The Only Honest Man
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 troupe of men dressed in Roman costume [carrying] as trophies of glory editions of all Voltaire's works."
Strange to say, this bizarre ritual would be repeated three years later, in October 1794—when la grande Terreur had run its course, its instigator and sustainer, Robespierre, having been at the end of July one of the guillotine's last victims—but now the exhumed hero was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Again a procession was organized, this time commencing at Ermeonville, 30 miles from Paris, where Rousseau had died and been buried. (Though 18 years younger than Voltaire, he had outlived him by only a month.) Again emblems of the great man's life and work were displayed for public approval: musicians played Rousseau's compositions, and at the end of this cortege members of the national legislature held aloft copies of the gospel du jour, Rousseau's famous political treatise, The Social Contract.
In one sense, nothing could be more comprehensible than this co-elevation of two of the eighteenth century's most versatile and influential writers. Each man had written in a remarkable variety of genres. Voltaire produced tragedies, an epic, a witty philosophical satire (Candide) that is his most-read work today, many comic tales, and innumerable pamphlets on his time's most controversial subjects. Similarly, in one astonishing nine-year period Rousseau produced a romantic epistolary novel about love and duty (Julie, or the New Heloise), a didactic philosophical tale about the ideal means of educating young men (Emile), an extended polemic on the uses and dangers of theaters in various societies (Letter to d'Alembert), and a compressed yet ambitious treatise on political philosophy (The Social Contract). Such activity left him no time to compose the music which had earlier brought him to the attention of the French. Both Voltaire and Rousseau contributed to the dominant intellectual project of their time, the great ongoing Encyclopedia edited by Denis Diderot and Jean d'Alembert. Both were theoretically hopeful about the human race, but by temperament bitterly pessimistic. Above all, both men understood themselves to be celebrants and defenders of Freedom, and therefore enemies of the hierarchies and institutions of France's ancien regime. Surely a revolution which itself promised freedom from royal absolutism and aristocratic privilege was right to enthrone these two great men?
Perhaps. But it must also be said that Voltaire and Rousseau had loathed each other; indeed, believed themselves to speak for irreconcilable philosophies. Their relationship—which was conducted wholly in letters, since they only met once—began cordially enough, as the aspiring artist-intellectual Rousseau sent flattering letters to the man already recognized as France's leading writer (though Voltaire's polemical nature had generated enough highly placed enmity to drive him from his native country and to the suburbs of Rousseau's home city, Geneva). But in 1754, when Rousseau sent a copy of his second significant work, the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, to Voltaire, things began to change. This Discourse was Rousseau's first work fully to articulate a position which would later be almost identified with him: that human beings had once lived in a blissfully anarchic "state of nature," the innocence of which we have since lost through the corruptions of organized society. Nothing could be further from Voltaire's view that the disciplined practice of Reason was, or at least could be, gradually emancipating us from the chains of ancient passions and superstitions, and he replied with predictable irony: "I have received, Monsieur, your new book against the human race, and I thank you. No one has employed so much intelligence to turn us men into beasts. One starts wanting to walk on all fours after reading your book. However, in more than sixty years I have lost the habit."
From this point on the relationship deteriorated. Rousseau became more and more convinced that Voltaire was his greatest enemy, a consuming suspicion which boiled over in 1760 in a wrathful letter, equally paranoid and megalomaniacal, which insured that they would never be reconciled:
I do not like you, Monsieur; you have done me injuries of the most harmful kind; done them to me, your disciple and your enthusiastic admirer. You have ruined Geneva, in return for the asylum you have been given there. You have turned my fellow citizens against me as a reward for the praise which I have secured for you. It is you who have made living in my own city impossible for me; it is you who force me to perish on foreign soil, deprived of all the consolations of the dying, cast unceremoniously like a dog on the wayside, who you, alive or dead, enjoy in my homeland all the honours to which a man could aspire. I despise you.
In fact, far from being a dying, impoverished, and rejected man—and far from striving to return to Geneva—Rousseau at the time was living comfortably on the bounty of his friend and patron, the fantastically wealthy and powerful Marechale de Luxembourg.
