Virtue & Terror

Nothing, I think, is known with certainty about the relation between Robespierre and Rousseau, except that the great revolutionary always expressed love and admiration for the philosopher. And that in itself doesn’t tell us very much, because virtually everybody in France who could read, in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, seems to have loved and admired Rousseau. Marie Antoinette, whom Robespierre guillotined, loved and admired Rousseau. The Thermidorians, who guillotined Robespierre, loved and admired Rousseau. A common love of Rousseau doesn’t seem to have been a very reliable bond, when the heat was on.

Part of the problem was, and is, that there are several Rousseaus; he is a writer of curiously copious contradictions, which overlap in disconcerting ways. One pair of contradictions is particularly important in the present context. There is a tender, hypersensitive Rousseau, much given to tears. And there is also a stern, Spartan Rousseau, with a thirst for justice and blood. In short, a “nice cop” Rousseau and a “tough cop” Rousseau.

The nice cop is the author of the epistolary novel, La Nouvelle Héloïse, of the Rêveries du promeneur solitaire, of Emile—and especially the Profession de foi du vicaire savoyard. The tough cop wrote most, though not all, of Du contrat social. The nice cop was in high favor at court in the years before the Revolution, especially in the circle of Marie Antoinette, in the days of the Petit Trianon, the simple life, and playing at milkmaids. The tough cop comes in with the Revolution. Du contrat social seems to have been the least read of Rousseau’s works before the Revolution. But it was published thirteen times between 1792 and 1795—the years of Robespierre’s ascendancy and of the Terror. One edition was published in pocket Bible size for the use of the soldiers defending la patrie.

Robespierre’s own style was deliberately austere, stern, Spartan. But it would be a mistake to think of him as exclusively devoted to the tough cop. If Du contrat social was claimed as his political inspiration, his favorite reading—his “Bible” according to Alphonse Aulard—was La Nouvelle Héloïse, and his guide in matters of religion was the Profession de foi du vicaire savoyard. In time of war and revolution, the Spartan Rousseau was required; the triumph of the Revolution would (it was hoped) bring back the tender Rousseau. Robespierre felt that indulgence, the failure to crush the internal enemies of the Revolution, would be a cruel betrayal of future generations. The Terror—which Robespierre generally preferred to call simply “Justice”—was a way of keeping faith with those generations. The guillotine was kind, teleologically speaking.

The cult of Rousseau accompanied the Terror. But the cult of Rousseau also accompanied the formal repudiation of the Terror. Indeed it was the Thermidorian period that saw Rousseau’s apotheosis. In the days of Robespierre, at the height of the Terror, there had been grandiose plans for giving Rousseau special honors, and setting him, at least implicitly, above the other great Enlightenment figures, as…

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