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Rousseau’s Reveries: the Juvenile Independence

of the Solitary Walker

Dominic Stefanson

School of History and Politics

University of Adelaide

Refereed Paper presented to the

Australasian Political Studies Association Conference

University of Adelaide University

29 September – 1 October 2004.

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Dominic Stefanson: Rousseau’s Solitary Walker

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For Rousseau, societal life made people neglect their innate qualities of

independence and transparency causing them to be fractured, deceitful, slavish and

deeply unhappy. This paper focuses on Rousseau’s individual solution to the

problem of society, concentrating specifically on the god-like ascension to self-

sufficiency of the contemplative philosopher (Rousseau himself) presented in the

autobiographical Reveries of the Solitary Walker. The paper elucidates Rousseau’s

understanding of independence as it is expressed in the Reveries and argues that the

rewards and benefits that a civilised man can hope to draw from restoring his

independence diminish significantly between the Social Contract and the Reveries of

the Solitary Walker. The Social Contract offers a wondrous improvement in the

condition of men who partake in a shared independence. It enables them to grow

and prosper as individuals. In contrast, the personal independence Rousseau claims

to enjoy in his late autobiographical works is unconditional negative freedom. He

acclaims a life of solitude unburdened by the weight of reality where he is free to

reject all constraints and obligations. What Rousseau proposes to achieve with his

new found personal independence is largely doing nothing.

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For Rousseau, the story of the human condition can be seen in terms of man’s

independence. In his natural, prehistoric condition man enjoyed independence and

lived a good life, but every step in the history of human evolution led man further

away from his natural independence and into ever increasing misery and

degradation. This was the thesis of Rousseau’s first published works, the two

Discourses, and one that he would restate clearly at the end of his life. “Nature made

man happy and good, but society depraves him and makes him miserable.”



potential redemption rests on regaining his natural independence.

Rousseau’s prescriptive thought is based on recreating the independence and

consequent wholeness of natural man and thus redressing the inequalities, abuses

and dependence men suffer in civilised society. Rousseau’s prescription for man’s

redemption can be divided into an individual solution and a collective solution.


The collective solution, given voice in the Social Contract, takes the form of a newly

conceived state where the conditions of natural independence are artificially

recreated by providing every individual with self-sovereignty by giving him an

equal voice in a political sovereignty that governs all. The model of individual

redemption that this article will concentrate on is depicted in the Reveries of The

Solitary Walker [posthumous 1778] and in the second part of The Confessions

[posthumous 1778]. In these autobiographical texts, Rousseau presents himself as a

man who, having been rejected by his fellow men and had his heart “purified in the

crucible of adversity,”


has overcome the abuses of society and regained his natural


Rousseau, J-J., Dialogues, Œuvres Complètes, eds., Gagnebin, B. & Raymond, M., Bibliothèque de la Pléiade,

Gallimard, Paris, Vol.1-5, 1959, 1961, 1964, 1969, 1995, v.I, p.934. This translation and all others from the Œuvres

Complètes are the author’s. Rousseau does not use man in the generic sense of humanity, he specifically means

male. The exclusion of women from the Social Contract is well-known. The exclusion of women from the model

presented in the Reveries of the Solitary Walker is equally, for Rousseau, essential. For an explanation of why this is

the case see Coquillat, M., A Male Poetics, Gallimard, Paris, 1982, selected passages trans. Burch, N., Women a

Cultural Review, 11(3), 2000, pp..223-237. I have chosen to echo Rousseau’s use of man because examining the

changes that would be necessary to the framework of assumptions within which Rousseau originally conceived

the solitary walker in order to accommodate females is beyond the scope of this paper.


Rousseau’s individual solution provides redemption for an individual living in a corrupt society. The

individual solution can in fact be divided into two different solutions. Firstly, there is Emile, who is an ordinary

man who is trained to live independently. Secondly, Rousseau, in his late autobiographical writings offers

himself as a model for an individual who soars above society as a result of his own genius. Starobinski, J., Jean-

Jacques Rousseau. La transparence et l’obstacle: suivi de Sept essais sur Rousseau, Gallimard, Paris, 1971, pp.24-25;

Cooper, L., Rousseau, Nature, and the Problem of the Good Life, The Pennsylvania State University Press, University

Park, Pennsylvania, 1999, pp.1-2, 17-19. Shklar collapses the two individual solutions into one. Shklar, J., Men

and Citizens: A Study of Rousseau’s Social Theory, Cambridge University Press, 1969, pp.5-11.


Reveries of the Solitary Walker, trans. France, P., Penguin Books, 1979, Walk 1, p.33. Henceforth cited in the text as

R.S.W., with the number of the walk (chapter) and the page number.

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independence and consequent psychic harmony and happiness.


The journey to self-

sufficiency and independence is undertaken by Rousseau without outside assistance

and it is only possible because of his immense perceptive skills and cognitive ability.