Skip to main content

Who is Emile?

To Rousseau was born a son, Emile, and four other children. Emile did not spend his early days at his mother’s side or sparring happily with his siblings, but rather is assumed to have withered away in the cold facilities of a foundling hospital in Paris. Rousseau convinced his lover, Thérèse, to abandon the children “for the sake of her honor,” but later confessed: “I trembled at the thought of entrusting them to a family ill brought up, to be still worse educated. The risk of the education of the foundling hospital was much less” (Rousseau, Confessions). Rousseau abandoned Emile, and then proceeded to write a treatise on child-rearing in the boy’s name. What exactly is the education of the foundling hospital?

Though Rousseau might have delivered a bit of truth when he told us that humankind is “everywhere in chains,” we must take care not to be deceived about his orientation. He represents the height of the “Enlightened Man,” of philosophical naturalism. He is also, as a symptom of the latter, a deadbeat dad. In spite of this contemporary designation, my writing here is meant to serve less as a treatise on his personal responsibility or lack thereof, and more so as a cautionary tale about philosophy and the naturalistic outlook. As Marx tells us,

My general consciousness is only the theoretical shape of that of which the living shape is the real community, the social fabric, although at the present day general consciousness is an abstraction from real life and as such antagonistically confronts it… What is to be avoided above all is the re-establishing of “Society” as an abstraction vis-à-vis the individual. The individual is the social being. His life… is therefore an expression and confirmation of social life. (Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 104)


Vis-à-vis the abstracted Emile, frequently referred to by Rousseau as “my little philosopher,” the real Emile becomes la victime (the subject) of philosophy, removed from life by a father who could not love him. He is a bastard in a double sense: abandoned by his primary caretaker and left to his own ends or those of the orphanage, abandoned also by a modern form of consciousness entirely hostile to his thriving.

Even the editor of the text could not fully acclimate himself to Rousseau’s hypocrisy, nor to the pointlessness of his project:

There is absolutely nothing practicable in his system. It consists in isolating a child from the rest of the world; in creating expressly for him a tutor, who is a phoenix among his kind; in depriving him of father, mother, brothers, and sisters, his companions in study; in surrounding him with a perpetual charlatanism, under the pretext of following nature; and in showing him only through the veil of a factitious atmosphere the society in which he is to live. (Jules Steeg, Introduction to Emile 6)

The text Emile justifies Rousseau’s abandonment of the real Emile. Only by positing an Auteur de la Nature could the author Rousseau compose what Voltaire called “a hodgepodge of a silly wet nurse in four volumes” (Durant, The Story of Civilization X: Rousseau and Revolution 190-191). Only under this guise of nature could Rousseau proclaim, “We think only of preserving the child: this is not enough. We ought to teach him to preserve himself when he is a man; to bear the blows of fate; to brave both wealth and wretchedness” (Rousseau, Emile 14-15). At the same time refusing to go so far as to preserve his own children, Rousseau has somehow laid a claim to giving them a higher natural education. We turn again to one of philosophy’s greatest critics, Nietzsche, for an answer as to how this might have been accomplished:

This oneness of man with nature (for which Schiller introduced the technical term “naive”), is by no means a simple condition that comes into being naturally and as if inevitably… Only a romantic age could believe this, an age which conceived of the artist in terms of Rousseau’s Emile and imagined that in Homer it had found such an artist Emile, reared at the bosom of nature. (Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy 43)

Naturalism in philosophy means the death of philosophy’s critical vision. To believe that nothing is produced by social human interaction, and produced therein by construction, is to believe (as Hegel did in his Philosophy of Right) that the state of the world we live in is always justified in itself. This belief produces nothing more than laziness and abandonment. The abandonment of a critical ethics, and the unfortunate abandonment of Emile, begins with this philosophical outlook advanced by the silly wet nurse known as Jean-Jacques Rousseau.


Works Cited

Durant, Will. The Story of Civilization X: Rousseau and Revolution, Simon and Schuster, 1967.

Marx, Karl. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, translated by Martin Milligan,

Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “The Birth of Tragedy.” Basic Writings of Nietzsche, edited and translated

by Walter Kaufmann, The Modern Library, 2000, pp. 31-144.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Emile; or, Concerning Education, edited by Jules Steeg and translated

by Eleanor Worthington, D.C. Heath and Company, 1889.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Project Gutenberg, 2015. Accessed 22 March 2019.

March 19, 2019
Ike Crickmore