Reveries of a Solitary Walker

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Let me give myself over entirely to the pleasure of conversing with my soul, since this is the only pleasure that men cannot take away from me. If by meditation on my inner life I am able to order it better and remedy the faults that may remain there, my meditations will not be entirely in vain, and although I am now good for nothing on this earth, I shall not have totally wasted my last days. (First walk)

Thrown into the whirlpool of life while still a child, I learned from early experience that I was not made for this world, and that in it I would never attain the state to which my heart aspired. Ceasing therefore to seek among men the happiness which I felt I could never find there, My ardent imagination learned to leap over the boundaries of a life which was as yet hardly begun, as if it were flying over an alien land in search of a fixed and stable resting-place. (Third walk)

I have met many men who were more learned in their philosophising, but their philosophy remained as it were external to them. Wishing to know more than other people, they studied the workings of the universe, as they might have studied some machine they had come across, out of sheer curiosity. They studied human nature in order to speak knowledgeably about it, not in order to know themselves; their efforts were directed to the instruction of others and not to their own inner enlightenment. (Third walk)

I have always thought that before instructing others one should begin by knowing enough for one’s own needs, and of all the studies I have undertaken in my life among men, there is hardly one that I would not have equally undertaken if I had been confined to a desert island for the rest of my life. (Third walk)

Can one expect good faith from the leaders of parties? Their philosophy is meant for others; I need one for myself. (Third walk)

Only my innocence gives me strength in my misfortunes; how much more miserable I should be if I deprived myself of this single but powerful support and put malice in its place! Should I equal them in the art of mischief, and if I did, how would the harm I did them help me? I should lose my own self-respect and gain nothing in its place. (Third walk)

But patience, kindness, resignation, integrity and impartial justice are goods that we can take with us and that we can accumulate continually without fear that death itself can rob us of their value. It is to this one useful study that I devote what remains of my old age. And I shall be happy if by my own self-improvement I learn to leave life, not better, for that is impossible, but more virtuous than when I entered it. (Third walk)

Everything is in constant flux on this earth. Nothing keeps the same unchanging shape, and our affections, being attached to things outside us, necessarily change and pass away as they do. Always out ahead of us or lagging behind, they recall a past which is gone or anticipate a future which may never come into being; there is nothing solid there for the heart to attach itself to. [...] What is the source of happiness in such a state? Nothing external to us, nothing apart from ourselves and our own existence; as long as this state lasts we are self-sufficient like God. The feeling of existence unmixed with any other emotion is in itself a precious feeling of peace and contentment which would be enough to make this mode of being loved and cherished by anyone who could guard against all the earthly and sensual influences that are constantly distracting us from it in this life and troubling the joy it could give us. [...] There must be neither a total calm nor too much movement, but a steady and moderate motion, with no jolts or breaks. Without any movement life is mere lethargy. If the movement is irregular or too violent it arouses us from our dreams; recalling us to an awareness of the surrounding objects, it destroys the charm of reverie and tears us from our inner self, bowing us once again beneath the yoke of fortune and mankind and reviving in us the sense of our misfortunes. Complete silence induces melancholy; it is an image of death. In such cases the assistance of a happy imagination is needed, and it comes naturally to those whom heaven has blessed with it. The movement which does not come from outside us arises within us at such times. Our tranquillity is less complete, it is true, but it is also more agreeable when pleasant and insubstantial ideas barely touch the surface of the soul, so to speak, and do not stir its depths. (Fifth walk)

Self-esteem is the strongest impulse of proud souls; self-love, with its train of illusions, can often creep it under the guise of self-esteem, but when the fraud is finally revealed and self-love can no longer conceal itself, there is no further cause to fear it, and though it may be hard to destroy, at least it is easy to subdue. (Eight walk)

As long as all men were my brothers, I invented plans of earthly happiness for myself; these plans were always universal in scope, I could be happy only in the happiness of all and my heart was never touched by the idea of private happiness, until I saw my brothers seek their own happiness in my misery. In order not to hate them I had no other choice but to flee from them, and taking refuge in the bosom of our common mother, I tried in her embrace to avoid the attacks of her children, I became a solitary or, as they say, an unsociable misanthropist, because I prefer the harshest solitude to the society of malicious men which thrives only on treachery and hate. (Seventh walk)

I can understand the reproach of having put my children in the Foundlings’ Home should easily have degenerated, with a little embellishment, into that of being an unnatural father and a child-hater. Nevertheless there is no doubt that in doing so I was influenced most of all by the fear that any other course of action would almost inevitably bring upon them a fate a thousand times worse. Had I been less concerned with what would happen to them, since I was not in a position to bring them up myself, I should have been obliged by my circumstances to leave their education to their mother, who would have spoiled them, and the her family, who would have made monsters of them. [...]I knew that the least dangerous form of education they could have was the Foundlings’ Home, so I put them there. I should do the same again with even fewer misgivings if the choice were still before me, and I am sure that no father is more affectionate than I would have been towards them once habit had had time to reinforce my natural inclination. (Ninth walk)

The conclusion I can draw from all these reflections is that I have never been truly fitted for social life, where there is nothing but irksome duty and obligation, and that my independent character has always made it impossible for me to submit to the constraints which must be accepted by anyone who wishes to live among men. As long as I act freely I am good and do nothing but good, but as soon as I feel the yoke of necessity or human society I become rebellious, or rather recalcitrant, and then I am of no account. When I ought to do the opposite of what I want, nothing will make me do it, but neither do I do what I want, because I am too weak. I abstain from acting, because my weakness is all in the domain of action, my strength is all negative, my sins are all sins of omission, rarely sins of commission. I have never believed that man’s freedom consists in doing what he wants, but rather in never doing what he does not want to do, and this is the freedom I have always sought after and often achieved, the freedom by virtue of which I have most scandalised my contemporaries. (Sixth walk)

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