In his Reveries of the Solitary Walker (Oxford World’s Classics), Rousseau muses on the “complete and utterly disinterested benevolence” that he would show if he could avoid “forming an attachment to anyone in particular” and “taking on the burden of any responsibilities.” If only he could be entirely anonymous, he says, “I would freely and willingly do for them everything that they have so much difficulty in doing, promoted as they are by their self-love and constrained by their laws.” He “would have done only good” if only he could have “remained free, unknown, and isolated, as I was meant to be.”
He longs for the ring of Gyges, the ring of invisibility of which Plato spoke:
“It would have released me from being dependent on men and made them dependent on me. . . . Able to satisfy my desires and to do anything at all without anyone being able to deceive me, what might I have desired with some consistency? One thing alone: to see all hearts happy. The sight of public happiness is the one thing that could have touched my heart in a lasting way, and the ardent desire to contribute to it would have been my constant passion. Always impartially just and unfailingly good, I should also have guarded myself against blind mistrust and implacable hatred; because, seeing men as they are and having no difficulty in reading what is in the depths of their hearts, I would have found few likeable enough to deserve all my affections and few odious enough to deserve all my hatred. . . . completely disinterested in myself and having no other law than my natural inclinations, I would have worked a thousand miracles of forgiveness and fairness for a few acts of severe justice.”
The line from the intricate deconstruction of Rousseau in Of Grammatology to the skepticism about gifts and gratitude in The Gift of Death, Second Edition & Literature in Secret (Religion and Postmodernism) is straighter than one might have thought. But the misogyny that is elided in Derrida is painfully on the surface in Rousseau.
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Wednesday, September 19, 2012 at 12:44 pm
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