Frida Kahlo's Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940), Wikimedia Commons
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a prominent Enlightenment-era philosopher, is known for his valuable contributions to political, social, and economic philosophy. In this article, a lesser-known yet increasingly relevant area of Rousseau’s thought will be considered: His philosophy of the emotions.
In his work, Emile, Rousseau discusses topics ranging from politics to the nature of man, all in pursuit of creating this treatise on education - of nurturing humanity and its inner goodness, of becoming an exemplary citizen of society, of intellectual development. Emile went on to become a source of inspiration for the reformed educational system in post-revolution France. This article will explore specifically Rousseau’s thoughts on self-love and the education of the emotions, a topic which he considered vital to the integrity and the development of any person.
In Book IV of Emile, Rousseau writes:
"But amour-propre, which makes comparisons, is never content and never could be, because this sentiment, preferring ourselves to others, also demands others to prefer us to themselves, which is impossible. This is how the gentle and affectionate passions are born of self-love (amour de soi), and how the hateful and irascible passions are born of amour-propre. Thus what makes man essentially good is to have few needs and to compare himself little to others; what makes him essentially wicked is to have many needs and to depend very much on opinion.”
Here, Rousseau makes a crucial distinction between the two modes of self-love. This distinction fundamentally supports his advocacy of an education of the passions.
One way to clarify Rousseau’s distinction is by thinking of it in relation to judgement. According to Rousseau, the source of all our emotions is self love, or amour de soi. (363) Amour de soi is our most natural emotional state; the state we are in before we have any other kind of reflection. Here, we make judgements by ourselves, which concern only ourselves. Amour de soi is an innate sentiment in ourselves to care about our own preservation and wellbeing, and it is satisfied when our true needs are met i.e. safety. The key point is that it does not involve any other people. This is not to say that it is a selfish sentiment, rather that it is purely an intrinsic, uncorrupted drive to care for and look after ourselves. If amour de soi is corrupted by this selfishness, then it is no longer amour de soi; it becomes amour propre.
The corruption of amour de soi comes from society and our necessary interdependence on others. Our dependence on socialisation warps amour de soi so that it becomes amour propre, in which we are inclined to make comparisons. We go from making judgements concerning only ourselves and our self-preservation, to making judgements concerning ourselves in comparison to others. So there is a judgement about our worth and whether we are better than others, and we also end up evaluating our worth based on judgements that others make about us. Amour propre can never be satisfied, and in its vicious cycle of constant comparisons, comes all the “hateful and irascible passions” (364), like jealousy. In this way, amour propre is just an artificial, warped version of amour de soi, a selfish self-love, arising out of our social existence.
eBay (2020). Emile by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, First Edition. WorthPoint. Available at: https://thumbs.worthpoint.com/zoom/images2/1/1015/29/rousseau-emile-ou-education-france_1_c69f12421c82451dfc5e87e003374b73.jpg
It is clear why Rousseau advocates an education of the passions — to mitigate the corruption of amour de soi. Amour de soi is innate, and as he is aware that social existence is unavoidable, social passions, which can steer us to either good or evil, are bound to emerge. What we can do is minimise the impacts of the destructive passions on us that come out of amour propre. We can do this by better understanding the relations we have with other people. Rousseau considers pity an instrumental emotion in understanding others. An education in pity would emphasise the harshness of reality and suffering that human beings can experience, in order to evoke in us compassion and consideration. The thought is that by prioritising things like wealth or fame or power, we inadvertently plant the seeds for the destructive passions to develop; whereas we would be more inclined to be benevolent towards each other if we understood our commonalities, all the “miseries of life” (373) that humans are liable to experience. In this way, Rousseau envisages a way in which humanity can coexist without being possessed by the “hateful and irascible passions”. As Dent affirms, human beings can interact with each other without trying to “exert mastery and claim invidious precedence” (88) over one another.
It is clear why Rousseau’s insights are still valuable centuries after they were published - it can be argued that Rousseau’s advocacy of an education in the passions is a highly modern idea. Self-love, cultivated correctly, is a core part of a healthy, confident person. Done wrong, and immeasurable issues will arise.
Dent, N.J.H. (2006). Rousseau. London: Routledge.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Kelly, C. and Bloom, A. (2010). Emile, or, On education : includes Emile and Sophie, or, The solitaries. Hanover, N.H.: University Press Of New England.