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Dear Rousseau (h2so4 18)

Dear Rousseau:

I am a receptionist. When people call the company I work for, they always either expect that I know everything or nothing. (And so they are always wrong.) And they are so rarely polite, and have quite obviously so rarely given any thought to what it takes to do my job, or what they would really have to say to me to enable me to help them in a swift and effective manner, that it makes me wonder: why? What makes them behave so irrationally?

—At Their Service

Dear Service:

When someone has been brought up to command others, everything conspires to rob him of justice and reason. Great pains are taken, we are told, to teach young princes the art of ruling; but it does not appear that this education does them any good. It would be better to begin by teaching them the art of obeying. The greatest kings known to history were not among those brought up to rule, for ruling is a science that is least well mastered by too much practice; it is one a man learns better in obeying than commanding. As Tacitus would have it, Nam utilissimus idem ac brevissimus bonarum malarumque rerum delectus, cogitare quid aut nolueris sub alio Principe aut volueris. [The best as well as the shortest way to find out what is good and what is bad is to consider what you would have wished to happen if someone other than yourself had been Prince.] If those higher up always imagined themselves trading places with those less “high,” the world could be a different place.

Yours truly,

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Dear Rousseau:

How am I to decide important matters by looking to philosophers? They all disagree, contradict each other, prove each other wrong, and often it seems they do so out of a love of proving wrong more than out of love of the truth. How do I decide?

—Amy G. Dala

Dear Ms. Dala:

I confess that I too have not always resolved to my own satisfaction all the difficulties which have perplexed me and which our philosophers have so often drummed into my ears. But having determined to make a final decision on matters which are so baffling to the human mind, and finding on all sides impenetrable mysteries and unanswerable objections, I adopted in every case the opinion which seemed to me the most clearly proved and the most credible in itself, without worrying about objections which I could not resolve, but which were met by other equally powerful objections in the opposing system.

Only a charlatan will be dogmatic on such questions, but we must all have our own opinion and must choose it with all the maturity of judgment of which we are capable. If in spite of this we still fall into error, we cannot in justice be held responsible for it, since we are not to blame. This is the unshakable principle on which I base my confidence.

Yours, J-J Rousseau

Dear Rousseau:

What is freedom?

—Inquiring Mind

Dear Mind:

It depends on who you are. Politicians utter the same sophisms about love of liberty that philosophers utter about the state of nature; on the strength of things that they see, they make judgments about very different things that they have not seen; and they attribute to men a natural propensity to slavery because they witness the patience with which slaves bear their servitude, failing to remember that liberty is like innocence and virtue: the value of it is appreciated only so long as one possesses it oneself, and the taste for it is lost as soon as one loses it.

Just as an unbroken horse erects its mane, paws the ground with its hoof, and rears impetuously at the very approach of the bit, while a trained horse suffers patiently even the whip and spur, savage man will not bend his neck to the yoke which civilized man wears without a murmur; he prefers the most turbulent freedom to the most tranquil subjection. I know that enslaved peoples do nothing but boast of the peace and repose they enjoy in their chains. But when I see free peoples sacrificing pleasure, repose, wealth, power, even life itself for the sake of preserving that one good which is so disdained by those who have lost it; when I see animals, born free and hating captivity, breaking their heads against the bars of their prison; when I see multitudes of naked savages scorn European pleasures and brave hunger, fire, the sword and death simply to preserve their independence, I feel that it is not for slaves to argue about liberty.

It is likely that the freedom you are asking about is not “absolute liberty.” That does not mean that only a savage can be free. Society is full of hypocrisy. It could have been otherwise.

See also my answer to the footwear question.

Yours truly, J-J Rousseau

Dear Rousseau:

You knew this question was coming. Why do women wear white pumps?

—h2so4 staff

Dear Staff:

Although in civil society man surrenders some of the advantages that belong to the state of nature, by which I mean his absolute freedom, he gains in civil society far greater benefits. In society man’s faculties are so exercised and developed, his mind so enlarged, his sentiments so ennobled, and his whole spirit so elevated that, if the abuse of the new condition did not in many cases lower him to something worse than what he had left, he should constantly bless the happy hour that lifted him forever from the state of nature and from being a stupid, limited animal, making of him instead a creature of intelligence. I discover in your concern with footwear traces of that superficiality that is possible only in society. Let it go; focus instead on making yourself free. In order to aid you I will say something more about what it means to be free.

What man loses by the social contract is his natural liberty and the absolute right to anything that tempts him, anything that he can take; what he gains by the social contract is civil liberty and the legal right of property in what he possesses. If we are to avoid mistakes in weighing one side against the other, we must clearly distinguish between natural liberty, which has no limit but the physical power of the individual concerned, and civil liberty, which is limited by the general will, or what society deems collectively to be best. We might also add that man acquires with civil society moral freedom, which alone makes him master of himself; for to be governed by physical impulse alone is slavery to instincts, while obedience to a law one prescribes to oneself is freedom. However, I have already said more than enough on this subject.


J-J Rousseau

Dear Rousseau:

How can I tell when I’m a date?


Dear Heidi:

I doubt that I am qualified to answer this question. As far as I’m concerned, the longing for happiness is never quenched in the heart of man. I have always regarded the day which united me to my Thérèse as the one that determined my moral being. That good girl’s sweet nature seemed to me so well suited to my own that I joined myself to her in an attachment that has defied time and injuries. Indeed, every trial that might have broken it has only served to make it stronger.

But things are not as they seem. When it becomes known that after having made every effort and braved every danger in order not to have parted from her, after having lived together with her for twenty-five years in defiance of fate and mankind (for she is a servant, not my equal), I finally married her in my old age, without any entreaties or expectation on her part and without any engagement or promise on mine, it may be supposed that a mad passion turned my head from the first day and led me this last extravagance.

What will the reader think, then, when I tell him, in all sincerity, that from the first moment I saw her until this day I have never felt the least glimmering of love for her and that the sensual needs I satisfied with her were for me purely sexual and had nothing to do with her as an individual? He will believe that I was not made like other men, that I was incapable of feeling love, since love did not enter into the feelings that attached me to the woman who has been dearest to me.

However, the first, the greatest, the strongest, the most inextinguishable of all my needs was entirely one of the heart. It was the need for intimate companionship, for a companionship as intimate as possible, which was the chief reason why I needed a woman rather than a man, a woman friend rather than a man friend. This singular need was such that the most intimate physical union could not fulfil it; only two souls in the same body would have sufficed. Failing that, I always felt a void. When I met Thérèse, I believed that the moment had come when I should feel that void no longer. This young person who had so many qualities to make her lovable and was without a trace of artifice or coquetry, would have absorbed my whole existence within herself if I could have absorbed hers in me, as I had hoped. But her family was annoying, and various other things kept us from the kind of union I wanted.

So, if I understand what you are asking in your question, my answer is, I have no idea.

Yours truly, Jean-Jacques Rousseau