Reveries of the Solitary Walker, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

This book was not at all what I expected. Enticed by the title, I thought I would find someone who, like me, has discovered no more creative an activity than a solitary walk. The repetitive physical motion and changing scenery never fail to help me find a solution to a thorny problem or work out an idea for the next scene or essay. Walking through woods is always delightful, but once I've burrowed down into whatever I'm trying to untangle, it doesn't matter where I am, and city sidewalks work just as well as shaded paths.

Instead, I found a man in the last few years of his life who feels beset and betrayed, who rails against the unjust attacks that have ruined his life. He claims to have made peace with his awful “destiny” by withdrawing from the world and determining, without any outside influence, his own opinions and positions on these issues, which he documented in his Dialogues. “It is only when I am alone that I am my own master, at all other times I am the plaything of all who surround me.” However, his continued complaints about the conspiracies against him give the lie to his claims of peace.

Although I've not actually read his work since university, I've always taken Rousseau as a kindred spirit and sometime guide. His ideas parlayed in The Social Contract make up the foundation of my understanding of what it means to be a citizen (something that seems to be lost in these greedy, me-first days). His central theme of “the tug-of-war between solitude and society” (per Peter France's Introduction) has been mine too, not necessarily in my writings but certainly in my life. I wanted to like this book. I wanted to greet a fellow traveller and walk with him for a bit.

Unfortunately I found him a bit of a bore, though I continued to read with an open mind because of what he had meant to me in the past. In this book, rather than defending himself as he did in the Dialogues, he wants to follow Montaigne's model and use each of the ten walks, which do not always include an actual walk, to examine some idea. I was rewarded for my patience with some interesting discussions and—best of all—an insight that has long eluded me.

For example, in the fourth walk, he looks at honesty. Having always thought of himself as an honest man, he pulls apart lies and falsehoods, looks at consequences and intent, and comes to a startling conclusion. In the seventh walk, he examines his new-found interest in botany, which is far removed from that of most people who only care about the medicinal qualities of plants, demonstrating an “attitude which always brings everything back to our material interest, causing us to seek in all things either profits or remedies”.

But it is in the sixth walk that I found insight into a problem which has long bothered me. People can be incredibly generous, sending money and toys to a child trapped in a mine or, moved by an internet video of a man helping his elderly arthritic dog swim, send special dog food, medicines, and even funds for expensive laser treatments. Yet these same people turn a cold shoulder to those less fortunate than themselves, demanding cutbacks in welfare, drug treatment, and other forms of assistance. They laugh and applaud at the idea of people dying for lack of health care. I put this contradiction down to a lack of imagination. It is easy to be moved by a sentimental story about one person, but harder to consider and sympathise with the various twists of fate, bad decisions, and illnesses that can result in a group of people needing temporary or, more rarely, permanent assistance.

However, Rousseau adds a more subtle shading. He recounts an anecdote about a young beggar that he saw on one of his regular walks to whom he enjoyed giving money. Over time, though, he found himself avoiding that walk because “these first acts of charity, which I had performed with an overflowing heart, gave rise to chains of continuing obligation which I had not foreseen and which it was now impossible to shake off . . . that first freely chosen act of charity was transformed into an indefinite right to anything else he might subsequently need . . . In this way my dearest pleasures were transmuted into burdensome obligations.” He also says later, “When I do not see the pleasure I cause, even if there is no doubt about it, I am robbed of half my enjoyment.”

These insights help me understand that the damage caused by the myth of the Welfare Queen, someone who spends her whole life profiting from the welfare system. In fact, nearly everyone is only briefly on welfare, even before Clinton's Welfare Reform Act. Rousseau's insights also help me understand the damage done by isolating the poor in ghettos and ignoring the everyday success stories of the vast majority who grasp the helping hand and move up and out. Of course, I am not speaking of long-term disability which is a different issue.

So I am glad I read this book. The other section I enjoyed was the fifth walk in which he describes a particularly happy time in his life, a few weeks on an island in the middle of the Lake of Bienne, and tries to discover exactly why he was so happy. He talks of how we spend our lives “either regretting something that is past or desiring something that is yet to come”. I will leave you with the next section, a justly famous one, that also captures what for me is the joy of a solitary walk:

But if there is a state where the soul can find a resting-place secure enough to establish itself and concentrate its entire being there, with no need to remember the past or reach into the future, where time is nothing to it, where the present runs on indefinitely but this duration goes unnoticed, with no sign of the passing of time, and no other feeling of deprivation or enjoyment, pleasure or pain, desire or fear than the simple feeling of existence, a feeling that fills our soul entirely, as long as this state lasts, we can call ourselves happy, not with a poor, incomplete and relative happiness such as we find in the pleasures of life, but with a sufficient, complete and perfect happiness which leaves no emptiness to be filled in the soul.

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