Rousseau’s Èmile is a kind of half treatise, half novel that tells the life story of a fictional man named Èmile. In it, Rousseau traces the course of Èmile’s development and the education he receives, an education designed to create in him all the virtues of Rousseau’s idealized “natural man,” uncorrupted by modern society. According to Rousseau, the natural goodness of a man can be nurtured and maintained only according to this highly prescriptive model of education, and Rousseau states that his aim in Èmile is to outline that model—a model that differed sharply from all accepted forms of the time.
The system of education Rousseau proposes details a specific pedagogy for each stage of life, an educational method that corresponds with the particular characteristics of that stage of human development. Accordingly, Èmile is divided into five books, each corresponding to a developmental stage. Books I and II describe the Age of Nature up to age twelve; books III and IV describe the transitional stages of adolescence; and book V describes the Age of Wisdom, corresponding roughly to the ages of twenty through twenty-five. Rousseau claims that this stage is followed by the Age of Happiness, the final stage of development, which he does not address in Èmile.
In books I and II, Rousseau insists that young children in the Age of Nature must emphasize the physical side of their education. Like small animals, they must be freed of constrictive swaddling clothes, breast-fed by their mothers, and allowed to play outside, thereby developing the physical senses that will be the most important tools in their acquisition of knowledge. Later, as they approach puberty, they should be taught a manual trade, such as carpentry, and allowed to develop within it, further augmenting their physical capabilities and hand–brain coordination.
Rousseau goes on to say that as Èmile enters his teenage years, he should begin formal education. However, the education Rousseau proposes involves working only with a private tutor and studying and reading only what he is curious about, only that which is “useful” or “pleasing.” Rousseau explains that in this manner Èmile will essentially educate himself and be excited about learning. He will nurture a love of all things beautiful and learn not to suppress his natural affinity for them. Rousseau states that early adolescence is the best time to begin such study, since after puberty the young man is fully developed physically yet still uncorrupted by the passions of later years. He is able to develop his own faculties of reason, under the guidance of a tutor who is careful to observe the personal characteristics of his student and suggest study materials in accordance with his individual nature.
At this stage, Èmile is also ready for religious education, and in a subsection of book IV called “the Creed of the Savoyard Priest,” Rousseau describes that education. He describes Èmile receiving a lesson from the Savoyard Priest, who outlines the proper relationship a virtuous natural man such as Èmile should hold with God, the scripture, and the church. The main thrust of the priest’s instruction is that Èmile should approach religion as a skeptic and a freethinker and that he should discover the greatness and truth of God through his own discovery of it, not through the forced ingestion of the church’s dogma.
Rousseau writes that only after a final period of studying history and learning how society corrupts natural man can Èmile venture unprotected into that society, without danger of himself being corrupted. Èmile does venture out in book V, and he immediately encounters woman, in the form of Sophie. Rousseau devotes a large part of the concluding section to their love story as well as to a discussion of female education.
Èmile is remembered best as Rousseau’s statement of his philosophy of education and as a groundbreaking work in educational reform. Rousseau’s belief that any formal education, whether scholastic or religious, should not be started until adolescence was a radical suggestion at a time when well-bred children were expected to begin religious training in particular by the age of six or seven. Although Èmile is certainly a powerful statement on education, it created great controversy due to Rousseau’s radical approach to religion. Rousseau always denied that Èmile was “a work of education,” and he insisted it was essentially a “philosophical work” devoted to defending his fundamental belief in man’s natural goodness. In any case, Èmile serves as a very useful elaboration of Rousseau’s philosophical system. Although Rousseau recognizes that the natural man, as described in his Discourse on Inequality, cannot possibly exist in modern society, he insists that many of the best characteristics of that natural man can coexist with the obligations of citizenship in civil society. His aim in Èmile is to show how this can happen.
Èmile initially received the most attention for the Creed of the Savoyard Priest. Rousseau’s insistence that God and religion should be discovered freely, not preached to small children, was anathema to the eighteenth-century church and its clergy, who viewed any questioning or critique as a grave threat. Ironically, among his fellow Enlightenment philosophes, many of whom were ardent secularists and even atheists, Rousseau was the least hostile to the church. In fact, he identified as a Christian his entire life and always sought to reconcile his philosophy with his faith, which is the essential aim of this passage.
Èmile brought vigorous attacks against Rousseau’s character and ideas, but it was also widely read, and it is credited with bringing about some concrete changes in the way children of the educated classes across western Europe were raised. Through the latter part of the eighteenth century, many observers credited Èmile with prompting aristocratic mothers to recognize the benefits of breast-feeding their own infants, not keeping them constrained in swaddling clothes at all times, and allowing older children to play outside and exercise their bodies. Although the extent to which such changes can be attributed to Èmile is arguable, the work has definitely served as a foundational template for numerous works of educational philosophy that have appeared in the centuries that followed it. Indeed, many of the ideas that Rousseau forwarded in Èmile concerning human development and the wonders of childhood presage the work of many of the most highly regarded psychologists and educators of the present day.