• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Rousseau & Modern Tyranny

The author [i.e., Rousseau] asserts his own moral integrity, and places the moral integrity of the reader on trial: it is natural to respond to this challenge by attempting to bring the author down to a lower level than the one he has assumed, and to deal with his threat by convicting him of dishonesty…. The reader’s role does, then, consist partially in entering into the game that Rousseau has set up. The reading is no longer merely a distanced [aesthetic] experience, but becomes an encounter in which our actual judgment of the author as a man, and our judgment of ourselves in relation to him, are brought into play. In this sense, when the reader passes a moral judgment on Rousseau, perhaps finding him guilty of dishonesty, he is merely doing what the work asks him to do.2

Such are indeed the difficulties in the way of Lester G. Crocker’s investigation. On the one hand, he is as it were the prisoner of Rousseau’s mental world, taking note of every event narrated by his author and endeavoring to unearth its real causes so as to pass judgment on them. More than this, he endows Rousseau’s fictional creations with a sort of reality; in the invented characters of La Nouvelle Héloïse he looks for unconscious motivations, illusions that can be analyzed, and a certain degree of duplicity and self-deception. He thus accepts in their entirety Rousseau’s imaginative creations and his autobiographical account, only to subject them to a stern moral judgment—taking note of course of all relevant documents, external evidence, etc On the other hand, having good reason to suspect the self-justification of a man who thinks that confession without repentance is enough, he casts doubt on the good faith and honesty of his subject.

But this is a dangerous move, since—with the exception of facts which are sufficiently established by external evidence—all the events in this autobiography are thereby reduced to the mere reconstructions and falsifications of a self-indulgent and sick personality and thus given the purely literary status of linguistic creations which can at best give only indirect clues in the search for “true” psychological motivation. So the psychobiographer undermines his own foundations, or at least puts their solidarity in question. It must be said, however, that doubt about Rousseau’s good faith is perfectly justified, even if on many occasions, as Crocker frankly admits, Rousseau’s account of things is nearer to the truth than that of his enemies (Diderot, Madame d’Epinay).

Rousseau began his career as a writer by denouncing the false and seductive appearances which mask and hide the violent relations between men in contemporary civilization. He was one of the first systematically to attack and debunk ideologies. But this sort of attack (which is so fashionable today) is open to the immediate counter-thrust: “You denounce the real interests hidden behind pleasant appearances, but is not your denunciation itself the expression of some secret interest or personal prejudice of your own?” The pre-Marxist aspects of Rousseau’s critique of contemporary society come under a heavy Freudian or post-Freudian fire in Crocker’s book, which shows quite conclusively that this critique was very largely the projection of a feeling of intense guilt: Rousseau exonerated himself by putting the blame on social alienation. And it is fair to say that when Rousseau traces alienation back to the opinions individuals form concerning one another, he casts suspicion on every kind of social life and prefigures those of our contemporaries who cannot distinguish the alienation that enslaves from the objectification and awareness that are inseparable from all human activity.

Indeed Rousseau’s critique of alienation is so radical that to avoid sending man off on the impossible return journey to savage life he is forced in the Contrat Social to go to the other extreme: he advocates collective, willed alienation and the subjection of all individual lives to public opinion and the common will. Crocker claims to recognize here one of the basic characteristics of the “authoritarian personality.”

Once again one must question the instruments employed by Crocker in his analysis, i.e., the language of psychoanalysis. Aren’t the remote origins of this language to be found in Rousseau? Doesn’t the Discourse on Inequality contain the first sketch of a phylogenetic history of our emotional and intellectual life? Doesn’t Rousseau’s Emile show us this same phylogenesis scaled down to the life of one person? And however much he may want to delay the sexual awakening of his pupil, Rousseau in fact gives an intense sexuality to the first years of Emile’s existence; the undifferentiated relation of “savage” man to nature and of the baby to its mother’s breast corresponds very closely to what is sometimes known today as “primary narcissism.” From the first stage of love of self to the discovery of Sophie we are shown the gradual maturation of the “object relation.”

