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.