• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Rousseau and Revolution

La Politique de la Terreur: Essai sur la violence révolutionnaire, 1789–1794

by Patrice Gueniffey
Paris: Fayard, 376 pp., F25.00


After taking power by his coup d’état of 19 Brumaire (November 9, 1799), General Napoleon Bonaparte made no attempt to soften his sarcasm about the “principles of liberty” that had been promulgated by the Revolution. According to the memoirs of Madame de Staël:

One bizarre thing was his way of expressing himself on the subject of the Revolution to which he owed his existence…. Invariably…he blamed its first authors…. One day he went to Ermenonville to visit Rousseau’s grave. “And yet it was this man,” he told the owner of the place, “who brought us to the state we are in!”

Another witness to the visit said Bonaparte also invoked the judgment of history: “Time will tell if this earth would not have been a more peaceful place if Rousseau and I had never existed.” Mme. de Staël adds that “he liked…to seize every opportunity to register his antipathy toward those who despised despotism through the ages.” On Saint Helena, Bonaparte acknowledged that during his youth, La Nouvelle Héloïse had “turned his head.” The captive emperor tried twice to reread Rousseau’s famous novel. His biographer Las Cases writes that he admired it the first time, then “skewered” it six months later. Napoleon even wondered whether he had not given orders in 1800 (that is, in the year of his visit to Ermenonville) to blow up the Rocher de Meillerie on the shores of Lake Leman—a place central to the novel—in order to make way for the army of Italy. In fact, the engineers had spared the rock, but Napoleon’s memory lapse suggests rivalry and a need for profanation.

Madame de Staël, in her De la littérature (1800), said of Rousseau that he had “discovered nothing” but “inflamed everything.” In 1788, when she was twenty-two, she published a quite remarkable series of Lettres sur les écrits et le caractère de J.-J. Rousseau, in which she expressed enthusiasm for the man while disagreeing with him over the role of women. In this first published work, she alluded to the impending meeting of the orders of the Estates General (the nobility, the clergy, and the third estate), the first such meeting since 1614. The groundwork for that great event had been laid by her father, the Genevan banker Jacques Necker, who had become prime minister to King Louis XVI. Madame de Staël invoked the ghost of Rousseau, who had died ten years earlier, calling on him to be a witness to the upcoming ceremony and urging him to speak as its first orator. It was still possible to see this inaugural moment as a family affair among Genevans working for the good of France. In the view of Necker’s loving daughter, two men—her father the statesman and Jean-Jacques—would preside over the event that was to lift France “out of the depth of its ills.” They were cast as the two authors of a great reform of French institutions. In fact, the meeting of the Estates General was to mark the beginning of the Revolution, and Madame de Staël’s fervor would be cruelly contradicted by the irony of events. She wrote:

And thou, Rousseau…wilt thou not witness the imposing spectacle that France will soon mount, a great event that has been carefully planned and in which, for the first time, chance will play no part? There, perhaps, men will seem more worthy of thy esteem. Unless I miss my guess, no personal passion will animate them now. They will invest only the divine parts of themselves in the common cause. Ah, Rousseau, what a blessing it would be if thy eloquence were to make itself heard again in that august assembly!…

Therefore be born again, O Rousseau! Be born again from thy ashes! Appear, and with thy good wishes spur on the career of a man who, from the depth of France’s ills, seeks only the perfection of her blessings.

Madame de Staël invokes Rousseau as Necker’s spectral coach, almost as his speechwriter. Earlier she wrote:

What a writer Rousseau was! Many have spoken of the danger of eloquence, but I think it quite indispensable when virtue must be pitted against passion. Eloquence gives direction to the soul, thereby allowing one to decide instantly on the proper course to take…. Only eloquence is thus equipped to supply reason with the force it needs to vie with the passions on equal terms.

It was a commonplace in Enlightenment France to deplore the absence of great eloquence in public life, which was ascribed to the absence of political liberty. Rousseau was among those who gave currency to this idea. Delegates to the Assembly of 1789, many of them lawyers like Robespierre, brought the eloquence of Rousseau’s writings into the public sphere, and tried to persuade themselves that eloquence had been reborn. And despite the various ways in which Rousseau’s doctrine of popular sovereignty could be applied, he was often celebrated (or attacked) as the man responsible for the change brought about by the Revolution. In 1791, Louis-Sébastien Mercier, in a rambling work entitled De J.-J. Rousseau considéré comme l’un des premiers auteurs de la Révolution, glorified Rousseau as one of the Revolution’s founding fathers.

Contemporaries of the Revolution thus witnessed a tumultuous outpouring of eloquence that was soon followed by a drought, as the energy of the early revolutionaries was dissipated. In calling a halt to the Revolution, General Bonaparte saw to it that announcements of political and military victory were the only form of rhetoric that counted. As Madame de Staël would write after the emperor’s defeat, in a book left unfinished at her death, “Bonaparte left these men, accustomed to the podium, to fritter away what was left of their character in speeches.” In the same work, she once again evoked ghosts, but now it was the woefully weak ministers of the Directory, driven from power by Bonaparte’s coup d’état, whom she exhorted to rise “from their dust.” In doing so she imagined that they would demand an accounting of the defeats and deaths that Napoleon had left in his wake.

