THE NOBLE SAVAGE by Maurice Cranston


Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1754-1762
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 In this second of his projected three-volume biography of Rousseau (Jean-Jacques, 1983), Cranston (Political Science/London School of Economic) continues his dry and detailed reconstruction of Rousseau's life from primary sources. Here, Cranston starts with his subject's flight for Paris, covering his life as a guest on prosperous country estates, the completion of his most important work, and his escape from arrest for impiety and sedition. Rousseau's life, as Cranston shows, illustrates the Frenchman's own thesis-that ``Man is born free but is everywhere in chains''-as Rousseau himself was imprisoned by the contradictions in his own personality. In Julie, or the New Heloise, Rousseau explored his fantasies of virtuous love, while he repeatedly betrayed his lifelong mistress and engaged in petty flirtations with married women. Self-educated and a writer, Rousseau, in Emile, advocated a system of education that denigrated books, and he idealized both the tutor and the child although he abandoned his own five children in a Paris orphanage. And, even while enjoying the patronage of an aristocratic family in his own little chateau, he wrote the Social Contract, attributing all social evils to the wealth and privilege he was enjoying. For all his high-mindedness, Rousseau, Cranston demonstrates, was the ``noble savage,'' quarrelsome, ill-manned, suspicious, tyrannical, jealous, ``devoured'' by the need to love and be loved, contemptuous of his patron's courtesies but easily offended and complaining if they neglected him. While Cranston's method may indeed ``break the chain of books based on books,'' his restricting himself to primary sources, avoiding interpretation or analysis or style, psyche, milieu, even historical and social context, severely limits the value of this biography, however illuminating his analysis of the writings.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1991
ISBN: 0-226-11863-0
Page count: 424pp
Publisher: Univ. of Chicago
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 1991