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Jean-Jacques Rousseau – Creative genius on the edge

Graeme Garrard traces the origin of the Counte...

Rousseau (Photo: Wikipedia)

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) was a French speaking political writer and educator born in Geneva, Switzerland.

After taking various odd jobs this self-taught intellectual moved to Paris in 1741, meeting up with Denis Diderot and the Encyclopedists.

A kind of romantic naturalism pervades much of his work, which many equate with the idea of the “noble savage.”

Many see the noble savage as one who rejects stultifying conventions and religious promises of an afterlife in favor of spontaneous desire and worldly affections.

But this is another myth that students of Rousseau say does not apply to his work. In reference to Rousseau’s belief in stages of human development, Wikipedia notes:

Rousseau believed that the savage stage was not the first stage of human development, but the third stage. Rousseau held that this third savage stage of human societal development was an optimum, between the extreme of the state of brute animals and animal-like “ape-men” on the one hand and the extreme of decadent civilized life on the other. This has led some critics to attribute to Rousseau the invention of the idea of the noble savage, which Arthur Lovejoy conclusively showed misrepresents Rousseau’s thought.¹

Voltaire & Rousseau

Voltaire & Rousseau by Anne via Flickr

In 1754 Rousseau wrote Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Amongst Men, outlining an apparently innate sense of freedom and perfectibility in human beings, in contrast to the corrupting powers of institutions.

In Luxembourg from 1757-1762 he wrote The Social Contract, which had a significant bearing on the French revolution, as exemplified by Rousseau’s cry for ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.’ The Social Contract produced the famous line, “man is born free, but everywhere is in chains.” This work remains a cornerstone in modern political theory, but has roots in ancient Greece and Rome.

In 1762 Rousseau published the novel, Emile. Its critique of the monarchy and government bureaucracy got him into hot water with the authorities. To avoid arrest he retreated to Switzerland, ultimately to end up in England with the support of the philosopher David Hume.

Rousseau later wrote his Confessions and returned to Paris in 1767, ignoring the threat of an outstanding arrest warrant. He continued to write but became hypersensitive to perceived threats. Some of these threats may have been real and others exaggerated. For instance, he believed that Hume was conspiring against him, which may have been partly true. And Voltaire accused him of burning down the theater at Geneva in 1768.²

Devon Hollahan – Paranoid android via Flickr

Some say that Rousseau was paranoid during this period. But I prefer to think of him as confusing actual and perceived threats.

When people are threatened, possibly traumatized and lied to, and all they have is their intuition to guide them, it’s hardly surprising that they make interpretive mistakes. They sense the bad vibes from others, which are real. But unless they train themselves to treat every perceived threat as a hypothesis instead of a fact, they could become overwhelmed and see some non-threats as threats.³

Rousseau also took some heat for his views on religion, which challenged both Catholic and Calvinist teachings. Rousseau was a precursor to those Romantics who see God in natural creation and society as something other and potentially corrupting. He rejected the belief in original sin and was upset that his views gained much criticism while the religious authorities were indifferent to the atheistic philosophers of the day.4

Related » Enlightenment

The house where Rousseau was born at number 40, Grand-Rue. – Wikipedia


² Ibid. Hume had offered to filter and forward Rousseau’s more important incoming mail, to which Rousseau agreed. But there is some evidence that Hume also read Rousseau’s outgoing mail, which was not agreed upon. This only goes to show that creeps who somehow think they’re justified in violating personal privacy – just because they can – have been around for a very long time. It’s not something unique to the cyber age.

³ Of course, it’s not easy to support or reject these hypotheses because some threatening people are pathological liars and polished fakers. As for those generating the bad vibes, I believe God will deal with them – fairly – in good time.

4 This situation has been tentatively explained by the sociological “in-group / out-group” theory. According the theory, people in an in-group feel more threatened or irritated by an out-group when the out-group shares some but not all of the in-group’s views and practices. So for example, some Americans and Canadians look down on and insult one another because inhabitants share some but not all elements with the other country. But neither Americans nor Canadians become emotionally invested or insulting toward peaceful, faraway lands that are fundamentally different. Most just couldn’t care less. It’s the partial similarity that stirs up discontent between in-groups and out-groups.

