Rousseau and the Republic of Virtue: The Language of Politics in the French Revolution
A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution
La Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen
L’An I des droits de l’homme
Les Déclarations des droits de l’homme et du citoyen
The French Revolution and the Creation of Modern Political Culture, Volume II: The Political Culture of the Revolution
La Révolution des droits de l’homme
Rousseau was the great critic of his own society and he made his case against it brilliantly and provocatively. In place of the evil that he denounced he put forward his vision of a just society and a happier world with an eloquence admired even by his opponents. He conquered hearts that were waiting to be won; he ravished souls that were ready to worship new gods. He put his case in such powerful language as to make it seductive to a wider public, giving it a prestige unequaled in modern times. Of all other social critics, only two come to mind who can even be compared to Rousseau, and they too were persuasively eloquent: Tolstoy (himself a self-declared Rousseauist) and Nietzsche.
Rousseau and Nietzsche both acquired disciples who brought their names into disrepute. All rebellious thinkers run that risk, if they fail to take account of the full consequences of their anger and yield to the temptations of literary effect. The intoxicating effects of their thoughts, which Rousseau and Nietzsche were courageous—or imprudent—enough not to try to diminish, laid them open to partial and tendentious interpretation, to becoming simply names invoked by their muddled or sentimental followers. The result is well known: Rousseau and Nietzsche have been confused with their self-proclaimed disciples. Rousseau has been made out to be a terrorist, Nietzsche a Nazi. They have been tried many times over for the acts of those who claimed them as their heroes.
That way lies the labyrinth of unverifiable hypotheses. What would the thinker have thought, what might he have done, had he still been alive? Would he have agreed with those who thought he was on their side? If so, then he would be guilty of having supplied them with their weapons. But there is no way of knowing if he would have done so. On the other hand, if he had not been their precursor, at least in part, then how could they have appropriated him to such an extent? The argument goes on ad infinitum.
Rousseau himself is perhaps to blame for his posthumous fate. In his autobiographical writings he appeals to future generations, asking them to recognize his innocent intentions, and to recognize as well that his contemporaries had misunderstood and slandered him. Rousseau invited posterity to right the wrongs done to him. It is therefore hardly surprising that so many of Rousseau’s younger readers—such as Robespierre, who came to use terror as a system—felt duty-bound to fulfill the task they believed was entrusted to them by the author of The Confessions. Rousseau wanted to leave his mark in men’s minds so as to achieve the rehabilitation that his guilty conscience made him yearn for; and such was the power of his persuasive rhetoric that he succeeded in leaving such a mark. However, all his efforts to show himself as absolutely innocent not only failed to clear up the misunderstandings he believed he had suffered, but actually gave them greater substance.
In a sense, he became the hostage of his admirers, his supporters, and followers. People concerned to right wrongs tended to find in him an ally. I think a most telling example of this is given in the hommage paid to Rousseau in 1788 by one of his young readers, Madame de Staël. She identifies with Rousseau, with his religious sentiments, and with the characters in his novels; she takes his side against his unfaithful wife, Thérèse Levasseur. On the eve of the meeting of the Estates General, just before the great Revolution, Madame de Staël imagines Rousseau rising from his grave and addressing the nation. But the ghost, and his address, she implies, will affect real history only if we heed someone else who is guided by that same ghost. Madame de Staël in fact requests her reader to transfer to her father, Prime Minister Necker, the semireligious faith in one man that was inspired by the charismatic figure of Rousseau.
Rousseau-worship has in no way protected Rousseau from being misunderstood and misappropriated. Necker and Madame de Staël are representatives of a kind of moderate liberalism that was soon to be overtaken by events. But there were to be many more misappropriations of Rousseau in the course of the French Revolution.
The political upheavals in the Republic of Geneva during the century of the Enlightenment made that city “a laboratory of revolutions,” as some recent historians have called it. The citoyens of Geneva, to which class Rousseau’s family belonged, enjoyed in theory full political rights. They were the higher class, above the classes of “natives” and “residents” who had neither the vote nor the right to be appointed to public office. But the well-to-do families made up a patrician class within the citizenry, and held all effective power through a complex system by which potential rivals could be pressured or persuaded not to compete. Less wealthy citizens, for the most part artisans—craftsmen and tradespeople—were unwilling to submit to the patricians and to forfeit their participation in political life. Rousseau was a watchmaker’s son, and so he belonged to a class that thought of itself as the people,” holding the formal rights attached to citizenship, but that was in practice denied the use of those rights.