Rousseau would even go so far as to integrate his “hypothetical Emile” into a social group if there were such a thing as a true community—a patrie—to which he could belong. Present-day psychoanalysis similarly talks, though in less overtly political terms, of integration, adjustment, and adaptation to reality. Crocker, who is ultra-quick to spot the element of coercion in Rousseau’s integration of the citizen into the good society, does not think to question the psychological notions of adjustment and adaptation to reality which he uses so freely in his study of Rousseau’s abnormalities. No doubt these notions seem to him broader and more elastic, more liberal in fact. But they could be, and have been, criticized in much the same way as he criticizes Rousseau; do not they too have a hidden face of coercion, conformity to an implied norm and submission to a “dominant ideology”? So we see that the tables can be turned on the unmasking psychology in which Crocker places such trust.

Rousseau refuses to accept his guilt; he throws the blame onto the social order. But in doing so he finds an audience ready and eager to listen to him; the enthusiastic response he received from his first Discourse on proves that he touched a sore point in the minds of his contemporaries. It is true that he had many opponents, but he also aroused passionate enthusiasm. He did this by first making the majority of his readers confess to the guilt of which he himself wanted to feel free. If Rousseauism took on such an odd semireligious tone throughout Europe, this was because Rousseau, like all evangelists, was able to instill a feeling of guilt and damnation before opening up the way to innocence and regeneration. In this he is quite close to the pietists and revivalists of his age. Nor, as we know, is this method, which consists of impressing on individuals a sense of their errors and unworthiness, unknown to the brainwashers of our own day; such a cleansing of the soul makes it easier subsequently to impose on the penitent the strict discipline of political salvation. What was an instinctive tendency for Rousseau now appears to us as an alarming technique. These analogies do not however entitle us to claim by extrapolation that Rousseau deliberately laid the foundations for the manipulators of the twentieth century; they had many other sources to draw on. Even so, he was playing with fire when he transferred the great models of religious absolutism into human history.

The central point of Rousseau’s philosophy is a shifting of authority. If error is seen as something external, then truth must now dwell within our souls. The source of our moral certainties will not be the revealed word as it is spoken by books and churches, but the inner voice, the dictates of conscience which every man can hear within himself. Political authority is not the privilege of kings and powerful people situated above the community, it springs from the community and its general will, and consequently can never be imposed from without.

In Rousseau’s thinking, because he does not want to lose any of the sacredness of the old values, this double shift of authority is accompanied by a claim to infallibility. Conscience is for him a reliable guide; it is never mistaken. The general will, the source of all political legitimacy, cannot err. Thus Rousseau, not content with driving out the terror of guilt, seeks to establish the possibility of unshakable certitude. In the images he gives us of himself, his experiences, and his dreams, Rousseau only knows two ways of attaining certitude and the happiness that goes with it: either complete abdication of the will or on the contrary unfettered exercise of the will. He oscillates between the unconditional self-abandonment of ecstatic experience and the fantasy of a will that is efficacious, clear-sighted, and sure of achieving its ends. In both cases the possibility of evil and imperfection is exorcized; this is the link between two such apparently opposed tendencies. Either the individual gives himself over passively to a Nature or a Great Being which represents absolute Good, or he is exalted into the possessor of an active wisdom which can see and desire the universal good.

Politics is no longer the realm of approximations and relative values, where we have to choose for men the lesser of two evils, it becomes an absolute, the new form of the sacred. As for the far from perfect events which Rousseau is bound to confess make up his life, he can explain them as he explains the origin of evil in the history of mankind: external circumstances, forcing a radically innocent being to react to them by the development of a latent faculty, bring about disastrous consequences that the will cannot control. Thus the evil done by Jean-Jacques is involuntary, it comes from outside him and develops outside him, without his participation.

If Rousseau himself had thought he possessed the unshakable certitude and wisdom I have described, and had acted accordingly, his behavior would no doubt have come closer to the model of the authoritarian personality which Crocker applies to it. However—as Crocker does not fail to point out—such certainties are constantly felt negatively, as something lacking or absent: Rousseau is continually obliged to reassert them, spelling them out in daydreams, fantasies, and logical constructions—literary texts in a word—which are vicarious forms and substitutes for direct satisfaction. The most persistent image in Rousseau’s life and works is that of frustrated desire, or desire that is ignorant of its true object yet unendingly pursues it by oblique and twisted paths, through imaginary constructions which are no more than second-best compensations. The life of the imagination enables him to delude himself, reconciling pleasure and virtue, action and innocence, the mediation of language and unmediated communication.

