Thinking about nature with Jean-Jacques Rousseau

A naturalist, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, made it the fundamental axis of his anthropological, moral, and political discourse. From Discourse on the origin and basis of inequality among men (1755) to Dreams of a lonely wanderer (1776-1778), in the theoretical works as in the autobiographical writings of the philosopher born in Geneva on June 28, 1712, the concept of nature is ubiquitous.

Of course, Rousseau is not the first philosopher to have taken nature as an object of study, and in the history of Western philosophy we can observe two opposing attitudes towards it. The first intends to steal the secrets of nature by all possible means, in the way Titan Prometheus stole fire from the gods … It flourished from the 17th century and it is often summed up with Descartes’ famous formula, generally misunderstood, “to make oneself master and possessor of nature” or the works of Francis Bacon. In Rousseau’s time, we tended to describe nature as a “locksmith shop”, and we tried to dismantle its mechanisms. Such is especially the project in the Encyclopédie of Diderot and d’Alembert, which through its didactic boards aims to exhibit and reveal natural phenomena in their smallest works.

On the other hand, another philosophical tradition defends an empathic approach to nature, a way of knowing that is struck in the corner by ecstasy, by contemplation, which forces respect for the natural order of things. Rousseau is emblematic of this second attitude, which the philosopher Pierre Hadot describes as orphic, in connection with the myth of Orpheus. All the work of the author of Social contract is indeed crossed by a deep sympathy and a lively aesthetic feeling towards nature. Even though Rousseau did not despise subjecting it to forms of experimentation, as evidenced by his botanical studies and his numerous herbariums.

But above all, Rousseau endeavored to think about it in all its semantic ambiguity: whether it relates to its physical dimension (nature) or its moral dimension (human nature). His reflection focuses in particular on the articulation between the moral development of mankind and the natural qualities of man. By inscribing his reflection in a genealogical study of morality, Rousseau seeks to determine the source of human vices. For him, man is naturally good, and it is the institutions that organize life in society that have corrupted it.

On the occasion of the 310th anniversary of his birth, this selection of six programs proposes to understand the way in which the author of confessions thought nature.

“Nature never deceives us, it is always us who deceive ourselves.” Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

In the autumn of 1765, Rousseau, believed to have been persecuted, took refuge on the island of Saint-Pierre, in the middle of Lake Bienne, in the Swiss Jura. But instead of immersing himself in studies, it is in the middle of flowers and trees that he finds peace and begins to indulge in daydreams … This nature also inspires him with the desire to inventory “all the plants of the island without omitting a single one “. Rousseau is passionate about botany and will also compose many herbariums. A few years later it was in Montmorency with Madame d’Epinay that he found another refuge. In his little house, called L’Ermitage and located on the edge of the forest, the philosopher happily rediscovered country life. Freed from the weight that his fame placed on him, and from the conspiratorial atmosphere of Parisian literary salons, he traveled through nature with his notebook and began his most fruitful years of work. It was in Ermenonville, in a nature that was both wild and tame, that Rousseau ended his life. He died there in July 1778 and his body was buried onPoppeløen.

  • How does nature give the feeling of existence?

In his walks on the island of Saint-Pierre, lying in his drifting boat, sitting on the shores of the lake, a beautiful river or a stream, Rousseau was truly “alone on earth“when he wrote his Dreams of the lonely wanderer ? In this program, Jean-François Perrin sheds light on this enigmatic phrase that hides an attitude that allows the philosopher to expand his reflection on human nature. (The Roads of Philosophy, 59 min)

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The feeling of existence

  • How is the natural state of Rousseau?

Rousseau is part of a long tradition of thinkers who strive to go back to human nature to find out what would be the best principles to govern it. His project will consist in depriving man of all that society has accumulated on humanity and which has denatured it. His philosophical method consists in trying to arrive at an original core: how was man before his socialization? From an analysis of Discourse on the origin and basis of inequality among menthis program proposes to understand the status of this state of nature, which Rousseau qualifies as “clean“or off”right“. (The Roads of Philosophy, 51 min)

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From natural state to history?

  • Rousseau and the myth of “the noble savage”

Hospitable, carefree, living in harmony with nature: this is how travelers in Rousseau’s time described the islanders of the Pacific, the inhabitants of the Bahamas or even the tribes of the Amazon. Like his contemporaries, Rousseau was fond of these stories of soldiers, missionaries, or merchants encountering “wild men.” The philosopher, however, uses them with caution, saying that these travelers brought back more prejudices than truths from their explorations. This program analyzes this fantasy of a happy humanity, not yet tainted by the spirit of domination and vanity, which runs throughout the 18th century and which embodies the myth of the “noble savage”. (All, 59 min)

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Family history of the good wild

  • Rousseau, the voice of nature?

Rousseau claimed to be “man of nature and truth. program, specialist philosopher Rousseau Céline Spector demonstrates how the state of nature, for Rousseau is perhaps nothing more than an ahistorical fiction, a heuristic process that first and foremost allows him to carry out his philosophical project: to establish a moral genealogy.The Roads of Philosophy, 59 min)

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Rousseau, the voice of nature

  • In the philosophical gardens of Ermenonville, in the footsteps of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

It was in nature that was both wild and tamed, specifically in the Ermenonville Gardens laid out in his homage by the Marquis de Girardin, that Rousseau ended his life. He died there in July 1778 and his body was buried onPoppeløen. From the French Revolution, the philosopher began to be the subject of a veritable personality cult, and the pilgrimage to Ermenonville became an obligatory passage. This documentary offers a radio tour of the Ermenonville property and traces the history of this emblematic place about the relationship to the nature of the author of Dreams of the lonely wanderer. ( History Factory, 54 min)

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From Montmorency to Ermenonville, Rousseau is closer to nature

  • What causes the contemplation of nature, from Rousseau to the Romantics?

In 1782, The Dreams of the Solitaire Hiker lays the foundation for what becomes romance, and which can at least be defined as a new look at the world where subjectivity, feeling and the search for the absolute prevail over the primacy of reason, emblematic of the Enlightenment. Based on the example of Rousseau, who set his sights on the shores of the Jura lakes or in the woods of Ermenonville, this documentary traces the influence that these new experiences of nature contemplation had on Rousseau’s contemporaries. , and after them, on romantic poets. and authors. (Documentary series, 54 min)

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To consider nature

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