Rousseau and Disability

Posted: June 13, 2017 in Uncategorized

While it’s easy, though certainly justified, to criticize Diderot’s stance toward the blind, I think we should nevertheless be somewhat patient with him. Yes, he does patronize a number of groups of person, including those whom we would today call ‘disabled’. But it’s important to remember that that word did not even exist until very recently. Early eras were only beginning to come to terms with how to look at bodies that were different from the norm. In fact, we still are. While Diderot may appear glib in his (mostly likely facetious) pronouncement that the blind have it better than those with sight, we nevertheless can see in his state a belief that disable persons are simply to be pitied (a very Rousseauist sentiment). Not only are disabled persons capable of learning along with the supposedly normal; additionally, they have very valuable things to teach the majority, things that can only be learned from their perspective. While Diderot’s ideas are not up to current standards of correctness, he’s certainly far more advanced in his thinking than his near contemporary Rousseau.

Body, Self, and Other in the Enlightenment
Bucknell Studies in Eighteenth Century Literature and Culture

Monst Dream

Monstrous Dreams of Reason explores one of the most enduring and intriguing paradoxes of the British Enlightenment: how reason gives rise to both the beneficial and the monstrous.


Anatomical Model
Museum “Taruffi,” Bologna, Italy
18th Century


This agreement [or contract] made beforehand [between teacher and student] assumes a normal birth, a well-formed, vigorous and healthy child. A father has no choice, and should have no preference within the limits of the family God has given him; all his children are equally his children and he owes them all the same care and affection. Crippled or not, languid or robust, each of them is a trust for which he is responsible to the hand from which it has been given, and marriage is a contract made with nature as well as between spouses.

But anyone who undertakes a duty not imposed upon him by nature must secure beforehand the means for its fulfillment; otherwise he makes himself accountable even for what he could not do. If you take the care of a sickly, unhealthy child, you become a sick nurse, not a tutor. To preserve a useless life you are wasting the time which should be spent in increasing its value; you risk the sight of a despairing mother reproaching you for the death of a child who ought to have died long ago.

I would not undertake the care of a feeble, sickly child, even if he should live for eighty years. I do not want a pupil who is useless alike to himself and others, one whose sole business is to keep himself alive, one whose body is always a hindrance to the training of his mind. If I vainly lavish my care upon him, what can I do but double the loss to society by robbing it of two men instead of one? Let another tend this weakling for me; I am quite willing, I approve his charity, but I myself have no gift for such a task. I could never teach the art of living to one who needs all his strength to keep himself alive.

The body must be strong enough to obey the mind; a good servant must be strong. I know that intemperance stimulates the passions; it also destroys the body in the long run. Fasting and penance often produce the same results in an opposite way. The weaker the body, the more imperious its demands; the stronger it is, the better it obeys. All sensual passions find their home in effeminate bodies. The less satisfied they are the more irritated they feel.

A frail body weakens the soul. Hence the influence of medecine, an art which does more harm to man than all the evils it professes to cure. I do not know what the doctors cure us of, but I know this: they infect us with very deadly diseases –cowardice, timidity, credulity, the fear of death. What if they can make corpses walk? It is men that we need, and we will never see them leaving the hands of a doctor.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile (1762)

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Lennard J. Davis is Professor of English, Disability Studies, and Medical Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the author of numerous books and articles including most recently Obsession: A History (University of Chicago Press), which was chosen by Chicago Tribune as one of the top five books of 2008 written by a Chicagoan, and Go Ask Your Father: One Man’s Obsession to Find his Origins Through DNA Testing (Random House). Davis, a Guggenheim Fellow and frequent commentator on NPR, regularly writes for the Chronicle of Higher Education, and has written for the New York Times, The Nation, The Chicago Tribune, and other major newspapers and journals and has appeared on Fresh Air, All Things Considered, and This American Life.

  1. Cal Pape says:

    I thought our discussion today regarding the “gift” of blindness was interesting, particularly with the idea of body image. Today, body image issues are a serious problem and lead to eating disorders, lowered self esteem, depression, and several other mental maladies.
    We discussed a certain plus size model. The opposite end of the spectrum is also intriguing:

    Pixxie Fox is a woman intrigued in the world of plastic surgery. She has a 14″ waist has had six ribs removed! I find it oddly fascinating. In my eyes, this is an extreme waste of time and money. If she were blind, she’d be a completely different person. It truly makes you ponder!

    • Interesting to see someone slowly turn themself into a monstrosity, in the very effort to become the most impossibly beautiful human – at least so it could appear. There are at least a few of these persons bouncing around the internet right now, some more outlandish than others. Though, to be fair, I think it would be all but impossible not to feel some sense of personal inadequacy in today’s ‘scopic regime’.

      The current discussion of body image and body dismorphia is both interesting and important, in terms of both physical and mental health – which, if Spinoza is right, might actually be the same thing. I glad to Diderot, of all persons, gives us important ways to engage this topic. Normally, it’s the type of topic that might come up in a Gender Studies class. But Intellectual Traditions, if we select the right texts and read them with the right of amount of imagination or ‘creativity’, will allow us to consider a whole host of topics of contemporary relevance.

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