Rousseau’s Perception on Milk and Human Nature
Milk has not always been the object of attack by nutritionists and animal activists. Hundreds of years before vegans were condemning dairy products as unhealthful industrialized commodities, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 18th-century French philosopher and arguably the first ecologist and environmentalist, was praising the nutritious and psychological properties of milk and its ability to reconnect people with nature. Throughout his writings, from Émile, or On Education to his Confessions, dairy is depicted not only as a building block of humanity but also as a vegetal fruit-like figure within his idealized bucolic literary scenes.
It’s not by mere chance that Rousseau starts off his masterpiece on the “art of education,” Émile, or On Education, with a tribute to breast milk and maternity (still a modern concept in the 18th century). He explains the profound impact of breastfeeding on infants, affirming that it intensifies the mother–child bond, and therefore the overall harmony of the family which he views as a fundamental unit of civilization.
While, today, this notion of women and milk seems anti-feminist and conservative, during Rousseau’s time period, it was remarkable and radical. Women were rarely allowed to breastfeed their own babies, and they had little to do with rearing them. Rousseau perceives mother’s milk as having a revolutionary capacity to stimulate a “natural feeling” of compassion. “When mothers deign to nurse their own children, then will be a reform in morals; natural feeling will revive in every heart; there will be no lack of citizens for the state; this first step by itself will restore mutual affection,” affirms Rousseau. In essence, he is arguing that mother’s milk awakens a baby’s innate gift of empathy.
In addition to assigning dairy a key role in child development, Rousseau also places it (not just breast milk) in his dreamlike images of nature. In his Confessions, there is a scene in which he imagines a utopian countryside with an abundance of agriculture and absolute joy. “The trees were loaded with the choicest fruits, while their shade afforded the most charming and voluptuous retreats to happy lovers; the mountains abounded with milk and cream; peace and leisure, simplicity and joy, mingled with the charm of going I knew not whither, and everything I saw carried to my heart some new cause for rapture,” says Rousseau. This image – Rousseau’s version of a land of milk and honey – creates a fascinating analogy between fruits and “milk and cream.” Whereas the trees provide fruits, the mountains offer dairy. It’s as though they both come directly from the earth representing the creation of life.
As milk is our first form of nutrition when we leave the womb, it makes sense that it would symbolize a life-affirming force. Rousseau develops this notion of milk further by linking it to what he views as innate human characteristics, such as empathy. According to his philosophy, dairy is indicative of human nature and our connection with our environment. This striking view couldn’t be any further from the demonizing image of dairy depicted by modern-day vegans.