Preface to 'Narcissus, or the Lover of Himself' by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1752

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1752

Preface to “Narcissus, or the Lover of Himself”

Source: Oeuvres complètes de J.-J. Rousseau. Tome 8 réimprimées d'après les meilleurs textes sous la direction de Louis Barré; illustrées par Tony Johannot, Baron et Célestin Nanteuil...;
First Published: J. Bry aîné (Paris), 1856-1857;
Translated: for by Samuel Webb, 2011.

I wrote this comedy (Narcisse) at the age of eighteen, and I have refrained from showing it for as long as I put any stock in the reputation of authorship. I have finally felt the courage to publish it, but I will never have enough to say anything about it. Thus my subject here is not in fact my play, but myself.

Despite my reluctance, it is necessary that I speak of myself; I must either admit the wrongs that have been attributed to me or justify myself against them. The arms will not be equal, I am well aware; for they will attack with mockeries and jests and I will defend myself but with reasons. But provided that I can convince my adversaries, I concern myself very little to persuade them. Working to merit my own esteem, I have learned to do without that of others, who, for the most part, do well enough without mine. But if it is of little importance whether others think well or ill of me, it matters whether they are right to think ill, and it matters to the truth that I have put forth that its defender not be unjustly accused of having given his support to it merely out caprice and vanity, without loving or knowing it.

The position that I took on the question I examined a few years ago has not failed to incite a multitude of adversaries – more attentive to the interests of men of letters than to the honor of literature. I expected as much, and suspected that their conduct in this case would work in my favor more than any of my own words could. Indeed, they disguised neither their surprise nor their chagrin that an Academy [of Dijon][1] should have shown its integrity to be, in their view, so misplaced [mal à propos]. Against this Academy they have spared neither indiscreet invectives, nor even patent falsehoods in order to weaken the weight of its judgment. Nor was I forgotten in their declamations. Several endeavored to refute me head on; the wise have been able to see with what force, and the public with what success they managed it. Others, defter, knowing the danger of directly combating demonstrated truths, have skillfully diverted onto my person the attention they should have given only to my reasoning, and examining the accusations with which they have charged me has made many forget the much more serious accusations I myself have brought against them. Thus, it to these latter accusers that I must respond once and for all.

They claim that I do not actually think a single word of the truths I have upheld, and that in demonstrating one proposition, I would not fail to really believe its opposite. That is to say, I proved such extravagant things that I could only maintain them in jest. Witness the fine tribute they give to the science which serves as the foundation for all the others! And one really must believe that the art of reasoning serves a great deal in the discovery of truth, when we see it employed successfully to demonstrate follies.

They claim that I do not believe a single word of the arguments I have put forth; this is no doubt a convenient and novel method on their part to respond to arguments without a response, to refuse even the demonstrations of Euclid, and all that there is demonstrated in the universe. It seems to me that those who accuse me so temerariously of speaking against my thought have no great scruples about speaking against their own: for they have assuredly found nothing in my writings or in my conduct that could have inspired in them this idea, as I will soon show; and we can hardly expect them to be unaware that when a man speaks seriously, we ought to think he means what he says, unless his actions or his speech belie him. And still, even this does not always suffice to guarantee he doesn’t believe something of what he says.

They can thus cry, as much as it pleases them, that, in declaring myself against the sciences, I have spoken against my true sentiment. To such a rash assertion, devoid equally of both proof and plausibility, I offer only one response; It is short and forceful, and I beseech them to accept it as done.

Yet they claim that my conduct as well is in contradiction with my principles, and we must not doubt that they employ this second instance fallaciously as if to establish the first; for there are many who know how to find proofs for that which is not. They will say thus that in composing music and verses, one is graceless to denounce the fine arts, and that there is, in the great literature I profess to disdain, thousands of undertakings more laudable than writing Comedies. This accusation, too, requires a response.

Firstly, even if this accusation, in all its severity, were admitted, I say it would prove only that conduct myself poorly, not that I do not speak in good faith. If it were possible to take from people’s actions the proof of their sentiments, we would be forced to say that the love of justice is banished from all hearts and that there is not a single Christian on earth. Let them show me the men who act always in accordance with their maxims, and I will pass condemnation on my own. Such is the lot of humanity, reason shows us the goal and the passions divert us from it. When it would be the case that I fail to act according to my principles, one would not have the right to accuse me, based solely on that, of speaking against my sentiments, nor to accuse my principles of falsehood.