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Comte Henri de Saint-Simon – His concern for the poor shines above everything else

Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon

Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Claude Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) or, more commonly, Saint-Simon is one of those figures who comes up regularly in sociology courses, especially so-called “classical” or “classical theory” courses.¹

Until writing this entry, I knew little about him. But I felt he was important because so many books and professors (the better ones, anyhow) mention him in passing.

Looking over Wikipedia this morning to update my 2009 entry, Saint-Simon turns out to be quite interesting.

Born in Paris as a French Aristocrat, he spent some time in America, fighting under George Washington in the siege of Yorktown. Back in Europe, he took up the cause of the poor, which lead his being called the founder of French socialism.

He supported the French Revolution but was put in jail during the Reign of Terror because of unwarranted suspicions that he was a counter-revolutionary. Luckily for him, he was released from prison in 1794 before literally losing his head. By this time French currency was devalued, which left him rich. But he was cheated out of his fortune by his business partner.

After an unhappy marriage that ended in a year, he wrote and tried to recover his lost fortune without success. He then spent time in a sanatorium. Ten years later, discouraged by his lack of influence on the world, he attempted suicide. According to the story, shooting himself six times in the head didn’t kill him, although he did become blind in one eye.

Nederlands: Portret van Claude Henri de Rouvro...

Portrait of Claude Henri de Rouvroy from the first quarter of the 19th century (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Relatives helped him out but Saint-Simon lived his final years in abject poverty. Perhaps this had something to do with his earlier concern for the poor.²

Saint-Simon reacted against the brutality of the French Revolution and envisioned a society where science and technology would guide the workings of religion and politics. He disliked government intervention in the economy, making his approach differ from how we usually understand “socialism.”

Concerning religion, he believed in a divine power but wanted to strip away the dogmas and routines of both Protestant and Catholic Christianity to get to the core of Jesus’ message as he saw it. For him, theory wasn’t done for mere pleasure or, as a twisted professor I had allegedly once said, for a “paycheck.” For Saint-Simon, theory and practice should go hand in hand to alleviate suffering and elevate all peoples to the highest possible good.

Saint-Simon’s writings remain influential in sociology. He had particular impact on the political views of Auguste Comte (17981857), especially with regard to the concept of progress. Comte in turn influenced Emile Durkheim, now hailed as one of the founding fathers of sociology.

Tumba de Saint Simon by Cosmovisión / Juan Luis Sotillo

Tumba de Saint Simon by Cosmovisión / Juan Luis Sotillo

¹ Sociologists tend to join the dots for us, telling us what is important according to how they see things today. The word “classical” should be taken critically too. It’s full of connotations about legitimacy and importance.

² If the soul is beyond space and time, as some mystics tell us, quite possibly Saint-Simon’s future state influenced his younger concerns. You won’t find this idea among the rank and file of psychologists and psychiatrists in the 21st century, but I think it’s quite possible and hopefully an idea that future theorists will pursue.



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In ancient and medieval European folklore and myth, a werewolf is a kind of shapeshifter.

Basically, a person changes into a wolf-like creature, willfully or through a curse. Often transforming during the full moon, werewolves delight in human flesh, prowling about at night for their victims.

Similar ideas are are found on just about every continent. And when a wolf image is absent, some other menacing animal takes its place—for instance, the Chinese and Japanese tiger; the African leopard, lion and crocodile; the Greek and Turkish boar; the North American bear; and the South American jaguar.

In North America the Navaho are said to change into a wolf and practice witchcraft to the detriment of human beings.