Madame de Staël might have justified her invocation of Rousseau’s ghost by citing Rousseau himself as her literary model. Indeed, Rousseau deliberately cultivated the image of the man who speaks to the world after he is gone. At the beginning of the Confessions he speaks as advocate in his own cause: “Let the trumpets of the Last Judgment sound when they will, I shall appear before the Sovereign Judge with this book in hand.” Here, though, he was protesting his innocence and asserting his truthfulness, not making a political speech.

In another work, however, Rousseau invoked an illustrious ghost as his spokesman for a lesson in morality and politics. In a passage of his Discours sur les arts et les sciences (1750– 1751) that immediately became famous, he brought to life Fabricius, the most upright of the consuls of republican Rome. Comparing the corruption of the imperial present to the virtuous past, Fabricius becomes indignant when he discovers that the empire is governed by a “flute player” (Nero) and that the Romans (like the Parisians of 1750 under Louis XV, Rousseau implied) have become the slaves of their slaves.

This text marked the dramatic literary debut, at thirty-eight, of a writer whose only career until then had been that of an obscure and hapless musician. In his autobiographical works, Rousseau pointed to this passage as the first expression, in his view powerful and irresistible, of what was to become his “sad and great system.” It was, he said, written in a moment of illumination as he sat under a tree on the road to Vincennes. He had just read in the Mercure de France about the question chosen by the Academy of Dijon for its annual prize competition—“whether the restoration of the Sciences and Arts have contributed to the purification of morals.” The lines in which the imaginary Fabricius expresses his indignation were all he could write down on the spot. The rest of his vision of an entire system of morals had to be painfully reconstructed later on, starting with the essay that won the competition, and his answer to the Mercure‘s question was a vehement “No!” For him as for his contemporaries, the renaissance in the sciences and the arts dated back to 1500, that is, a quarter of a millennium; and morals had not been purified by it.


Another quarter of a millennium has elapsed since the Academy of Dijon awarded its prize to Rousseau on July 10, 1750. To judge by the number of works devoted to him, Rousseau has not ceased to matter to us. But we still have to analyze the way in which Rousseau staged his life and ideas so as to present them in ways that are partly sacred, partly fetishistic.

Fabricius, his mouthpiece, is indignant at a scandal. He is a biblical prophet in Roman dress:

O, Fabricius! What would your great soul have thought if, to your dismay, you had been recalled to life and seen the pompous face of Rome, the city once saved by your strong arm and more renowned for your honorable name than for all her conquests? “Gods!” you would have said. “What has become of those thatched roofs and rustic hearths where moderation and virtue once resided? What fatal splendor has taken the place of Roman simplicity? What is this foreign tongue? What are these effeminate ways? What is the meaning of these statues, these paintings, these buildings? What madness is this? Have you, the conquerors of nations, made yourselves the slaves of the frivolous men you defeated? Are you governed by speechifiers? Was it to make wealthy men of architects, painters, sculptors, and actors that you spilled your blood in Greece and Asia? Have the spoils of Carthage fallen prey to a flute player?…

Make haste to pull down these amphitheaters; smash these marble statues; burn these paintings; drive out these slaves, who subjugate you and by whose fatal arts you are corrupted. The only talent worthy of Rome is one that conquers the world and establishes the reign of virtue.

This series of rapid-fire questions was hailed as high eloquence at its most “colorful.” We can still appreciate it today if we think of it as something akin to a great operatic recitative. What Fabricius’ voice expresses is the spirit of a lost historical era, retrospectively idealized as a better age in which civic virtue was a living part of the social order. And beyond decadent Rome, the accusatory voice is clearly aimed at the Paris of Rousseau’s time. Although the palaces of Rome have replaced the cottages of what was once a large village, the people who had those palaces built are no longer their own masters.1 They no longer possess either vigor in language or virile force of character: they live in a state of luxury matched only by their effeminization. In conducting their lives they obey the Greeks they have conquered, while allowing themselves to be captivated by their verbal artifices. They lavish their money on people who amuse them, artists and actors. Wealth has therefore resulted in a general condition of aberration.

  1. 1

    The “thatched roofs” of ancient Rome made Rousseau feel justified in venturing a comparison between the Rome of old and present-day Switzerland: “All of Switzerland is like a big city divided into thirteen districts…. Some of these districts are less populous than others, but all are sufficiently populous to make it clear that you are still in the city. Only the houses, instead of standing in straight lines, are scattered about without symmetry or order, as they say the houses of ancient Rome were.” Rousseau, letter to the Maréchal de Luxembourg; see James Swenson, On Jean-Jacques Rousseau Considered as One of the First Authors of the Revolution, p. 265.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print