Walk 7 and a bit more of botany

Of course one should not expect that all of Rousseau’s Reveries are very interesting. For me walk 6 was again quite boring. By reading Walk 7 I was able to recognize again a lot of myself. Clear from this part is that Jean-Jacques has not been active as an amateur botanist his whole life. They were more active times and time he hardly didn’t do any botany. In fact he become fascinated by the flora as an adult.

From this reverie it is clear that at least he considered other occupations as an amateur naturalist. First I have to say I am always careful with the word ‘amateur’. Far too often the word isn’t used in a positive way. In this case I just mean that Rousseau didn’t make a living as botanist or was not full time active. Darwin, of course, wasn’t really a salaryman, but as he was definitely full time active as a naturalist, I don’t want to call him an amateur. From this essay you may at least draw the conclusion that he considered to study birds and mammals or insects. It is  a pleasure to see that he even mentioned ‘flies’!



Rousseau in 1753 by Maurice Quentin de La Tour

I think I have been studying flies more or less seriously from 1982, so I am study Diptera for 33 years now. Only between 1986 and 1989 I more or less stopped collecting as I wanted to give all my attention to my study chemistry, but in 1990 I know I was collecting again quite fanatically soldierflies in the park behind the flat, where we lived. In the years before 1982 I was doing all kind of things in nature: birding, studying dragonflies, studying spiders. And even in my boarding school time I was fascinated by nature. There are a lot of stories about this in my family.

But this was obviously not the case with Jean-Jacques. He is here and there using words I will never use when I try to describe my passion for entomology.”Stinking corpses, livid running flesh, blood, repellent intestines, horrible skeletons, pestilential vapours! Believe me, that is not the place where Jean-Jacques will go looking for amusement.” I’d never, never, never use the word ‘amusement’ when discussing entomology. One may ask “what is it then?”. It is everything for me, but not amusement. There has never been a second that I thought: why not study mollusks instead of flies? Yes, I have very often thought that I need 10 lives, because I also would like to study other fly families, or barklice, or pseudoscorpions or even completely other groups as lichen, but never give up dipterology.

Another difference between Rousseau and myself is that botany was for him a way to escape from society. Again in this essay he is mentioning his problems with so called enemies. As I said before I looks a bit too miserable to me, but this having said, certainly he fled from unwanted company by joining collecting trips. Possibly I am as misanthropic as Jean-Jacques, but for me the excursions in nature or my long hours in my study are not a way to escape company. The fact that you are often alone in the forests or moors for collecting flies is just a pleasant extra joy.

But let for a while forget everything what Jean-Jacques writes about being a naturalist in general or a botanist in particular. He writes many words about it, but if you put this aside for a moment, the most important things he says in the beginning of the essay: ‘I have no other rule of conduct than always to follow freely my natural leanings’. When I read this I thought immediately: ‘I have no other rule than to be authentic!’. When reading walk 3 I had to think of Kierkegaard, while reading the opening of the essay about the 7th walk I had to think about a later philosopher, namely Heidegger. It would be nice to see whether something have been written in the past about the influence of Rousseau on Heidegger.


Walk 5 or Island of Saint-Pierre

After such a nice 3rd walk, the 4th one was for me rather disappointing. Only the beginning caught my attention when Rousseau wrote that Plutarch was his favorite author. I read his Moralia, I think I have it here somewhere, but I do not recall that it made such a huge impression that it belongs to my 10 favorite books. I remember so well Seneca’s Letter to Lucilius or the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius or the Discourses of Epictetus, but Plutarch, no, not really.

The 5th walk is again much more interesting. Jean-Jacques lived for 2 months in 1765 on the island of Saint Pierre and he considered those months the happiest of his life. Too soon he was chased away from it by the senate of Bern and moved to England.

The Island of Saint-Pierre is not an island anymore. It became a peninsula in the end of the 19th century. It is still possible to visit the house where Jean-Jacques stayed.It is nowadays a fancy hotel. In the 18th century the island received few visitors. It must have been a great place to stay.


When describing the island Rousseau mentioned that the shores of the Lake of Bienne are wilder and more romantic than those of Lake Geneva.I sometimes have discussion about the word ‘romantic’. Some people, in fact many people,think it is romantic to sit with a pretty woman near a burning fireplace with a nice glass of red wine in the hand and some lovely music in the background. Well, according to my opinion this is not romantic, but sentimental. I do not say it is bad to be sentimental, but I think we should keep the words ‘sentimental’ and ‘romantic’ distinct from each other. Romantic is rather, as am used to say just to irritate others, walking alone in the huge forest, foul weather and then hang yourself. It think the word ‘Romantic’ is in itself not particular pleasant. So Rousseau used the word ‘romantic’ between 1776 and 1778. I tend to think that Rousseau is using the word in the rather unsentimental way. He says in the sentence in which he compares the Lake of Bienne with the Lake of Geneva that yet the Lake of Bienne is not less pleasing, so for Jean-Rousseau the use of the word ‘romantic’ may have lead to the conclusion that for his contemporary readers Lake of Bienne is less pleasing, while Jean-Jacques claims it is not. For a ‘modern’ reader ‘romantic’ shores are rather pleasing than unpleasing. I wonder now whether Jean-Jacques Rousseau is the first author, who is using the word ‘Romantic’? If I think about Romanticism I definitely think rather of the beginning of the 19th century. Mind, Wordsworth, a poet, which I strongly associate with Romanticism, was 6 or 7 years old when Rousseau wrote his Reveries.

By the way, he continues with claiming that the island is fascinating for solitary dreamers, so not for a couple!

In this 5th walk he is just dreaming about these happy 2 months. What did he do? He just became an enthusiastic botanist. He walked with ‘his’ Systema Naturae, by Linnaeus of course, under his arm to study the plants, mosses and lichen of the island. Of course I would like to know what edition. I never thought of the Systema Naturae as a nature guide. I have seen it in Uppsala, in the house of Linnaeus, but I do not remember how big it was. I wonder how heavy was it. Just think of it to walk in nature with this work in your hands. It sounds very funny now.

Jean-Jacques began to fill his room with flowers and grasses after becoming infected by the botany virus via Jean-Antoine d’Ivernois. He did not want to spend his time with serious work (just catching flies means actually doing nothing, I believe), so he began to study the flora of the island. He wanted to work on a  Flora Petrinsularis, describing all species of plants, mosses and lichen on the island. He described the ecstasy while doing his work in the field. It is all too familiar to myself. Just because of this I cannot help to get more sympathy for the guy.  Of course, when reading about this man wandering alone on the island collecting plants I had to think of The Fly Trap of Fredrik Sjöberg. The passion of Rousseau for collecting the plants on Saint-Pierre or Fredrik Sjöberg collecting hoverflies on the island Runmarö in Sweden, how familiar this all is to me and how weird for those, who do not share this passion.

Thoughts of Kierkegaard during reading JJR’s 3rd walk

Again, it is not my intention to write a blog about each walk of our friend Jean -Jacques Rousseau, but I am about to begin with my 3rd blog about the 3rd walk!

This third essay isn’t completely free of pathetic phrases, but, maybe because I am getting used to it, it become less disturbing to me. In fact I think the author of this essay was a nice person and I find quite some similarities between his attitude and mine. At first I wanted to write “his personality” or “his thoughts” , but “attitude” is a much better and more correct expression.

The essay is a bit longer, namely 15 pages. He is starting with some rather ordinary remarks about the so called uselessness of knowledge. You may summarize it with ‘blessed are the meek’. You may say that ignorance is better than knowledge, because overall you gain little profit from this knowledge. Indeed, we like to say that old people are wise, but I suspect that their wisdom is only: do not make a too big fuss of life as in the end it is not worth it or, even nicer, life is a dead sparrow.

When you ask young people what they want to become all too frequent you hear: ‘famous’! They do not add with what, because it is not very important. Important, though, is to be famous, to be recognized in the street. So I had to smile when I read: “Several of them wanted to write a book, any book, so long as it was successful. Once it was written and published, its contents no longer interested them in the least. So we do not see something very new! Even in the 18th century people just wanted fame.

And then Rousseau continues with some lovely pages about the blessing of solitude. He did not fit well with society. He mentions that when men reduced him to a life of solitude in order to make him feel miserable they in fact did more for his happiness. I think I know this situation quite well. No, I think I was never forced by others to a life of solitude, but I found out that many people are surprised that someone can be very happy when alone. I am able to spend hours and hours, in the holidays even days and days, alone in my room studying flies or listen to music or even to silence, occasionally going out walk a long walk, also alone, or a run, yes, again alone and be, nevertheless, perfectly happy. I am pretty sure it is easy to be more lonely in company than when you are actually alone. People should not feel sorry for it. It is a kind of a blessing.


