The Unfundamental Conversion

Apostate: Jean-Jaques Rousseau (Chapter 6) #ApostateTheBook

June 26th, 2014 | Posted by Lana Hope in Book Reviews | Philosophy


In today’s review, I will discuss chapter 6 of Kevin Swanson’s book Apostate.

In this chapter, Kevin Swanson intensely unravels his special dislike for Rousseau, more so than any of the other “apostates” discussed in the previous chapters.  In part, I understand. Rousseau was not a man of integrity and honor. As Swanson discusses, Rousseau abandoned his children at an orphanage, in order to devote himself to his work, and he cheated on his lifelong partner. Certainly I share concerns that Rousseau never raised his children, and even greater concerns for the part of Rousseau’s life that Swanson does not narrate (for example: Rousseau thought women were rarely raped because they could scream for help).

Because this review is so long, let’s first summarize key quotes and points from Swanson himself. Then in what follows, I will offer quotes and commentary on this section of Apostate:

These are some quotes where Swanson expresses an extreme dislike for Rousseau:

  • Rousseau is the “wretch who had a total of five children”
  • Rousseau “refused to honor the mother of his children even with a wedding ring” (aka, Rousseau’s real sin was that he lived with a lifelong partner without marrying her).
  • “His acquaintances were particularly annoyed by his obnoxious habit of urinating in public”
  • “Jean-Jaques Roussea was the prototypical liberal hypocrite who kills is babies in the morning and argues passionately for welfare redistributions to the indigent in the afternoon.” (This is wrong; Rousseau did not kill his children, nor did he exactly invent a welfare system.)
  • “He makes it easy for us to see why we shouldn’t follow a self-consumed narcissist who urinated in public and abandoned his five children on the steps of an orphanage.”
  • “It would be difficult to construct a fictional character as twisted, pathetic, or evil as Jean-Jaques Rousseau.”

In this chapter, Kevin Swanson never discusses:

  • Why Rousseau advocated a social contract. We are told repeatedly that Rousseau is evil for his large government ideas but never once does Swanson discuss why  Rousseau thought this was needed.
  • Why the time was ripe for people to listen to Rousseau. Did Rousseau really advocate a social contract out of thin air?
  • Why other intellects may have been attracted to Rousseau’s work. Instead we are just told that intellects “reduce themselves to such foolishness in their commendations of a fool.”
  • Swanson also never discusses the difference between Rousseau’s government and the US government, or the difference between Rousseau’s idea of education and the US public education system. Swanson blurs these together, which is sloppy scholarship.

In short: Rather than discussing why Rousseau wanted a social contract (which Swanson never does), Swanson is mocking Rousseau for peeing in public parks. As I will demonstrate in this review, Swanson is just attacking Rousseau with no real substance to his arguments.

Now for quotes from Swanson’s text:

It is fitting that this is the father of the secular state and the modern compulsory public education system. He is the father of the world where 40-50% of children are born out of wedlock and the state promises womb-to-tomb social security for every. This is the madman who constructed our modern world. . . .As social systems continue to crumb around us, future generations will look back in disbelief at the foolishness of those who accepted Rousseau’s thinking without question. . . . God has a way of teaching His truth by historical object lessons. He makes it easy for us to see why we shouldn’t follow a self-consumed narcissist who urinated in public and abandoned his five children on the steps of an orphanage.

Ignoring the comment about urination, Swanson is giving Rousseau WAY TOO MUCH credit for destroying the world. First of all,  since Swanson mostly focuses and looks at this as an American, we should think about Rousseua’s influence upon America. America was not just founded on Rousseau’s Social Contract. John Locke’s political philosophy, which Rousseau opposed, had more influence on the constitution than on Rousseau. For example, Rousseau taught that the state gave us our human rights. John Locke, and many if not most of the early Americans, argued that we are endowed with those rights – that they are inalienable.  Certainly Rousseau had a strong influence on America, but Rousseau did not singlehandedly create America or the rest of the western world. [Edit: at the end of the chapter, Swanson clarifies that the founding fathers would have disagreed with Rousseau because people like Benjamin Franklin believed we were governed by God. ]

Rousseau continues on this argument:

But the tragic part is that most of the world loved [Rousseau] as they developed their democracies, their socialist states, their literature, schools, and fragmented families This deranged “madman” created a new world in his own image. Now, Rousseau’s orphanage is much expanded in the form of government-funded day schools, kindergartens, preschools, daycares, and foster care!  In our country, over 50% of children born to women under 30 years of age are born without fathers, and 64% of children under six are left alone for large portions of the day  The state controls almost all of the education all of the education programs in most developed countries around the world, and parental freedoms are increasingly disappearing in the European Union and America.