Rousseau’s early political education came from the writings of Plutarch, read at his father’s workbench, from seeing his father forced to flee the city after a quarrel with a patrician who was armed, and by seeing the violent popular uprisings of 1734 in Geneva that led to a more democratic constitution. Nor will he forget (since he recalls them later with feeling) the celebrations on civic occasions and festivals improvised by the people that he saw as a child. The year 1743–1744, which Rousseau spent in Venice when he was thirty-one as secretary to the French ambassador, marks a turning point. In the Confessions, when Rousseau describes how he wrote his “Political Institutions” (which became The Social Contract), he places the roots of the work in his observations of the Venetian government.
It was thirteen or fourteen years since I had conceived the original idea for it, at the time when I was in Venice and had some opportunity of observing the defects in that Republic’s highly vaunted constitution. Since then my ideas had been greatly broadened by my study of the history of morals. I had seen that everything is rooted in politics and that, whatever might be attempted, no people would ever be other than the nature of their government made them. So the great question of the best possible government seemed to me to reduce itself to this: “What is the nature of the government best fitted to create the most virtuous, the most enlightened, the wisest and, in fact, the best people, taking the word ‘best’ in its highest sense?” I believed that I saw a close relationship between that question, and another, very nearly though not quite the same: “What is the government which by its nature always adheres closest to the law?” From which one comes to: “What is the law?” and to a chain of questions of that magnitude. I saw that all this was leading me to some great truths which would make for the happiness of the human race, but above all for that of my native land….
In Venice Rousseau’s relations with the French ambassador ended in a violent quarrel. Rousseau felt he had been insulted and underpaid. It is this personal resentment that plays a considerable part (and Rousseau did not deny it) in his reflections on the “apparent order” of “our stupid civil institutions.” “In truth,” he wrote, the order serves “only to add public authority to the oppression of the weak and the iniquity of the strong.” This is the insight that lies at the very heart of the Discourse on Inequality (1755).
“The Revolution explains The Social Contract,” declared Joseph Lakanal, president of the Convention’s Committee on Public Instruction, in 1794. The nineteenth-century historian Edgar Quinet, who was particularly concerned with the moral and religious aspects of the French Revolution, wrote in the 1860s that The Social Contract was the Revolution’s “Book of Laws.” Others went so far as to describe the debates of the revolutionary assemblies as no more than extended commentaries on the Discourse on Inequality. But with a few exceptions, revolutionaries referred to Rousseau’s works in a more sentimental and less precise way, less firmly based on a general understanding of his work. The image of Rousseau as a persecuted innocent or as a suffering healer was in many circumstances more appealing than the arguments of the political theorist. But there were plenty of similarities between the holy images of the cult of Rousseau and the actual content of the doctrinal works of the “citizen” who turned, by his own account, into a “solitary walker,” removed from the social system.
During the early 1770s, after both Emile and The Social Contract were condemned and he had fled from Switzerland to England and then to France, Rousseau believed he was the victim of a universal conspiracy. It was during this period that he was asked to give advice to a group of Polish nationalists. He took an interest in their cause not because they were trying to set up new laws for a new people (as had been the case with the Corsicans, who were fighting for independence from the Genoese and had tried experiments in self-government), but because they were trying to preserve the independence of a historic nation torn by internal dissension and beset by outside enemies, chief among them Catherine of Russia, who had been profusely flattered and advised by Rousseau’s enemies, Diderot and Voltaire. On a psychological and symbolic level, a country besieged and threatened on all fronts could not fail to arouse passionate interest in a man suffering from fantasies of being under siege: Rousseau could only too easily identify Poland’s fate with his own.
However, The Consideration on the Government of Poland, written in 1770 and 1771, is lucid and informed, taking account of the social realities and problems of national self-determination facing the Poles. The work demonstrates Rousseau’s ability to apply and adjust the principles of The Social Contract to a concrete historical situation. It subordinates everything to one main consideration: the defense and survival of the Polish nation. Rousseau does not propose to overturn existing social relations in the name of an egalitarian ideal. Serfs must be educated before they can be freed. Love of the fatherland should be the central concern of national celebrations, games, and pageants; the entire population should take part, but the different ranks should be “carefully distinguished.”
The Social Contract, which proposed a system for small city-states, declared that the people’s sovereignty “could not be exercised by representatives,” and that lawmaking could only be done by an assembly of all the people. In The Government of Poland, however, which deals with a large country, Rousseau does not advocate abolishing the traditional assemblies. Representatives can be elected, provided their mandate is specific and of short duration. It is clear why this work was reprinted several times during the Revolution as an appendix to The Social Contract. And it is also clear why so many orators and political writers of all persuasions borrowed arguments from it. It was proof that Rousseau’s thought could be applied to France.