A Hard Lesson May Take Centuries to Learn
Carlos Cardoso Aveline
Rousseau and the Jewish classic “Duties of the Heart”
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the self-tortured thinker who unconsciously helped prepare the French Revolution, expressed a feeling which continues to be popular in the first half of the 21st century.
Many still think that by blaming society at large, or denouncing the ruling elites, we may achieve happiness and easily liberate our nations from all suffering.
In his “History of Magic”, Kabbalist Eliphas Levi (1810-1875) is not kind or generous regarding Rousseau.
“Once there was a man in the world”, he bluntly says, “who was soured on discovering that his disposition was cowardly and vicious, and he visited his consequent disgust on society at large. He was an ill-starred lover of Nature, and Nature in her wrath armed him with eloquence as with a scourge.”
Eliphas Levi goes on:
“He dared to plead the cause of ignorance in the face of science, of savagery in the face of civilisation, of all low-life deeps in the face of all social heights. Instinctively the populace pelted this maniac, yet he was welcomed by the great and lionised by women. His success was so signal that, by revulsion, his hatred of humanity increased (…). After his death the world was shaken in its attempts to realise the dreams of Jean Jacques Rousseau (…).” 
There is no reason to adopt a self-righteous attitude and vainly condemn Rousseau for his personal weaknesses. Rousseau was a great man in moral terms because of his unconditional love of truth, his spiritual intelligence and frankness. His mistakes are our mistakes, which were clearly shared by Eliphas Levi, too.
Much like the modern political left since the days of Karl Marx, Rousseau was brilliant in showing the failures of present civilization. Yet he tended to be less than useless in solving the problems, and so has been Marxism after him.
In Russia, Leo Tolstoy and others were influenced by Rousseau’s reveries, while Dostoevsky knew better than that and unmasked the nonsense in the novel “The Devils”.
Many a noble mind thought that by despising an imperfect social order one produces happiness. The pioneers of contemporary delusion subconsciously transferred that old imaginary paradisiacal innocence of the American indigenous peoples, projecting it into the 19th century peasants and urban workers.
They thought they knew that poor people and factory workers were all essentially pure souls if not saints, while the “dominant classes” were selfish. An excess of greed was created solely by an economic and political structure. And they felt anyone who opposed their ideas should be severely denounced, and condemned.
There was no need for human beings to reform themselves morally, so as to be worthy of a moral and just society. All that people had to do was to psychologically project their own fear and hatred onto the “elites” and “ruling class”, and try to get rid of them. There was no consensus of course as to the means to be used. But everyone wanted to change society, and very few wished to change themselves.
Marx, Lenin and Gandhi
The childish notion helped prepare a major Utopian event and lasting social disaster: the Russian Revolution of 1917.
From that point in time, the Rousseauian notion of good men living in bad societies spread more quickly. The practical results of such a dysfunctional Utopia – both left-wing and right-wing – were correctly described, if not anticipated, by George Orwell.
“Progressive” and “reactionary” ideologies – including Nazism and Stalinism – shared a hysterical love of violence in the illusion of seeking to eliminate adversaries, instead of stimulating the self-improvement of citizens.
Even a wise man as Mahatma Gandhi suffered in part from the false notion that the souls of humans are good enough already, and do not need to seek for wisdom in the first place. The main task ahead is to obtain “freedom from those who now oppose us”.
Gandhi’s political legacy is a good example and correctly illustrates the point. It was much easier for India to get rid of colonial domination than to avoid poverty, or prevent war, or defeat corruption and violence. The leaders of the Independence also could not prevent the division of the nation in three countries – Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. Significantly, two of these new nations – India and Pakistan – now possess atomic weapons at the same time as a vast proportion of their population suffers from dire poverty. 
In every continent, the sickly habit still exists of hating and trying to eliminate one’s adversaries – as if they were the one cause of collective unhappiness. Such lack of good sense continues to stimulate mental narrowness, verbal violence, fanaticism, terror and military conflicts.
No person is to be blamed for collective self-delusion. Mere accusations do not help defeat ignorance.
Each one must judge himself before judging others.
Those who have discernment try to know themselves and avoid the sadomasochistic temptation of thinking that happiness is in “defeating our adversaries”. It is a childish illusion to see ourselves and our friends as the legitimate owners of primordial innocence.
