I’m reading The Reveries of a Solitary Walker, written by Jean-Jacques Rousseau between the years 1776 and 1778 when he was in exile. He had been considered a great thinker in his time, and had won a prize and much acclaim for his writing, but after the publication of what he considered to be his greatest work, Èmile, a novelized philosophy about education, he was condemned and his book burned because it was proclaimed to be destructive of the Christian religion and all government everywhere. He slipped out of Paris before he could be arrested, was ousted from Switzerland and other countries where he found asylum for a time, denounced from pulpits (which turned the common folk against him), and scorned by even his friends.
He was understandably bewildered by all this because he could see no great difference in his ideas that raised him to literary heights and those that buried him in contempt. And so he became a solitary walker as well as a solitary thinker, saving his “charming periods of contemplation” for himself alone. The essays in this book were written for himself, not for publication, and seem like the sort of thing one would write when one was trying to account for the vicissitudes of one’s life.
Although he came to accept his shunning, and perhaps even welcome the solitude, he never understood the forces that shaped his life. Or perhaps he did, and I have not yet gotten that far in the book. I’m still trying to come to terms with the horror of warrants being issued for his arrest because people didn’t like his book.
Sheesh, I get upset when people leave even mildly bad reviews or somewhat condemning remarks online. I can’t imagine having to deal with true condemnation, and not just from a few people, but from one’s whole world. I can’t even imagine writing anything that would garner a fraction of that reaction.
It’s strange to think that here I am, almost 250 years later, reading Rousseau’s anguished words. Who of us today will still be read 250 years from now? None of us, I would imagine. Words come too cheaply now. More than that, though, I doubt many people today would recognize a deep and abiding thought. We live in a world of opinion — untried opinion, often garnered not from considered thought and research but from an emotional response to the news and issues of the day. When everyone has an opinion, opinions have no value for anyone else except to affirm what one thinks one knows. True, people are being hushed if they don’t conform to the “right” opinions, so maybe things aren’t that much different today than they were in Rousseau’s time. The difference being, the “wrong” opinions (even if they are really right) don’t often get published, at least not in any epochal way.
It’s also strange to think that, divided by the centuries, Rousseau and I share a proclivity for solitary walking, as well as thinking and writing. For all the customs and costumes that have changed, some things abide.
Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator