological, and educational thought. He argued that private property was the start of civilization, inequality, murders and wars.

Rousseau’s novel Émile, or On Education is a treatise on the education of the whole person for citizenship. His sentimental novel Julie, or the New Heloise was of importance to the development of pre-romanticism and romanticism in fiction. Rousseau’s autobiographical writings—his Confessions, which initiated the modern autobiography, and his Reveries of a Solitary Walker—exemplified the late 18th-century movement known as the Age of Sensibility, and featured an increased focus on subjectivity and introspection that later characterized modern writing. His Discourse on the Origin of Inequality and his On the Social Contract are cornerstones in modern political and social thought.

The Philosophy BookUh huh.  Actually, I liked what I read about Rousseau in The Philosophy Book much better.

(An indispensable addition to anyone’s reference shelves, IMO.  Written in plain English, it makes sense of all those -isms that (even if you studied them at university or read their authors) you’ve forgotten or never understood in the first place.  It has introductory chapters to six main eras and it profiles all the major philosophers in 2-4 pages with illustrations and diagrams – and while it’s sequential it also tracks the interconnectedness of ideas with a beaut little text box about the context, providing the branch, approach, era and influences before and after).

The Philosophy Book tells me that Rousseau’s beliefs made a nice fit with the Revolutionary period in France.  Although he died before the Revolution took place (1789 to 1799),  his theory that civilisation corrupts the innate innocence of man and imposes laws that are unjust and selfish was a catalyst for change –

Rousseau’s rallying cry of ‘back to nature!’ and his pessimistic analysis of modern society as full of inequalities and injustices sat well with the growing social unrest of the 1750s, especially in France.  Not content with merely stating the problem, Rousseau went on to offer a solution, in what is seen as his most influential work, The Social Contract.

Rousseau opens his book with the challenging declaration ‘Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains’, which was considered such a call for radical change that it was adopted as a slogan during the French Revolution 27 years later.  Having issued his challenge, Rousseau then sets out his vision of an alternative civil society, run not by aristocrats, the monarchy and the Church, but by all citizens, who participate in the business of legislation.  (p. 158)

Émile fits into his scheme of things because it reinforces his idea that reason threatens human innocence, freedom and happiness.  Instead of the education of the intellect, he proposes an education of the senses, and he suggests that our religious faith should be guided by the heart, not the head. (p. 159)

So you can see from this brief but illuminating excerpt why the authorities and the Church took a dim view of Rousseau’s popularity, and you can also see that these ideas about ordinary people taking responsibility for government have been influential and to the benefit of ordinary mortals like you and me.  He may have been a bit nutty, but Rousseau was the catalyst for a better life for most of us (and perhaps we should take better care of the rights that we now have, and use our power more responsibly than we do).

But why read the original Rousseau rather than a succinct summary?  For me, it was because hearing the author’s own voice put his ideas into their 18th century context.  And although at 512 pages with a lot to irritate the modern reader, and Émile is not a book I recommend with any great enthusiasm, in the end I became rather fond of Rousseau – though probably not for the reasons he would have liked.  I spent more time laughing out loud when I was reading Émile than I have reading almost any other recent book on my shelves, and I shared many of these chortles with The Spouse (who’s read many books of philosophy but not Émile).  There is this one, for example:

The weak, feeble, timid man is condemned by nature to a sedentary life, he is fit to live among women or in their fashion. Let him adopt one of their trades if he likes; and if there must be eunuchs let them take those men who dishonour their sex by adopting trades unworthy of it.  (p. 191).

And this:

Those who regard woman as an imperfect man are no doubt mistaken, but they have external resemblance on their side. Up to the age of puberty children of both sexes have little to distinguish them to the eye, the same face and form, the same complexion and voice, everything is the same; girls are children and boys are children; one name is enough for creatures so closely resembling one another. Males whose development is arrested preserve this resemblance all their lives; they are always big children; and women who never lose this resemblance seem in many respects never to be more than children.  (p. 202).

It’s not just his fanciful ideas about education for the hapless Emile, but also (yes, predictably) his notions about the perfect helpmeet for him and the kind of education she should have.  There are crazy ideas about abandoning city and town life and (shades of Pol Pot) heading back to the land where everyone can enjoy the fruits of manual labour (no machinery allowed).

Presumably Rousseau was aware of the irony in this remark in his bookI hate books; they only teach us to talk about things we know nothing about.  (p. 172), but he does acknowledge that Emile should eventually be allowed to have access to one.

Since we must have books. there is one book which, to my thinking, supplies the best treatise on an education according to nature. This is the first book Emile will read; for a long time it will form his whole library, and it will always retain an honoured place. It will be the text to which all our talks about natural science are but the commentary. It will serve to test our progress towards a right judgment, and it will always be read with delight, so long as our taste is unspoilt. What is this wonderful book? Is it Aristotle? Pliny? Buffon? No; it is Robinson Crusoe.

Robinson Crusoe on his island, deprived of the help of his fellow-men, without the means of carrying on the various arts, yet finding food, preserving his life, and procuring a certain amount of comfort; this is the thing to interest people of all ages, and it can be made attractive to children in all sorts of ways. We shall thus make a reality of that desert island which formerly served as an illustration. The condition, I confess, is not that of a social being, nor is it in all probability Emile’s own condition, but he should use it as a standard of comparison for all other conditions.

The surest way to raise him above prejudice and to base his judgments on the true relations of things, is to put him in the place of a solitary man, and to judge all things as they would be judged by such a man in relation to their own utility.

This novel, stripped of irrelevant matter, begins with Robinson’s shipwreck on his island, and ends with the coming of the ship which bears him from it, and it will furnish Emile with material, both for work and play, during the whole period we are considering. His head should be full of it, he should always be busy with his castle, his goats, his plantations. Let him learn in detail, not from books but from things, all that is necessary in such a case. Let him think he is Robinson himself; let him see himself clad in skins, wearing a tall cap, a great cutlass, all the grotesque get-up of Robinson Crusoe, even to the umbrella which he will scarcely need. He should anxiously consider what steps to take; will this or that be wanting. He should examine his hero’s conduct; has he omitted nothing; is there nothing he could have done better? He should carefully note his mistakes, so as not to fall into them himself in similar circumstances, for you may be sure he will plan out just such a settlement for himself. This is the genuine castle in the air of this happy age, when the child knows no other happiness but food and freedom.

What a motive will this infatuation supply in the hands of a skilful teacher who has aroused it for the purpose of using it. The child who wants to build a storehouse on his desert island will be more eager to learn than the master to teach. He will want to know all sorts of useful things and nothing else; you will need the curb as well as the spur.  (p. 172-3).

But tucked away in all this idealistic and sometimes conflicting nonsense, there is a lovely exposition (p 269 – 326) from ‘a Savoyard friar’.  The friar eschews the follies and corruption of institutionalised religion and the entanglements of theology (to the extent that I began to doubt whether Rousseau believed in God at all) but he concludes by articulating the simplicity of a heartfelt faith in God.  Not one that I share, but one that seems like a much better version of faith than the ones that prevail today.

“My good youth, be honest and humble; learn how to be ignorant, then you will never deceive yourself or others. If ever your talents are so far cultivated as to enable you to speak to other men, always speak according to your conscience, without caring for their applause. The abuse of knowledge causes incredulity. The learned always despise the opinions of the crowd; each of them must have his own opinion. A haughty philosophy leads to atheism just as blind devotion leads to fanaticism. Avoid these extremes; keep steadfastly to the path of truth, or what seems to you truth, in simplicity of heart, and never let yourself be turned aside by pride or weakness.

Dare to confess God before the philosophers; dare to preach humanity to the intolerant. It may be you will stand alone, but you will bear within you a witness which will make the witness of men of no account with you. Let them love or hate, let them read your writings or despise them; no matter. Speak the truth and do the right; the one thing that really matters is to do one’s duty in this world; and when we forget ourselves we are really working for ourselves. My child, self-interest misleads us; the hope of the just is the only sure guide.”  (pp. 326-328).

Now that is rather nice, I think…

Author: Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Title: Emile, or On Education
Translated by Barbara Foxley (who deserves a medal for her forbearance),
Publisher: Project Gutenberg edition.  We were supposed to read a posh new translation by Allan Bloom, but by the time they sent us the info telling us this, I was half through reading it on the Kindle and not disposed to shell out money on this title.
Source: Freebie, from Project Gutenberg.


  1. Lisa, I commend your engagement with a philosopher many refer to, I have often been told of, but have not taken and will not take the time to read in person. I confess I have only skim read your review. But I note you mention, with irony, his teachings about how mothers should behave and how children should be brought up. I think there are serious issues of Rousseau’s voice, credibility and morality here. What sticks in my throat, and the main reason I don’t/won/t read him, is that he committed his own children as infants to orphanages, but dared preach to mothers about how they should bring their children up. He was a selfish and arrogant man who died a lonely death. ” I am cold, I am sad, I piss badly.” We all come to this. but some of us, on the way, spend ourselves in loving and being present. Some never do, they just talk about it. To me, he is no different from the long tradition of patriarchal men who have held high positions in religious and educational life and paraded as models of good citizenship, whilst abusing the women and children they have made dependent on them in varying degrees.


    • Hello Christina,
      Apparently Mary Wollstonecraft took particular exception to Rousseau, which is interesting because after all, she had a grand collection of patriarchal males to choose from!


  2. Thank you for your excellent precis. Now I can skip Emile. Rousseau has never been an attractive personality to me. He is too certain, too didactic. I have read The Social Contract. Some of his ideas are good but others are batty. The big flaw, as I remember it, is that he bases his arguments on concepts of a “state of nature” and “natural man” which are totally unrealistic. At least, that’s how I remember it, and you must forgive me if I have him confused with some other philosopher.


    • No, I don’t think you’re mistaken, he goes on about nature a lot, and you can see his influence on all those hippie movements of the 1970s. Ironically the hippies thought he was a champion of libertarianism and let their children run wild, but actually as you read this book you can see that he was all in favour of restraining them. Education for him is about controlling the passions.


  3. Lisa – your reading stamina is quite remarkable. I occasionally try books like this and give up after a few pages (Montaigne being a recent example).

    I suspect if we got into the minds of anyone from that period we would find unacceptable view on every possible topic. While unreconstructed ideas do not make their holders bad people as such, the strength with which they promote them probably does. I wonder what we think today which will seem archaic in times to come?

    Your course sounds fascinating, But I would have thought you’d be as able to choose a list of “great books” as anyone else.


    • *chuckle* This one certainly tested my stamina!
      I think the ideas for which we will be judged most harshly is the general indifference to the threat of climate change and the misery it will bring to future generations.
      I don’t understand how anyone can be unconvinced by the evidence from climate scientists, but even those unconvinced ought to apply the precautionary principle, which is that, if you’re not sure about something, you don’t do anything to make it worse, just in case.


      • Hmm, we are spending huge amounts of money on alternative energy sources but some of them seem to cost us dear to little effect on the climate. Our addiction to flying and motoring is perhaps the most acute problem? But who’s going to give up those!


        • Sadly, Tom, I agree that we’re not going to see any improvement in the climate in our lifetime. All we are doing, if we get anywhere near our objectives, is to halt the damage that’s been done and reduce the impact on future generations. If we have empathy for people yet unborn, that’s worth it.
          I don’t think we need to give up flying and motoring, I’ve been buying carbon offsets for years so that every time I fly it’s balanced by my money going towards setting up more alternative energy projects, funding poor people to put in energy saving renovations and so on. I have solar HWS and electricity on my roof and together with my carbon offset subscriptions and payments, my household is carbon neutral and has been for years now. But we need a lot more than households to change their ways, we need incentives (like a carbon tax and energy price rises) to make big business and government reduce their energy use. Every school, hospital and government building, every factory and shop in Australia should generate its own solar energy – and I guess for Britain, it’s more likely to be wind energy though I believe the Germans generate a huge amount of solar power, which is amazing given their climate. We have to keep doing all we can, and we have to make our politicians believe it’s a vote-changer too. I can’t bear the thought of my grand nieces growing up in 50 degree heat, I couldn’t look them in the eye if I didn’t do everything possible…


  4. Thanks for the lead on ‘The Philosophy Book’. I’ll skip Emile. However ‘Candide’ by Voltaire is one of my absolute favorites.


    • Oh, yes, I loved Candide, I read it years ago, I remember idly pulling it off the shelf to browse through during the ads on TV, and the next thing I knew the TV was over and I hadn’t watched any of it:)
      What else is there that’s good to read by Voltaire?


  5. I was looking forward to this review. I couldn’t stand the passages by Rousseau I’ve read. Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire… What a pain! I wish he had kept his thoughts to himself, even if it was seminal for Romanticism.

    As a true city girl at heart, I have trouble with ideas suggesting to go back to nature and live like Neanderthal men. They always romanticize nature and forget about the hardship of life in the country. If that was so marvellous, prey tell me why peasants rushed to cities as fast as they could when they had the opportunity.

    About Emile, I agree with Christina above: I respect people who practice what they preach. Giving lessons on education while being such a bad father at the same time is rather arrogant, don’t you think?

    Les Charmettes, the house where he used to live with his mistress Mme de Warrens (the one he called “Maman”) is not far from here and interesting to visit.

    Really, reading your post, you can see why Voltaire had so much material to make fun of Rousseau.


    • All true, all true, Emma, and I am definitely with you about cities, I’m a city girl too:)


  6. I totally understand everyone’s frustration with Emile. What I find most disturbing is that his ideas helped establish so much of what I find toxic about nineteenth century views of childhood and gender roles. He was not simply stating the ideas of his time but creating a new ideal of family. He resented the women of Paris intelligentsia and was answered by Mary Wollstonecraft. He was the one who gained popularity with ideas that women were inadequate and needed male manipulation and control. Actually that idea was one he inherited and reshaped so that it fit into post-Enlightenment thought.


  7. […] is up to the alert reader to join the dots herself.  In the case of Rousseau, for example, whose Émile I have read, The Philosophy Book makes no mention of how absurdly sexist Rousseau’s ideas about education […]


  8. […] the University of Sydney.  Rousseau wrote novels like Émile to espouse his theories of education (see my thoughts here) so this snippet intrigues me.  I wonder what the Australian philosopher Damon Young who wrote The […]


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