Back to nature!  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

"Retour à la nature!" (Back to nature!) is a dictum misattributed to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In the popular imagination, "going back to nature" means to restore to man the state of nature, to place him outside every oppressing bond of society and the prejudices of civilization. The idea was particularly important in Romanticism.

In France the expression "back to nature" is only rarely heard in studies on Rousseau, see Rousseau scholar Robert Thiéry who says: "En France, il est très rare de rencontrer «le retour à la nature» dans les études sur Rousseau."[1]

Ernst Cassirer emphasized in The Question of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1932; English trans. Peter Gay, 1954):

"Rousseau was neither the only nor the first man in the eighteenth century to coin the motto, 'Back to Nature!' "

And according to Jacques Barzun in From Dawn to Decadence:

Voltaire, who had felt annoyed by the first essay [On the Arts and Sciences], was outraged by the second, [Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Among Men], declaring that Rousseau wanted us to "walk on all fours[...]" like animals and behave like savages, believing them creatures of perfection. From these interpretations, plausible but inexact, spring the clichés Noble Savage and Back to Nature.

Barzun, again in From Dawn to Decadence, states that, contrary to myth, Rousseau was no primitivist; for him:

The model man is the independent farmer, free of superiors and self-governing. This was cause enough for the philosophes' hatred of their former friend. Rousseau's unforgivable crime was his rejection of the graces and luxuries of civilized existence. Voltaire had sung "The superfluous, that most necessary thing." For the high bourgeois standard of living Rousseau would substitute the middling peasant's. It was the country versus the city—an exasperating idea for them, as was the amazing fact that every new work of Rousseau's was a huge success, whether the subject was politics, theater, education, religion, or a novel about love.

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Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Back to nature!" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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