In the 1940s, Paul Carton made a detailed examination of Rousseau’s delusion.
Blaming Society for Our Mistakes
Carton opens his book “The False Naturism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau”  by dedicating some 50 pages to the positive aspects of Rousseau’s view of life. And they have a fundamental importance: his criticism of materialistic civilizations is a good starting point.
After that, Carton examines the fact that Rousseau’s views are based on the myth of the noble savage, “le bon sauvage”, the man who lives in nature and obeys its Laws, and who Rousseau supposes to be free from selfishness.
Man was good and happy until civilization came, says Rousseau. Advanced forms of society made human beings both selfish and miserable. Man is naturally good, but Knowledge and Civilization have forced him to become egocentric. There is no need for human souls to struggle with themselves so as to find wisdom, to avoid mistakes and liberate themselves from ignorance. A natural life freely offers us a ready-made perfection. All we have to do therefore is to get rid of some artificial social structures which produce the problem of moral blindness and evil inclinations. 
Once this naïve view of man and society got popular enough, the “natural” thing to do was to promote some sort of radical social change, as a means to “liberate the good and natural people from an irresponsible elite and dysfunctional structures”.
And so the French revolution of 1789 started “promoting justice through violence” in order to reinstate the “natural good feelings” of citizens.
It had no chance to succeed. The revolution ended in an unspeakable bloodbath, by which it completely defeated itself. Of course most revolutionary dreamers did not learn the lesson, and many “revolutions” followed whose practical results are all easy to see.
Tolstoy and other good souls transformed the myth of the “noble savage” into the myth of the “noble factory worker and noble peasant”, who would take political power, liberate themselves, and build the socialist Paradise on earth. Soon the myth of the noble “worker’s party” was born and started spreading hatred and violence around the world.
Acting on another level, thinkers like Jiddu Krishnamurti adapted the delusions of Rousseau into an irresponsible sort of dreamy individualism, in which people think they can free themselves “from all conditioning”, id est, from the karmic law and ethical obligations, thus attaining an imaginary “liberation”.
In the 21st century, the unfortunate popularization of the use of drugs strengthens such a “deconditioning” delusion, which leads to an abandonment of common sense and a voluntary denial of objective facts and karmic conditions.
The truth is that each individual has to be fundamentally self-responsible. He must “take his own cross” – his unavoidable karma accumulated by himself – in order to “follow the path” to universal wisdom. And Wisdom consists of perceiving the Law of Justice and acting in harmony with it.
Merely blaming elites and condemning society as a whole are forms of escaping one’s due responsibility. Thus people leave aside the power to transform their lives and society by sowing good karma.
Psychologically projecting “evil” towards one’s adversaries only expands ignorance and suffering, mainly one’s own.
Sadomasochism is a socially organized disease for which the cure exists. The sickly condition that makes one have pleasure in “defeating” and humiliating adversaries, or in exalting his own suffering, can be healed by the combined process of self-knowledge and cooperative action.
Mutual help is the law of nature, and one needs spiritual discernment to be able to live up to it.
The Natural Goodness in Us
Human beings do have a natural source of peace in their souls. They are spontaneously good as long as they listen to it and follow their conscience.
Yet human perceptions are often a precarious combination of animal instincts and divine possibilities. Spiritual evolution includes a fierce occult struggle between the higher and the lower levels of human soul.
Illusory ideas largely prevail in the present stage of human evolution. It is hard to listen to the voice of the spirit, and even harder to act according to it in the outward world.
There are of course sacred lessons to learn from the close contact with Nature which humanity had in earlier forms of society. These lessons may have a decisive importance for the future of mankind.
Artificialism should be left aside. Regaining a close contact with natural environment is of the essence. However, it makes no sense to suppose that primitive societies and men were perfect, and that all human problems of today would disappear if we “came back to Nature” or “got rid of the present-day elites”.
The true nature with which we must be connected is not physical. It must be found in our souls. The paradise is fundamentally within.
In his day-dreaming condition, Rousseau unilaterally idealized the notion of “a noble savage” and saw in it the ideal model for civilized mankind. In fact, Rousseau was partially right. He showed that indigenous peoples had immense human value and should be respected by Western nations. However, his idea that indigenous nations are all good and modern knowledge all bad is false.