Voltaire never responded to this letter, which perhaps only intensified Rousseau's paranoia and determination to oppose the older man in all things. If Voltaire would praise philosophy, Rousseau—who as an aspiring writer had self-consciously given up music for philosophy—would repudiate it. If Voltaire would elevate Reason, Rousseau would condemn it in favor of the more sure way of the heart: "I have abandoned reason and consulted nature," he wrote to a Genevan friend when his alienation from Voltaire, his old friend Denis Diderot, and the whole world of the philosophes had become evident to everyone involved, "that is, the inner feeling."
And they quarreled about God. Voltaire always maintained a belief in the existence of some kind of deity—the argument from design appealed to him—but he wasn't sure exactly what kind, since it was obvious to him that this beautifully made world was also filled with incomprehensible evil. When a great earthquake destroyed much of Lisbon, Portugal in November of 1755, Voltaire wrote a bitter poem which mocked the very idea that such a disaster could be attributed to the sovereignty of a benevolent Providence, and asked whether a good deity could even be thought to rule over this world at all. Rousseau responded—this was before their decisive break—with a long letter pointing out, reasonably enough, that many of the people died not from the earthquake as such but because their cheaply constructed and grotesquely crowded houses caved in on them: the disaster was more due to the systemic evils of life in unjust human society than to the acts of God. Rousseau warmly affirmed his belief in Providence and in the immortality of the human soul. (For this affirmation, Diderot came to believe, Rousseau had earned the admiration of "the devout party"—that is, the Christians—and would therefore remain popular with and accepted by them. In this he was wrong.)
Voltaire in turn replied only with an apology for not having time to answer substantively, though he proclaimed affection for Rousseau. And so the conversation appeared to end. But when Candide appeared two years later—with a repudiation of the idea of Providence, and those who believe in it, still more fierce than that of the poem—Rousseau understood it to be Voltaire's belated reply to his passionate letter. "I wanted to philosophize with Voltaire; in return he made fun of me." If such was the attitude of the age's greatest apostle of philosophy and reason, then who needed philosophy and reason? And indeed mockery would be from this point on Voltaire's characteristic response to Rousseau: for instance, he amused himself by spreading the rumor that Rousseau had at one time been valet to France's Ambassador in Venice. (In fact, Rousseau had been the Ambassador's secretary and therefore an important member of the diplomatic corps himself; but since at one time he had indeed been a footman in the household of a rich man, the false report had a particular sting.) And to his fellow philosophes he spoke of "that fool Rousseau, that bastard of Diogenes's dog."
Were Voltaire and Rousseau right in thinking that they, and their intellectual positions, were irreconcilable? Or had the Revolutionaries correctly discerned some hidden complicity of the two antagonists, some common vision that lay beneath the surface and which Voltaire and Rousseau themselves could therefore never see? Or could both views be true? There is another way to put these questions: was Romanticism an alternative to the Enlightenment, or its natural heir? For it is Jean-Jacques Rousseau who stands at the confluence of these two great movements in Western intellectual history; his life and work, more than those of any other single figure, show us how the two were related to each other. And if Rousseau's life is full of confusions and contradictions, that is largely be cause he represented within himself movements which were now harmonious, now dissonant; now moving on parallel tracks, now on a collision course. Rousseau is the modern world.
Maurice Cranston's three-volume biography of the extraordinary Jean-Jacques is as full and scholarly and vivid a portrait as we are likely to have; but alas, it is not all that one might hope for. Chiefly this is because Cranston, a longtime professor of political science at the London School of Economics, died before he could complete the third volume. Sanford Lakoff, who was entrusted with the task of putting the manuscript in order, writes that Cranston had finished seven of that volume's eight chapters when he died, but one can only assume that Cranston was hurrying his work, since these chapters cover momentous events in Rousseau's life at a much quicker pace than the first two installments had maintained. There can be few readers of those sweeping yet detailed volumes who will not be disappointed at the thinness of the third.