But Rousseau was always conscious of the failure involved in such imaginary compensation, precisely because it is only imaginary. Crocker quite correctly observes that La Nouvelle Héloïse and the pedagogical novel Emile both have unhappy endings. Nor can we be certain that Rousseau intended the Contrat Social, which is a fragment of an unfinished work on political institutions, to finish any better. In the view of some readers, Eric Weil in particular, if Rousseau took care to make his ideal state seem so unattainable, this was to justify his rejection of every existing society.3 What modern state could accept the view that popular sovereignty cannot be represented by deputies but calls for direct democracy with frequent general assemblies where the citizens debate issues and vote on them as a body? What workable state can allow such a weak executive, a government so subject to the authority of the legislative body and the censure of the general will? And didn’t Rousseau declare that he had in mind only small states and his native city, i.e., a city-republic where all the citizens knew one another? It is true that for a time he saw in Corsica a new nation which could be given the institutions he dreamed of, with equality of wealth, the frugality of an agrarian economy, and the total submission of individuals to the public interest. But this scheme, linked as it was with Rousseau’s dream of a voyage to Corsica, never came to anything. Rousseau imagined a perfect state the better to justify his solitary retreat from the world.

In fact, when he gave practical political advice to his Genevan compatriots or his friends in Poland, he was very prudent and more concerned with maintaining the traditional social order and the existing hierarchies than with encouraging an immediate egalitarian revolution. When he addresses the Poles, his patriotic appeals, for all their eloquence, have nothing totalitarian about them; they come from a man who knows, better perhaps than we do, that in the history of the world communities endure only as long as their members continue to feel the existence of a common bond and are anxious to preserve it. If Rousseau admires Moses so much, it is because he gave his people laws which enabled them to persist through the centuries without losing their group identity.

For Lester G. Crocker the essence and culmination of Rousseau’s political thought can be seen in the methods used by Monsieur de Wolmar (La Nouvelle Héloïse), Emile’s Tutor, and the Legislator of the Contrat Social. It cannot be denied that these three figures represent Rousseau by proxy, or at least a part of him, his ideal self, virile active and virtuous. These superior beings are able to sacrifice their passions and personal interests as Rousseau himself was not. Nor can it be denied that all three use a similar method. Crocker’s severe and well-nigh inquisitorial analysis may give offense because it brings to light offensive facts; we must however agree with him that Rousseau takes pleasure in imagining beings gifted with almost godlike clear-sightedness and a wisdom that knows with absolute certainty the true order they must establish and infallible ways of bringing others to accept this order: the disciples and citizens will be deceived into thinking they are making their own choices and freely adopting policies that are in fact forced on them by an unseen power.

This technique of manipulation, the politics of the hidden hand, does not really trust human nature or believe in the responsible exercise of freedom; it treats people like objects, subjecting them to an invisible yoke. Other readers had rightly observed that the servants in the “utopia” of Clarens in La Nouvelle Héloïse are considered as born slaves, incapable of reaching the age of reason; it is not even worth attempting their education.4 The transparency of human hearts and their virtuous unanimity, far from being the result of a spontaneous impulse, are the artificial products of a cunning stratagem which is nonetheless tyrannical for its claims to benevolence. For anyone who like Crocker inspects the other side of the coin, the idyll of La Nouvelle Héloïse is insidiously transformed into a horror novel.5

What can we say in Rousseau’s defense? Is it enough to affirm that the tactics adopted by his “godlike men”—his doubles and his fictional representatives—are not merely political? They are in fact part of a larger scheme to regain our lost wholeness, a scheme which includes aesthetic mastery (Pygmalion) as well as the art of the social engineer. Is it enough to add that the hidden violence of the Tutor and Legislator are set in a world which is already dominated by violence of another kind? We might go on to say that in seeking to create a certain number of habits, Rousseau’s education does not aim to turn people into creatures of habit, still less into automata, but to protect them from encountering at every step problems which they will find it hard to solve. The character of a person, according to the wisdom of antiquity, is largely made up of virtues which education has transformed into habits.

We can also say, more importantly, that when he traces the lines linking Rousseau’s thought to the tyrannies of our century, Crocker is extrapolating and giving reality to themes which in Rousseau remain in the realm of imagination or of historical reminiscence. In a passage which carries an important reservation, Crocker concedes that there is some anachronism in talking of Rousseau’s totalitarianism. Plutarch’s Sparta, to which Rousseau so often turns his gaze, is not a modern totalitarian state. When Rousseau mentions Lycurgus, he is not prefiguring Stalin or the loyalty oath of the Fifties. In order to see this in him we have to play a game of analogies, starting from our modern experience and reducing to a common denominator every system where the individual is obliged to conform to the will of a “guide” or a tyrannical majority. This is a rather crude way of proceeding.