Sören Kierkegaard

I like the word militant atheists. I am not sure whether this phrase has been invented by R. Dawkins, but he used it. Jean-Jacques Rousseau calls the militant atheists of his time ‘ardent missionaries of theism’! He does not mention names, but I can imagine he means people like Holbach and Diderot. When I read this essay for the first time, I thought I wanted to moan about JJR misunderstanding about atheism, but, I admit, this seems a bit boring here. I, an atheist, cannot convince him anyway! Yet interestingly he mentions the same things about those atheists as theists nowadays do about the militant atheists of our age, namely that they are intolerant! This is so silly, I think. How can you say about, in the 18th century at least, that this tiny group of atheistic people are intolerant given the fact that whole peoples were under control of the church or religion. Who is intolerant? Well, we cannot ask him.

He complains: Instead of removing my doubts and curing my uncertainties they had shaken all my most assured beliefs concerning the questions which were most important to me….etc. I always thought it is the task of a philosopher to shakes somebodies believes. With every book you read at least one other certainty should be destroyed.

But then I realized that Rousseau was not only arguing against the non believers of his time. He writes: Shall I allow myself to be tossed eternally to and fro by the sophistries of the eloquent, when I am not even sure that the opinions they preach and press so ardently on others are really their own? He mentions that he was going to look for a philosophy for himself. While he mentioned ‘the fear to endanger the eternal fate of his soul’, dogmatic charlatans, hair-splitting metaphysical subtleties, confirmation by hearts and confirmation by an inner voice etc., I thought: this guy reminds me of Sören Kierkegaard! He is more focused on the subjective truth than the objective truth.

I read some things about Kierkegaard. It is quite impossible to understand our times without being familiar with the ideas of Kierkegaard, but I never saw Rousseau mentioned in a work about this Danish thinker. But thanks to Google, I found that Vincent A. McCarthy wrote in ‘Kierkegaard and the Renaissance and Modern Traditions’ a chapter titled “Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Presence and Absence. I put this chapter on my ‘to read-list’.



Some real botany in essay 2!

It is not my intention to write ten pieces about the 10 walks in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Reveries of a Solitary Walker”, but for me the 2nd walk is more interesting than the 1st one. It is certainly less pathetic.

I am not able to judge whether his walk was a long one on October 24th, 1776. After dinner he walks along the boulevards of Paris to the heights of Ménilmontant, then crossed the vineyards and meadows till Charonne. On reaching this village he returned, but took another path. Charonne is now a metro station in Paris. I suppose the environment is now completely different than in the end of the 18th century. By the way, the walk wasn’t perhaps that long as, thanks to internet, I see that it is nowadays just a  walk of 1,8 km from metrostation Charonne to Bd Voltaire in Ménilmontant.

He mentioned three flowering plants during this walk. First hawkweed oxtongue or Picris hieracioides. I cannot judge whether it is very common or rare in France. In the Netherlands you may find in chalk grassland, so mainly along the coast and in the south east, the province of Zuid Limburg.

Picris hieracioides

Picris hieracioides


The second plant is Bupleurum falcatum or sickle hare’s ear. In the Netherlands the Umbelliferae is much rarer than Picris hieracioides. It is known only from very few locations in the south east. Indeed this plant prefers chalk grasslands as well.


Bupleurum falcatum

It has been said that this plant is used as antidepressant, so might have been useful to Jean-Jacques. I have often difficulties with recognizing species of the Compositae; often I do not even give it a try.  But I am quite familiar with the Umbelliferae. I am sure that I have never seen sickle hare’s ear in nature.

half The third species, which excited Rousseau very much, is Cerastium aquaticum, which correct name is actually Myosoton aquaticum, or water chickweed. But, sorry, Jean-Jacques, this plant is not at all rare! The only difference between water chickweed and the two others is that it is not liking chalk grasslands. In my country is quite common. I remember well that I collected danceflies on the flowers by sweeping.

myosoton aquatica

myosoton aquatica

The second half of his essay Jean-Jacques mentions a rather unpleasant accident involving a giant Danish dog. He fell, lost temporary consciousness, but was happy enough not to have lost any tooth.

He continues with some minor events with some guests, which made me wonder why he complaint so much about his loneliness before? And then we move slowly to the end, which is quite remarkable. He writes, just out of the blue: “God is just; his will is that I should suffer, and he knows my innocence.”. I am not able to see any logic in this. It is astonishing. Why does he writes this?

