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Alan Jacobs


The Only Honest Man

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, impresario of modernity.

Most of us know, now, that Rousseau was wrong: that man, when you knock his chains off, sets up the death camps. Soon we shall know everything the 18th century didn't know, and nothing it did, and it will be hard to live with us.

When the great poet, satirist, and philosopher Voltaire died in 1778, at the age of 84, he was buried on the grounds of the Abbey of Sellieres, near Romilly-sur-Seine, France. But this would not be his final resting place. In the fervent early years of the French Revolution, before the sovereignty of Terror, the leading revolutionaries agreed that their "glorious Revolution has been the fruit of his works," and decided to bring his body to Paris, where he could receive the honor so rarely granted him in his lifetime. Some such decision had to be made, for the Abbey (along with much other property of the Church) had been confiscated by a cash-strapped government and was to be auctioned off, and some of the new national leaders quailed at the prospect of the great philosopher's remains becoming private property. The site they chose for the hero's reinterment was the newly designated Pantheon—what had been the unfinished church of St. Genevieve, now finally completed not as a house of God but as a monument to those designated by the revolutionaries as "les Grands Hommes."

Only two dignitaries had thus far assumed their places in the Pantheon: its original inhabitant, the seventeenth-century philosopher Rene Descartes, the patron saint of Reason as conceived by the Enlightenment, followed in April 1791 by the revolutionary leader Mirabeau, whose unexpected death had bestowed upon him an immediate sanctification. Now, on July 11 of the same year, Voltaire would make the third in this company: his remains were carried on what Simon Schama calls "a monumental chariot, as high as a two-story house," leading an enormous imitation-Roman triumphal procession through the streets of Paris. Notable among the many participants in this cortege were "a ...

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