Oh boy now Swanson is using Rousseau to say that foster care is BAD, and that parents are losing their PARENTAL RIGHTS. The footnote Swanson provides at the end of “European Union and America” is a footnote to HSLDA, and an article about homeschoolers fleeing persecution in Germany and Sweden. Swanson is using Rousseau as an excuse to push fear that the we will lose homeschool freedom and that public education overrides parental rights. This has nothing to do with Rousseau, NOTHING.

Also, Rousseau did not exactly advocate for 21st century daycares and preschools. Rousseau said that ideally a child before the age of 12 should not be taught anything directly at all, and “certainly nothing bookish.”  This is why even the unschooling Wikipedia page cites Rousseau as a kind of father of unschooling. In some ways Rousseau is closer to American homeschooling than our public education today. Rousseau was one of the first philosophers I read in college, after Plato and maybe unsuccessfully Kant or Descartes. What grasped me reading Emile was that as a homeschool alumni I related to Rousseua’s educational ideas. Although Rousseau did influence the idea of free play kindergartens, and I have no doubt that he had an influence on public education, Rousseau himself also talks about the role of the mother and father during the really early years.

You would have had to search long and hard to find any small city state over 4,000 years of world history leading up to Rousseau’s life that mandated a compulsory attendance law in order to indoctrinate hundreds of missions (if not billions) of citizens in statist ideologies. Rousseau’s ideas provided the fertitle ground that the statistic education theory need to drive in the 18th and 20th centuries. This philosopher’s vision for statist education found acceptance in Prussia at around the same time of the public al of Emile (1763-1765). It would take another century before America incorporated these compulsory attendance laws – the modern statistic system was finally in place when the state of Mississippi finally adopted the law in 1917.

Indoctrination was not what Rousseau had in mind. He supported learning through nature and experience, not importing kids with a set knowledge. So while Rousseau may have supported a kind of education for all, Marianna Papastephanou writes that “Rousseau is not to be counted as one who would have supported a state system or common curriculum in any meaningful way.”

It would be difficult to construct a fictional character as twisted, pathetic, or evil as Jean-Jaques Rousseau. Yet he is treated as a sort of god by many modern thinkers. Incredibly, Immanuel Kant, the great philosopher of the 19th century described Rousseau as one who possess “a sensibility of soul of unequaled perfection.”

I am not sure if Swanson has stopped to realize that one can adopt insights of a philosopher without agreeing with their personal religion or with all their ideas. Kant agreed that we had civic duty, but he also believed objective morality.  In no way was Kant a walking Rousseau.

Percy Shelley refered to him as a “sublime genius.”

Rousseau taught a return to nature and experience as a means of learning. This influenced romanticism, which was a break from the strict rationalism of the enlightenment (although by no means is Romanticism not part of modernity because Romanticism rested with the assumption that art and nature produce feelings of the sublime and beauty, but it lost touch with the premodern convict that art does express truth. See Truth and Method by Hans-Georg Gadamer). But this does not mean Shelley adopted everything Rousseau taught.

Next Swanson asks how these geniuses from Kant to Shelley to Tolstoy to Dewey could be influenced by the “commendations of a fool.” Swanson argues that,”there must be something very misguided with those minds who cannot find any problem with him” and then quotes Matthew 7:16-20 in the KJV: “yea shall know them by their fruits.”

This argument is ridiculous. Who said none of the men had a problem with the idea that Rousseau had abandoned his children?  Because Rousseau’s works were foundational to the social and political theory of both the left and right, no serious thinker could refuse to read Rousseau. Like it or not, there were problems surfacing in Europe that led up to the French revolution; Rousseau had identified these problems. Others who were identifying similar problems would have read Rousseau, not because they love the idea that he abandoned his children, but because a person of intellectual integrity has to read what has already been said, and critique, disagree, agree, and build off that legacy.