Such disappointment testifies both to Cranston's skill as a biographer and the extraordinary richness of Rousseau's eventful life. Even the briefest sketch of Rousseau's experiences is enough to illustrate the need for a multi-volume biography. At the outset of his second volume, Cranston summarizes Rousseau's first 40 years:
Rousseau's early life was that of a wanderer, an adventurer, the life of a hero of a picaresque novel. Orphaned by the early death of his mother and the defection of his father, he had run away from his native Geneva at the age of sixteen to escape the life of a plebeian engraver's apprentice, and found refuge as a Catholic convert in Savoy. Making his own way in the world as a footman in Turin, a student at a choir school in Annecy, the steward and the lover of a Swiss baroness in Chambery, the interpreter to a Levantine mountebank, an itinerant musician, a private tutor in the family of Condillac and Mably in Lyons, secretary to the French Ambassador in Venice and research assistant to the Dupins at Chenonceaux, he set out with his great friends and contemporary Denis Diderot to conquer Paris as a writer, and, much to his own surprise, did so almost overnight at the age of 38 with the publication of his Discourse on the Sciences and Arts.
After this came the prodigious decade already mentioned, in which almost all the works that would make Rousseau famous were written. But these increasingly controversial works alienated the more conservative elements in French Society—especially Roman Catholics— and in 1762 two of them (Emile and The Social Contract) were formally condemned. Rousseau fled France under threat of arrest, and it is with this departure that Cranston ends his second volume. For most of the rest of his life Rousseau lived in Switzerland, though his reputation as an infidel made him unpopular, and he had to move from town to town. For a while he lived in England under the protection of the philosopher David Hume, but Rousseau's increasing paranoia ruined that friendship as it had ruined many others, and he returned to the Continent. Eventually, in 1767, he was received back in France, and in the years leading up to his death in 1778 was once again celebrated in the salons of Paris, where in lengthy readings of his work-in-progress, the Confessions, he praised himself and cursed his enemies to the applause of society.
Again, until the Swiss exile Cranston is a masterful relater of this history. But it is not just the rushed narrative of Rousseau's later years that creates problems for this biography's readers: also problematic is Cranston's desire to rescue Rousseau from at least some of the bad repute that disfigures his memory. Cranston is consistently sympathetic to Rousseau, and tries whenever possible to reconcile Rousseau's versions of events—especially as those versions appear in Rousseau's pathbreaking and self-exculpating Confessions—with the available evidence. Sometimes he has to give up the at tempt with an almost audible sigh, but for the most part he manages to make Rousseau's view of the controversies that always surrounded him seem comprehensible and even plausible.
Cranston achieves this, at least in some cases, by a kind of withholding of evidence. Rousseau's letters are full of passages that show him in a very bad light indeed, and often Cranston simply doesn't quote such passages; or if he does quote them, and cannot explain them away, he leaves them without comment. To some degree he is reacting against earlier biographers and critics who have calumniated Rousseau, but given a work of such scope it is difficult to condone a reluctance to confront the whole truth about the subject.
One may approach this problem, and simultaneously approach what is of crucial importance about Rousseau, by returning to the quarrel with Voltaire. In 1759 Rousseau wrote a letter to an old Genevan friend whom he was coming to distrust because he knew the man to be one of Voltaire's regular visitors. He is particularly concerned to respond to a semi-rhetorical question his friend had asked him: "How is it that the friend of humanity is hardly any longer the friend of men?" The question had angered Rousseau, and in defending himself he insists, "I am the friend of the human race." When Voltaire saw this comment he seized upon it: "Extreme insolence is extreme stupidity, and nothing is more stupid than a Jean-Jacques talking about 'the human race and I.'" (All of this Cranston relates.)
One might think that Voltaire was unfairly mocking a passing figure of speech, but Rousseau's distinction was by this time in his life fundamental to his character—fundamental in a way that Cranston is reluctant to acknowledge. Three years after the exchange I have just described, Rousseau wrote, "Oh why did Providence have me born among men, and make me of a different species?" And one does not have to read far in Rousseau's letters, or indeed his published works, to figure out what species he thought he belonged to: he was the world's only honnete homme, that is, the only truthful and wholly honorable man.
Almost from the beginning of his time in Paris, Rousseau took pains to emphasize his difference from others. He early on learned to make capital of his peculiarities—he had more than a few—and to convince people that what would be rudeness or thoughtlessness in others was virtue in him. He called himself a "bear" and liked it when others did the same; he commented frequently on his inability to make polite conversation or to dissemble his feelings in any way. When friends suggested that he owed some gratitude to Madame d'Epinay, who had befriended him, he replied bluntly: "As for kindnesses, I do not like them, I do not want them, and I do not feel grateful to those who force me to accept them." (He does not explain how exactly she "forced" him to take her gifts, which included a house in which he lived; later he would complain similarly of being "forced" to receive presents from an admiring Prince de Conti.) When the Marechal de Luxembourg installed Rousseau in his "petit chateau," Rousseau wrote a letter to Madame de Luxembourg insisting, "I shall not praise you. I shall not thank you. But I inhabit your house. Everyone has his own language, and I have said all in mine." This had the exquisitely subtle effect of flattering his aristocratic patrons while simultaneously maintaining the manner of a "bear" who simply cannot behave as other men do.
Rousseau found every possible means of insisting upon his difference from other men. Thus his habit once he was established in Paris of referring to himself, and having others refer to him, as "citoyen de Geneve," when in fact he had repudiated his Genevan citizenship as a young Catholic convert: he found it useful to represent himself as the outlander, the plain spoken burgher from the wild Alpine lakes. In his Swiss exile he even wore a flamboyant Armenian costume on his daily walks (and then wrote letters complaining that the locals mocked him). His virtues could only be made evident by contrast with the vices of everyone else. In a reproachful letter to a woman who had failed to return his affection, he roundly declared that "there cannot be any peace between J.-J. Rousseau and the wicked"—and who wasn't wicked? "What distinguishes me from all the other men I know, is that with all my faults, I have always reproached myself for them, and that my faults have never made me despise my duty or trample on virtue; and, moreover, that I have struggled for virtue and conquered at times when everyone else has forgotten it." It is this conviction above all that underlies the most definitive statement of his uniqueness, on the first page of his Confessions: "I am made unlike anyone I have ever met; I will even venture to say that I am like no one in the whole world."
Rousseau consistently maintained belief in his uniqueness, and almost as consistently belief in his superiority to other human beings—but at times the latter stance grew difficult. Especially when word got out that his mistress had borne him five children and he had promptly sent each of them to Paris's Foundling Hospital, he had some explaining to do, and knew it. He writes to several friends, at various times in his life, about that decision, and wavers between staunchly defending himself—on the grounds that he had lacked the resources to raise his children properly and that in the orphanage they would have been educated into an honest trade, which was more than he would have been able to do for them—and expressing remorse. But his general tone of each letter is more or less the same: that he had shown his nobility of character in performing the "rational" act of abandoning his children, and that he continues to show the nobility of his character by experiencing deep remorse even over such a fully justifiable decision. Whether in acting or in lamenting his actions, then, he lived up to his self-description as l'honnete homme.
In this case and in many others, Rousseau presents himself as a man whose behavior would be vicious if practiced by others, but on his part is sheer virtue. In a lengthy and extraordinary letter to Madame d'Epinay (one to which Cranston does not refer), Rousseau refuses her attempts to reconcile him to his former friend, the philosophe Diderot. He describes for her at some length his expectations in friendship—expectations unmet by Diderot—and concludes the description by saying: "I require from a friend even a great deal more than all I have just told you; even more than he must require from me, and than I should require from him, if he were in my place, and I were in his."
