How does Rousseau find happiness

300 years of Jean-Jacques Rousseau : Clutter and late happiness

A favorite pastime of old Rousseau was to identify plants in the grounds and nearby forests of Paris. What went through his head on the way he recorded on the back of playing cards. When he began in 1776 at the age of 64 with the notes for his last work, the "Rêveries du promeneur solitaire", which will soon be published by Matthes & Seitz under the title "Dreams of a lonely wandering", which will be newly translated by Stefan Doubt, he noted for Title, his whole life was "little more than a long reverie". According to the complex meaning of "rêverie", it means something between daydream, delusion and philosophical meditation.

“So I am now alone on earth”, is the surprising first sentence, “without brother, without neighbor, without friend, left to my own society.” Rousseau, who almost habitually felt himself to be a prisoner of public opinion, stylized himself into one Homeless wandering around, wants to create an inner freedom and serenity for himself every day with unbroken rhetorical power, which was not intended in his life, which was determined by hostility, flight and self-justification.

Heinrich Meier, professor of political philosophy in Munich and editor of a 1984 edition of Rousseau's “Discourse on Inequality”, pursued this rhetoric of detachment on the 300th birthday of the thinker on June 28 of this year. Meier is interested in the essayistic and narrative "reveries", how Rousseau makes the "philosophical life" itself the topic here, reflecting on the value and change of what he thought was happiness.

With the “social contract” and the educational novel “Émile”, books that were confiscated and condemned after their publication in 1762, Rousseau had turned the nobility and the church against him. While he was defending himself in public letters after his escape from France, an anonymous pamphlet spread that he, the founder of a new pedagogy known throughout Europe, was delivering his own children to the orphanage.

Voltaire's pamphlet, which in any case was based on fact on this point, severely damaged Rousseau's reputation. His answer consisted of the “Confessions” and the dialogues “Rousseau judges Jean-Jacques” - both attempts to forestall further attacks, to regain the authority to interpret himself and his writings. The excitement of these arguments still resonates in the “Träumereien”, which first appeared in 1782, four years after his death, as an appendix to the “Confessions” - and yet it no longer plays a decisive role.

In the “Träumereien”, Rousseau speaks of the “unfortunate time in which he crowded around rich and scholarly”, remembers how he took off his rapier at the age of 40, sold his watch and withdrew from the social life of the Parisian salons. This first led to irritation, then to a break with the philosophers Diderot, who led d’Alembert and Holbach, his companion from the “Encyclopédie”, which collected the knowledge of the Enlightenment. The great conspiracy he feared did not materialize, but Rousseau, who returned to Paris in 1770, as contemporaries reported, suspiciously examined the looks of passers-by. As in his youth, he dreamed of being unknown again.

The author of the “social contract” withdraws his claim to act as a legislator and teacher of the people, even denying himself the ability to live a bourgeoisie. This includes getting used to coercion and obligation, against which his “independent nature” has always resisted. With this, Rousseau, as Meier emphasizes, comes back to the central idea of ​​his work: the "tension between the société civile and nature". It is not the human being that is afflicted with defects, it is the forms of coexistence that have corrupted his being, "deprived" it - right up to the graceful, class-conscious people of Rousseau's time who, as he says, live in the opinion of others and consider distraction to be happiness.

The “Träumereien” are not an intimate journal, but they contain passages of great intimacy. In the best-known part, the “Fifth Walk”, Rousseau remembers the St. Petersinsel in Lake Biel, on which he was able to move freely until the Bern government declared him persona non grata after six weeks. His greatest pleasure during this time was rowing out on the lake by himself, lying in the boat and letting the waves play for hours.

In narrative retrospect, it becomes the happiest time of his life, a state of blissful oblivion to the world, to which, as he writes, he often returns in his imagination. One understands here how the narrator Rousseau opened the eyes of an entire generation to the beauty of unregulated nature, how he was able to give a new meaning to the mere feeling of existence, the “sentiment de l'existence”. Heinrich Meier's reflections “On the happiness of the philosophical Life ”, which emerged from lectures and lectures, demand patience from the reader. Rousseau's gradually developed thoughts and argumentation patterns are often reproduced in French, in the old orthography of the “Œuvres complètes”.

Meier's portrayal is convincing in the merging of two biographical lines: Rousseau finally no longer claimed to defend the misunderstood state of nature, mocked as an invitation to walk on all fours, from which he was simultaneously able to gain new sides in the “reveries”. However, it is questionable whether the famous visual rubbing on Lake Biel, as Meier suggests, should be understood as the closest possible approximation to the natural state. It was Claude Lévi-Strauss who quoted Rousseau, who was admired as a pioneer in ethnology, with the sentence that it was a matter of grasping a condition “which may never have existed and probably never will exist, and of which we must nevertheless have correct ideas in order to be able to judge our present condition ”.

Heinrich Meier: About the happiness of philosophical life. Reflections on Rousseau's “Rêveries” in two books. C. H. Beck, Munich 2011. 442 pp., € 29.95.

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