 From the very first words of Social Contract, Rousseau veers off the biblical tracks and abandons his Christian roots. He writes, “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.” The words sound good to the humanist mind, but not to the mind of man trained to think according to biblical anthropology. Man is born enslaved to sin (Rom. 6:16, Ps 51:5, Eph 2:1)

This quote has nothing to do with affirming or denying a sinful nature. If Swanson does not understand the quote, he really should read the entire Social Contract, which is a series of footnotes to this opening quote. Swanson also should have read the next sentence in Social Contract: “One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they.” Swanson demonstrated that modernism in that time had created a society dominated by inequality, dominance, and unhappiness. Rousseau in this quote was actually sounding like Kevin Swanson himself who laments that the past was a better, more happy society, and that technology has corrupted us. Modern society had lead to what Rousseau calls the “Right of the strongest.” This is why Rousseau believed we need a social contract that works for the good of society.

This brings me to a quote from the beginning of the Swanson’s chapter:

If ideas have consequences, it was the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau that brought about the spirit of revolution, the reign of terror, the guillotine, the forced redistribution of wealth, and 40,000 dead bodies.

. . . .

Tragically, the political revolutions in France, Germany, China, and Russia that ended in the deaths of hundreds of millions of people were rooted in Rousseau’s revolutionary doctrine. Karl Marx’s communist ideologies, including the elimination of private property ownership, initially appeared in Rousseau’s Social Contract.

Swanson is correct that Rousseau had a heavy influence upon the French Revolution, and only a quick google search will bring up articles on the connection between the two. However, I do think it’s important to consider why Rousseau had an influence upon that age. In actuality, Rousseau did not directly cause the revolution, but rather the time was right for people to want to listen to Rousseau. As Stephen Hicks write: “[T]he lesson most German intellectuals took from the Revolution was not that Roussauian philosophy was the culprit. To most, the culprit was clearly the Enlightenment philosophy.” It is sad how much violence modernism has created. Whether we argue that the people resorted to violence or argue that violence was a necessity, it is still so sad, and on the sad note, I can agree with Swanson. I have written before that violence is the tragic result of a modern mindset, and I have proposed postmodernism as an alternative to this.

Swanson next talks about how Rousseau wanted to have both a social contract and a way for people to experience their individual freedoms. Rousseau hoped that a social contract, or a bigger government as Swanson calls it, would ulimtely make man more free. I agree with Swanson that this is a hard balance, and this is why we have such heated debates in every election. But I do not think trying to find the balance is in vein and or that Jesus (Swanson’s solution) is the answer to our political problems (for one, everyone in America is not a believer). Swanson makes a really, really random point:

Thus Rousseau cannot find the happy medium between the ultimacy of the individual and the ultimacy of the corporate body. He cannot draw a fine line between the “one and the many” or between the anarchy of the individual who does what he wants to do and the tyranny of the corporate state that dictates all human action. Christians believe that the one and the man equally ultimate in God Himself, the Trinity. In self-consistent Christian mind, God is both one and three.

Yes, he changed the subject to the Trinity in the middle of the paragraph (the paragraph goes on). If I wrote this random, my graduate professors would refuse to grade the paper. Also, as I said above, believing in the Trinity will not change our need for a social contract. This argument simply cannot be sustained.

Swanson then offers a quote from Rousseau. In the passage, Rousseau writes that people proclaim “this is mine” and build fences around their land. From there, Rousseau writes that, there would be fewer crimes, wars, and murderers if people just realized that the earth belongs to no everyone and no single individual. What follows from Swanson:

It is obvious from the quote above that Rousseau rejected the eight commandment.

That is funny because Rousseau said that property does not really belong to us in the first place, not that we should steal it. Swanson may not agree with Rousseau, but this has nothing to do with the eighth commandment. Swanson then quotes a bunch of scriptures about private property to defend the idea of private property. This seems like more randomness to me because we actually do have the right to property in North America and the rest of the western world, so Rousseau did not destroy this.

