The Crime of Monsieur Renou

Alan Ryan

  • The Solitary Self: Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Exile and Adversity by Maurice Cranston
    Allen Lane, 247 pp, £25.00, March 1997, ISBN 0 7139 9166 6

As political theorist, Maurice Cranston had little to add to the conventional wisdom, but he possessed an astonishing, if strangely low-key, talent as a biographer. His biography of Locke, published in 1956, showed that the fustian, commonsensical, cautious and pragmatic Locke that every undergraduate knew from philosophy and political theory tutorials had in fact been a stranger, wilder and more dangerous figure than they suspected. Nor did Cranston stretch the evidence, or reinterpret Locke’s life to reach such a conclusion. His method was – as in all three volumes of the biography of Rousseau – to immerse himself in the evidence, both personal and contextual, to read (and then largely to ignore) the secondary literature, and to allow his subject to emerge as naturally as possible from the background.

The method works best with thinkers who have vivid personalities and much to say about themselves. Locke, one might have thought before Cranston’s biography, would be an unlikely candidate for such treatment. In the case of Rousseau, however, nobody needed to be persuaded that Cranston’s subject had an engrossing vie intérieure. The author of the Confessions, the Dialogues and the Rêveries had a great deal to say about himself, and much of it was pretty astonishing. The anxiety of the more romantically-minded might rather be that Rousseau would emerge from Cranston’s treatment somewhat flattened. Indeed, in the Preface to The Noble Savage, the second volume of this Life, Cranston reported the reaction of one disappointed reviewer of the first volume, who had ‘protested that with this method of impartial pursuit of the facts I had made Rousseau seem “almost normal”.’

It is all too easy to think that the distraught and mistrustful figure of Rousseau’s final years of exile, illness and madness was always somehow lurking in the wings, or that he must be somewhere visible in the pages of The Social Contract or Emile or La Nouvelle Héloïse. But a mad or distracted Rousseau could not have written those three books, each one of them a turning-point in European thinking – about politics, education and sexuality, and about the connection between all three of these – during a period of some nine years. What happened thereafter is another matter.

Cranston’s Preface announced in passing that ‘those readers who cannot imagine Rousseau as anything other than thoroughly paranoid must wait for the third volume of this biography, which will trace the last tormented years of his life.’ Now, we have The Solitary Self, in which these last tormented years are portrayed. However, Cranston died in November 1993, with only seven of the eight chapters completed. Although Sanford Lakoff has done a neat job of finishing off the last chapter and adding an Epilogue on Rousseau’s ideas and influence that elegantly and skilfully draws on several of Cranston’s essays, the effect is to make this still more a biography of a ‘normal’ Rousseau. For this volume is little more than half the length of its predecessors; the last eight years of his life are only very lightly sketched in, and the emphasis remains very firmly on Rousseau the political thinker – as opposed to Rousseau the invalid, the paranoid, the bearer in his own person of the romantic urge for self-destruction, and all those other incarnations of Jean-Jacques with whom we are familiar.

To say this is not to belittle the extraordinary efforts that Cranston devoted to the task of tracing Rousseau’s wanderings during the last 15 years of his life. To understand why it was a task worth engaging with, it is necessary to return to the end of Cranston’s second volume, and to the astonishing few years when Rousseau published La Nouvelle Héloïse, Emile and The Social Contract. Both Emile and The Social Contract were incendiary tracts. The latter might be thought to remain such even now, since anyone who took its view of the conditions of political legitimacy seriously would have difficulty finding a single legitimate state anywhere in the modern world. But it was Emile that initially got Rousseau into trouble.

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