But if I actually wished to pass judgment on this point, it would suffice to compare different times in my life to reconcile the situation. I have not always had the fortune of thinking in accordance with acts. Long seduced by the prejudices of my century, I took study to be the only occupation worthy of a sage. I regarded the sciences with only respect, and the knowledgeable with admiration. I did not understand that one could go astray in always trying to prove, could do ill in speaking always of wisdom. It was only after having seen these things closely that I learned how to judge their true value. And although in my own investigations I have always found it to be true, satis loquentiae, sapientiae parum (enough eloquence, too much wisdom), it took me much time and reflection, and many observations to destroy in myself the illusion of all the vain scientific pomp. It is not surprising that during this time of prejudice and error, when I held the quality of authorship in such high regard, that I occasionally aspired to achieve it myself. It was then that many of my verses and most the other writings that have flowed from my pen were composed, among others, this short Comedy. It would be perhaps harsh to reproach me today for these follies of my youth, and it would be wrong, at least, to accuse me of having thus contradicted principles which were not yet my own. It has been long since I exhibited any sort of pretension for all these things. And, to risk showing them to the public in these circumstances, after having the prudence to withhold them for so long, is enough to say I disdain equally the praise and blame which might be their due; for I no longer think like the Author whose work they are. They are like the illegitimate children that you caress once more with pleasure, blushing to be their father, and to whom you make your last farewells, sending them out to seek their fortune, without worrying too much about what they will become.

But this is too much reasoning according to chimerical suppositions. If I am accused without reason of cultivating the Letters that I despise, I defend myself unnecessarily; for, even if the charge were true, I would be guilty of no inconsistency. This is what remains for me to prove.

I will pursue in this, according to my custom, the simple and easy method appropriate for seeking the truth. I will re-establish the terms (état) of the question[2] and present once again my sentiment on the matter. I expect some to take this exposé as an opportunity to show me the way in which my actions contradict my discourse. For their part, my adversaries will hardly restrain themselves from responding, they who possess the art of disputing for and against all sorts of subjects. They will begin, as is their custom, by establishing another question according to their whims. They will make me resolve it as it suits them: to attack me more conveniently they will make me reason, not in my manner, but in theirs. They will expertly divert the eyes of the of the reader to and fro away from the essential object; they will fight a mere phantom and then claim to have defeated me: but I will have done what I must do; and so I begin.

“The pursuit of knowledge (la science) is good for absolutely nothing and does only ill, for it is bad by nature. It can no more be separated from vice than ignorance from virtue. All literate peoples have been corrupt, all ignorant peoples virtuous. In a word, there is no vice except among the learned, and no virtuous man save he who knows nothing. There can then be but one way for us to become once again honest folk; we must hasten to proscribe both learning (la science) and the learned (les savants), to burn our libraries, to close our Academies, our Colleges and our Universities, and to plunge back into the barbarism of the first ages.”

Behold, here is what my adversaries have expertly refuted. Except never have I said nor thought a single word of all that, and one could scarcely imagine anything more opposed to my system than this absurd doctrine that they have the goodness to attribute to me. But here is what I have said and what no one has refuted.

The question at issue was whether the restoration (rétablissement) of the sciences and the arts has contributed to the purification of our morals (mœurs).

In showing, as I have done, that our morals were not purified, the question was more or less resolved.

But implicitly contained within that question was another more general and more important one about the influence that the cultivation of the sciences must have on the morals of peoples in all situations. It is this question, of which the first was but a consequence, that I set out to examine with care.

I started with the facts, and I showed that morals have degenerated among all the peoples of the world to the extent to which the taste for the study of letters has spread among them.

But this was not enough; for being unable to deny that these things have always gone hand-in-hand, one could still deny that one had brought about the other. So I applied myself to showing this necessary link. I have lain bare how the source of our errors on this point comes from the way we confound our vain and misleading knowledge with the sovereign Intelligence that sees at a glance the truth of all things. Science, taken in the abstract, merits all our admiration. The mad science of men is worthy only of derision and scorn.

The development of a taste for letters always heralds the beginning of corruption for a people, something which it also quite promptly accelerates. For this taste cannot be born in a nation except from two malignant sources which study then maintains and stimulates in its turn: that is to say, laziness and the desire to distinguish oneself. In a well-constituted state, every citizen has their duties to fulfill and his important cares are too dear to leave him the leisure to attend to frivolous speculations. In a well-constituted state, all the citizens are so equal, that no one can be preferred to the others as the most knowledgeable or even the cleverest, but at most simply as the best: [and,] again, even this distinction is often dangerous ; for it makes liars and hypocrites.