Rousseau understands that government-funded education is indispensable. In order to move modern nations towards total government by democracy, education would have to come under the purview of the state. The state-controlled education system would then become a juggernaut, a force that would be irresponsible by any “conservative” or “distributist” coalition. This is the only way in which the state can replace the family, and bring the majority of the population into dependence upon state welfare and state employment. As the state replaces the family by its welfare programs, education programs, medical programs, and economic systems, eventually fathers become obsolete. This destroys family economies and creates a society where the majority of children are raised without fathers involved in their lives and the majority of marriages end in divorce.


But those who use Scripture to determine the jurisdictional boundaries of family, church, and state instantly recognize the revolutionary and destructive nature of Rousseau’s program They know that state ownership of children is tyrannical and antithetical to freedom as explained by the prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 8:11-13. They find that enslaving of children to state-controlled economies and corporations is a shame to a free people (Neheiah 5:5,7). They are horrified by the elimination of family economies. They are repelled by a state-controlled system of education since there is no example of it in Scripture, let alone any mandate of it. Through Scriptures, God requires fathers to oversee and control the education of their children (Deut 6:609, Eph, 6:4, 1 Thess. 2:11, Col 3:21, and the whole Book of Proverbs). Normatively, fathers and mothers raise their children. They teach their children and work towards family economic goals together. This is assumed in the fourth commandment.

Is it just me, or does it seem like Swanson is using Rousseau as an excuse to advocate homeschooling and family economic systems? Swanson’s argument is basically this: Rousseau wanted free education so that he could destroy the world and make everyone dependent upon the government. He does not back up this with any quotes from Rousseau’s text.  Rousseau did advocate that poor children should receive a scholarship for school, but this had nothing to do with destroying the world. Until Swanson backs this up, it’s a conspiracy theory.

There would have been no Marx, no Nietzsche, and no Wagner without Jean-Jacques Rousseu’s worldview of Romanticism. There would have been none of those bloody, senseless revolutions without Rousseua’s revolutionary doctrine.

Sources?? This is such an ignorant statement. Nietzsche, as was most every other philosopher in the 19th and 20th century, was in part responding to an epistemological crisis that began with Kant. Immanuel Kant provided a powerful critique of the enlightenment when he demonstrated that reason and experience never allows us to directly perceive reality. Remember in my last review of Apostate I noted that Locke believed our senses directly perceive reality. The implications for this was that truth could always be objective because it was possible for people to directly know and experience reality. In that review, I made a comment that philosophy has changed since Locke, and in fact, so much has changed that we have never recovered from it. That happened when Kant demonstrated that the person (or knowing-subject) is always projecting his or her worldview onto an object and sorting it with the categories of his or her mind, such that we never directly “know” reality. Throughout this blog, I have argued that as finite beings we can never have a complete objective view of the world, and Kant is the roots of that argument. For decades and now centuries, philosophers have responded to Kant and his predessors and tried to get around Kant’s epistemology. As such Nietzsche was one philosopher who argued that at its core, reality is just irrational.  Hegel responded to Kant by showing that contradictions are “ideal” and part of the subjective movement of Spirit (loong story; I’ll refer you to this article on JSTOR if you want to know more),  and Marx developed Hegel’s insights while disagreeing with others. The point I want to make is that Rousseau just is not that powerful in the scope of philosophy. He was important, and particularly important in social philosophy, but there would certainly be a Marx, Nietzsche, and Wagner (Wagner? That is random) without Rousseau. Similarly, the American Revolution would have happened without Rousseau. I have illuded in other blog posts about the philosophical mindset behind the American revolution.

The historians are right — Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the most influential humanist thinker of the last 500 years. His ideas formed the contours of modern life more than any others. He prepared the way for the social political, and cultural revolutions that destroyed the family, eroded political freedoms, and unraveled entire civilizations. When the story is written about the decline and fall of Western civilization, Jean-Jaques Rousseau will head the first chapter. If the team of men brought the Western world to its knees were arranged in a pyramid, the name “Jean-Jaques Rousseau” would take its place at the top.