But what does Rousseau mean when he speaks of his "place"? This is important, since the distinction between his place and that of Diderot seems to justify the grossest inequalities in friendship. He immediately goes on to explain, "As a recluse, I am more sensitive than another man"—and it is Rousseau's status as a "recluse" to which he almost obsessively returns in his letters and memoirs. In Rousseau's philosophy, only the recluse can be virtuous, be cause only the recluse evades the corrupting influences of society and thereby retains a pure natural honesty. Rousseau the recluse, then, becomes the living embodiment of his own "noble savage," and Cranston is right to title his second volume with that phrase.
In his Confessions, therefore, Rousseau writes that he "first began to live" on April 9, 1756, for on that day he retired from society into a "Hermitage," utterly isolating himself from his Parisian acquaintance. Well, perhaps not "utterly." No self-respecting hermit could have found Rousseau's residence satisfactory, since it was a former hunting lodge on Madame d'Epinay's estate, and he could visit with her whenever he chose. Moreover, in Cranston's words, this was no "Gothic cottage but a dignified and symmetrical house, with good-sized rooms, an elegant door and windows, with both ornamental and kitchen gardens and an or chard, surrounded by fields and the forest." And to top it off, this supposedly remote and isolated habitation was less than a dozen miles from Paris; Rousseau would sometimes chastise his friends for not walking out to visit him.
Later, when living still more elegantly in the Marechal de Luxembourg's "petit chateau," he would often visit the Duke's house in Paris. This was awkward for Rousseau, not only because of his status as "recluse"—when first invited there he replied, "Why do you disturb the peace of a hermit who has renounced the pleasures of life in order to be spared its fatigues?"—but also because he had vowed never to set foot on the streets of Paris again. But then he realized that the Duke's carriage would take him directly into the garden of the great townhouse: thus "I could say with the most exact truth that I never set foot on the streets of Paris."
Nevertheless, these various "cottages" and "hermitages" were sufficiently removed from the day-to-day distractions that bedeviled Rousseau in his Parisian years that during the nine years that he lived in them he wrote almost every word that would later make him famous. For all his posturing, Rousseau was never reluctant to work, and he was intellectually ambitious as well as prolific—even though he made almost no money from his books and tried to support himself by copying music.
But if one looks at those works from the great decade in isolation from what we know about Rousseau, they are not often impressive. Jules Lemaitre may have exaggerated when he said that the enormous popularity of Rousseau's first book, the Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, constituted "one of the strongest proofs ever provided of human stupidity"; in that book, and in each of Rousseau's books, there are certainly striking and provocative ideas. But the works lack coherence of development, and indeed some of them are wildly self-contradictory, as Rousseau himself saw: in the case of his novel Julie, he noted some of the contradictions when the book was being prepared for press, but decided not to remedy them. (Perhaps he didn't know how; or perhaps his attitude anticipated that of Walt Whitman a hundred years later: "I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large; I contain multitudes.") Even the book by which Rousseau is best known today, The Social Contract, was not widely read in his lifetime—in part because it was frequently censored—and first be came influential when the Revolution initiated its cult of Rousseau.
What is particularly important about this first celebration of Rousseau is that, like those that would come afterwards, it was dictated by Rousseau's self-presentation in the Confessions. Indeed, the Confessions was Rousseau's only book to have precisely the effect he intended it to have: while the others were thoroughly misread or not read at all, this one hit the mark. In the depths of a profound paranoia, convinced that his former friends were conspiring at least to destroy his reputation and perhaps to have him murdered, Rousseau wrote this book to convince the world that he was in fact a new kind of saint: the saint as reclusive hermit, as noble savage, as honnete homme.
"I publicly and fearlessly declare," he says at the end of the Confessions, "that anyone, even if he has not read my writings, who will examine my nature, my character, my morals, my likings, my pleasures, and my habits with his own eyes and can still believe me a dishonorable man, is a man who deserves to be stifled." It was largely because this rhetorical strategy convinced his revolutionary readers that he was installed in the Pantheon—not because of the influence of The Social Contract, which few among the revolutionaries had read, and which was appealed to not because of its argument but because of a couple of striking phrases. There was the famous first sentence of the book—"Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains"—a resonant utterance in the mouths of self-proclaimed liberators; and then there was the notion of the "general will" of the people, the collective desire or purpose of a culture, a will for which the rebels were quick to claim that they spoke, though they cared little what Rousseau meant by that phrase.
No, it was the Jean-Jacques of the Confessions who was the real popular hero, because he stood against the complexities and hierarchies and dissimulations of the ancien regime by standing for an unaffected "natural" sincerity. On the first page of that book, he stakes out his territory in memorable terms as he imagines going before the Judgment Seat of God, not bowing or kneeling, not weeping penitent tears, not in awe or fear, but boldly, with a copy of the Confessions in his hand. Indeed, Rousseau imagines the whole company of Heaven suspending their customary adoration of the Lord to listen, as raptly as the attendants of a fashionable Parisian salon, to the honest man read his story:
I have displayed myself as I was, as vile and despicable when my behavior was such, as good, generous, and noble when I was so. I have bared my secret soul as Thou thyself has seen it, Eternal Being! So let the numberless legion of my fellow men gather round me, and hear my confessions. Let them groan at my depravities, and blush for my misdeeds. But let each one of them reveal his heart at the foot of Thy throne with equal sincerity, and may any man who dares, say "I was a better man than he."
This astonishing declaration needs to be read in conjunction with Rousseau's desire to "stifle" anyone who does not hear his tale with full approval. In other words, the honesty with which he proclaims his every action transmutes those actions, how ever base they may seem, into the pure gold of virtue. Rousseau claims justification neither by faith nor by works, but by sincerity: sincerity alone enables him not only to transcend his fellow human beings but also to throw his Confessions in the face of God, daring even Him to judge Jean-Jacques.
What is so noteworthy, here and elsewhere in Rousseau's writings, is the fierceness with which he demands the recognition and approval of others, even while simultaneously claiming to despise their company and to owe them nothing (not even gratitude for un petit chateau). So even when he descends to the public's level and provides just the sort of sensationalistic writing they want to read, he sophistically contends that they are merely getting what they deserve and are able to comprehend. He blames the age rather than himself for the bad taste of his Julie, or the New Heloise, as he explains in the preface to his novel (referring obliquely to his own condemnations of theaters and novels in his Letter to d'Alembert): "There must be theatres in large cities and novels for corrupt peoples. I have observed the morals of my time, and I have published these letters. Would that I had lived in a century when my duty would have been to throw them in the fire!" In other words, just as his aristocratic patrons were "forcing" him against his will to accept their lavish gifts, so French culture as a whole was "forcing" him to write corrupt, and corrupting, novels.
This kind of argument had for Rousseau a twofold beneficial effect. On the one hand, it relieved him from the responsibility for any of his actions that might be considered shameful. On the other hand, by condemning so bluntly the very people to whom he addressed his works, he maintained in their eyes his reputation for being bearish, blunt, unaccommodatingin short, honest. One cannot but admire the rhetorical panache with which Rousseau carries this off: to become famous and celebrated by relentlessly praising oneself and belittling everyone else is no easy feat and must be managed with great care.
Here again the contrast with Voltaire is instructive. Voltaire was happy to participate in what he liked to call the "Republic of Letters" and its "Reign of Critique," and enjoyed not only the honors showered upon him by his fellow intellectuals (such as membership in the Academie Francaise) but also, when they came, those bestowed by the monarchy. Rousseau by contrast looked upon, or tried very hard to look upon, or pretended that he looked upon, all honors as invitations to corruption: for instance, he claimed to have re fused membership in the Academie. Likewise, his insistence on earning his bread by copying music—while all the time his patrons were slipping money to his mistress—served to in crease the esteem of those already inclined to admire him.
