Inspirational Inflections

These, in my opinion are the most general physical causes of the characteristic differences of the primitive tongues. Those of the south are bound to be sonorous, accented, eloquent, and frequently obscure because of their power. Those of the north are bound to be dull, harsh, articulated, shrill, monotonous, and to have a clarity due more to vocabulary than to good construction. The modern tongues, with all their intermingling and recasting, still retain something of these differences. French, English, German: each is a language private to a group of men who help each other, or who become angry. But the ministers of god proclaim sacred mysteries, sages giving laws to their people, leaders swaying the multitude, have to speak Arabic or Persian. Our tongues are better suited to writing than speaking, and there is more pleasure in reading us than in listening to us. Oriental tongues, on the other hand, lose their life and warmth when they are written. The words do not convey half the meaning; all the effectiveness is in the tone of voice. Judging the Orientals from their books is like painting a man’s portrait from his corpse.

For a proper appreciation of their actions, men must be considered in all their relationships: which we simply are not capable of doing. When we put ourselves in the position of the others, we do not become what they must be, but remain ourselves, modified. And, when we think we are judging them rationally, we merely compare their prejudices to ours. Thus, if one who read a little Arabic and enjoyed leafing through the Koran were to hear Mohammed personally proclaim in that eloquent, rhythmic tongue, with that sonorous and persuasive voice, seducing first the ears, then the heart, every sentence alive with enthusiasm, he would prostrate himself, crying: Great prophet, messenger of God, lead us to glory, to martyrdom. We will conquer or die for you. Fanaticism always seems ridiculous to us, because there is no voice among us to make it understood. Our own fanatics are not authentic fanatics. They are merely rogues or fools. Instead of inspirational inflections, our tongues allow only for cries of diabolic possessions.

Rousseau, Essay on the Origin of Languages

The Philosopher

If the philosophers were in a position to discover the truth, who among them would take an interest in it? Each knows well that his system is no better founded that the others. But he maintains it because it is his. There is not a single one of them who, if he came to know the true and the false, would not prefer the lie he has found to the truth discovered by another. Where is the philosopher who would not gladly deceive mankind for his own glory? Where is the one who in the secrecy of his heart sets himself any other goal than that of distinguishing himself? Provided that he raises himself above the vulgar, provided that he dims the brilliance of his competitors, what more does he ask? The essential thing is to think differently from others. Among believers he is an atheist; among atheists he would be a believer.

Rousseau, Emile – Book IV

Keep Quiet, Jean-Jacques

I had gone to spend a few days in the country at the home of a good mother of a family who took great care of her children and their edu­cation. One morning when I was present at the lessons of the eldest, his governor, who had instructed him very well in ancient history, was reviewing the history of Alexander. He took up the famous story about Philip, the physician, which has been a subject of painting, and which was surely well worth the effort. The governor, a man of merit, made several reflections on Alexander’s intrepidity, which did not please me at all, but which I avoided disputing so as not to discredit him in his pupil’s mind. At table they did not fail, according to the French method, to make the little gentleman babble a great deal. The vivacity natural to his age, along with the expectation of certain applause, made him reel off countless stupidities, in the midst of which from time to time there came a few lucky words which caused the rest to be forgotten. Finally came the story of Philip, the physician. He told it quite clearly and with much grace. After the ordinary tribute of praises exacted by the mother and expected by the son, there was discussion about what he had said. The greater number blamed the temerity of Alexander; some, after the governor’s example, admired his firmness and his courage—which made me understand that none of those present saw wherein lay the true beauty of this story. “As for me,” I said to them, “it seems that if there is the least courage, the least firmness, in Alexander’s action, it is foolhardy.” Then everyone joined in and agreed that it was foolhardy. I was going to respond and was getting heated when a woman sitting beside me, who had not opened her mouth, leaned toward my ear and said softly to me, “Keep quiet, Jean-Jacques, they won’t understand you.” I looked at her; I was struck; and I kept quiet.

After the dinner, suspecting, on the basis of several bits of evidence, that my young doctor had understood nothing at all of the story he had told so well, I took him by the hand and went for a turn in the park with him. Having questioned him at my ease, I found that more than anyone he admired Alexander’s much-vaunted courage. But do you know in what he found this courage to consist? Solely in having swallowed at a single gulp a bad-tasting potion, without hesitation, without the least sign of repugnance. The poor child, who had been made to take medi­cine not two weeks before, and who had taken it only after a mighty effort, still had its aftertaste in his mouth. Death and poisoning stood in his mind only for disagreeable sensations; and he did not conceive, for his part, of any other poison than senna. Nevertheless, it must admitted that the hero’s firmness had made a great impression on the boy’s young heart, and that, at the next medicine he would have to swallow, he had resolved to be an Alexander. Without going into clarifications which were evidently out of his reach, I confirmed him in these laudable dispositions; and I went back laughing to myself at the lofty wisdom of fathers and masters who think they teach history to children.

It is easy to put into their mouths the words kings, empires, wars, conquests, revolutions, laws. But if it is a question of attaching distinct ideas to these words, there is a long way from the conversation with Robert the gardener to all these explanations.

