Saturday, December 22, 2007

Rousseau on learning

I'm hugely enjoying Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Reveries of the solitary walker at the moment, in between my dabblings with Nietzsche. Quite a pairing, those two. The Rousseau is marvellous: if you ever want to understand voice in writing, read this. The man is so overwhelmingly self-absorbed it is at times comical, but nonetheless you still feel a strong sense of empathy, even pity for him.

Anyway, I like this quote:

No doubt adversity is a great teacher, but its lessons are dearly bought, and often the profit we gain from them is not worth the price they cost us. What is more, these lessons come so late in the day that by the time we master them they are of no use to us. Youth is the time to study wisdom, age the time to practise it. Experience is always instructive, I admit, but it is only useful in the time we have left to live. When death is already at the door, is it worth learning how we should have lived?

This is quite a radical thing for Rousseau to be saying, and gives an indication of the depths of despair into which he must have fallen at this stage (Reveries is his last, unfinished work, written in the last couple of years of his life.) Throughout his life, he was of the opinion that learning was what mattered. Of course, he was also of the opinion that much learning was done through vanity, and that those who affected to learn were in fact merely shallow. Learning could be dangerous - people followed trends and learned only in order to become famous (how different is this from our own vacuous society?) But he excepted from this dismissiveness a certain few - himself included, naturally - whom he considered geniuses, or those who could make a difference to society.

But, by the end, adversity has taught him more than he wanted to know, at too great a cost, and has left him in such a state that he cannot take advantage of its lessons. We often hear glib cliches about life/sex etc being wasted on the young. Rousseau, as he so often does, starts to get to the melancholy behind the jokes.

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