What makes Rousseau and his self-described ‘history of the human heart,’ so astonishingly germane and eerily resonant is that, unlike his fellow eighteenth-century writers, he described the quintessential inner experience of modernity for most people: the uprooted outsider in the commercial metropolis, aspiring for a place in it, and struggling with complex feelings of envy, fascination, revulsion and rejection.
He never ceased to speak out of his own intensely personal experience of fear, confusion, loneliness and loss — spiritual ordeals today experienced millions of times over around the world. Holderlin, one of Rousseau’s many distinguished German devotees, wrote in his ode to the Genovan, ‘You’ve heard and understood the strangers’ voice / Interpreted their soul.’ Rousseau connects easily with the strangers to modernity, who feel scorned and despised by its brilliant but apparently exclusive realm. His books were the biggest best-sellers of the eighteenth century, and we still return to them today because they explore dark emotions stirring in the hearts of strangers rather than the workings of abstract reason. They reveal human beings as subject to conflicting impulses rather than as rational individuals pursuing their self-interest.
Take for instance his epistolary novel Julie, ou La Nouvelle Heloise (1761), whose socially outcast protagonist Saint-Preux is exactly the author’s own age. He arrives in glittering Paris to find in it ‘many masks but no human faces.’ Everyone is tyrannized by the fear of other people’s opinion. The airs of politeness conceal a lack of fidelity and trust. Survival in the crowd seems guaranteed by conformity to the views and opinions of whichever sectarian group one belongs to. The elites engage meanwhile in their own factional battles and presume to think on behalf of everyone else. The general moral law is one of obedience and conformity to the rules of the rich and powerful. Such a society where social bonds are defined by a dependence on other people’s opinion and competitive private ambition is a place devoid of any possibility of individual freedom. It is a city of valets, ‘the most degraded of men’ whose sense of impotence breeds wickedness — in children, in servants, in writers and the nobility.
Mishra, Pankaj. Age of Anger: A History of the Present. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017. p. 90-1