The taste for letters, which arises from the desire to distinguish oneself, necessarily produces ills which are infinitely more dangerous than the all the advantages it offers are useful ; it makes those who take it up unscrupulous about their means of success. The first philosophers made a grand reputation for themselves teaching men the practice of their duties and the principles of virtue. But soon, these precepts having become common, one had to try alternate, even contrary paths. Such is the origin of the absurd systems of Leucippe, Diogenes, Pyrrhon, Protagoras, Lucretius, for example. Hobbes, Mandeville and a thousand others like them have tried to distinguish themselves among us ; and their dangerous doctrine has borne such fruit that, although there are still real philosophers, ardently reminding us in our hearts of the laws of humanity and of virtue, one can only be deeply disturbed by the extent to which our age of reasoners has encouraged [poussé] in its maxims the disdain for man and the citizen.

The taste for letters, philosophy and the fine arts annihilates the love of our primary duties and of genuine glory. Once talents have usurped the honors rightfully accorded to virtue, everyone wants to be pleasing and well-liked, and no one concerns themselves with being good. From this is born yet another inconsistency by which we reward in men only the qualities for which they are not responsible: for we acquire our talents by the chance of birth, but only our virtues depend on us and our choices in life alone.

The primary and practically the only care we give to our education is the fruit and seed of these ridiculous prejudices. It is in order to teach Letters that we torment our poor youth: we know all the rules of grammar before we've heard talk of man’s duties. We know all that has been done up until now before we know a single word about what we ought to do ; and provided that we keep reciting our babble, no one concerns themselves with making sure we know how to think or act. In a word, we are only encouraged to be knowledgeable of things which cannot serve any useful purpose ; and our children are raised precisely like the ancient athletes of the public games, who, reserving their robust limbs for a useless and superfluous exercise, prevented themselves in turn from ever employing them in any beneficial work.

The taste for Letters, philosophy and the fine arts softens bodies and souls. Working away in a scholar’s study makes men delicate, weakens their temperament, and the soul has great difficulty keep its vigor when the body has lost its own. Study ruins the machinery of the body, uses up minds, destroys strength, saps courage, and this alone shows adequately that it is not made for us. It is in this that we become cowardly and pusillanimous, capable of resisting neither pain nor passions. Everyone knows how much the inhabitants of cities are ill-prepared to support the hardships of war, and it is no secret what reputation men of letters have for bravery. Now, nothing is more rightly suspect than the honor of coward.

So many reflections on the weakness of our nature do nothing but deter us from generous actions. We meditate so much on the miseries of humanity that our imagination burdens us with their weight, and too much forethought robs us of our courage by taking away our sense of security. It is indeed in vain that we presume to equip ourselves against unforeseen accidents: “if science, by trying to arm us with new defenses against natural hardships, has imprinted more in our fancy their weight and grandeur, than its reasons and vain subtleties can shelter us from them...” [Michel de Montaigne, Les Essais, Livre III, ch. XII, “ De la physionomie”]

The taste for philosophy removes all the ties of the esteem and goodwill that attach men to society, and this is perhaps the most dangerous of the evils it engenders. The charm of study soon makes all other attachments seem insipid. What is more, in order to better reflect on humanity, to observe men, the Philosopher learns to appreciate them according to their “worth” (valeur), and it is difficult to have much affection for someone whom your reasoning leads you to despise. Soon he will reunite in his person all the self-interest that “virtuous men” would share with their fellows: his scorn for others turns to the advantage of his pride; his vanity (amour-propre) increases in proportion with his indifference toward the rest of the universe. The family, the fatherland (la patrie), become words empty of meaning for him. He is neither parent, nor citizen, nor man; he is a philosopher.

At the same time as the cultivation of the sciences distances, in a certain way, the heart of the philosopher from the press of public life, it engages, in another sense, that of the man of Letters and always with the same prejudicial effect against virtue. Every man who busies himself with pleasing talents wants to please, to be admired, and he wants to be admired more than others. Public acclaim is to belong to him alone. I would say that he does everything to obtain it, if he did not do yet more to deprive his competitors of it. From this is born, one the one hand, the refinements of taste and of manners, that is, vile and base flattery, seductive, insidious, and puerile preoccupations, which, in the long run, shrink the soul and corrupt the heart; and, on the other hand, the jealousies, rivalries, and hatreds of renowned Artists, perfidious slander, trickery, betrayal, and that which is most cowardly and odious in vice. If the philosopher despises men, the artist soon makes himself despised, and the two both contribute in the end to making men despicable.

