Maurizio Viroli
Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the 'Well-Ordered Society'

In his autobiographical writings, Rousseau suggests that it might be possible for the individual to develop a personal identity which is not dependent on social interactions, while in the Discourse on inequality he argued that individual identity could be formed only within the social context, through the individual's comparing himself with others. The reflections of the ageing Jean-Jacques revolve around the possibility that placing oneself outside the social order might be one possible way in which disorder is overcome. Once one has placed oneself on the outside of the social order equality ceases to be a problem. Words such as 'superiority' and 'inferiority' will be emptied of their content. Self-knowledge is no longer dependent on the perception others have of us and consequently it is no longer necessary to be constantly alert as to how they are reacting. Moreover, going beyond society means immersing oneself in the natural order, within which man may discover his true identity and find inner peace.

Another possibility open to the person who wants to bring order into his life is wisdom, that is to say, living as a natural man in a society but not obsessed by what others think. The wise man would be capable of living surrounded by disorder and yet remain untouched by the opinions of others. This is Rousseau's advice to Emile. If he wishes to live as a natural man, this does not entail his going to live in the depths of the forest. By all means he should enter the restless life of society if he so wishes, but, if he is going to be a natural man, he should beware of being swept away either by the strength of his emotions or by currents of opinion. He must 'see with his own eyes, feel with his own heart and recognize no other authority beyond that of his own reason.' Emile is fully aware that the inane pursuit of social approval gnaws at the hearts of many, but he himself remains unaffected by it. He is free from pride and he has a balanced view of his own worth. He is not consumed by the urge to dominate others, neither does he get any pleasure from the misfortunes of others. Emile is 'well-balanced' and thus leads a well-regulated life. He is well able to satisfy the few needs which are his. He is a well-balanced person because he shows no desire for empty prestige: great wealth, ostentation, and self-display are of no interest to him. What he wants for himself is the things really worth having and he leaves to others the rewards that society offers.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.