As Paul Cohen shows in his admirable book Freedom's Moment, the key to understanding this phenomenon is provided by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who coined the term "consecrated heretic" to describe a recurrent character in French society—a character, Cohen says, created virtually from whole cloth by Rousseau. Again and again since Rousseau, famous French intellectuals have made, or enhanced, their public reputations by the ostentatious refusal of public honors. (Thus the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, in his own narrative of encounters with "noble savages," Tristes Tropiques, speaks for the entire French intelligentsia when he celebrates Rousseau as "our master and our brother. … Every page of this book could have been dedicated to him, had it not been unworthy of his great memory.") In repudiating every form of recognition by the society at large—and even by the counter-cultural intellectual elite—these thinkers demonstrate their intellectual autonomy and integrity. As Cohen points out, the greatest of all such masters of refusal was Jean-Paul Sartre, who in the aftermath of World War II publicly and vocally declined election to the French Legion of Honor, then, encouraged by the admiration this decision elicited, went on refuse (like Rousseau) the Academie Francaise, then the College de France, and finally, in the grandest gesture of all, the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The point of such repudiations, especially in the context of the Sixties, is clear: Sartre was determined to avoid being "co-opted" by the Establishment, that is, lulled into complacency and acceptance of the status quo by the soporific drug Honor. But this determination only made him more heroic in the eyes of the intelligentsia: thus for his very heresy he was consecrated. At times, Sartre seems to have suspected that his inability to get himself persecuted by his society compromised his claim to heretical status. After all, would a truly subversive thinker be so lionized? It must have been particularly galling for Sartre when, in 1960, President de Gaulle shrewdly declined to have Sartre imprisoned for subversive activities, saying "one does not arrest Voltaire"—a neat twist of the knife, given Voltaire's enthusiastic acceptance of public recognition!
In this respect Sartre could only have envied Rousseau. As long as he was celebrated and coddled by Ma dame d'Epinay and the Marechal de Luxembourg, Rousseau's pride remained more or less in check: his complaints about being forced to accept gifts and his insistence that he is a reclusive hermit betray doubt about the moral validity of his position. But when he came under genuine persecution and his books were banned and he was driven into real solitude and exile, his self-regard escalated into megalomania: every new misfortune, every word of criticism, confirmed his superiority to the human beings among whom he was doomed to live. Rousseau became the ultimate heretic, consecrated not by society—whose praise would have been gall and wormwood to him—but by the only authority whose right to consecrate he could accept: his own heart.
Scholars in many disciplines have identified Rousseau as a decisive figure in the development of modernity. Political theorists have discerned in The Social Contract, especially its notion of the "general will," adumbrations of later totalitarian regimes; historians of education have pointed to Emile as the originating document of the "liberating" tradition of pedagogy that Americans associate primarily with John Dewey; his "primitivism" and his love of wild mountain scenery (scenery "sublime" rather than merely beautiful) have been acknowledged as sources of the Romantic movement in literature, painting, and music. One could go on. But Rousseau's true gift was for self-creation, and it is this art which he has bequeathed to the whole modern world. He could well have said what Oscar Wilde would later say, that only his talent went into his work: it was his life that exhibited genius.
Peter Gay has defined Rousseau's life as "that melodramatic vagabondage punctuated by angry letters." A brilliant and incisive phrase, but not fully adequate. Those letters—including The Confessions, which may fairly be called the longest and most rhetorically crafted among them—are not always angry: often they rail, to be sure, but equally often they plead, and, as occasion warrants, lament, sneer, enthuse, celebrate, scold. But each of these moods or tones is put in the service of one comprehensive and never-forgotten goal: to justify the ways of Jean-Jacques to the world. The image Rousseau offers us on the first page of the Confessions, of his striding up to the Throne with his book in his hand, is the only one we really need if we wish to understand this remarkable man.
Remarkable, but not—oh, how Jean-Jacques would protest here—not unique. For in many ways his audacious confrontation of all the host of Heaven is but the logical culmination of the key doctrine he shares with Voltaire and all the philosophes: the doctrine of innate human innocence. Voltaire and Rousseau, for all their differences, alike inherited what may well be the decisive event in the last thousand years of intellectual history: the widespread rejection of the Christian doctrine of Original Sin. Voltaire, Rousseau, and all the philosophes never waver in their conviction that innocence is our birthright, just waiting for us to claim it.
