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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Rousseau's Paradoxical Legacy


Event Recap

On February 10 the Boisi Center welcomed Ourida Mostefai, associate professor and chair of the Boston College Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, for a presentation of her recent research on French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. One cannot fully appreciate Rousseau’s discourses, she said, without understanding the the paradoxical life and fame of man behind them.

In eighteenth-century Europe the growth of publishing, rise in literacy, and development of gazettes and newspapers made access to new ideas and opinions more accessible. It was in this setting that Rousseau established himself as a public thinker par excellence. Yet his rise from obscurity to fame was as much due to his personal conduct as his written oeuvre. Rousseau broke with the convention of his day not only in his thoughts and radical writings, but through a distinctive lifestyle that has particular resonance in our own celebrity-driven era.

Unlike his contemporaries, Rousseau rejected pseudonymity and claimed authorship of even his most controversial his writings. While he was educated and protected by the elite, he wrote for the masses. Rousaseau eschewed the noble status and preferences of fellow writers, defying convention and provoking the ire of academics and nobility alike. His writings were frequently banned, an act that ironically fueled his popularity and name recognition. Rousseau also balked at the common style of dress, choosing instead the unique dress of Armenian peasants, for example, and refusing to wear a wig as was the custom of his time. He was conscientious of his public persona, and enjoyed his celebrity status, which was enhanced by his peculiar style.

Rousseau’s legacy remains both important and paradoxical, Mostefai argued. His writings have influenced major academic and political figures from Napoleon to Kant, yet his distinctive lifestyle also made him a notorious and marginalized figure during his own time.