From Self-Interest to Virtue
This dissertation is a study of the moral and political significance of the imagination in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Emile. Rousseau attributes to the imagination a pervasive influence over human life, claiming that it "gives birth not only to the virtues and vices, but to the goods and ills of human life" and that its "empire" makes men "good or bad, happy or unhappy on this earth." The dissertation examines the ambivalence of Rousseau's account, and shows how the model "natural education" of Emile depends on the proper handling of the imagination to cultivate virtue and to secure individual happiness. After first establishing what Rousseau means by "natural education" and what its particular goals are, I turn to the threat the imagination poses to the success of that education. Rousseau's attack on the imagination centers on its power to open the human heart to infinite desire. By generating ever-new and ever-expanding desires, the imagination renders men necessary to one another, causing dependence, weakness, and, ultimately, wickedness, and unhappiness. As a principal agent of man's departure from natural self-sufficiency, the imagination is at the center of the process that transforms natural self-love (amour de soi) into amour-propre, and makes genuine human satisfaction fundamentally elusive. Following these introductory chapters, the remainder of the dissertation argues that, despite this critique, Rousseau in fact relies on the imagination in the successive stages of Emile's moral education to protect his independence and to strengthen those aspects of natural self-love (amour de soi) that lend themselves to the cultivation of the social virtues. Tracing the role of the imagination through Emile's education in compassion, justice, natural religion, love, and virtue, I argue that the proper habituation of the imagination proves to be indispensable for securing both happiness and morality, for defending individual autonomy in the context of social life, and for reconciling, to the extent possible, the private and the public good. Moreover, although Rousseau's recourse to the imagination might initially seem to introduce an element of irrationality into Emile's education, Emile's imagination in fact aids his ability to live not only a moral life but also a rational life. In a variety of ways, detailed in the dissertation, Rousseau employs the imagination and its illusions to forestall other more crippling illusions, to reveal the social world and the passions of men for what they truly are, and to make Emile both moderate and wise. Finally, however, while Emile's moral education engages his imagination in the most salutary manner possible, both for himself and for others, it cannot wholly prevent the imagination from giving birth to desires that betray a disruption of natural wholeness. While these desires present a complicated set of issues, in general, they represent the compromise with natural self-sufficiency that is involved in even the most promising moral education.