What is more, in Rousseau’s theory the Legislator, like the Tutor, retires from the scene once his work is done; he does not rule. On occasions too, Crocker attributes an unacceptable, totalitarian meaning to a part of Rousseau’s doctrine which a liberal pluralist of his sort could perfectly well go along with: the submission to the general will is in essence no more than the recognition of the essential difference separating man’s presocial irrational existence from his social and rational state. The compulsion Rousseau talks of is simply an indication of the inevitability of the social role which the law now imposes on man; we must accept the place that the law lays down in advance for us, as adult or minor, married or unmarried, worker or unemployed. It is just that Rousseau sometimes chose to express in exaggerated terms the obligation on the individual to accept a legal status. Even privacy—which Crocker rightly values—is more assured once it has received a legal definition and is guaranteed by law.

In short, Rousseau cannot be blamed for having been very much aware that individual moral life, while not being reducible simply to political obedience, is only possible when common respect for the law banishes violence from collective life. Rousseau saw very clearly the ends we must seek to achieve—the harmony of the individual and collective existence—but he resorted to fiction (the Tutor and the Legislator) as soon as he had to define the means of attaining them.

It must be observed too that the device of the “hidden hand” is a theme or a phantasm that is very common in the age of Rousseau. It is not his monopoly. Every novel of education—from Télémaque to Sethos and Zadig—takes the disciple through a series of ordeals whose beneficent meaning he will only understand after the event. The master-initiate relationship in masonic literature is exactly like the one that Crocker considers so dangerous in Emile. At this rate Sarastro in the Magic Flute would deserve the same condemnation: unknown to Tamino and Pamina he has prepared everything to make them happy; he is a total manipulator. And what are we to say of the tricks played or imagined by Diderot? Or of the tactics used by Voltaire in his fight for the good cause. Do they not show an extraordinary practical mastery of the hidden hand techniques? Rousseau, who was their direct victim, never unraveled their subtle plots.

If we look more closely we shall see that the hidden hand tactic is an expression of the aspiration to usurp the role of Providence which was fairly widespread among the philosophes of the eighteenth century. If Télémaque is still guided by a goddess in disguise and Zadig by an invisible angel, Emile is put into the hands of a superior man who foresees everything and makes everything happen according to his beneficent will. But while certain men of the eighteenth century were casting themselves in this providential role, they were still sufficiently under the influence of theology to imagine at the same time a satanic reversal of these powers; Rousseau himself, with his obsessive belief in hostile plots, persecution, and the enemy’s hidden hand, lived under the shadow cast by his dream of omnipotence. It can be said that he paid a heavy price for his imaginary excesses

Finally it must be emphasized that if we have become so keenly aware of this side of Rousseau, it is because his idealized Tutor is not the only inheritor or usurper of ancient Providence that we have known. Very soon “Reason in History” claimed the succession, and then came those all too real individuals and groups who asserted their sole right to transform the world and lead men along the paths of Reason. It is they and their excesses that have cast a harsh light on the means imagined by Rousseau and so severely analyzed by Crocker. Rousseau’s contemporaries and the revolutionaries of 1789 paid little attention to these means and made little attempt to put them into practice. What mattered to them were the ends proposed by Rousseau. He spoke to them of regeneration, the union of souls, virtuous simplicity, and popular sovereignty. Subsequent history has taught us to our cost that things are not so simple.

translated by Peter France.

  1. 2

    Robert J. Ellrich, Rousseau and His Reader: The Rhetorical Situation of the Major Works (University of North Carolina, 1969), pp. 77-78.

  2. 3

    Eric Weil, “Rousseau et sa politique” in Essais et conférences (Plon, 1971), vol. II, pp. 115-148.

  3. 4

    Eric Weil, op. cit.

  4. 5

    On the links between this novel and the pastoral tradition as well as the distance between them, see a recent work, rich in insights, by Christie McDonald Vance, The Extravagant Shepherd! A Study of the Pastoral Vision in Rousseau’s Nouvelle Héloïse (Studies in Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, Vol. 105, International Scholarly Book Services, 1973).

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print