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  • Le Bonheur entre Jean-Jacques et Rousseau: manifeste d’anti-croyance par Joël Bienfait
  • Christopher Kelly
Le Bonheur entre Jean-Jacques et Rousseau: manifeste d’anti-croyance. Par Joël Bienfait. (Ouverture philosophique.) Paris: L’Harmattan, 2018. 148 pp.

The series to which this book belongs is devoted to works on philosophical subjects that may not fit comfortably in any academic discipline and written by authors who have unconventional scholarly backgrounds. Joël Bienfait makes few specific references to the scholarly literature on Rousseau and the target of his argument is René Girard rather than any Rousseau specialist. He finds in Rousseau a radically unreligious alternative to Girard’s religious understanding. The fact that Bienfait does not often refer to the scholarly literature does not mean, however, that he fails to address issues central to that literature. Few would contest his central claim that the nature of happiness is of fundamental importance for Rousseau. Moreover, every reader of Rousseau confronts what appears to be a tension between passages that are very religious and others that are tacitly or directly extremely critical of revealed religion. Bienfait resolves this dilemma, as some others have, by identifying two different Rousseaus. In his particular version of this resolution, one (whom he calls Jean-Jacques) is a believer, though in a rather confused way. The other (Rousseau) is a radical and lucid thinker and a relentless critic of religion. The real person, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, uneasily combines the two and, therefore, must be corrected by Bienfait. What Bienfait presents as religious differs from the ordinary understanding of the term. He regards as religious anything that involves desiring an object external to oneself or believing in a goal beyond oneself. Consequently, both a devout Christian and an atheist who is devoted to amassing a fortune or social status are equally religious, although they represent different species of the religious. Both are equally opposed to the rational and true understanding based on needs rather than desires, knowledge rather than belief, and politics rather than religion. Once one comes to terms with this peculiar characterization of the religious one can learn from the details of Bienfait’s presentation. Bienfait argues that these distinctions are reflected by Rousseau’s well-known split between amour-propre and amour de soi. The former, a ‘fureur de se distinguer’ is the foundation of everything bad. At this point, Bienfait’s failure to consider recent Rousseau scholarship leads him astray. Rousseau, indeed, regards the ‘fureur de se distinguer’ as the basis of all social problems (and, indeed, social life itself), but he also insists on the close connection between amour-propre and civic and moral virtue, as opposed to natural goodness which is founded on amour de soi. Consequently, Bienfait too easily assumes that someone devoted to personal independence as opposed to [End Page 630] exploitation of others will be willing to sacrifice himself for the social good. In Rousseau’s view, neither good citizens nor Bienfait’s ‘religious’ people are natural in any sense of the term. An adequate consideration of this question would require that one be open to the possibility that Jean-Jacques Rousseau is entirely lucid even as he adopts different rhetorical stances and explores different points of view.

Christopher Kelly
Boston College


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