A walk with Geneva’s thinkers

On a speck of an island where Lake Geneva becomes the Rhône River sits a barefoot bronze gentleman in long Armenian robes open low at the chest, pen poised, and concentration furrowing his brow. Born in Old Town Geneva in 1712, his father a clock-maker who read books to him until the wee hours, his mother dying shortly after his birth, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was soon apprenticed to a tyrannical engraver. He ran away to France, where he spent most of his life and became, despite a tenuous formal education, one of Europe’s most influential political thinkers, educational theorists, moralists, and novelists. Man, he thought, was naturally rational and ethical, the social environment depraved and corrupting. Intellectual father of the French Revolution, he insisted on the value of liberty and equality. Even children should be given a sense of freedom from their earliest days, he believed. They should be allowed to form their ideas from their sensory exploration, and the gradual emergence of their own capacities and interests should determine the pace and content of their education, he suggested in his novel Emile. He gave his own five children to an orphanage at birth, despite his wife’s protestations.

If Rousseau rose to his feet and walked south 500 metres as the crow flies to the Cathedral of Saint-Pierre, opened its dark wooden door with curling decorative ironwork and proceeded up a dim Gothic nave, he would come to a little wooden chair with a triangular seat and straight, geometrically carved back. This was Jean Calvin’s, the pulpit under which it stands the place from which he turned Geneva into an intellectual centre of the Reformation and an international city that welcomed persecuted Protestants from around Europe. Born in 1509 to a well-to-do family in Noyon, north east of Paris, Calvin studied theology, law and Greek; converted suddenly to Protestantism; and wrote The Institutes of the Christian Religion, a small book that set out the evangelical beliefs of the time and anchored them in scripture. On passing through Geneva, he was asked to stay and help the Reformist minority struggling with the city fathers. He complied but was expelled, and later called back. His description of himself as “timid, soft and cowardly” contradicts the forcefulness with which he then promoted his brand of Protestantism, producing strict regulations by which Genevans were to abide, churning out sermons and revisions of his book, and founding an academy to train ministers, some of whom later converted their native regions to Calvinism. His key idea was, “For all [men] are not created in equal condition; rather, eternal life is ordained for some, eternal damnation for others.” One could not earn salvation.

Calvin’s academy became the University of Geneva, now a leafy campus 400 metres south west of the cathedral. Here, some 400 years later, one of the most influential child psychologists of the twentieth century, Jean Piaget, worked to understand the way children view the world. His bust, that of a kindly yet perspicacious grandfather, stands next to four rows of chestnut trees that flank pale apricot and grey-green neoclassical university buildings. Born in the Swiss city of Neuchâtel, he published his first article at the age of 10 (on an albino sparrow) and dozens more in his teens (mostly on molluscs). He was interested in biology but also in the philosophical question of how people come to know things, and realised that he could combine the two by observing young children. He and his wife Valentine, also a psychologist, observed their three children in great detail and developed experiments, producing a theory of developmental stages (published in his name only). They believed that babies’ ideas about other people, the world, and language were systematic, but different from adults’. Babies thought, for example, that objects ceased to exist when hidden from view, and that there was no boundary between themselves and others.

One kilometre northwest of the university stands the home of Voltaire, for whom a baby had meant the death in childbirth of the brilliant scientist and mathematician who was his mistress. Les Délices is a little white manor house of soothing symmetry and proportions, its only ornament a graceful wrought iron balcony of cleverly interlocking swirls. Low, manicured box plants grace the garden, now an intimate park. “I am finally leading the life of a patriarch,” said Voltaire when he bought it. The leading poet and dramatist of his day, he had fled his native Paris several times, most notoriously for having praised political and religious freedom in England. It was in Geneva that he wrote Candide, a story that expressed his doubts in the existence of God, after hearing about the destruction wrought by Lisbon’s 1755 earthquake. Voltaire was in fact a believer, but thought the Catholic Church intolerant, fanatical, and unjust; he wrote fervently in favour of religious tolerance and justice, and penned tracts in defence of persecuted Huguenots. Government disapproval incited him to use 175 different pseudonyms in the course of his life, but he was finally received in triumph in Paris, just before his death at the age of eighty-four, only six weeks before Rousseau. The clergy refused to give him a Christian burial.

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