The leaders of the American Revolution of 1776 did not fall into the Rousseauian trap, and the result of their realism was a successful undogmatic change in society. In the 1890s and the beginning of 20th century, Theodor Herzl combined the utopian tradition with the necessary realism and paved the way to the foundation of modern Israel, which started to flourish in 1948.
The Origin of a Naiveté
The unilateral idealization of the “New World” indigenous people did not start with Rousseau. In the late 15th century, the discoverers of the Americas expected to find Paradise on Earth. They thought they might find living examples of mankind as it was supposed to have existed before its adamic “Fall”. They were both hopeful about it and afraid of such a possibility.
The idea of the “noble savage” is present in the detailed official report of the April 1500 discovery of Brazil by Portuguese navigators. Brazil was a Paradise. The notion is also expressed in a less known description of the country’s discovery, the “letter of the anonymous pilot”. Right after the colonial conquest of Brazil, idyllic narrations of the life of indigenous people in Southern America got influential in Europe. 
In his essay “Of Cannibals”, French philosopher Michel de Montaigne writes about the life of the tribes in Brazil:
“These nations then seem to me to be so far barbarous, as having received but very little form and fashion from art and human invention, and consequently to be not much remote from their original simplicity.”
The “laws of nature”, says Montaigne, “govern them still”:
“I am sorry that Lycurgus and Plato had no knowledge of them; for to my apprehension, what we now see in those nations, does not only surpass all the pictures with which the poets have adorned the golden age, and all their inventions in feigning a happy state of man, but, moreover, the fancy and even the wish and desire of philosophy itself; so native and so pure a simplicity, as we by experience see to be in them, could never enter into their imagination, nor could they ever believe that human society could have been maintained with so little artifice and human patchwork. I should tell Plato that it is a nation wherein there is no manner of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no science of numbers, no name of magistrate or political superiority; no use of service, riches or poverty, no contracts, no successions, no dividends, no properties, no employments, but those of leisure, no respect of kindred, but common, no clothing, no agriculture, no metal, no use of corn or wine; the very words that signify lying, treachery, dissimulation, avarice, envy, detraction, pardon, never heard of.”
The idea was fascinating.
In harmony with such a dream, in 1610-1611 William Shakespeare makes his character Gonzalo say in “The Tempest”:
(Act II, Scene 1, adapted to contemporary English)
“In my kingdom I’d do everything differently from the way it’s usually done. I wouldn’t allow any commerce. There’d be no officials or administrators. There’d be no schooling or literature. There’d be no riches, no poverty, and no servants – none. No contracts or inheritance laws; no division of the land into private farms, no metal-working, agriculture, or vineyards. There’d be no work. Men would have nothing to do, and women also – but they’d be innocent and pure. There’d be no kingship – (…). Everything would be produced without labor, and would be shared by all. There’d be no treason, crimes, or weapons. Nature would produce its harvests in abundance, to feed my innocent people. (…) I would rule so perfectly that my country would outshine the Golden Age they had in ancient times.” 
This is the effortless life of Paradise on Earth.
It is of course quite different from the Utopia of Sir Thomas More, which was published in 1516 and largely based on ancient platonic writings.
It has a charming atmosphere in common with the Devachan, the individual life of subjective happiness taking place on a spiritual plane between two incarnations of a human being. It refers therefore to the law of reincarnation, a concept rejected by Christians but alive in Judaism and in the Eastern religions and philosophies.
The idea of an effortless paradise has little to do with social and historical realities. Such an elevated condition relates to the “land of no suffering” of the Tupi Indians in Brazil – a mythic place of unlimited happiness, a metaphor, too, for the highest stage of dream-consciousness between two incarnations.
History has shown it is not wise to intend to forcefully bring this sort of soul-happiness down to the material life of nations.
Our intuitive memory of Devachan makes us feel a healthy aspiration for universal brotherhood and undoubtedly inspires us to try and build better societies. Yet in this endeavour, prudence, good sense and discernment are indispensable tools. They can never be left aside, if real progress is to be achieved.
Just as the esoteric movement at large has been into a great extent stuck in superficialities and lacks a deeper sense of purpose, so the political left is the prisoner of a childish attitude. It complains about every uncomfortable situation, while refusing to act in a creative and responsible way, as every adult person must do.
It is of course both correct and necessary to question organized ignorance.
