When Virtue Destroys You

Rousseau on how our emotions are essential for leading a meaningful life.

In the age of selfies and social media, the dichotomy between being and appearance is more and more apparent. Although he didn't use the word 'authenticity' per se in his multifaceted work, Jean Jacques Rousseau still provides us with key insights of unsurpassed relevance today, when advertisers abuse authenticity, and deconstructionist philosophers deride it.

Just as we wonder about the impact of globalisation on the individual, 18th century Parisians wondered what kind of subjectivity was shaping up in the largest European metropolis. Rousseau was a central figure in directing this transformation.

A tale of authenticity violated

More than in The Social Contract, Emile or his “Discourses”, Rousseau’s groundbreaking insights on authenticity are found in his 18th century bestselling novel Julie, or the New Heloise.[1]

Julie d'Etange, the daughter of a nobleman, and Saint-Preux, her teacher of no social or economic standing, become secret lovers. Lord Bomston, an affluent British friend of Julie's father, comes to visit. Soon Saint-Preux sus­pects that he might be se­cretly negotiating for marrying Julie. A misunder­standing oc­curs and Saint-Preux challenges Lord Bomston. They eventually avoid the duel, but Julie's father inquires into Saint-Preux's reasons for being in the house. Lord Bomston, mean­while reconciled with Saint-Preux and informed about the love between him and Julie, decides to intercede. But the father, Baron d'Etange, disdainfully rejects the prospect of a marriage between Saint-Preux and Julie. A scandal is about to erupt and Julie urges Saint-Preux to leave town.

This is the crucial turning point in explorifor understanding authenticity. Partly to make up for the consequences of his faux pas, Lord Bomston offers Julie a large estate in Britain where she could live with her lover. Anticipating Julie's hes­itation, he puts forward two argu­ments.

Firstly, that she should prioritise the dignity of her inward ethical autonomy over community mores. There is little new in this plea for autonomy. Secondly, he brings up a groundbreaking new moral argu­ment, based on the importance of authenticity for the individual.


"When you'll have no more love left, nothing worth esteem will remain in you either"


“You shall never efface love's strong impression”, warns Lord Bomston, “without at the same time effac­ing all the exquisite sentiments which you received from nature”. Eventually, “when you'll have no more love left, nothing worth esteem will remain in you either”.[2]

An entirely modern form of tragedy is born here. Julie is caught not between two conflicting norms, as in classical tragedy, but between an “auto­nomously” embraced precept – the unacceptability of intentionally causing one's parents un­happiness – and a feeling then of contested normative force but nonetheless of crucial significance for the coherence of her self-identity.

Meanwhile Julie's mother, secretly sympathetic to her love, dies. Julie feels guilty. It is then easier for her father to talk her into marrying Wolmar, an elderly, noble, wise, impassible friend of his to whom he owes his life and has promised Julie's hand. The old baron kneels down before Julie and im­plores her not to destroy the peace of his last years. The sight of her father's humil­iation overwhelms Julie. Concluding that she has no right to pur­sue her happiness at the cost of his despair, she ter­minates her relation with Saint-Preux and decides to marry Wolmar.

From this point on, the novel revolves around the emotion-work performed by Julie in order to main­tain the integrity of her identity. At first she stoically retreats into her inner self: she will accept Wolmar as the master of her outward life but not of her heart. Later, at her wedding, the sight of the altar, the minister and the solemnity of the organ music elicit in her “a sudden revolution inside”, in which her emotions are shaped aright “according to the law of duty and of nature”.[3] After her con­­version Julie takes pride in the fact that Saint-Preux no longer haunts her fantasies. She calls her love “extin­guished” and refers to it as “a momentary mistake”.

Julie also reconsiders her ideas on the family. It is a mistake, she writes to Saint-Preux, to think that passionate love is indispensable to a happy marriage: in­stead, “honor, virtue, a certain con­for­mity, not so much of stations and ages as of characters and temperaments” suffice. In the end, Julie persuades herself that if she could go back in time and choose again, she would not choose Saint-Preux but Wolmar. She then asks Saint-Preux to cease writing to her.


