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Vermeij, J.J.M.

Department of the History of Philosophy

The Utopian Rousseau

A utopia is a vision that shows us, at first glance, a radically different society. But when we look closer, we find that the image shown to us is a distorted image of our own society. By looking into the mirror of utopia, we may come to an unsettling realization; it is not the mirror that is distorted – it is our own reality that is perverted. The process that the utopian vision is able to set in motion is one that clarifies our values, by allowing us to look at them from the perspective of an inhabitant of utopia. Our values, to which we ascribe a rational and solid foundation, are temporarily replaced by those of utopia. And while we may initially consider them to be irrational, they are promptly explained to us. Often we return from the utopian vacation with a feeling of admiration and contentment. Upon returning, however, we may also reconsider the values we had momentarily left behind, and their irrationality evokes unsettlement.

In my master’s thesis, I will argue that Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) wrote two utopian visions; La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761) and Du Contrat Social ou principes du droit politique (1762). I will show how these respective works hold up a mirror to (different aspects of) society and what these distorted images reveal about which values he wanted to clarify. These values are represented in the Discours sur l’Origine et les Fondements de l’Inégalité Parmis les Hommes (The Second Discourse, 1755), which counterbalances the mirror of society, by explaining what we see in Rousseau’s utopian mirror.

I believe this reading of Rousseau is important to understand the ideas in all three of these works. It is possible, for instance, to view La Nouvelle Héloïse as ‘merely’ an epistolary novel or Du Contrat Social as ‘merely’ a political treatise. But through the utopian motif we can see them in another light: respectively as an exploration of a virtuous and transparent domestic life, and a life of freedom in collectivity – a union of equals, committed to the common good. And it becomes possible to see the Second Discourse as more than a hypothetical explanation of the origin of inequality: it becomes clear that it is also a serious indictment of the degradation of virtue, pride, freedom and equality.

Last modified:29 June 2015 10.13 a.m.