Which historians? Swanson seriously needs an editor. It is certainly possible that historians have made that remark, but I need a source. Secondly, there is much disagreement about this. R.C. Sproul, whom Swanson admires, argues that Kant produced the most influential revolution in all of modern history.

[Rousseau] was the pivotal philosopher who gave birth to the modern age, which historians generally agree began in 1820.

Again, Swanson needs an editor because he has contradicted his previous chapters. In the previous chapter, he cited that Locke had a “modern Western conception of the self.”  Similarly, in his chapter on Descartes, Swanson wrote “It is truly remarkable that the great father of modern philosophy lacked such moral integrity.” Descartes was a 17th century philosopher. If Descartes marked anywhere close to the beginning of modernism, it began long before 1820. If Swanson is trying to argue that there is difference between the modern age and the enlightenment, he needs to clarify this because right now he is just contradicting himself.

My opinion is that Swanson was right the first time. Locke and Descartes are modern thinkers. I am going to end this review by quoting a modern philosophy scholar. This quote comes from Dr. Stephen Hicks, who in Explaining Postmodernism, explains just why we consider Locke and Descartes to be modern thinkers:

Bacon, Descrates, and Locke are modern because of their philosophical naturalism, their profound confidence in reason, and especially in the case of Locke, their individual Modern thinkers start from nature — instead of starting with some form of the supernatural, which had been the characteristic starting point of pre-modern, Medieval philosophy. Modern thinkers stress that perception and reason are the human means of knowing nature — in contrast to the premodern reliance upon tradition, faith, and mysticism. Modern thinkers tress human autonomy and the human capacity for forming one’s one character– in contrast to the pre-modern emphasis upon dependence and original sin. Modern thinkers emphasize the individual, seeing the individual as the unit of reality, holding that the individual’s mind is sovereign, and that the individual is the unit of value — in contrast to the premodernist, feudal subordination of the individual to higher political, social, or religious realities and authorities.

Modern philosophy came to maturity in the Enlightenment.

And that concludes my review of chapter 6. For my other reviews of Apostate, see the following links. I’ll be back next time for chapter 7

Chapter 1 and 2
Thomas Aquinas (Chapter 3)
Rene Descartes (chapter 4)
John Locke (chapter 5)


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  • karenh1234567890

    Urinating outdoors was common in Europe when I was there. I was on a post-high school graduation bus tour of Europe in 1968 and somewhere in Germany in the night some of the people had to go to the bathroom. The bus driver pulled over and let people out by a likely woods. BTW, it was well-used (it stank). We American high-schoolers were shocked.

    And France, Urinating in public in the country that invented the pissoir?

    Not to mention bicycle racing and “Natural Breaks”.

    Swanson sure has a hang-up on bodily functions…

    Sorry, if I glommed on to this, but it struck me as funny.

    • Lana Hope

      Oh I did not know that. Interesting. I do remember in a tourist area in Belgium, there was a huge fine for going to bathroom outside. Maybe that’s why!

  • “There would have been none of those bloody, senseless revolutions without Rousseua’s revolutionary doctrine.”

    Yeah, I’m sure that the revolutionary Frenchman, Russian, or any number of South Americans with a starving family would appreciate that sentiment.

  • Good lord! Swanson is a horrendous writer. An editor would be a good start, but I’m not sure an editor could do much more than ask for a complete and competent rewrite.

    That said, I love your analysis – and I tend to agree. Swanson completely overrates Rousseau’s actual influence.

    I hadn’t thought of the resemblance between Rousseau’s ideas on education and the unschooling movement, but you are right! It fits. Perhaps it is also a bit fitting that Thoreau is also deplored by fundies, yet his ideas are (unconsciously?) influential on homeschooling as a movement.

    One other thing I thought I might comment on: Swanson seems to have completely missed that one of the most important American developments in public education was the passage of the “Old Deluder Satan” act, which explicitly sought universal literacy on the grounds that ignorance of the Bible was one of Satan’s greatest weapons. Hmmm….

    • Lana Hope

      Ah, good point on Thoreau too. I wonder if he is going to trash him next.

      Swanson writes like he speaks on the podcast – very generalized and random.


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