Storm & Urge or Walk no. 1. of JJR

Before I began to read Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Reveries of the Solitary Walker” I first wanted to know something about the guys’ life. Of course I had heard about him. I knew he is the author of Émile (1762) and Julie (1761), but I never read these works. From high school I remember well that he was one of the first ‘Romantics’ or sentimentalists. At that time I still had an antipathy against Romanticism.

A short biography mentioned that he tried to earn a living as a music copier, which, I think, was rather a brilliant idea as his reputation as a composer is lousy. On Spotify you may find only one work, a small opera called Le Devin du Village, which was for the first time performed in 1752. It was well received, but maybe this says something more about the taste of the audience than about the quality of the composition. As Rameau didn’t write much in the end of his life, he died in 1764, I still claim that since the great Jean-Philippe Rameau the French composers wrote very little worth listening to until the end of the 19th century. Le Devin du Village is merely a curiosity, which is for me at least hard to enjoy.

Le Devin du Village

The title of this blog seems somewhat misleading as his music is hardly characteristic for the “Sturm und Drang” period. Yet when I began to read his Reveries “Sturm und Drang”, translated into English “Storm & Urge”, came into my mind.

But, first, why did I begin to read it in the first place? Well, easy, as I am a solitary walker myself I was just attracted by the title of the work!


Penguin Classics edition 2004

And looking at the cover of the book I actually thought the book must be worth reading. It shows a gentleman walking in the country side, while studying wild plants as I am used to do myself. One of the first thoughts was: ‘were those buckled shoes really that comfortable for long walks in nature?’ By the way, the guy in the drawing is actually the author himself. At first I thought he looks like Linnaeus, but I realized later that because of the wig and the fashion men very much looked alike in the 2nd half of the 18th century.

In 1771-3 he wrote his ‘Lettres élémentaires sur la botanique’ so I was pretty sure it was worth to begin reading his solitary walk letters.

But during reading ‘the first walk’ I wasn’t very impressed! What a self pity!  The first sentence: ‘So now I am alone in the world, with no brother, neighbour or friend, nor any company left me but my own’. Just wonder what poor Marie-Thérèse Levasseur, his partner since 1745 -they were never married properly – must have thought when she read this essay! She stayed with him until his death, though.

It is not my intention to copy many sentences from this walk, But I would like to mention just some words, which caught my attention while reading it: ‘cruelest torture’, ‘sensitive soul’, ‘wrenched’, ‘incomprehensible chaos’, ‘self-torment’, ‘absolute tranquillity’ and ‘solitary meditations’, but I could add many similar ones.  Think of it, it is not a very long letter, just 8 pages. The very frequent use of big words as ‘tranquillity’, which occurs more than once and ‘self-torment’ made me wonder whether Jean-Jacques was an exponent of the Sturm und Drang period as Mozart’s symphony in g, which is one of his few typical Sturm und Drang works, popped up into my mind, while thinking the essay over. The music composed in this period was characterized by the rapid changes of moods. Also typical was that the works were often written in a minor key, which can certainly also be said of  Rousseau’s essays!

Mozart Symphony in g

Think for a moment about the person Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Was he a lonely, miserable guy? No, not at all. He was admired by many. He is one of the big heroes of Letters. In his time he was a star. When you mention the name ‘Jean-Jacques even today many educated people will think automatically about Rousseau, although perhaps even a few more will think first about a French explorer with a red knit cap.

He is flaunting a loneliness, but this loneliness is more self made than caused by others. While writing these last essays he was visited by Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor and was offered by Marquis Girardin to live in a cottage in Ermenonville, where he eventually died in 1778. We know he had more more visitors.



René de Girardin

My biggest problem with Rousseau is an absolute absence of humor in, at least, his first walk. I don’t want to say that he seemed to have been mad or even schizophrenic, but for me it is pretty obvious he was paranoia. In the end of the first walk he is mentioning another great essayist, the first one even: Montaigne. Michel de Montaigne, who lived 2 centuries before Rousseau, had fantastic humor, so we cannot just say that folks in those days simply lacked humor. Rousseau was convinced that humans are naturally and innately good, but that society  is corrupting people. His Le Devin du Village is an example of this. I have the impression that he avoided in the end of his life the society more than society avoided him.