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The Culmination of Emile’s Education in Virtue

Fri, November 3, 2:15 to 3:45pm, Omni Parker Mezzanine, Brandeis


Emile’s commitment to virtue is best illustrated by his vow to honor the rights of humanity, but this internalization of duty has potentially unfortunate consequences for his happiness. Emile’s examination of political life appears to be a corrective to an unfettered pursuit of duty. Thanks to his travels, Emile reaches what appears to be a harmonious balance between his happiness and his virtue. The education was meant to preserve natural goodness in Emile in spite of the fact that he will live in society. Does it succeed in this aim? The answer is complicated. On one hand, the education allows for the birth of virtue in Emile such that he is no longer solely driven by that principle of natural goodness—to do nothing that he does not do voluntarily and with pleasure; Emile believes in and seeks to live by inviolable laws of duty, which are linked to (but are not the same thing as) his happiness. On the other hand, Emile’s virtue is of such a sort that it is not far from natural goodness; its demands will rarely cause him to experience a tension between his inclination and his duty, and this is especially true once Emile is made to realize how best to accomplish his desire to benefit others. This is made possible because of love: with religion as its vital support, love gives Emile the experience of being made happier for adhering to duty. Ultimately, the education demonstrates why all attempts to fix the problem of the individual in society are bound to be incomplete.