Tag Archives: Rousseau

Delving into the life of dictum

Ritterburg / Felsenschloß (1828) by Karl Friedrich Lessing

When you delve into the life of a dictum (see prev. post), you may find that it was not uttered by the person you (and everyone else) thought uttered it.

For years, for example, I thought that the winged words “back to nature!“, the credo of Romanticism and later a creed of hippiedom, can be attributed to the Swiss Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

In fact, he never said such a thing.

Dictologists (I just made that up) call such errors misattributions.

There is a second misattribution of Rousseau: the term “noble savage,” found 20,000 times in Google Books alone[1]. Nowhere did Rousseau write that. As Peter Gay says “in the years I taught the history of political theory at Columbia to a sizable class of undergraduates, I would offer students a hundred dollars if they could find “Noble Savage” anywhere in Rousseau. I never had to pay up”.

The reason for these misattributions is what we call the “popular imagination,” a ‘space’ in which ideas (or memes if you want) start to live lives of their own, like urban legends, tall tales, traditional stories, myths, misconceptions and apocrypha.

Coming back to Rousseau, one has to admit that there is no smoke without fire. Indeed, Rousseau said things similar to “noble savage” and “back to nature”, as attested for example by “God makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil” which is the incipit of Emile, or On Education which indicates that man in state of nature is good and becomes corrupted thereafter.

And then there is Voltaire’s notorious letter to Rousseau in which Voltaire said:

“I have received your new book [The Social Contract] against the human race and thank you for it. Never was such cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid. One longs on reading your book to walk on all fours. But as I have lost that habit for more than sixty years, I feel unhappily the impossibility of renewing it.”

And of course, there exists an undeniable link between the “cult of nature” and Romanticism, which is best exemplified by the painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich.

But since that painting is known beyond cliché, I give you Ritterburg / Felsenschloß (above) by German painter Karl Friedrich Lessing.