"She now renames those choices 'sacrifices' and confesses that to die - the last 'sacrifice' - really means 'only to die once more'."


Aft­er four years of wandering, Saint-Preux returns and the Wolmars in­vite him to dinner. In one of her most introspective letters, Julie writes about her being surrounded by “reasons to be happy” without being capable of enjoying any­thing, la­ments a “se­cret languor” and feelings of emptiness, but protests that these feelings are due to her “excessive happiness”.[4] The plot cul­minates ­with a fatal accident. During a walk along the lake-shore, one of her children falls into the water. Julie dives in the cold waters and saves him, but catches pneumonia. She lets herself die opposing no resis­tance to the disease.

On her deathbed, Julie under­stands and accepts the prophecy of Lord Bomston: each step in her pursuit of virtue – her initial decision to marry Wolmar, her re­treat into the Stoic dream of a free inte­riority, her conversion and subsequent life at Clarens – amounted to a step toward the erosion of her sense of i­dentity. She now renames those choices “sacrifices” and confesses that to die – the “last sacrifice” – really means for her “only to die once more”.  

Rousseau's three insights into self-constitution

Three Rousseauian insights about self-constitution would have something to add to the contemporary views of “reflexive endorsement” – our reflections over whether we should have the desires and thoughts we have - and of “wholehearted identification”, that is identifying ourselves with our motivesa life-plan without hesitation and ambivalence.[5]

i) Self-constitution is a practical relation

Like contemporary American philosophers Christine Korsgaard and Harry Frankfurt, Rousseau understands the relation of the actor to their identity not as a matter of knowing oneself, but as a practical relation, a commitment. Julie's destiny is not written in her psychological nature, but flows from her own choices and from the commitments she enters or renounces. Understanding the relation between actor and identity simply as ‘knowing’ proves problematic: another person may understand the exact nature of a motive better than the actor. Indeed, Lord Bomston understands better than Julie the consequences of her suppressing her love for Saint-Preux.

Furthermore, the project of bringing the whole of inner nature to consciousness is doomed: the knowing part of the self cannot know itself more than the eye can see itself.

Finally, the idea of understanding one's inner nature as a “given” that determines one's life conduct would hardly count as an instance of freedom. The agent could lament that it is unfortunate enough that they are who they are, without having to suffer under the imperative to realise just that inner nature. 

ii)  Self-constitution does not involve a total plasticity of self-identity

Rousseau's second insight – still unmatched by contemporary theorists – concerns the fact that this practical, as opposed to cognitive, relation of the actor to their identity cannot result in an absolute sovereignty of the actor vis-à-vis their identity. Think of the Queen's line, “You can be anything you want to be. Just turn yourself into anything you think that you could ever be” (Innuendo), or of the words of Amparo, the drag-queen in Almodovar's film All About My Mother: “Authenticity means to come to correspond to what you dream of being”. If we understand authenticity as omnipotence vis-à-vis one's identity, we lose the ability to distinguish between Luther's “I can do no other” and the expression “I don't want to do any other”.

Rousseau's character Julie exemplifies the futility of this idea. When she agonizes over accepting Lord Bomston's offer, Julie wrongly assesses the salience of her love for her identity: she decides to become the faithful, respected and devoted wife that she “dreams of being”, but fails in that.


"The substance of her choice - a life of devotion to her husband and her family - could not be more conducive to unification and coherence. Yet Julie goes to pieces. What went wrong?"


The turn she takes in building her identity doesn’t resonate with her, and the loss of a love that she erroneously considered peripheral for her sense of self reverberates negatively, empties out all the compensatory fulfillment meanwhile obtained and eventually hollows up her sense of having a self.

Instead, authenticity must also include self-reflection and responsiveness to the real, as opposed to the wishfully projected potentials of the self – something to which Julie fails to do justice.

Rousseau's implicit view of authenticity throws into question Frankfurt's idea that the actor could place his “wholehearted identification”, like a Schmittian sovereign of his psyche, onto anything and reconstruct the order of the other volitions accordingly.

