The Reveries of the Solitary Walker(6th Walk)


Rousseau, Jean-Jacques




Jean-Jacques Rousseau was one of the central figures of the Enlightenment. His ideas heavily influenced the Romantics, the French revolution, and even education. Reveries of a Solitary Walker, his final work, remained unfinished at his death. Each chapter is framed by one of Rousseau's walks around Paris, but the content is a mixture of biography, anecdote, and philosophical reflection. In the first five pages of his Sixth Walk, Rousseau recalls a series of encounters with a lame beggar child and reflects on his changing feelings about these encounters. This causes him to consider the implicit contract between benefactor and beneficiary, its expectations, conditions, pleasures and pains: "I have often felt the burden of my own good deeds by the chain of duties they later entailed." These passages invite us to reflect on our motives and expectations for giving to and serving others.


The Civically Engaged Reader, eds. Davis & Lynn, (Great Books Foundation, 2006).




Ability and DisabilityConnection and RelationshipGiving and ReceivingLove and CompassionMoney and WealthMotives and ValuesPoverty and NeedPower and PrivilegeServing and Volunteering

Big Questions

When I give, what do I expect in return? What do I receive?What prevents us from being compassionate?What do those with more owe to those with less?Can selfish motives result in positive action?Do one’s motives for serving or giving matter? How?In what ways does having money give us power?


Civically Engaged Reader

Sample Discussion Questions

  1. Why does Rousseau give money to the beggar boy? How does he feel about his giving at first?
  2. What do we know about the beggar boy? Why is he asking for alms?
  3. Why is Rousseau disturbed by the boy's familiar attitude in addressing him as Monsieur Rousseau? Why does this lead him to avoid the boy?
  4. How, according to Rousseau, can giving start out as a pleasant experience and then become an unpleasant or onerous one?
  5. Do you recognize the way that Rousseau's giving evolves from pleasure to habit to duty? In what ways does this match up with your own giving experiences?
  6. What do you make of Rousseau's statement that the “first free and voluntary good deed [becomes] an unlimited right to all those he might need afterward”? Having helped someone once, do we have a responsibility to help them again? When is it acceptable to stop helping the person?
  7. According to Rousseau, what makes the contract between giver and receiver, benefactor and beneficiary, “the holiest of all”? Do you agree that this relationship is holy? Why or why not?
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