The text is divided into five "books"; the first three are dedicated to the child Emile, the fourth to an exploration of the adolescent Emile and the final book outlines the education of his female counterpart, Sophie, and Emile’s domestic and civic life.
Emile was banned and burned in Paris and Geneva as soon as it was published for the controversial section “Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar,” but despite, or perhaps because of, this reputation, it became a European bestseller. Furthermore, during the French Revolution, Emile served as the inspiration for a new national system of education.
Emile attempts to “find a way of resolving the contradictions between the natural man who is ‘all for himself’ and the implications of life in society.” The famous opening line does not bode well for the educational project—“Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the Author of things; everything degenerates in the hands of man.” But Rousseau acknowledges that every society “must choose between making a man or a citizen” and that the best “social institutions are those that best know how to denature man, to take his absolute existence from him in order to give him a relative one and transport the I into the common unity.” To “denature man” for Rousseau is to suppress some of the “natural” instincts that he extols in The Social Contract, published the same year as Emile, but while it might seem that for Rousseau such a process would be entirely negative, this is not so. Emile is not a panegyric for the loss of the noble savage, a term Rousseau never actually used. Instead, it is an effort to explain how natural man can live within society.
Many of Rousseau's suggestions in this book are restatements of the ideas of other educational reformers. For example, he endorses Locke's program of “harden[ing children’s] bodies against the intemperance of season, climates, elements; against hunger, thirst, fatigue” He also emphasizes the perils of swaddling and the benefits of mothers nursing their own infants. Rousseau’s enthusiasm for breastfeeding led to him to argue “but let mothers deign to nurse their children, morals will reform themselves, nature’s sentiments will be awakened in every heart, the state will be repeopled, a hyperbole that demonstrates Rousseau’s commitment to grandiose rhetoric. As Peter Jimack, the noted Rousseau scholar, argues “Rousseau consciously sought to find the striking, lapidary phrase which would compel the attention of his readers and move their hearts, even when it meant, as it often did, an exaggeration of his thought.” And, in fact, Rousseau’s pronouncements, although not original, effected a revolution in swaddling and breast-feeding.
The third book concerns the selection of a trade. Rousseau believed that it is necessary that the child must be taught a manual trade, which was rare for the time. He believed that the benefits were not merely economic but also social: that the practice of apprenticeship was ideal for integrating the child into society, and providing him with appropriate role models of how to live his life.
In addition to introducing a newly passionate Emile to society during his adolescent years, the tutor also introduces him to religion. According to Rousseau, children cannot understand abstract concepts such as the soul before the age of about fifteen or sixteen, so to introduce religion to them is dangerous. He writes, “it is a lesser evil to be unaware of the divinity than to offend it” Moreover, because children are incapable of understanding the difficult concepts that are part of religion, he points out that children will only recite what is told to them – they are unable to believe. Book IV also contains the infamous “Profession of a Savoyard Priest,” the section that was largely responsible for the condemnation of Emile and the one, paradoxically, most frequently excerpted and published independently of its parent tome. Rousseau claims at the end of the “Profession” that it is not a “a rule for the sentiments that one ought to follow in religious matters, but . . . an example of the way one can reason with one’s pupil in order not to diverge from the method I have tried to establish. Such a claim was clearly difficult for many readers at the time to accept and still is. Rousseau, through the priest, leads his readers through an argument with only one concluding belief: “natural religion.” Even more importantly, after this brief excursion into religious education, religion does not play any role in Emile’s life; religion, however important to Rousseau (Rousseau is believed to have created the Savoyard Vicar by combining the traits of two Savoyard priests whom he had known in his childhood: Abbé Gaime from Turin and Abbé Gâtier from Annecy), is insignificant in Emile’s education and socialization.
In what they have in common, they are equal. Where they differ, they are not comparable. A perfect woman and a perfect man ought not to resemble each other in mind any more than in looks, and perfection is not susceptible of more or less. In the union of the sexes each contributes equally to the common aim, but not in the same way. From this diversity arises the first assignable difference in the moral relations of the two sexes. One ought to be active and strong, the other passive and weak. One must necessarily will and be able; it suffices that the other put up little resistance. Once this principle is established, it follows that woman is made specially to please man.While the opening “in what they have in common, they are equal” offers an intriguing possibility for women, Rousseau does not elaborate on it. For him, sexual differences far outweigh similarities and those differences tilt in man’s favor: women should be “passive and weak,” “put up little resistance” and are “made specially to please man.”
In the incomplete sequel to Emile, Emile et Sophie, published after Rousseau’s death, Sophie is unfaithful (in what is hinted at might be a drugged rape), and Emile, initially furious with her betrayal, remarks “the adulteries of the women of the world are not more than gallantries; but Sophia an adulteress is the most odious of all monsters; the distance between what she was, and what she is, is immense. No! there is no disgrace, no crime equal to her’s.” He later relents somewhat, blaming himself for taking her to a city full of temptation, but he still abandons her and his children. Throughout the agonized internal monologue, represented through letters to his old tutor, he repeatedly comments on all of the affective ties that he has formed in his domestic life—“the chains [his heart] forged for itself” As he begins to recover from the shock, the reader is led to believe that these “chains” are not worth the price of possible pain—“By renouncing my attachments to a single spot, I extended them to the whole earth, and, while I ceased to be a citizen, became truly a man.” While in La Nouvelle Héloïse, the ideal is domestic, rural happiness (if not bliss), in Emile and its sequel, the ideal is “emotional self-sufficiency which was the natural state of primitive, pre-social man, but which for modern man can be attained only by the suppression of his natural inclinations.”