The European persecution of so-called werewolves began in what is now Switzerland:

The werewolf is a widespread concept in European folklore, existing in many variants which are related by a common development of a Christian interpretation of underlying Indo-European mythology which developed during the medieval period. From the early modern period, werewolf beliefs also spread to the New World with colonialism. Belief in werewolf develops parallel to the belief in witches, in the course of the Late Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. Like the witchcraft trials as a whole, the trial of supposed werewolves emerges in what is now Switzerland (especially the Valais and Vaud) in the early 15th century and spreads throughout Europe in the 16th, peaking in the 17th and subsiding by the 18th century. The persecution of werewolves and the associated folklore is an integral part of the “witch-hunt” phenomenon, albeit a marginal one, accusations of werewolfery being involved in only a small fraction of witchcraft trials.¹

A German woodcut of werewolf from 1722.

A German woodcut of werewolf from 1722. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The belief in werewolves was so rampant in the 15th and 16th centuries that approximately 30,000 people were executed in France for this mystical violation of mankind and nature.²

Like the vampire myth, some see the werewolf as an all-too-human metaphor for warped psychological development, bad moral judgment, lack of self-control and an overwhelming sex drive. Sexual predators are sometimes called werewolves. This should not be confused with the idea of the cougar, an older women looking for sex with a younger man. The word werewolf has a much darker tone, and hardly any good comes from it. Cougars, on the other hand, can be seen as pleasurable and respected.³

A contemporary “werewolf” in the symbolic sense could also be a criminal mastermind who shrewdly marries a naive person to advance their career and gain social legitimacy. This kind of werewolf has a dual nature. Part respected professional and part sleazeball manipulator.

An image of Katherine Isabelle having a prosth...

An image of Katherine Isabelle having a prosthetic applied to her face for the film Ginger Snaps (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We usually hear a lot about male werewolves, but female werewolves are also portrayed in fiction. A notable example is found in the Canadian film Ginger Snaps (2000).

Today, fictional werewolves often emerge through some kind of hereditary trait or infectious disease transmitted through the blood, a kind of fusion of modern science and ancient myth.


² Stuart Gordon,  The Encylopedia of Myths and Legends, London: Headline, 1993, p. 727.

³ See

Further Reading:

  • Maria Leach, ed., The Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, New York: Harper & Row, 1984, p. 1170.

Related Posts » Animus, Lycanthropy, Myth, Reincarnation, Vampires

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Image of a horse from the Lascaux caves.

Image of a horse from the Lascaux caves via Wikipedia

The word historicity has two main meanings. The first refers to any kind of recorded history after prehistory. This could include cave art, such as we find at Lascaux in southwestern France.

The second meaning of the term refers to questioning the historical existence of Christ, or some other divine personage, mythical figure or place.

For example, an opponent of Christianity might say, “the accounts of Jesus that appear outside of the New Testament are riddled with ambiguity, so the historicity of Jesus is hardly confirmed.”

Related Posts » Atlantis, Christology

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Lavoisier, Antoine Laurent

Portrait of Monsieur de Lavoisier and his Wife...

Portrait of Monsieur de Lavoisier and his Wife, chemist Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze via Wikipedia

Lavoisier, Antoine Laurent (1743-94) was a French chemist who demonstrated that air is a combination of oxygen and nitrogen.

The English clergyman, Joseph Priestly (1733-1804), had previously discovered a new gas that was later recognized as an element and named oxygen by Lavoisier.

No slouch when it came to innovation, Lavoisier introduced the nomenclature system for chemical compounds as well as the metric system. He also refuted the old phlogiston theory, which tried to account for fire by means of a fiery element supposedly residing in things that burn. To do so, Lavoisier showed that combustion requires a gas that has weight–i.e. oxygen.

In his groundbreaking work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), T. S. Kuhn makes much use of Lavoisier’s work with oxygen to illustrate Kuhn’s notion of the paradigm shift, a concept so prevalent today.¹

A tax collector in pre-revolutionary France, Lavoisier was sent to the guillotine in Paris despite his efforts to introduce reforms. This demonstrates how hordes of unthinking ‘revolutionaries’ may be ignorant, violent and anything but revolutionary.

¹ See Frederic Lawrence Holmes, Lavoisier and the chemistry of life: an exploration of scientific creativity: