How to Philosophize Alone: Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Reveries Of A Solitary Walker
Shortly after Rousseau’s death, a partially edited manuscript of a collection of essays titled The Reveries of a Solitary Walker were discovered among his effects. The text, now agreed by scholars to have been intended by Rousseau for eventual publication, is structured as a series of 10 “walks,” each used as an occasion by the author to repass over pivotal life events and the manner in which the vicissitudes of fortune impacted his soul. In this respect, the Reveries resembles a kind of memoir.
One is tempted to parallel the book with Montaigne’s Essays or Augustine’s Confessions, but not according to Rousseau. The stated intention of the Reveries strikes a much more personal, less public-facing tone. He begins:
I am now alone on earth, no longer having any brother, neighbor, friend of society other than myself…But I, detached from them and from everything, what am I? That is what remains for me to seek.
This is, undoubtedly, an interesting question. But outside of historical or specialized curiosity, why would the highly personalized Reveries be of interest to anyone? The answer to this question, it turns out, is obliquely provided by Rousseau himself.
Let me give myself up entirely to the sweetness of conversing with my soul, since that is the only thing men cannot take away from me…The leisurely moments of my daily walks have often been filled with contemplation which I regret having forgotten. I will set down in writing those which still come to me…reading them will recall the delight I enjoy in writing them and causing the past to be born again for me will, so to speak, double my existence.
What Rousseau is indicating here is striking. The Reveries, he claims, are recollections he will read again and again as he lives out the remainder of his years. They are, in other words, an example of how man, alone, bereft of contact with the larger outside world, can philosophize with himself. The uniqueness of this enterprise cannot be overstated.
With few exceptions, texts demonstrating the art of philosophizing in isolation—excepting the Eastern classics—are rare, and with good reason. According to the Ancients, Western philosophy was an activity dependent on the city. That is, the questions animating philosophy all have some connection to the concerns of man in common. In the Reveries, Rousseau shows how an individual, once exiled from the city, should proceed if he wishes to attain happiness previously thought possible only within a larger social context.
Of course, the Reveries is a more elusive book, and Rousseau a subtler thinker, than this gloss lets on. He was not a systemic philosopher in the manner of Kant or Hegel. He frequently dissembled and wrote with the kind of disarming beauty that often caused his critics to lapse into misreading. Thus, his Reveries contain what might at first appear as contradictions or reversals of earlier philosophic positions.
Be that as it may, feelings of isolation, persecution and unhappiness with society are common to each of us. Rousseau’s Reveries are a useful antidote to this discontent, and provide, at least on the surface, a way to capture the “sweet sentiment of existence” and the accompanying happiness therewith.
*For an excellent translation of the Reveries, I suggest the Hackett Classics edition by Charles E. Butterworth. This edition also comes with a penetrating, lengthy interpretation of the text.