Barbarus hic ego sum, quia non intelligor illis

26 January, 2015

This week On the Reading Rest I have a volume of Jean Jacques Rousseau, his dialogues, written in the 1770s. The reason is straightforward. I listened to a presentation of an ongoing project aiming at publish a Swedish translation of the dialogues that has been lying dormant in the archives of the Bonnier media group in Stockholm for almost a century. Both the translator and his foundered translation were intriguing, but since I, and the vast majority of the audience, new nothing whatsoever of the dialogues, they caught my interest because they themselves stood out as a foundered project overshadowing the translator and the translation they triggered (1).

bookmarksOn the web I bought an English copy, which turned out to be a present from one of the three translators of Dialogues to his brother. It showed in the bookmarks. The first was a package slip from the university press between page xxvi and xxvii (Conclusion in the introduction), the second, a folded ‘compliments of …’-card between page 54 and 55 in the later part of the first dialogue and the flawless jeremiads of its conversation. I began wondering whether oddities worthy a smily has had a special link to the dialogues in which Rousseau attempted to judge his career and oeuvre as if he was not himself the public person and writer of his own works.

OmslagRousseau, J-J. (1990). Rousseau, Judge of Jean-Jacques: Dialogues. Roger D. Masters and Christopher Kelly (eds). Judith R. Bush, Christopher Kelly and Roger D. Masters (trans.) Hanover & London. University Press of New England. Acronym: RouDia

The quote from Ovid is central to Rousseau and translating it can be done more or less literally to capture its balance between meaning and metre. Written by Ovid when, exiled to Tomis – today’s Constanta in Romania by the Black Sea – he was as close to the Babarians, surrounded by them culturally and linguistically, as a Roman could be without leaving the empire. Translating the line: ‘I am the barbarian, understood by nobody out here’ imitates some of the rhythm. However, a literal translation: ‘Here I am the barbarian, because by them I am not understood’ captures more of the ridiculous situation in which some bearers of civilisation, Ovid among the Getae and Rousseau among the French, experience the self-sufficient barbarians – not least while speaking to them.

A pre-condition for reading Rousseau or Ovid is to accept the existence of barbarians as a cultural phenomenon and that is difficult. Alternatively, we disregard their use of the concept – considering it a metaphor for their deeply felt alienation and frustration, that is patronizing them from our postcolonial high grounds.

Bild 01In addition to the epigraph, each dialogue has a title: On the system of conduct with respect to J. J. adopted by the administration with the probation of the public; On the nature of J. J. and his habitus; On the spirits of his books and conclusions. It seems, therefore, that the saddening experience of the epigraph results in a systematic civilizational and educational defence project. This project was a failure.

Similar to Ovid who never returned to Rome, Rousseau as Rousseau in the dialogues is stuck with his interlocutor The Frenchmen – that is a representative of the ‘barbarians’ and the middleman between Rousseau and J.[ean] J.[acques]. The reasons why Ovid was exiled are obscure and kept so despite and because of the poet’s hints, and so are the wrongs of Jean Jacques as they are treated in the dialogues. To no avail Ovid sent off poems to Rome and the Emperor. Rousseau read aloud parts of his dialogues to influential persons, and imagined a Royal intervention that would restore his reputation – to no avail.

Since the dialogues between The Frenchman and Rousseau concerns, J.[ean] J.[acques], i.e., real life Rousseau, the author has divided himself into two: Rousseau and the non-present alter ego Jean-Jacques. Ovid in Epistulae Heroidum (Letters of Heroines) splits himself between the exiled poet, real life Ovid, and his alter ego, the heroines separated from their lovers (read: Ovid from the civilized Romans), but his touch is vastly more sophisticated than Rousseau’s rough systematic grip. In fact the parallels between the two are extremely simplistic. Ovid is unbelievably enjoyable compared to the 250 pages of an often rambling Rousseau – arguing, and assessing J. J. There is such a wealth of Absicht in the dialogues that any reader is repeatedly verstimmt (1). Leaving the last bookmark between page 54 and 55 intending to read the following 200 by swooping down on arbitrary pages, is not a bad idea. Not surprisingly, readers acting in this way were anticipated by the ever suspicious Rousseau, who was convinced that this kind of behaviour betrayed a member of the circle of conspiracy that surrounded him.

