I came across this interesting quote from Lytton Strachey’s Landmarks in French Literature. Discussing Rousseau and romanticism, he said:
Rousseau was the first to unite the two views, to revive the medieval theory of the soul without its theological trappings, and to believe—half unconsciously, perhaps, and yet with a profound conviction—that the individual, now, on this earth, and in himself, was the most important thing in the world.
The full paragraph from which this quote is taken follows:
But Rousseau was not, at bottom, concerned with the truth of any historical theory at all. It was only because he hated the present that he idealized the past. His primitive Golden Age was an imaginary refuge from the actual world of the eighteenth century. What he detested and condemned in that world was in reality not civilization, but the conventionality of civilization—the restrictions upon the free play of the human spirit which seemed to be inherent in civilized life. The strange feeling of revolt that surged up within him when he contemplated the drawing-rooms of Paris, with their brilliance and their philosophy, their intellect and their culture, arose from a profounder cause than a false historical theory, or a defective logical system, or a mean personal jealousy and morbid pride. All these elements, no doubt, entered into his feeling—for Rousseau was a very far from perfect human being; but the ultimate source was beyond and below them—in his instinctive, overmastering perception of the importance and the dignity of the individual soul. It was in this perception that Rousseau’s great originality lay. His revolt was a spiritual revolt. In the Middle Ages the immense significance of the human spirit had been realized, but it had been inextricably involved in a mass of theological superstition. The eighteenth century, on the other hand, had achieved the great conception of a secular system of society; but, in doing so, it had left out of account the spiritual nature of man, who was regarded simply as a rational animal in an organized social group. Rousseau was the first to unite the two views, to revive the medieval theory of the soul without its theological trappings, and to believe—half unconsciously, perhaps, and yet with a profound conviction—that the individual, now, on this earth, and in himself, was the most important thing in the world.
It is hard to not think that one could replace “Rousseau” with “Emerson” in the above text. I’ve not read anything by Rousseau, but am tempted to do so.