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At 37, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was struggling to earn a living by copying music and writing articles for an encyclopedia.
Then, under a tree, he had an epiphany: Man is naturally good and only becomes bad through the corrupting influence of society’s institutions.
A year later, upon the 1750 publication of his “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences,” Rousseau became the most famous thinker of his generation. He later argued that the rich and powerful had instituted inequality and tricked most people into giving up their liberty.
When he laid out the implications of his belief in free will, the authorities burned his books, and he was forced to flee for a time to England.
Rousseau also found himself attacked by Voltaire, among others, for hypocrisy, since he’d consigned all his newborn children by a longtime mistress to an orphanage. One former friend called him “a moral dwarf on stilts.”
After the French Revolution, which Rousseau helped inspire, his body was moved to the Pantheon in Paris, directly across from Voltaire’s.
I spoke with James Miller, author of “Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche,” on the following topics:
1. The Quest for Wisdom
2. Christian Philosophers
3. Unity of Word and Deed
4. Literary Stylists
5. Cognitive Humility
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(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)