Rousseau and the mechanisms of politics, Watchmaking in Geneva, Switzerland

The 300th anniversary of the birth of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which Geneva celebrates this year, is a chance to reflect on history. Indeed, the eighteenth century saw the city rise to prominence as a center for watchmaking, which goes some way to explaining the philosopher’s ideas.

In 2009, Geneva commemorated 500 years since the birth of John Calvin (1509-1564), the French theologian and principle figure of the Protestant Reformation whose teachings were instrumental to the development of watchmaking in his adoptive city. Three years later, another famous son gives Geneva cause to celebrate, namely Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The anniversary of his birth in 1712 gives the lakeside city ample pretext to pay a twelve-month tribute to the multiple talents of the writer, philosopher and composer who made his mark on the very foundations of the Republic.

A long line of watchmakers

Calvin had a direct influence on watchmaking in Geneva when he forbade the making of “crucifixes, chalices and other instruments serving papacy and idolatry” and in doing so forced goldsmiths to find new employment. Not so Jean-Jacques Rousseau. However, the influence of a family of watchmakers and an environment whose activity revolved around the measurement of time was bound to shape his way of thinking. References to horology in Rousseau’s writings are far from explicit, yet sufficiently perceptible for certain authors to have ventured bold comparisons.

Born, then, in Geneva in 1712, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the son of Isaac Rousseau (1672-1747), a master watchmaker like his father, David Rousseau (1641-1738), and grandfather, Jean Rousseau (1606-1684), before him. Had he embraced their profession, Jean-Jacques would have been the fourth generation of a dynasty of horologists. The future philosopher’s mother, Suzanne Bernard (1673-1712), who died just days after his birth, was herself a watchmaker’s daughter. Jean-Jacques spent much of the first ten years of his life in his father’s workshop; a father who had returned to Geneva after six years in Constantinople as “watchmaker to the Seraglio” at the service of the Sultan in Topkapi Palace, a high-ranking function given the importance of prayer times. These ten carefree years would come to an end when Jean-Jacques’ father, who was embroiled in a legal quarrel, fled Geneva. Father and son would barely see each other again.

The city’s busy Fabrique

Outside the workshop, where his occupations were reading both ancient and modern authors, among them Plutarch, Ovid and Molière, and the violin which his father, an accomplished musician, played, the young Jean-Jacques grew up in a thriving city. During the eighteenth century, the Geneva Fabrique, a vast corporation of watchmakers, goldsmiths, jewellers and others whose business was the measurement of time, had spread along the right bank of the Rhone to become one of the world’s foremost centres for watchmaking. Geneva was a vast atelier populated by cabinotiers, an aristocracy above the city’s other craftsmen. In a single century, its annual production of timepieces increased from some five thousand to forty thousand gold watches and forty-five thousand silver watches on the eve of the French Revolution.

“Geneva’s most flourishing manufacture is watchmaking. It employs more than five thousand people, which is over one fifth of the citizens”, wrote Diderot and d’Alembert in their Encyclopaedia of 1757, which includes several entries on the technical aspects of time measurement by a certain Jean Romilly (1714-1796), to whom we owe numerous advances in watchmaking and a dissertation on the watch escapement, presented to the Academy of Science in 1754. A close friend of Rousseau, the two men kept up a lifelong correspondence.

Rousseau sells his watch

What can explain that Rousseau, steeped as he was in this “horological culture”, in 1751 gave up “laced clothes and white stockings”, laid aside his sword and sold his watch, as he explains in his Confessions. Frédéric Lefebvre, a specialist on Rousseau, sees no contradiction with the philosopher’s ideas. “Rousseau is not interested in the function of the watch but he appreciates its principle, the regularity which, for him, is the image of wisdom, happiness and self-control”, he writes in La Revue, the journal of the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris. “Here we find a metaphor that was very popular at the time, comparing the universe, man or society to a watch, because they are all made up of interdependent elements. The watch is one of the great adventures of the eighteenth century, and not only a technical exploit. The watch belongs to the history of political ideas, to the history of the Social Contract.”

The theory of government in Rousseau’s seminal work, suggests Lefebvre, is in fact a synthesis of two historic milestones: the institutions of Geneva, Rousseau’s birthplace, and the watch with a regulating balance spring, an invention of the late seventeenth century. The will of the sovereign people is the regulator; the government – a “minister” of the sovereign whose power is the “public power concentrated therein” – is the gear train; and the State is the mainspring. Writes Lefebvre: “Just as the escapement in a watch is both “retarding” and “regulating”, brake and rhythm, it is the combined effect of the “conflict” and the “participation” of the general will and of the government that leads to “the running of the political machine.” All that remains is to see in the “legislator” the figure of the master clockmaker who makes the plans for the watches and clocks.” As for the vicissitudes of History, they are the result of frictions which the watch mechanisms of the day had yet to overcome, as Jean Romilly readily acknowledged. Rousseau, a new figure in the history of time measurement? ■

Christophe Roulet

> Focus – Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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