There is little doubt that Barbarus hic ego sum, quia non intelligor illis, must be translated literally ‘Here I am the barbarian, because by them I am not understood’.

The inability to see that one’s own thinking and conduct illustrates a flaw precisely in one’s thinking, springs to the reader’s mind when studying the prologue (On the subject and form of this writing) and epilogue (History of the preceding writing). They frame the dialogues. Although ‘the individual’ and one’s individual identity was cardinal to Rousseau he nevertheless believed that good individuals, in their capacity as citizen, shouldn’t put their private ambitions first. Yet it would seem that Rousseau himself demonstrates a patent lack of this virtue. The whole idea of the dialogue project was to compel others correctly to acquit J. J. – that is Jean-Jacques Rousseau – considering him to be innocent and virtuous, precisely as he himself had correctly judged himself after having put himself on trial in the dialogues. The point was not that the French should accept him with his qualities and faults, they should pronounce him ‘not guilty’ after a fair hearing. They should in other words follow in the footsteps of the The Frenhman who in the last dialogue, after he has been in the country to meet and talk to J. J., says: As for myself, I want to make my straightforward confession to you at this point. I believe that J. J. is innocent and virtuous, and this belief is such, deep in my soul, that it has no need for some other confirmation (RouDia:221).

From a modern point of view, Rousseau’s inability to be a good or ideal citizen, in effect his ability to put his private ambitions first, was partly caused by his mental state which might well have been diagnosed as paranoia. In the epilogue to the dialogues, History of the preceding writings, his description of the intricate circle of conspiracy building up around him is indeed paranoiac. He tries to break the vicious circle in different ways that he finds in concord with his social contract, and fails. In the end, therefore, he breaks the circle the only possible way he can, i.e. by believing himself to escape into complete solitude. He breaks the social contract in order to survive. In the epilogue Rousseau come close to understanding his own paranoiac perceptions of the world around him as a delusion.

In the prologue On the subject and form of this writing written during or after Rousseau had produced the transcription and fair copy of the manuscript, he writes about his lack of time which makes it impossible for him to edit or rewrite the manuscript although he sees its shortcomings: What I had to say was so clear and I felt it so deeply that I am amazed by the tediousness, repetitiousness, verbiage, and disorder of this writing RouDia:5. Before the reader can agree or disagree, Rousseau continues, elegantly turning his clear-sightedness upside down: What would have made it lively and vehement coming from another’s pen is precisely what has made it dull and slack coming from mine RouDia:5.

His self-defensive role is humiliating. Had he been a respected person the tediousness etc. would have been understandable, but now it stems from the method he must employ: I engaged in [writing] it for brief moments only, writing each idea as it came to my and then stopping, writing the same thing ten times if it came to me ten times, without ever recalling what I wrote previously and becoming aware of it only when reading the whole thing too late to make corrections as I shall explain shortly RouDia:5. In the given situation, he tells us that he must write the way he does because under the circumstances he cannot do otherwise – he cannot revise a sentence or compare two. Although Rousseau doesn’t say it, the sympathetic reader shall have to conclude that honesty is all that matters writing down what he feels and thinks as he thinks and feels it, unable ever to correct himself: In the excessive length of these dialogues, he has said nearly all there is to say although it is drowned in a chaos of disorder and repetition however it is there! And good minds will be able to find it RouDia:6. These good minds, to be sure, are the individuals who do not put their private ambitions first.

In the epilogue History of the preceding writings it turns out that Rousseau’s first reader, a learned and trusted man of letters, having actually read the manuscript, tries to suggest some improvements of the text. In so doing he betrays himself to Rousseau as a member of the all-encompassing conspiracy. If by now it hasn’t occurred to the modern reader that she or he belong to the same category, then it is high time to understand that reading the dialogues the way Rousseau wants his readers to read and understand, would deprive them of their individual identity.