There is more, and of all the truths that I proposed to the consideration of the wise, here is the most shocking and the cruelest. Our writers all regard everything as the masterpiece of the politics of our century: the sciences, the arts, luxury, commerce, the laws, and all the other links that tighten the knots of society between men by the force of personal interest, put them all in mutual dependence, give them reciprocal needs, and common interests, and oblige each of them to bring about the happiness of others in order to achieve his own. These ideas are appealing, no doubt, and presented in a favorable light. But in examining them closely and impartially, one finds much to detract from the advantages they seem to present at first.

It is thus quite a marvelous thing to have made it impossible for men to live among one another without mutually prejudicing, supplanting, deceiving, betraying and destroying each other! Henceforth we must take care not to let ourselves be seen such as we really are. After all, for every two men whose interests coincide, there are perhaps a hundred thousand opposed to them, and there is no other means to succeed except to deceive or ruin all those other people. Here is the fatal source of violence, betrayal, perfidy, and of all the horrors which necessitate this state of affairs where each, while pretending to work for the fortune and the reputation of others, seeks but to augment his own above theirs and at their expense.

What have we gained from all this? A lot of babble, some rich men and some reasoners, that is to say, enemies of virtue and common sense. On the other hand, we have lost both innocence and morals. The crowd grovels in poverty; all are slaves of vice. Crimes uncommitted are already in the depths of people’s hearts, and the only obstacle to their execution is that they are not assured impunity.

What a strange and fateful constitution where accumulated riches always facilitate the means to accumulate more, and where it is practically impossible for one who has nothing to acquire something; where a good man has no means to get out of poverty (la misère); where the biggest scoundrels are the most honored and where one must renounce virtue to become a man of good standing (honnête homme). I know that the declaimers have said this a hundred times, but where they merely denounce, I offer reasons; they have apprehended the evil, and I discover its causes. Above all, I reveal a very consoling and useful fact-that all these vices belong not so much to man but to man poorly governed.

Such are the truths that I have developed and that I seek to prove in the various writings that I have published on this matter. Here are the conclusions I have now drawn.

Science is not made for man in general. He loses himself ceaselessly in its research; and if he sometimes obtains what he seeks, it is almost always to his detriment. He is born to act and think, and not to reflect. Reflection serves only to render him unhappy without really making him better or wiser. It makes him regret the goods which are past and prevents him from enjoying the present. Reflection presents the happy future to seduce him by the imagination and torment him with his desires, and the unhappy future to make him feel it in advance. Study corrupts his morals, alters his health, destroys his temperament and often ruins his reason; if it also teaches him something, I still find him rather poorly compensated.

I admit that there are a few sublime geniuses who know how to penetrate the veils in which the truth is enveloped, a few privileged souls capable of resisting the foolishness of vanity, base jealousy and all the other passions that engender the taste for Letters. The happy few who possess all of these traits are the light of the human race; for them alone is it appropriate to apply themselves to study for the good of all, and this exception confirms the rule; for if all men were Socrates, then science would not be harmful to them, but then they would not need it.

Every people with morals (moeurs), and who consequently respects its laws and does not seek to refine its old ways, must guard itself carefully from the sciences, and above all from the erudite, whose sententious and dogmatic maxims will soon teach them to scorn their ways and laws, which, in so doing, a nation never fails to corrupt itself. The slightest change in customs, though it may be advantageous in certain respects, always turns to the detriment of public morals. For customs are the morality of the people and as soon as they cease to respect them, there is no rule besides the passions, no restraint besides the laws, which can sometimes control people’s villainy, but will never render them good. Furthermore, once philosophy has taught a people to reject their customs, they soon discover the secret of eluding their laws. I say, thus, that it is for the morals of a people as it is for the honor of a man: such a treasure should be preserved, but once lost it cannot be recovered.