But why, then, has Rousseau's vision of humanity become so much more potent and lasting than the philosophes' picture? Why are we the heirs of Jean-Jacques rather than Di derot or Condillac or even Voltaire? It is an easy question to answer. Note what each party says:
Philosophe: 1) People behave badly. 2) They do so because they follow the dictates of passion and superstition rather than those of reason. 3) Therefore an education which systematically disciplines the passions and places them under the sovereignty of reason will remedy most human ills.
Rousseau: 1) People behave badly. 2) They do so because they live in societies which have miseducated them, led them astray, and made them deaf to the call of their own pure hearts. 3) Therefore an education which isolates them from the corrupting influences of society and liberates them to hear the heed the innocent and natural promptings of their inmost being will remedy most human ills.
Which of these would you be more likely to receive as good news? The philosophe tells you that your sins and crimes result from a combination of acts (for instance, indulging your passions) and failures to act (for instance, not training those same passions), for both of which—the acts and the failures—you are responsible. The good news that you are naturally virtuous is scarcely sufficient to compensate for this tough lesson in accountability and the need for hard moral work.
Rousseau, on the other hand, gives you not only the good news of innate virtue, but also the still better news that your habitual failure to realize such innate virtue is always someone else's fault. So omnipotent is this belief in our time that I once quoted, in a classroom full of young Christians, Sartre's famous dictum—the summation of Rousseau's thought, in four words—that "Hell is other people," only to have several students nod approvingly and one mutter, "That's so true." So pernicious is this belief that, despite Rousseau's defense of the goodness of God and whatever approval from "the devout party" he received therefrom, a retreat from Rousseau's principles to those of the philosophes would be a salutary move for our society. It is true, of course, that anyone attempting to follow the philosophes' program for moral improvement would be hindered and ultimately defeated by the recalcitrance of the fallen human will. But this defeat could be instructive and even redemptive. Rousseau's brand of self-regard, by contrast, eliminates a priori the learning of such lessons.
Which leads us back to the French Revolution. As that movement progressed, it came increasingly to be dominated by its more radical parties, until the most radical of all rose to power: the Jacobins. And foremost among the Jacobins came to be Maximilien Robespierre. As Paul Cohen explains, Robespierre's "idol" was none other than Rousseau: from Rousseau he derived his whole rhetorical-ethical apparatus, especially its relentless division of the sheep from the goats. "There are only two parties in France," he declared, "the people and its enemies," the party of "corrupt men and that of virtuous men." But as Robespierre's Reign of Terror progressed, it began to frighten even those who had been enthusiastic at its inception; and as he saw his colleagues deviate from the true path—"there are not two ways of being free," he insisted—the party of the goats grew ever larger, while that of the sheep inexorably shrank. More and more Jacobins found themselves peremptorily arrested, tried, and guillotined, in a terror which claimed to be the instrument of virtue: for, as Robespierre famously said, it may be that without virtue "terror is harmful," but without terror "virtue is impotent."
But how did Robespierre know that his way was the way of virtue? He knew because, like his idol and model Rousseau, he had attended to the testimony of his heart—indeed, this was how he discerned the few good citizens among the many bad: "I believe patriotism not to be a matter of party but of the heart." One can see where this, inevitably, is headed: toward the paranoia of Rousseau, who came in the end to trust no one but himself, no heart but his own. Thus a caricature that appeared in 1795, showing a formally dressed man releasing the guillotine's blade onto the neck of a solitary victim, with this caption beneath: "Robespierre guillotining the executioner, having guillotined all of France."
It is the tragic culmination of Rousseau's logic: since other people impede my achievement of virtue, in the very name of virtue they must be destroyed. In July 1794 the Jacobins who remained had little choice but to turn on Robespierre and execute him; he would have gotten each of them eventually. And Rousseau had said it all before him: "I publicly and fearlessly declare that anyone, even if he has not read my writings, who will examine my nature, my character, my morals, my likings, my pleasures, and my habits with his own eyes and can still believe me a dishonorable man, is a man who deserves to be stifled." The child of pride is Terror.
Alan Jacobs is professor of English at Wheaton College.
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