Bild 02In the end, therefore, one can argue that the central theme in Rousseau’s work, the tension between the individual and society – in his case the ‘barbaric’ French – allows him to save himself into solitude as soon as he has convinced himself that the conspiracy is a fact. The key scene is the authors experience in Notre Dame, which convinces him that following God’s command, the church has mysteriously changed and produced a grill that prevents him from reaching the altar where he had intended to put his manuscript. By placing it there he thought Providence and the King (Louis XVI, sic!) would have taken care of it and saved from Rousseau from his conspiring enemies. This is such a pointless suggestion that Rousseau has added an explanatory note, which, by the way, shows that his inability to correct himself has ceased. In the note he explains: This idea (R wanted to entrust the manuscript to the above-mentioned man of letters) and that of the deposit on the altar (in order for the manuscript to reach the King) had occurred to me during the life of Louis XV, at which time it was a bit less ridiculous RouDia:249. Indeed, but nevertheless ridiculous. Louis XV died May 10 1774 and consequently Rousseau thought of the reception of the dialogues well before he had completed them. In other words, being humiliated didn’t prevent him from being strategic. Moreover, he tested extract from the dialogues on selected audiences during the years he wrote them.

History of the preceding writings was been written after he completed the manuscript and after a number of paranoiac experiences. The one with the grill preventing him from reaching the altar resulted in the following: At the moment I perceived that grill, I was overcome by dizziness like a man with apoplexy, and this dizziness was followed by an upheaval of my whole being such that I cannot recall suffering anything like this RouDia:248. This experience, which testifies to self-observation if not explicit self-analysis, made him flee the church and never come back. And why should he? It would have been as horrible to come back and find the grille missing, or it gates opened, as it would be to find it still there preventing people from entering. And, if the grill was still locked when he came back wouldn’t somebody slam the church gate, Porte Rouge, behind him trapping him in a cage? Using the main gates was obviously not an option for the haunted philosopher.


Given his paranoiac disposition thinking in the tension between the individual and society enabled Rousseau to think in radically new ways, but it didn’t help him cope with the tension in a coherent way – he was himself the flaw of his own philosophical system. In this way – thinking in new ways and being himself the flaw of his overarching understanding he reminds one of Heidegger whose personal life, double standards and anti-Semitism didn’t chime in with his systematic approach to philosophy. It didn’t bother Heidegger as it didn’t bother Rousseau, since they both subscribed to Barbarus hic ego sum, quia non intelligor illis. And they both maintained that they were unjustly persecuted. In their lifetime they were in all likelihood appalling, but having died we can agree with Hannah Arendt who pointed out that what Heidegger did with his social contract was not really important anymore in 1969 when he turned 80 because: Heidegger denkt nicht ‘über’ etwas; er denkt was—Heidegger doesn’t think ‘about’ something; he thinks something (Arendt 1969:894)(3). One suspects that to Arendt, whose relation to Heidegger should have made him acutely aware of the ‘Jewish question’ that he continuously refused to acknowledge — to Hannah Arendt, Heidegger was history and a philosopher unable completely to understand his own identity. Rousseau died 1778, Heidegger two hundred years later 1976, in each their period of transition. The centuries have made it easy to cope with Rousseau and the gap between the man and his thinking considering his oeuvre a historical source material. Probably the publication of the of Heidegger’s ‘black notebooks’, in which his anti-Semitism becomes apparent in the late 1930s (4), is a step in the same direction making his obfuscations easy to see through.

Making Heidegger history on par with Rousseau makes them similar instead of different – this similarity is almost a joke and had they known each other they probably wouldn’t have liked the comparison. But who cares? It is one of the great strengths of history to deconstruct difference, uncover irony, force parallels upon the past — not passing judgement.

(1) Jan Stolpe presented David M Sprengler and his project on , Sprengler’s translation and its background in “Rousseau, Judge of Jean Jacques” . scroll to 6. Other works and click c. Rousseau: Judge of Jean Jacques

(2) This is a quote from Goethe: Man merkt die Absicht, und ist verstimmt—‘Cognizing the intention, one feels disconcerted’

(3)This is a quote from Arendt, H. 1969. Martin Heidegger ist achtzig Jahre alt. Merkur 23:893-902.

(4) On Google, the phrase “Heidegger’s ‘black notebooks'”, returns 5,300 hits “heideggers schwarzen hefte” 659 and “les cahiers noirs de Heidegger” 250.


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