But once a people is corrupted up to a certain point, whether the sciences have contributed or not, must they be banished? Or should they be preserved to improve that society or at least prevent it from worsening? This is another question to which I have definitively declared my response in the negative. For, firstly, since a people in the grip of vice never returns to virtue, the point is not to render good those who are not any longer, but to conserve such as they are those who still enjoy the good fortune of being good. In the second place, the same causes which corrupted people sometimes serve to prevent an even greater corruption; in this way, one who has spoiled his temperament with an imprudent use of medicine is forced to have recourse to doctors in order to preserve his life. In this way, the arts and sciences, even after having incubated vices, are necessary to prevent them from turning into crimes; they cover them with a veneer that at least does not permit the poison to spread as freely. They destroy virtue, but they leave in its place a public simulacrum, which is still an appealing thing. They introduce in its place politeness and good manners, and in place of the fear of appearing mean or evil, they substitute the fear of appearing ridiculous.

Thus my position is, and I have already said it more than once, to allow to subsist, and even to maintain with care, all the Academies, Colleges, Universities, Libraries, Spectacles and all the other amusements that can create some kind of diversion for the maliciousness of men, and prevent them from engaging their laziness in more dangerous things. For in a country where there no longer exist honest men or good morals, it would be better to live among rascals than brigands.

So I ask now where the contradiction is if I myself cultivate certain tastes whose progress I approve? It is no longer a matter of bringing people to do good, but only of distracting them from doing evil. They must be occupied with silly trifles in order to steer them away from pernicious actions. Amusing them is more effective them preaching to them. If my writings have edified the good few, I have done for them all that is reasonably in my power, and perhaps it ultimately serves them all the more if, in so doing, I offer some objects of distraction to the other people, disrupting their self-centered musings. I would esteem myself more than happy to have my play met every day with hisses and boos, if I could, at that price, contain for just two hours the malicious designs of a single spectator, and save the honor of his friend’s daughter or wife, the secret of his confident, or the fortune of his creditor. Once there are no longer any public morals, one must only think about keeping order. And we know well enough that music and shows are one of the most important objects of this activity.

If there remains some difficulty with my justification, I dare say, it is not with regard to the public nor my adversaries, but with myself alone. For it is only in observing myself that I can judge whether I must count myself among the small number, and if my soul is in a state to support the burden of literary exercises. More than once I have felt the danger, more than once I have abandoned them with the design of never taking them up again. Renouncing their seductive charms, I sacrificed for the sake of peace in my heart, all the pleasures that could have still flattered it. If at the end of a painful and arduous career, I have dared to take up again some moments to charm my ills, I do not believe I have shown enough interest nor pretention to merit the kind of rightful reproaches I have made to men of letters.

I needed a test to achieve knowledge of myself, and I did it without hesitating. After having recognized the situation of my soul in literary success, it pays for me to examine it in the reverse situation. I now know what to think, and I can provoke and brave the worst reaction from the public. My play has had the fate it deserved and that I had anticipated for it; but, whatever bother it may have caused me, I came out of the production much more legitimately happy with myself than if it had been a success.

I would thus counsel those who so ardently seek reproaches against me to study my principles and my conduct more closely before accusing me of contradiction and inconsistency. If ever they perceive that I am beginning to crave the approval of the public, or that I show any vanity for having written pretty songs, or that I blush to have written bad comedies, or that I seek detract from the glory of my competitors, or that I affect to speak badly of the great men of my century in order to bring myself to their level by lowering them to mine, or that I aspire to a position at an Academy, or that I am intending to court fashion-setting women, or that I sing the praises of great men’s foolishness, or that, no longer wishing to live by the work of my hands, I ridicule the profession that I chose for myself and take steps toward personal gain, if they remark in a single word of mine that the love of reputation makes me forget that of virtue, I pray them to let me know and even to do so publicly. I promise to instantly throw into the fire my writings and my books and to admit all the errors it of which it pleases them to accuse me.

In the meantime, I will write books, I will make verses and music, if I have the talent, the time, the strength and the will. I will continue to say quite frankly all the ill I think of Letters and those who cultivate them, and will believe mine are worth no less for it. It is true that we will be able to say someday: this self-proclaimed enemy of the sciences and the arts still wrote and published theatrical plays ; and this discourse will be, I avow, a very bitter satire, not of me but of the age in which I lived.


1. In 1750, the Academy of Dijon put out a call for essays responding to the question: “Has the restoration of the arts and the sciences contributed to the purification of morals?” Rousseau responded negatively with what came to be known as the Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts or the First Discourse. It would earn him the first prize. See below for Rousseau’s reformulation of the question.

2. See footnote above and Rousseau’s later reformulation.