The practical use of scientific knowledge in modern society has shown an outstanding absence of ethics, prudence and wisdom. Human sciences suffer from the same disease. Knowledge and resources are employed in the pursuit of false priorities. Communities are dominated by political propaganda, electioneering, “entertainment”, military activities and the search for illegitimate profit.
However, these are but the symptoms. They result from the state of the human soul. Propaganda and the struggle for short-term political power cannot reduce the suffering of the world. The direct experience of wisdom and justice is needed. The state of the soul must improve, for society to find peace and quiet.
Rousseau used his exaggerated idealization of the noble savage as a means to denounce the hypocrisy and injustice of his time. Then the political left started worshipping a sanctified image of workers and citizens, as if they were, right now, thoroughly good and wise enough. “All we need”, such people thought, “is to destroy this or that form of society, because it disappoints us.”
Yet negative thinking builds nothing.
The illusion that “men are ready to live in harmony provided we make this or that political reform” must be abandoned. Man is indeed fundamentally good – as long as he follows his soul and his conscience. Yet he is still largely ignorant. The 21st century is the right time for us to realize that only a society of just men will be just, and to see that it takes honest citizens to have honest politicians and heads of state.
The Duties of the Heart
We all share the same substance. We must learn from each other, and for that, a simplicity of heart is necessary.
Actions, not mere words, multiply honesty. Every citizen is entitled to renew mankind. Whatever you want others to do, do it yourself in the first place, and the good example will spread in time.
A classic book of Jewish ethics, “Duties of the Heart”, says:
“One should make an accounting with himself of his involvement with other people in what pertains to the general welfare – e.g., plowing and reaping, buying and selling, and other ways in which people are mutually helpful in creating a healthy society – [and consider] that he should desire for them what he would desire for himself in these matters, loathe for them [to suffer] what he would loath for himself, empathize with them, and do all he can to shield them from what might harm them, as it is written: ‘Love your neighbor like yourself’ (Vayikra 19:18).”
The author of “Duties of the Heart” had no short term illusions.
Rabbi Bachya ibn Paquda knew this path is initially for the Few, not the many. After mentioning the significant obstacles created by selfishness and ignorance, Paquda wrote:
“Therefore, my brother, you should endeavor to acquire faithful colleagues and true friends who will help you in your religious and secular pursuits, as you are wholehearted and true toward them. They should be as dear to you as your own soul, when you find among them those who are worthy of this sentiment.” 
It is by being wise, not by making propaganda, that one changes the world.
Nations must be improved starting from our souls. The birth of a just society has to take place in one’s own heart and character, before becoming visible as a sociological process. The large tree emerges from within the small seedling, not from without. Unlimited potentialities for good are waiting for us. Each human soul contains the seeds of future society, which in due time will grow and flourish.
 “History of Magic”, Eliphas Levi, published by William Rider & Son, London, 1922, 536 pp., see Book VI, chapter IV, p. 422.
 The positive side of Gandhi’s legacy proceeded with Vinoba Bhave. See the article “Vinoba and the Power of Good Will”.
 “Le Faux Naturisme de Jean-Jacques Rousseau”, Paul Carton, deuxième édition, 1951, 213 pages, Imp. Bussière, à Saint-Amand (Cher), France. First edition, 1944.
 “Le Faux Naturisme de Jean-Jacques Rousseau”, Paul Carton, 1951, 213 pp., see pp. 53-86.
 “O Índio Brasileiro e a Revolução Francesa”, subtitle “as origens brasileiras da theoria da bondade natural”, Affonso Arinos de Mello Franco, Livraria José Olympio Editora, Rio de Janeiro, 1937, 331 pp., see pp. 34-35.
 This contemporary English version – available online – was compared to the original text of the volume “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare”, The Golden Library, Magpie Books, London, UK, 1992, 1142 pp., see p. 8.
 “Duties of the Heart”, by R. Bachya ben Joseph ibn Paquda, translated from the Arabic into Hebrew by R. Yehuda ibn Tibbon, English translation by Daniel Haberman, two volumes, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem-New York, printed in Israel, copyright 1996, see volume two, p. 745.
The above article was published in the associated websites on 21 July 2019. It is also available at the theosophical blog in The Times of Israel.
See the articles “Each Citizen Is an Emperor, In Modern Democracy”, “The Power to Change the World” and “Political Left, Ethics and Brotherhood”.