Writing in blood : compassion, character, and popular rhetoric in Rousseau and Nietzsche

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Field, Laura

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This study explores the normative role of emotional rhetoric and the social passions (with an emphasis on compassion) in politics through a consideration of the divergent perspectives of Rousseau and Nietzsche. These two invite comparison not only because of the wide range of ideas they represent, but also because each employed rare rhetorical skill to effect extensive cultural change. To analyze this dynamic relationship between theory and practice, I focus on how each philosopher sought to transform the sentimental basis of social and political life. I argue that Rousseau, through his intentional use of sentimental rhetoric, inspired cultural romanticism and the equity of the political left, and that Nietzsche, through his extreme attack on ordinary compassion, and his invocation of tragic pity and the “pathos of distance,” hoped to prevent nihilism from taking root in the modern spirit by bringing about an age of renewed cultural depth and robust individualism.

My study is unique in its investigation of the autobiographical rhetoric of the two philosophers. I argue that both Rousseau and Nietzsche wrote autobiographies that exemplify their respective philosophical teachings on the sentiments, which is to say that in the autobiographical works they employ personal rhetoric aimed at illuminating and reinforcing these teachings. Rousseau’s pathos-filled self-presentation serves his vision for a withdrawn cultural elite that, while tolerated and quietly influential, does not enjoy public honors; Nietzsche, I suggest, worries that the cost of privatizing great individual virtue will be too high; his bombastic self-portrait not only satirizes faux Rousseauian vulnerability, but also serves personally to exemplify the possibility of a new cultural super-authority. In both cases, I suggest, a fundamental consistency exists between their theoretical teachings and their self-presentations, such that their autobiographical works should be understood as integrated parts of their greater philosophic projects.




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