ABSTRACT

In a notorious anecdote recounted in Book 2 of Émile (1762), Rousseau takes it upon himself to correct the caprices of a spoilt boy. The child wishes to go for a walk in town irrespective of the wishes of others, among them Rousseau himself, who has taken responsibility for him. He is allowed out by himself, but in the streets he is met by the hostile comments of the passers-by, and is indeed followed by a stranger, who, while not terrifying the child, does at last lead him back ‘ashamed and humble’ to his father’s house. There he meets his father on the stairs who suitably reprimands him. The point of this anecdote is that it demonstrates to the child, without the need of lectures, and without the necessity of direct orders, the consequences and dangers of self-will. The only difficulty, however, is that this is all a massive contrivance; the servants of the household have been warned not to accompany him; the neighbours are primed to be ready with suitable remarks; even the stranger is a friend of Rousseau’s who is acting a role – he does so, according to the author, ‘to perfection’. In short, in order to demonstrate the ‘natural’ consequences of capricious, self-willed, or tyrannical behaviour, Rousseau has to arrange a complicated and ingenious fiction, and have it acted out by all who come into contact with the child. 1