Lagura: Noble savage or immoral opportunist?

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau

(1712-1778)

PEOPLE in the Enlightenment Period vividly remember Jean-Jacques Rousseau for his essays, and, most especially for his books, namely, “Social Contract,” “Emile,” and “The New Heloise.”

Born in Geneva, the heart of Calvinist Switzerland, to a pious mother and an eccentric father -- the older Rousseau believed that Geneva was the reincarnation of glorious Sparta. Idealizing ancient Greece, the father brandished a sword in the middle of the city, thereby being promptly banished into exile, leaving the young Jean-Jacques practically fatherless and penniless.

Still the young lad, by virtue of his native talent, educated himself. Later he wrote the controversial “Social Contract,” angering the Calvinists who sent him also into exile in France.

In the city of Savoy, Jean-Jacques won the favor of a Calvinist turned Catholic: Baroness de Warens, a wealthy divorcee who urged young male Calvinists to convert for a highly questionable motivation. One such convert to the Church was the young Rousseau, and it was strongly rumored that he and his benefactress were engaged in something highly unusual.

In the publication of his second work, “Emile,” he advocated “Back to nature,” for man is born basically a “noble savage.” Society with its culture, civilization and religion spoiled man. Rousseau thereby ignored the reality of “original sin” and “man’s fallen nature.”

When French priests condemned him for his thoughts, Rousseau hastened back to Switzerland and immediately reverted to Calvinism. Despite his having a young mistress, Therese Levasseure, an uneducated laundry girl whom he presented in public as his “nurse,” the Swiss Calvinists welcomed Rousseau, for whom cohabitation is natural and normal.

A third work, “The New Heloise,” angered the Calvinists and Jansenists alike for stating that private property is the real source of evil and division, forcing Rousseau to seek refuge in Luxembourg. But he did not stay there long either.

Back in France, he lived almost miserably, losing friends after fierce quarrels. However, his ideas on property and savage nobility of man enriched the minds of Marx, Lenin and a host of liberal-minded individuals. His ashes are kept in France’s Pantheon, his ideas at home in the minds of many.

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