I won’t pretend that I knew who Jean-Jacques Rousseau was before this past week. Makes sense. Enlightenment-era philosophy and Christian theology tend not to have much in common. He’s probably best known as the guy with that memorable quote, “Man is born free but everywhere is in chains.” I’ve started digging into his stuff after running across him in Carl Trueman’s latest book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (a brilliant attempt to trace the history of thought that led the modern Western mind). Apparently this Rousseau guy went toe-to-toe with Augustine! Not only did he write his own Confessions, but he even included a section about stealing produce and what it meant for his soul!
For those that aren’t aware, Augustine (father of Western Christian orthodoxy) has a really famous moment in his Confessions where he steals some pears. He’s with a bunch of his rowdy teenage friends when they see this big, beautiful tree of pears. They steal as many as they can, and then they throw them to the pigs. The act is pure sin. There’s nothing to be gained. There’s nothing logical about it. Augustine even has better pears at home! The point isn’t to gain something; the point is to destroy something:
It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own undoing. I loved my error–not that for which I erred but the error itself. A depraved soul, falling away from security in thee to destruction in itself, seeking nothing from the shameful deed but shame itself.Augustine; Henry Chadwick. The Confessions p. 29
It’s a vivid illustration of man’s innate drive towards sinfulness. Who among us hasn’t done something stupid in their youth? Something that was destructive for the sake of being destructive? For me, I think about the cafeteria at undergrad. When you were done eating, the popular thing to do in my friend group was to grab an extra apple or banana on your way out and just throw it as far across campus as you could. And why? Because destroying was fun! Cleaning staff be darned! Let the fruit smash commence! Augustine is saying, “let’s not let ourselves off the hook for the destruction that we wrought as teens. We did it for a reason: humanity innately longs to sin. Don’t let the fact that you were younger and more overt prevent you from seeing your fundamental nature in those stupid acts of destruction.”
Meanwhile, in HIS confessions, Rousseau ALSO tells the story of stealing produce! This time, it’s asparagus. His boss, Verrat, has a mother that’s been growing a little garden, and he’s decided that young Rousseau is the perfect man to steal asparagus from it and sell them on his behalf. Rousseau steals asparagus for relatively benign reasons at first: “seeking only to please my employer,” he claims. But what began as a little way to help his boss get some extra luxuries starts to warp him. He starts skimming a little off the top. After all, he’s the one that is taking on the risk, and nobody would believe him if he said that his boss put him up to it! So to make things fair, he takes a little. Then he starts stealing other little things that he finds: apples, tools, trinkets he finds laying around the house. More than that, he feels utterly justified in doing all that he does:
A continual repetition of ill treatment rendered me callous; it seemed a kind of composition for my crimes, which authorized me to continue them, and, instead of looking back at the punishment, I looked forward to revenge. Being beat like a slave, I judged I had a right to all the vices of one.Rousseau, Confessions, Bk 1, Gutenberg Edition
Note the change in culprit! Augustine saw his crimes as proof of a deep-seated inclination to sin within his soul. Rousseau looks outward to find the culprit. Verrat convinced him to start stealing to feed his need for luxury. The sin was reinforced by unjust risk, the beatings that he suffered, and the way he was treated after his crimes. If Augustine’s pear-thieving was proof of an inward problem, Rousseau’s asparagus theft is a testament to the power that society has to warp an individual towards evil.
This brings us to one of Rousseau’s major ideas: society is the primary force responsible for corrupting the average human. If left alone, people are basically good! They don’t know how to lie, deceive, compare themselves to someone else, or take advantage of people. They’re unique, gifted, and ready to live in a way that suits them. But when they’re introduced to society… well… they learn to lie:
As long as men remained satisfied with their rustic cabins… they lived free, healthy, honest and happy, as much as their nature would admit, and continued to enjoy with each other all the pleasures of an independent intercourse; but from the moment one man began to stand in need of another’s assistance; from the moment it appeared an advantage for one man to possess the quantity of provisions requisite for two, all equality vanished; property started up; labour became necessary; and boundless forests became smiling fields, which it was found necessary to water with human sweat, and in which slavery and misery were soon seen to sprout out and grow with the fruits of the earth.Rousseau, Second Discourse, Gutenberg Edition
People’s lies help them get along with others. They help them accumulate wealth and power. They help them appear better than they are. All of humanity ends up living a lie and drawing each new person they meet deeper into that lie. The people who are best at lying benefit tremendously, regardless of who is actually moral:
While government and laws take care of the security and the well being of men in groups, the sciences, letters, and the arts, less despotic and perhaps more powerful, spread garlands of flowers over the iron chains which weigh men down, snuffing out in them the feeling of that original liberty for which they appear to have been born, and make them love their slavery by turning them into what are called civilized people. Need has raised thrones; the sciences and the arts have strengthened them. You earthly powers, cherish talents and protect those who nurture them. Civilized people, cultivate them. Happy slaves, to them you owe that refined and delicate taste you take pride in, that softness of character and that urbanity of habits which make dealings among you so sociable and easy, in a word, the appearance of all the virtues without the possession of any.Rousseau, First Discourse, Gutenberg Edition
Trueman suggests that philosophers like Rousseau set the stage for modern thinking about morality. There’s a presiding sense in the West that the greatest thing humanity can do is stop oppressing one another and redesign our systems of governance to minimize societal injustice. Political debates are increasingly built around terminology like social justice, systemic oppression, and intolerance. Rousseau would be proud of our willingness to tackle society head-on! But what have Christians lost by adopting so much of his thinking? We’re taking on the thought processes of someone who directly contradicted one of our greatest thinkers! We have to stop and ask, what will we be left with when we strip away all the chains we’ve heaped on one another? Will the final product be capable of glorifying God? Or was Augustine right? Is there a force beyond societal injustice that causes us to stray? Is sin much more embedded in the human soul than we’d like to imagine?