Julie decides to identify with marrying Wolmar and the result is a disaster. Rousseau's novel, then, illustrates the possibility, overlooked by Frankfurt, of a “false identification”, wholehearted yet incapable of bringing more unity to the actor than “wanton choices”.[6]  Nor is the focal aim of Julie's identification unattainable, like the project of bootstrapping oneself - the goal of forming a family offers an absolutely normal kind of identification that unifites many human lives. Nothing is wrong with it, except that it is inauthentic, a kind of identification that fails to fully resonate with Julie's inner needs.

iii) Coherence is not the sole dimension of a fulfilled self-identity

There is something paradoxical in self-constitution, Korsgaard points out: “How can you constitute yourself, create yourself, unless you are already there?”[7] 

Julie embodies this paradoxical aspect of self-constitution, but at the same time makes us aware of two problems with Korsgaard's account. Firsly, writing in pre-Kantian times, Rousseau is not caught in the “spell of principles”. The function of unifying the agent need not be understood as the operating of a principle or law. It could be a project or a narrative. Julie's case illustrates how assessing single actions – the permissibility of marrying the loved person against adverse family opinion – in the light of a principle (i.e., to refrain from “achieving one's happiness at the cost of parental desperation”) without considering the significance of one's love for one's life-narrative in the end brings about a bogus unification to the self.


"Julie's case illustrates how assessing single actions in the light of a principle without considering the significance of one's love for one's life-narrative in the end brings about a bogus unification to the self."


Secondly, thinking of the “unity” of the self as key to self-constitution implies that the constituted actor is accountable, but misleads Korsgaard into thinking that coherence is the sole dimension of a properly constituted self.  Julie has chosen to marry Wolmar, has wholeheartedly identified with her marriage, has deliberated according to a principle. One can’t ask for more of a conscientious moral actor. The substance of her choice – a life of devotion to her husband and her family – could not be more conducive to unification and coherence. Yet Julie goes to pieces. What went wrong?

The third Rousseauian insight is that perhaps there is more than just unity or coherence to authenticity. Authenticity requires “maturity” - the ability to reality-test and measure one's project. For instance, taking into account how a decision might affect one’s vitality and prevent onethem from being apathetic and depressed – might contribute to self-constitution.[8]

In Julie's case, her principled choice to identify with her marriage doesn’t deprive her of coherence. Rather, her choice of an inappropriate path to coherence has extinguished her vitality or joie de vivre, and has installed phoniness in her self-perception in lieu of the spontaneity of her love for Saint-Preux. It is not lack of coherence, the one dimension Julie obsessively cares about, but the loss on another dimension of self-constitution, vitality, that in the end leads her to collapse.

To sum up: Rousseau's insight amounts to understanding authentic identity neither in essentialist terms, nor – as contemporary pop culture and theories of self-constitution tend to suggest – as entirely a product of the actor's will. Furthemore, the normativity of identity cannot be reduced to maintaining a pattern of coherence over time.



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[1] The following text contains abridged and re-adapted materials from Part 1 and Part 3.1 of A.Ferrara, Rousseau and Critical Theory (Boston and Leiden: Brill 2017). Thanks are due to the publisher for letting me use these materials. 

[2] J.J.Rousseau, Julie, or the New Heloise (1761), tr. J.H.McDowell, (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1968), book II, letter 3.

[3] Rousseau, Julie, book III, letter 18.

[4] Ibidem, book VI, letter 8.

[5] Chr.Korsgaard, The Sources of Normativity, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) and Self-Constitution, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); H. Frankfurt, The Importance of What We Care About. Philosophical Essays (1988), (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[6] On the dubiousness of this view of “wholehearted identification” as entirely at the disposal of the self see also, Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity, 35-39. As Taylor eloquently puts it: “the ideal of self-choice supposes that there are other issues of significance beyond self-choice”, ibidem, 39.

[7] Chr. Korsgaard, Self-Constitution, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009),  20.

[8] These dimensions are spelled out in Ferrara, Reflective Authenticity (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), 80-107. 

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