Some readers, discontented with the “Keep quiet, Jean-Jacques,” will, I foresee, ask what, after all, do I find so fair in Alexander’s action? Un­fortunate people! If you have to be told, how will you understand it? It is that Alexander believed in virtue; it is that he staked his head, his own life on that belief; it is that his great soul was made for believing in it. Oh, what a fair profession of faith was the swallowing of that medicine! No, never did a mortal make so sublime a one. If there is some modern Alexander, let him be showed to me by like deeds.

Rousseau, Emile – Book II

He Keeps Quite

Generally people who know little speak a great deal, and people who know a great deal speak little. It is easy for an ignoramus to find everything he knows important and to tell it to everyone. But a well-informed man does not easily open up his repertoire. He would have too much to say, and he sees yet more to be said after he has spoken. He keeps quite.

Rousseau, Emile – Book, IV

The French Language

The French language is said to be the chastest of languages. For my part, I believe it to be the most obscene. For it seems to me that the chasteness of a language consists not in the careful avoidance of indecent meanings but in not having them. In fact, to avoid them, one must think of them, and there is no language in which it is more difficult to speak purely, in every sense, than in French. The reader, always more clever at finding obscene meanings than the author is at keeping them out, is scandalized and shocked by everything. How could what passes through impure ears not be stained by them? A people with good morals, on the other hand, has appropriate terms for all things, and these terms are always decent because they are always used decently. It is impossible to imagine a language more modest than that of the Bible, precisely because there everything is said with naiveté. To render the same things immodest, it suffices to translate them into French.

Rousseau, Emile – Book IV

The Child’s Judgment

I heard the late Lord Hyde tell the story of one of his friends who, returning from Italy after three-years absence, wanted to examine his nine- or ten-year-old son’s progress. They went for a walk one evening with the boy and his governor in a field where schoolboys were playing at flying kites. The father asked his son, in passing, “Where is the kite whose shadow is here?” Without hesitation, without lifting his head, the child said, “Over the highway.” “And, indeed,” added Lord Hyde, “the highway was between us and the sun.” The father at this response kissed his son and, leaving his examination at that, went away without saying anything. The next day he sent the governor the title to a lifetime pension in addition to his salary.

What a man that father was, and what a son was promised him! The question suits his age precisely; the response is quite simple. But see what it implies about the incisiveness of the child’s judgment! It is thus that Aristotle’s pupil tamed that famous steed which no horseman had been able to break.

Rousseau, Emile – Book II

The Majesty of the Scriptures

I also admit that the majesty of the scriptures amazes me, and that the holiness of the Gospel speaks to my heart. Look at the books of the philosophers with all their pomp. How petty they are next to this one! Can it be that a book at the same time so sublime and so simple is the work of men? Can it be that he whose history it presents is only a man himself? Is his the tone of an enthusiast or an ambitious sectarian? What gentleness, what purity in his morals! What touching grace in his teachings! What elevation in his maxims! What profound wisdom in his speeches! What presence of mind, what finesse, and what exactness in his responses! What a dominion over his passions! Where is the man, where is the sage who knows how to act, to suffer, and to die without weakness and without ostentation? When Plato depicts his imaginary just man, covered with all the opprobrium of crime and worthy of all the rewards of virtue, he depicts Jesus Christ feature for feature. The resemblance is so striking that all the Fathers have sensed it; it is impossible to be deceived about it. What prejudices, what blindness one must have to dare to compare the son of Sophroniscus to the son of Mary? What a distance from one to the other! Socrates, dying without pain and without ignominy, easily sticks to his character to the end; and if this easy death had not honored his life, one would doubt whether Socrates, for all his intelligence, were anything but a sophist. He invented morality, it is said. Others before him put it into practice; all he did was to say what they had done; all he did was to draw the lesson from their examples. Aristides was just before Socrates said what justice is. Leonidas died for his country before Socrates had made it a duty to love the fatherland. Sparta was sober before Socrates had praised sobriety. Before he had defined virtue, Greece abounded in virtuous men. But where did Jesus find among his own people that elevated and pure morality of which he alone gave the lessons and the example? From the womb of the most furious fanaticism was heard the highest wisdom, and the simplicity of the most heroic virtues lent honor to the vilest of all peoples. The death of Socrates, philosophizing tranquilly with his friends, is the sweetest one could desire; that of Jesus, expiring in torment, insulted, jeered at, cursed by a whole people, is the most horrible one could fear. Socrates, taking the poisoned cup, blesses the man who gives it to him and who is crying. Jesus, in the midst of a frightful torture, prays for his relentless executioners. Yes, if the life and death of Socrates are those of a wise man, the life and death of Jesus are those of a god. Shall we say that the story of the Gospel was wantonly contrived? My friend, it is not thus that one contrives; the facts about Socrates, which no one doubts, are less well attested than those about Jesus Christ. At bottom, this is to push back the difficulty without doing away with it. It would be more inconceivable that many men in agreement had fabricated this book than that a single one provided its subject. Never would Jewish authors have found either this tone or this morality; and the Gospel has characteristics of truth that are so great, so striking, so perfectly inimitable that its contriver would be more amazing than its hero. With all that, this same Gospel is full of unbelievable things, or things repugnant to reason and impossible for any sensible man to conceive or to accept! What is to be done amidst all these contradictions? One ought always to be modest and cirumspect, my child-to respect in silence what one can neither reject nor understand, and to humble oneself before the great Being who alone knows the truth.

Rousseau, Emile – Book IV