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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 the philosopher of the Revolution. On the fifth Floreal of the Revolutionary Calendar—that is, April 24, 1794—the great Committee of Public Safety, Robespierre’s committee, called on all the artists of the Republic to compete in designs for a large statue of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, to be erected on the Champs Elysées.

That was Robespierre’s plan, but Robespierre did not live to have it carried out. Two and a half months later, on 9 Thermidor, 1794, Robespierre fell from power and then was killed. Robespierre’s overthrowers, the Thermidorians—most of them terrified ex-terrorists—had their own reasons for being eager to do honor to Jean-Jacques. Although the Thermidorians were not particularly nice people—and several of them had shown themselves to be more bloody-minded than Robespierre—it was the “nice cop” aspect of Rousseau that they wished to honor. Their idea was that Robespierre—whom they presented as entirely to blame for the Terror, which he was not—had been a sanguinary hypocrite, who had really been jealous of Rousseau, and had failed to do him proper honors. The Thermidorians would now prove their own virtue and sincerity, and loyalty to the basic principles of the Revolution, by solemnly doing honor to Jean-Jacques. So on September 14, 1794, the Thermidorian-dominated Convention ordered that Rousseau’s remains be brought from his original burial place at the Isle of Poplars, Ermenonville, and placed in the Pantheon in Paris with appropriate ceremony. Gordon McNeil tells that story:

The preparations for the ceremony, which included decorations, illuminations, sculptures, a replica of the Isle of Poplars, and hymns commissioned for the occasion, were elaborate and detailed. A cortège composed of officials, musicians and various delegations accompanied the remains from Ermenonville, and there were appropriate celebrations at each of the stops en route. On its arrival in Paris, the coffin was placed on the replica of the Isle of Poplars which had been erected in the Tuileries gardens.

The ceremony of pantheonization took place on October 11. There was a special service in the Convention, and then a procession to the Pantheon. In the line of march were mounted police, a band playing Rousseau’s compositions, and various groups, each with an appropriately inscribed standard: botanists, artists and artisans, mothers and children, was orphans, and Genevans. The Contrat social, the “beacon of legislators,” was carried on a velvet cushion, and a statue of its author in a cart pulled by twelve horses. At the Pantheon, a civic hymn was sung, the president of the Convention delivered a eulogy, and ended the ceremony by placing flowers on the coffin. That evening there was dancing on the Place du Pantheon, and the theatres presented the favorite Rousseau plays, and a new one, La fête de J.-J. Rousseau, written especially for the occasion.1

As you can see, it would be hard to identify a specific influence of Rousseau’s thought on the course of the French Revolution. The Contrat Social may have been the “beacon of legislators,” but it was quite a shifty beacon. Yet Rousseau was obviously important, to all concerned. Robespierre had made certain uses of Rousseau to legitimize his own rule, and his version of justice. The Thermidorians used their pantheonization ceremony to legitimize their own authority, and de-legitimize their predecessor.

Yet, even if it is primarily a matter of legitimization, presumably influence comes in, in some way. If a writer is to be seen as legitimizing the activity of a politician, presumably that activity must be seen to resemble, at least in some respects, what the writer seemed to be saying. And—again presumably—that need to resemble should inflect the actual conduct of the politician, at least in some degree. Yet the case of Rousseau and the Thermidorians, enthusiastic and mutually hostile disciples of Rousseau, suggests that the degree of inflection of conduct may be more limited than might be expected. And of course the history of religions is rich in examples of this kind.

While brooding a bit over this question of influence and legitimation, I came across a relevant sentence in Ralph Korngold’s Robespierre and the Fourth Estate (1941). The sentence runs:

Rousseau’s relation to the French Revolution is not unlike that of Marx to the Russian Revolution, and Marx’s influence upon Lenin may be compared with Rousseau’s upon Robespierre.

Well, “may be compared” is always safe, of course, since anything may be compared with anything else. The question is what happens when you do the comparing. In this case, the writer issues, as it were, a license for comparing, without actually doing the comparing. So let us have a slightly closer look.

Insofar as “Rousseau-Robespierre” resembles “Marx-Lenin” it is, I think, again primarily a matter of legitimation rather than of internal doctrine. The legitimacy on which Robespierre—and also his Thermidorian enemies—drew was double, intellectual as well as moral. Intellectually, the Contrat Social came to be seen as the culmination, in political wisdom, of the Enlightenment, the siècle des lumières. As became clear during the course of the Revolution, commitment to the book could be interpreted in widely different ways. But the capacious ambiguities of the Contrat Social did nothing to impair its legitimizing authority. Indeed the book’s ambiguities seem to have been the condition of the scope of its authority.

The moral authority of Rousseau, which I think was considerably more important than his intellectual authority, derives from the apparently almost universal perception of Rousseau himself as the archetype of the virtuous person, peculiarly in harmony with nature. I shall come back to that, in relation to Rousseau himself a little later. But there are some points to be made at this stage, about archetypal virtue as a revolutionary force, and as a source of political legitimation.

The mainstream of the French Enlightenment—centering around Voltaire and Diderot—had largely completed, by about 1770, the work begun by Spinoza a hundred years before, in discrediting the intellectual authority of revealed religion, and specifically, in France, of the Catholic Church. This left a huge emotional and moral vacuum. The secret of Rousseau’s appeal is that he, for many people, was able to fill that gap. In Emile and the Profession de foi du vicaire savoyard, Rousseau brought God back, as a blend of virtue and nature: a form of God to which many, in the post-Enlightenment world, were most grateful to be able to turn. More than that, Rousseau’s eloquence—and especially his pervasive, seductive, and contagious self-pity—made him personally into a kind of saint and protomartyr of his own vague but intoxicating religion.

Now the revolutionary potential of all this may not be immediately apparent, but it is strongly there. The mainstream Enlightenment had made its intellectual superiority to the ancien régime crushingly clear, first in relation to the Church, through Voltaire and Diderot, and then in relation to the nobility, as in Beaumarchais’ Marriage of Figaro. But now, in Rousseau and Rousseauism, many could see the emergence of spiritual and moral forces markedly superior to the ancien régime, whether in its secular or ecclesiastical manifestations. Rousseau is holier than Saint Peter; and a song to that effect was sung during the Revolution. French society was divided into les purs—the followers of Rousseau—and the corrompus, affluent, arrogant, materialistic, and beneficiaries of the ancien régime (and later the traitors to the Revolution). Many of the nobility and clergy (as well as the bourgeoisie, especially the lower bourgeoisie) came to see things in the same way, and to bow before the moral superiority of Rousseau, as many of the same people had bowed before the intellectual superiority of Voltaire. Thus the abdication of the ruling classes was already quite far advanced, well before 1789.

The basic political achievement of Maximilien Robespierre was that he felt himself to be, and convinced others that he was, the moral and spiritual successor of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He was, and was repeatedly hailed as, “the Incorruptible,” the indicated leader of les purs in the decisive battle against les corrompus.

  1. 1

    Gordon H. McNeil, “The Cult of Rousseau and the French Revolution,” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 6 (1945), pp. 197–212. There is something phony about Rousseau’s Thermidorian apotheosis. As Albert Meynier puts it neatly: “C’est au moment ou l’on va commencer à s’éloigner du lui qu’on le glorifie” in Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Révolutionnaire (Paris, 1912), p. 220.

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